As the Obama administration ponders its next moves to counter the “Islamic State” in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of another U.S. journalist, Amnesty International has issued a devastating report detailing a gamut of human rights violations—among them summary executions, child abductions, sexual assaults, forced religious conversions and “ethnic cleansing on a historic scale”—committed by the Islamic militant group as it swept across northern Iraq from its base of operations in Syria. Amnesty International has found that the Islamic State has systematically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim communities in overrun communities, killing or abducting hundreds, possibly thousands, and forcing more than 830,000 others to flee the areas it has captured since mid-June.
Amnesty International’s field investigators have concluded that the I.S. “is systematically and deliberately carrying out a program of ethnic cleansing in the areas under its control. This is not only destroying lives, but also causing irreparable damage to the fabric of Iraq’s society, and fuelling inter-ethnic, sectarian and inter-religious tensions in the region and beyond.”
"The massacres and abductions being carried out by the Islamic State provide harrowing new evidence that a wave of ethnic cleansing against minorities is sweeping across northern Iraq,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser currently in northern in Iraq.
“The Islamic State is carrying out despicable crimes and has transformed rural areas of Sinjar into blood-soaked killing fields in its brutal campaign to obliterate all trace of non- Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims.” The report, released Sept. 2, describes the internal displacement of northern Iraqi communities as a “tragedy of historic proportions.”
“Entire communities in large swathes of territories in northern Iraq were abandoned to their fate without protection from attacks by the I.S. when the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi army and security forces fled the area in June.”
Ethnic and religious minorities—Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Yezidis, Kakai and Sabean Mandaeans—have lived together in the Nineveh province, much of it now under I.S. control, for centuries, A.I, researchers point out. “Today, only those who were unable to flee when I.S. fighters seized the area remain trapped there, under threat of death if they do not convert to Islam.”
The report concludes that “the scale and gravity of the abuses and the urgency of the situation demand a swift and robust response—not only to provide humanitarian assistance to those displaced and otherwise affected by the conflict but also to ensure the protection of vulnerable communities who risk being wiped off the map of Iraq.
According to the Amnesty International report, “Ethnic Cleansing on Historic Scale: the Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities in Northern Iraq," hundreds of Yezidi men from towns and villages in the Sinjar region, which put up armed resistance in a bid to repel the IS advance, were captured and shot dead in cold blood. It is from these towns and villages that most of the women and children were abducted.
The majority of the people from the targeted minority communities managed to flee before I.S. fighters reached their towns and villages, but, according to the report, “they escaped with their lives and nothing else.
“They had to leave their homes and everything they owned behind and even the little they could carry – especially money and jewelry – was often taken from them by IS fighters manning checkpoints on the perimeters of the areas they control. Their homes have since been appropriated or looted by IS fighters and their supporters among the local Sunni population, and their places of worship destroyed.”
According to the report: “The humanitarian conditions for the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of displaced are dire—lacking shelter, many sleep in building sites, makeshift encampments and parks with no sanitation, others in schools, halls and other public buildings. [Kurdish] officials have admitted that they are overwhelmed and unable to cope, while the response of the international community has been slow and inadequate, though the UN’s recent designation of the crisis as its highest level of emergency should result in prompter action from the relevant international humanitarian agencies.”
Amnesty International reports that hundreds, “possibly thousands,” of Yezidis, most of them women and children from the Sinjar region, were abducted as they fled the I.S. takeover in early August. “With a few exceptions, little is known of their fate or whereabouts.
“Some of those who managed to make contact with their families said they are being pressured to convert to Islam and some have reported that some of the women and children—both girls and boys—from their families were taken to unknown locations by their captors. Some families say their detained relatives have also told them there have been cases of rape and sexual abuse of detained women and children.”
