This series of special reports examines the struggles and path the survivors of ISIS — particularly minority groups in the Nineveh Plains and Shingal — have taken in their quest for justice after the extremist group rapidly controlled large swathes of territory in northern Iraq in 2014. Critical questions were asked: What do survivors want? What are they doing? What is and can be done at the community, governmental and international levels?
“The point of view of documentation is interesting because at this point we can’t do anything about the violence that’s already happened. [But] how are they coping with it?” said Rita Corticelli, a professor of Genocide Studies at the International University of Erbil.
Many Arabs and Kurds will be able to integrate into Iraqi and Kurdish society after ISIS as they already have established government recognition, but the smaller minority groups have had to take it upon themselves to document the atrocities committed by ISIS against their communities.
Shlomo is an umbrella non-governmental Christian organization in Ainkawa that represents Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Armenians. It was established in 2014 to document all atrocities committed against Christians in the Nineveh Plains.
Nawzad Hakim, a Shlomo representative, said they are doing this because there is no one else in Baghdad doing it.
“We have been documenting for 2 to 3 years and published two reports about all the atrocities committed against Christians in Nineveh Plains and Mosul city, which resulted in 150,000 IDPs — including 21,000 families,” said Hakim.
Nawzad Hakim of Shlomo shows Rudaw a file of a Christian family from the Nineveh Plains of Iraq. It includes signed testimony and copies of official identification cards.
A look inside a nondescript trailer in a camp in Ainkawa shows how extensive the documentation efforts have been.
Shlomo has documented 12,000 families who have had their homes and property destroyed or burned.
Neatly filed and bound the information is stored in color-coordinated binders that contain written testimony of what ISIS did, along with copies of national identification cards, and fingerprints. A board hanging by the door lists the number of testimonies from each Christian city in Nineveh.
“In the time since ISIS has been kicked out of areas, we have video evidence from more than 5,000 houses including written testimonies from the families,” Hakim revealed.
Representatives from the internationally-funded Yazda organization for Yezidis have stated they too are documenting ISIS atrocities.
Some of testimonies emerge in global media campaigns, genocide conferences, and human rights reports and academic publications.
Yezidis are acting on their own locally, as well. Khadir Domle, a Yezidi activist, said: “The locals, we are happy because we have three pillars already going on. First the local community they start to collect and document a lot of things. Second, organizations, a lot of organizations like Genocide Organization, like Yazda … they have materials, they have details,”
Kakais have historically been spread across the region. Called by different names, Yarsan or Ahl-e Haqq in Iraq and Bektash in Turkish, Kakais want international recognition and acknowledgment of their unique religious identity.
Al-Kake said Kakais didn’t have non-governmental organizations in the past, so they lack the level of documentation of the Christian and Yezidi communities.
“As Kakais, we are a very close-knit community,” al-Kake said. “The Kakais in Kirkuk are very close to the Kakais in Mosul, who are close to the Kakais in Halabja and Khanaqin. So as a community we know each other, but as an organization, no.”
Al-Kake recently started Chra Organization for Documentation. ‘Chra’ means lantern in Kurdish.
A representative of the Shabak community, Mohammad Ibrahim Shabak, said an organized effort will soon come to fruition.
“People now are talking about it,” he said, adding that witnesses have gone to local courts in Qarakosh and Bashiqa to support claims for lost properties.
“For the houses and buildings, photographs and video recording are required,” Shabak added. “As far as the 1,400 martyrs, the police have provided death certificates.”
According to Shabak, the Iraqi government has handed out specially printed forms to file for property damage claims.
Another method for community-level documentation
One option available to groups lacking organization is crowd-sourced solutions utilizing technology like the eyeWitness application.
EyeWitness is designed to record photos, videos, and audio in a manner that facilitates the authentication process so that the information can be used in investigations or trials, its Project Director Wendy Betts told Rudaw English.
