A Witness To Iraq's Yazidi Exodus

Originally published on August 11, 2014 6:51 pm

The heart of Iraq's refugee crisis lies in the country's north, where the Yazidi people, a religious minority, are fleeing the approach of Islamic State militants. Matthew Barber is in the northern city of Dohuk, and he speaks speaks of Yazidis and others being targeted.

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We're going to hear now from northern Iraq, the heart of the refugee crisis, where tens of thousands are fleeing the onslaught of Islamic state militants. Many of them are Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq that's been the target of persecution over many centuries. Matthew Barber is a graduate student in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago, and he studies Yazidi society. He's in Dohuk in northern Iraq, and he's been talking with Yazidis who've managed to make it down off the mountains to relative safety there. He told me, the Yazidis describe horrific conditions.

MATTHEW BARBER: I talked to people who ate leaves to survive, people who killed animals that were with them and ate the meat raw to survive. It's been a very grueling ordeal, and a lot of people have died. And the longer that people remain trapped there, the more are dying and the more rapidly more will die. About 20,000 have been rescued now, but I believe at least that many, if not more, are still trapped in other places in the mountain complex.

BLOCK: And did many of the people that you were speaking with talk about seeing people die - seeing family members die, people that they were trapped with?

BARBER: The people that I talked to - if they hadn't seen family members died there in the conditions, they had already witnessed violent deaths while they were fleeing as some members of their family or people that they were with on the street were shot by attacking IS forces. I talked to a man who told me that he saw two men and a woman gunned down on the street. So these people have been through a lot.

BLOCK: One of the really tragic aspects of this is that there are lots and lots of families who have been separated in the chaos. Many of them don't know the fate of their family members. Have you heard those stories from the people you've been talking to?

BARBER: I have heard many of those stories. The first one that I heard was a man named Osaman (ph) who told me with tears in his eyes that he couldn't find his two daughters. He was helping the Peshmerga forces try to defend their village when they were attacked by IS. And when the attack occurred, different people in different areas fled different directions. And this is how families become separated in these kind of situations. And he had two daughters. One is three years old. One is seven years old. And he doesn't know where they are. This is one man's story, and it's something that countless people are experiencing.

BLOCK: On your Twitter feed, Matthew, you have mentioned Yazidis who have gotten phone calls from family members left behind in villages. Sounds like these are essentially farewell phone calls.

BARBER: There's a village that we received reports from two days ago that the deadline was about to expire - in which people had an opportunity to convert to Islam or die. And today, we were not able to reach any of these people to find out if they're still alive. So we're a little worried because they haven't answered their phones. We've heard that there's been a massacre in that area. It seems very likely that it's happened, but we're waiting for more concrete confirmation to know exactly what happened.

BLOCK: Help us understand, Matthew, why the Yazidi people are being especially targeted for persecution by the extremists of the Islamic state. What's at the root of that?

BARBER: At the root of that is the belief that the extremists hold that the Yazidis are a polytheistic minority that doesn't deserve to exist in the Earth or at least within a Muslim society. Islamic law traditionally contains protections for certain minorities that are viewed as being monotheistic and having preceded Islam, like Christianity and Judaism.

But people outside of that Abrahamic, monotheistic framework don't qualify for those protections from this perspective. So the Jihadis believe that religious groups with polytheistic beliefs should be either converted to Islam or killed off. And that's the approach that they've been taking with the Yazidis as they've conquered their communities.

BLOCK: Matthew Barber, thanks very much for talking with us today.

BARBER: It's been my pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: Matthew Barber, talking to us from Dohuk in northern Iraq. He's a graduate student in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.