When Islamic State targeted Yazidis for genocide in 2014, Israelis such as Lisa Miara, Idan Barir and Ksenia Svetlova stepped forward to raise awareness and say ‘never again’.
Asking what it means to say “never again” continues to haunt many, especially in the context of the ongoing wars in the Middle East. One instance where that question is perhaps especially relevant is the 2014 Yazidi catastrophe in Iraq.
IDAN BARIR – a PhD student in Tel Aviv University’s history department who researched Yazidi history and culture – vividly recalls August 2014. Islamic State had attacked an area in northern Iraq populated by the Yazidis, a religious minority.
“They [the Yazidis] were in need of someone to help them. They were looking for an Israeli to help and I was the only Israeli they knew. I was bombarded [by pleas]… asking for help.”
At the time, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were fleeing ISIS to Sinjar Mountain and then onward, often via Syria, to displaced persons camps in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
“Gradually it [the requests for help] stopped. It took me a year to know it wasn’t going to work. Israel has other interests that don’t make it possible for Israel to help,” says Barir.
The genocide of Yazidis in 2014 by ISIS has become a defining moment of this decade. ISIS sold more than 5,000 women and children into slavery and murdered thousands of men. So far, some 45 mass graves containing the remains of men and elderly women have been found scattered across dozens of villages around Sinjar. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis live in refugee camps and some have sought shelter abroad.
During the genocide and after, many people, especially Jews, were impacted by its similarities to the Holocaust. Like scenes out of the Einsatzgruppen’s 1941-1942 campaign of extermination in eastern Europe, Yazidis were gunned down and buried in mass graves. Similarly to what happened to Jews, captured Yazidis were numbered and moved like cattle and used as slaves; Yazidi women were photographed and recorded before being sold into slavery.
Barir, 37, from Givatayim, is a research associate in the Forum for Regional Thinking, with a concentration on minorities in Iraq, and a member of Maktub, the Arabic-Hebrew Translators Forum at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
He recently released a book of Yazidi poetry called I Own Nothing Save My Dreams, an anthology of poems written after the genocide. It was released in 2017 with Hebrew and Arabic translations of the poems.
“It all began 12 years ago when I was doing my MA thesis and looking for a subject that wouldn’t bore me to death,” he tells of his fascination.
He wanted to concentrate on minorities, and when he found out about Yazidis, it became an instant interest of his.
“When I started on the project I had an idea to do something related to their religious practices,” he recalls. “After a year and a half working on this, I had heard a lot from them. The Yazidi story and view of the world are so similar to that of the Jews. They suffered a long string of persecutions and attempts at annihilating the entire community and forcibly converting them to Islam.”
Like Jews who suffered expulsions throughout history, Yazidis count more than 70 cases of attempted genocide against them and they recall key persecutors.
Barir, who had spent time interviewing Yazidis who live in Germany, decided to concentrate on collective memory. Through it all he became friends with dozens of community members.
KSENIA SVETLOVA, now a Zionist Union MK, is another Israeli who found herself very much involved in the Yazidi situation.
In 2014 she was a journalist.
“As a reporter I followed news. To my horror, the news spread quickly. We learned that they [the Yazidis] were trapped on Mount Sinjar.”
The whole world knew, says Svetlova.
“It’s not the 1940s when people didn’t know and there was some excuse,” she recalls. “It was televised – a genocide televised – and it made me think.”
For Svetlova, 40, who was born in Moscow and came to Israel in 1991, the struggle to help Yazidis has meant raising awareness in the Knesset, most recently through hosting a conference on the subject last month in the Knesset.
Svetlova has a background in Middle Eastern studies and the Arabic language.
For 14 years she was a journalist in Israel and concentrated often on Arab affairs.
She knew about Yazidis from courses at the university, but the 2014 massacres brought back memories of her own family’s suffering in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust era.
“We know a group is being slaughtered and no one is doing anything; it made me feel vulnerable and I was thinking of ourselves here. What if something like this happens here and no one comes? In the 21st century genocide can happen anywhere.”
She recalls former UN secretary-general Butros Butros-Ghali expressing surprise in the 1990s that the Rwandan genocide was carried out with machetes.
“It was not a huge group [that perpetrated the genocide]; it was not undefeatable. So why did it happen?” But what can Israel do? “We are not a big empire, we perhaps cannot get involved in the Iraq war, but we can do something for survivors, people saved from this hell.” She says it was important to raise awareness and bring the Yazidi cause to the attention of Israelis.
“There is a clause in the foreign budget called humanitarian aid. It’s absurdly low, it’s lower than in the 1970s and 1960s when we were a poorer state,” she says. Why isn’t more being spent to help genocide survivors today? Even a small state can do something.
As a Knesset member she says that it is an obligation to ask the right questions about the amount and direction of aid. She has also sponsored a bill that would recognize the Yazidi genocide.
“No one should object to this.”