Its objective "is to provide those individuals with a tool that can increase the impact of the information they collect in a manner that affords more protection than if the individual used their standard mobile camera."
"All images are stored in a hidden gallery accessible by a passcode set up by the user," Betts noted. "The information is stored encrypted on the device and transmitted encrypted when sent to eyeWitness.
"There is also an emergency delete that allows the user to quickly delete the app and its contents."
Betts said she couldn't disclose "for security reasons" whether the app has been used in this region for gathering evidence, and no community group representatives that Rudaw talked to said they have utilized the app.
Betts said the UK-based company has a full-time legal analyst on staff and works with pro bono attorneys to review all footage it receives.
"All submissions are catalogued, indexed, and aggregated into dossiers by location," she added.
"If we receive footage that appears to show criminal conduct or if we amass footage that begins to reveal the patterns of conduct that could indicate an atrocity crime, we will seek out an appropriate authority with the legitimacy and jurisdiction to investigate further."
The app was launched about a year ago, and the organization tweeted that its video footage was used as evidence in the conviction of a Syrian fighter in Sweden.
"The information being collected now would be relevant primarily to future cases," she said.
While displaced, groups pursue political, inter-community connections
The longer that groups remain displaced, the greater their desire for a political voice.
Unity also has been displayed at the political level, demonstrated by a recent meeting with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, and increased publicized meetings between KRG and minority group representatives where political and clergical influence often cross.
President Barzani has stated “that the diversity of Iraq as a whole and the Kurdistan Region, in particular, is of immense importance to the people and government of the Kurdistan Region. ”
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani (center) meets with Christian clergy in Erbil on April 7. Photo: Kurdish presidency
Kurdish investigators have described the Kurdistan Regional Government and Christian community's relationship as "synergistic."
“Yezidis will support and help any process if it is transparent, dealing with the documents that have already been collected in the right way,” Domle said.
"Even if the ICC [International Criminal Court] starts to investigate, they need support from local communities, from local governments. So this is the three sides should be working together," Domle said.
“ISIS will go and disappear, but if we do not confront and uproot its ideology, the same monster will reappear tomorrow in another shape and form,” Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said at a conference on tolerance in Erbil, attended by representatives from the various religious and ethnic communities that coexist in Kurdistan.
“Kurdistan has been the home of tolerance, coexistence and diversity of ethnicities, religions and cultures since the dawn of time,” the prime minister noted. “Despite all the wars, destruction and repressions imposed on it, it has never — not even once — lost this beautiful characteristic, and has remained the home of all religions and nations.”
Khider Domle, a Yezidi activist and member of the Peacebuilding Center at the University of Duhok, has helped to facilitate discussions between different religious groups in the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Rudaw
Despite some claims of marginalization by the Kurdish government, Yezidi voices are still heard in the Kurdistan Region.
“The third thing now there are initiatives from the government after the prime minister made the decision that they should establish a committee, the committee establish a court, like international and local courts together,” Domle said.
For justice to be served, documentation of the crimes has provided the victims with leverage in peace-building negotiations, according to Antonio Barrios Oviedo, a professor at the Universidad Latina in Costa Rica, who has published a paper on the peace process brokered in Colombia between the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- People's Army (FARC) and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016.
"If we see who really suffered the consequences of this war [in Colombia], it's the indigenous people. The communities of indigenous people were leveled completely in their own villages, in their own towns, to the conflicts guerrilla groups, to the paramilitary groups, and the Colombian army. They [the indigenous people] were really the victims,” Oviedo said.
“Today, they are trying to rescue their values, their communities and many other things related to this. They have implemented human rights for the indigenous people like respect for the culture, their own language, respect for their own standards of education ... by pressuring these groups who had been better organized through the years, they could include respect for the indigenous people even more.”
This Part III in a Rudaw English series of special reports on what is being done to document ISIS atrocities and achieve justice for survivors. The authors thank all at Rudaw who contributed including Zhelwan Zeyad and Salim Ibrahim for their editing and translations.