On Aug. 3, 2014, Islamic State blitzed through dozens of northern Iraq’s minority-inhabited towns and villages, expelling, kidnapping, enslaving and massacring along the way.
Branded as “devil worshippers” by Islamic State, they were shown no mercy. Roughly 5,000 Yazidis in the Sinjar and Nineveh Plains regions were killed. Dozens of mass graves have been discovered. Over 3,000 women and girls are being held as sex slaves for Islamic State fighters or have been sold across the Middle East. Hundreds of boys were kidnapped and have been forced to convert to an ultra-extreme, twisted version of Islam, indoctrinated to become fighters.
The lucky ones are languishing in camps in Syria, Turkey or northern Iraq/Kurdistan.
The Rev. Patrick Desbois, known for his work on the Holocaust, vowed to assist the Yazidis, a community that asserts it has now been the victim of 74 genocides. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum among other nongovernmental organizations and institutions supports the claim of genocide since 2014.
At the end of 2015, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke with the Obama administration and agreed that what Islamic State did to the Yazidis and other minorities constituted genocide.
Desbois is an anti-genocide activist and Georgetown professor in the Center for Jewish Civilization and has spent many years researching the Holocaust and furthering Catholic-Jewish relations.
He has written two books: “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” a National Jewish Book Award winner, and the recently published (in French) “The Fabric of Terrorists: Into the Secrets of Daesh,” based on his ongoing investigations of the Yazidi genocide. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS/ISIL.
The Catholic priest also is the president of Yahad–In Unum, a humanitarian organization dedicated to identifying Jewish and Roma mass execution sites in Eastern Europe. He has interviewed over 5,000 eyewitnesses and identified more than 2,000 execution sites.
The Holocaust is a personal issue for him: His grandfather was a French prisoner held in the Rawa Ruska camp on the Poland-Ukraine border during World War II.
Yahad-In Unum’s newest initiative is Action Yazidis. Desbois and his team continue to document Islamic State’s ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Yazidis and have made several trips to camps for displaced people in northern Iraq/Kurdistan to interview survivors.
Action Yazidis has collected more than 100 survivor testimonies documenting evidence of genocide. The interviews are held with victims of all ages, and the eyewitness accounts are cross-referenced with other sources, including photographs, written material and separate testimonies.
“I got involved in the Yazidi issue because of the emergency situation” in northern Iraq, Desbois said. “Democracies clearly did not care that there was yet another genocide taking place. There was a huge wall of silence about what was happening.”
Desbois tries to advocate on Yazidis’ behalf, document their genocide as much as possible and seek justice for their persecutors. “My goal is to find every single piece of evidence for Shoah and Yazidi victims, like a criminal investigation. I care about saving memories, justice and its victims. We are like (Simon) Wiesenthal.”
The parallels between the Shoah and the Yazidi genocide run deep, he said, as Islamic State tries to eradicate anything associated with the Yazidis and their culture, just as the Nazis did to Jewish communities in Europe.
“The famous poem penned by Pastor Martin Niemoller, ‘First They Came for the Socialists,’ applies to the Yazidi situation quite well,” Desbois said. “Most people have acted only after the fact. Most people had never heard of Yazidis before, except a few area specialists and locals.”
“During the Rwandan genocide, it is well-documented that propaganda served as a major tool in inciting people to kill their neighbors. This was also true during the Shoah, and propaganda was certainly used against Yazidis as well,” Desbois said.
“If we’re only for ourselves, we learned nothing from the lessons of the Shoah,” he said. “We cannot have amnesia. Though Jews should get more involved, among Jewish individuals in the U.S. and France I have found the most compassion when it comes to the Yazidi genocide.”
For more on the Yazidi people and the recent genocide, see Benjamin Kweskin’s “Yezidi Vulnerability Before ISIS” at Kurdistan24.