On 3 August 2014, Islamic State swept across the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq in a bid to expand its Islamic ‘caliphate’. Its strategy was pre-meditated, and aimed to spread Islamic monotheism through the elimination of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority that the extremists deemed to be ‘devil-worshippers’. Upon occupation, residents were offered a choice: conversion or death. Over the course of eleven days, an estimated 9,900 Yazidis were kidnapped or killed; a further 400,000 were forcibly displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan. In June 2016, a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded that Islamic State’s attacks and subsequent treatment of the Yazidis amounted to genocide. Even now, the impacts of this assault continue, with survivors’ demands for justice left unfulfilled.
Islamic State’s treatment of the Yazidis is most often reported in relation to its programme of sexual enslavement of women and girls. Across its territory, female captives were sold as chattel in ‘slave markets’ to be raped by the group’s members. Its slavery project was widespread and organised, with rules and regulations stipulating correct conduct of ‘owners’ and legitimate forms of abuse. Some women and girls were able to escape. Others remained in captivity for up to five years. Some 3,000 remain missing.
The territorial decline and eventual collapse of the ‘caliphate’ allowed for the gradual liberation of survivors. However, severe trauma, coupled with social exclusion from the stigma of their sexual abuse, has led to a mental health crisis among Iraq’s Yazidi population. Furthermore, communal healing has been obstructed by insecurity and lack of critical infrastructure, slow exhumation of mass graves, and, most importantly, elusive justice for Islamic State’s crimes.
With little documentation linking individual Islamic State members to the killing and enslavement of Yazidis, the testimonies of liberated captives are critical to bring charges and achieve convictions for crimes including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and modern slavery. Some Yazidi women, including Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad, share their experiences as a means of advocacy and education on the enduring suffering of displaced and traumatised Yazidis. However, unethical journalistic practices, including the staged confrontations of Yazidi women with their former captors, offer headlines without advocacy.
Meeting the need for an initiative that respectfully documents the genocide and campaigns for rights and reparations for the Yazidi community (and other affected minority groups) is an initiative called Nobody’s Listening. Run by Yazda, the innovative project combines virtual reality, art, and photography to depict the experiences of Yazidi men, women, and children affected by Islamic State slavery and massacres. Through a 12-minute virtual reality experience, viewers can step into the lives of a female captive, a male survivor of Kocho’s mass shootings, or an Islamic State militant. The scenes follow the trajectory of the genocide, moving from deserted Yazidi homes, and the site of families’ separation in Kocho village school, to buses used by Islamic State to transport captives, and eventually to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Iraqi Kurdistan – now home to the majority of Yazidis who fled the conflict.
The number of physical memorials dedicated to the Yazidi genocide is limited, particularly outside of Iraq. While these are important sites of commemoration and mourning for those killed or missing, they fall short on communication of the enduring ordeal of survivors. Conversely, the new approach adopted by Nobody’s Listening has been identified as the “future of advocacy”. The immersive experience is both respectful and shocking, even to experts who have studied and directly interacted with survivors of the genocide. At a time when international publics can become desensitised to news of conflict and hardship, the headset does not allow the viewer to look away from its important message: the genocide continues. The use of innovative technology and its link to the project’s social media campaign encourages every user to raise awareness and publicly acknowledge the genocide. The result is a galvanised international community calling for justice and investment in rebuilding the lives of communities affected by Islamic State atrocities.
Sadiq Khedar is a Yazidi artist. The above painting is featured in the “Nobody’s Listening” immersive art exhibition by Yazda about the Yazidi genocide.