However when it comes to a vote later this year, the “true colors” of various Knesset members will become clear. “As far as I know, this is first time we would recognize a foreign genocide. It is a precedent.”
From Jerusalem to Iraq
Lisa Miara, 56, president and founder of the Spring of Hope Foundation, who works to liberate women and children from ISIS and to rehabilitate them, first came face-toface with the Yazidi genocide at a camp in Iraq in 2015.
Miara, who came to Israel from the UK in 1975 and lives in Jerusalem, explains: “I was invited as part of a legal team doing research for litigation against funders of the terrorist regime of Saddam Hussein,” she recalls. “I walked into the Halabja Memorial Museum on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 and was wiped out seeing another people and group destroyed by gas through fear and hate.”
Then she traveled north to the city of Dohuk, closer to the Turkish border, where there were displaced persons’ camps for Yazidis.
“My journey was to go up and do research on the genocide of Yazidis. We went to the Shariya camp. It was one of the first camps erected by the UN after the August 3 commencement of the genocide, about three months after.”
She says the camp was in shocking condition. It had been constructed without experience, and there was a lack of privacy.
“It was one of the worst camps in that sense. Originally it held 24,000 Yazidis who had escaped from Sinjar area.” There were also women in the camp who had escaped ISIS, who had been sold by multiple male captors and horrifically abused. Miara decided she would stay and work with the victims.
Miara, speaking by phone from the Kurdish region of Iraq, juggles her work with volunteers as she discusses the work her group is doing for Yazidi survivors.
“We have an office and house for volunteers and a storeroom center where we distribute 15 to 20 tons of goods a week,” she says. There are classrooms and her NGO is building a community center on 0.2 hectares of land in the camp.
“It’s a therapy-through-arts center, but we call it a community center, [with concentration on] arts, drama, English – psychological diagnosis through the arts.”
Miara’s journey to Iraq wasn’t predictable.
Born in London, her eldest son was injured in a terrorist attack in Israel in 1998.
Consequently, she established SOHF to work with terrorism victims. Through that she became interested in Saddam Hussein’s crimes.
The sight of the Yazidi refugees crammed into their camps inspired her to devote time to this cause. She says that of the 24,000 originally living at Shariya camp, some 4,000 have emigrated to Germany since 2015.
“I connect it with our work in Jerusalem.
All these years of intifada and we have buried so many [in Israel]. After the bombing at Café Moment [in Jerusalem in 2002], something in me was not able to just keep burying our kids and walk away,” Miara recalls.
She says the work with Yazidis is a form of tikun olam, a Jewish concept of helping others.
“If you touch one person, you can affect a universe.”
But the struggle has been “diabolical” and “overwhelming,” she says. Looking at thousands of people in need of basic services, without international organizations providing aid, she wonders “if the UN can’t do this, who the heck are we?”
A special role
“I was naïve in the beginning,” says Barir about his attempts to get Israel to do something about the genocide in 2014. “I basically thought Israel should take a stand in whatever way possible, in a moral way even, to say that ‘never again,’ which is the Israeli motto, should be applied to the Yazidis, on the moral level.”
Barir says Israel had many other options on the table.
“It could take them all [as refugees] or do nothing,” he argues.
“Between those poles you have endless possible actions. You could symbolically invite 500 Yazidi families or orphans or women who had been captives. Israel could start a plan of offering medical assistance.”
But it didn’t happen, he recalls.
“So I figured out it might be best to work on other options, helping and harnessing not Israel as a state, but harnessing Israelis, people to people – Israeli solidarity, private people.” One way to do that was to harness people’s stories and speak on the media and raise awareness.
Barir also noticed that Yazidis were publishing poems on Facebook in the wake of the genocide. He began collecting poems, sharing them and translating them. That eventually became a book. Many Yazidis speak Kurdish, but they write in Arabic. After years of labor, Barir is now ensuring that this poetry is shared with new audiences.
“It touched people on a personal level. A lot found it similar to Holocaust poetry; it moved them and struck a chord for them. Many Arabs and Palestinians found it similar to their national Nakba poetry and found it touching.”
Miara agrees that Israel has a special role to play.
“We as Israelis have something to offer, and doors have opened because I am Jewish and Israeli and there is respect for Israel, for Jewish people and years of parallel history,” she says. But 2,000 women are still missing, ISIS has not been defeated, and the Kurdish region and Iraq face many challenges ahead. Miara says the lack of long-term commitment by international NGOs and the media still surprises her.
According to Svetlova, everything starts with education. “When teachers talk about ‘never again,’ the message that should be sent is that it should never happen to anyone – not just to us. When we talk about the Holocaust, of course it is unique, but many horrible things happen in the world. Are these things being discussed enough? “We are still at the beginning of this journey of connecting Israel, Jews and Yazidis and raising the world’s awareness.
“I was surprised how many people do not know,” she says.