The report was critical of the sluggish response so far by the international community to the I.S.’s vast human rights violations but was especially sharp in its rebuke of the Iraqi government’s policy leading up to the I.S. assault and ineffective response to the I.S. threat. “States have an obligation to provide equal protection to all communities within their borders,” the report’s authors pointed out. “Successive Iraqi central governments have failed to do so. Further, they have contributed to the worsening of the situation in recent months by tolerating, encouraging and arming sectarian militias, in particular Shi’a militias in and around the capital, Baghdad, and in other parts of the country. In responding to the current crisis, the Iraqi central government and the [Kurdish Regional Government] (whose armed forces now control some of the areas abandoned by the Iraqi army) must prioritize measures to ensure the protection of the civilian population regardless of religion or ethnicity.”
According to Amnesty International, even Arab Sunni Muslims have become targets of I.S. Those known or believed to oppose the Islamic State or to have worked with the government and security forces or previously with the U.S. army have also been forced to flee to avoid being killed and their homes have been appropriated or destroyed.
The report is based on interviews carried out by Amnesty International in northern Iraq, including many conducted in towns and villages later taken over by the I.S., and in the city of Mosul after it fell under I.S. control, between June and September 2014. Amnesty International spoke with hundreds of witnesses, survivors and victims, including the families of those who were killed or abducted, and many others who were forcibly displaced by the actions and threats of I.S. fighters. Amnesty International also met with civil society groups, local officials, and local and international human rights and humanitarian organizations. The report included eyewitness testimony to the atrocities and abductions carried out by I.S. militants, including the abduction of scores of children from the hands of their parents.
A witness to one mass killing in Solagh, a village south-east of Sinjar city, told Amnesty International that on the morning of Aug. 3, as he was trying to flee towards Mount Sinjar, he saw vehicles with I.S. fighters in them approaching and managed to conceal himself. From his hiding place he saw them take some civilians from a house in the western outskirts of Solagh:
“A white Toyota pick-up stopped by the house of my neighbour, Salah Mrad Noura, who raised a white flag to indicate they were peaceful civilians. The pick-up had some 14 IS men on the back. They took out some 30 people from my neighbour’s house: men, women and children. They put the women and children, some 20 of them, on the back of another vehicle which had come, a large white Kia, and marched the men, about nine of them, to the nearby wadi [dry river bed]. There they made them kneel and shot them in the back. They were all killed; I watched from my hiding place for a long time and none of them moved. I know two of those killed: my neighbour Salah Mrad Noura, who was about 80 years old, and his son Kheiro, aged about 45 or 50.”
Mirze Ezdin, a lawyer, is among those desperately awaiting news of his family. After patiently listing the names and ages of 45 relatives—all women and children—abducted by IS fighters in Qiniyeh, he showed Amnesty International a photo of two of his nieces on his mobile phone.
"Struggling to hold back the tears," he said:
“Can you imagine these little ones in the hands of those criminals? Alina is barely three; she was abducted with her mother and her nine-month-old sister; and Rosalinda, five, was abducted with her mother and her three brothers aged eight to 12. We get news from some of them but others are missing and we don’t know if they are alive or dead or what has happened to them.”
Among the testimony recorded by Amnesty International was the account of an Iraqi Christian woman who described how her 3-year-old daughter was abducted by I.S. militants. Christina Khider Abada was seated beside her mother, Ayda Abada, on a bus when captors from the Islamic State snatched the toddler and took her away. According to an account by the mother, who followed her daughter off the bus, the crying child was passed from one militant to another while Ayda Abada begged for her to be returned. Finally, the I.S. militants pointed guns in the face of the mother and told her to get back on the bus or they would kill her.
Fellow refugee Sahar Mansour interviewed Ayda Abada and her husband, Khider Abada, as they circulated pictures of their daughter in Ankawa refugee camp, near Irbil, Iraq, in the hope of gaining information about the toddler's whereabouts. In a Sept. 1 email to Catholic News Service, Mansour said the abduction occurred Aug. 24 in the Syriac Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, which had fallen to Islamic State militants the night of Aug. 6-7.
PHOTO: Christina Khider Abada, 3, as seen on a poster Aug. 28. The child was seated beside her Christian mother on a bus in Qaraqosh, Iraq, when captors from the Islamic State snatched her and took her away. (CNS photo/(CNS photo/Sahar Mansour).