In the hallway of the Kurdistan Regional Government's Commission of Investigation and Gathering Evidence office in Duhok hangs a portrait of the late Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Photo: Rudaw
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?
In a brightly lit and painted office in Duhok, working under tight security, criminal investigators receive a call from security forces in the Shingal (Sinjar) area that a new mass grave of Yezidi victims has been discovered.
The discovery is followed by a team of investigators visiting the site, securing the location, and starting the process of collecting the evidence, cataloguing, correlating with victim testimony, and thus slowly building a database of ISIS crimes.
The Commission of Investigation and Gathering Evidence (CIGE) was established by the Council of Ministers in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in September 2014. Its mandate is to investigate and collect evidence of crimes committed in the Shingal area and the Nineveh Plains against the people living in these areas.
The goal of the Commission is the same as that of the victims, the investigators, and government officials – to bring justice. But they cannot make any promises that will happen.
“What we promise is to protect the case file, to do our best in order to document everything, to collect all the evidence, to investigate every violation that has been committed everywhere in these territories - Sinjar area and Nineveh Plains. This is what we can make promises about,” said Judge Ayman Mostafa, the investigating judge of the Commission.
The Commission is compiling evidence from multiple sources including witnesses and victims, mass graves, even ISIS media publications. Victims come to the Commission on a daily basis to file complaints or provide evidence.
Workers in the Kurdistan Regional Government's CIGE office in Duhok digitally catalogue evidence of ISIS atrocities. Photo: Rudaw
The KRG says it welcome any organizations working in this field. “At all times, our doors are open for any kind of NGOs who want to help us and coordinate with us,” said Berivan Hamdi, General Director of the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs.
The Commission’s office in Duhok is adorned with photographs of religious sites and festivals of the minority groups. Mostafa said they want the victims and witnesses to feel comfortable and safe in the office, building trust between them.
The Commission has created files for Yezidi, Christian, Turkmen, Shabak, and Kakai victims of forced displacement, extrajudicial and summary executions, massacre, abductions, detentions, missing persons, all forms of gender-based violence, recruitment of child soldiers, forced religious conversion, forced labour for ISIS, destruction of cultural and religious and social heritage, all crimes as defined under international humanitarian law.
The investigators, who include judicial and criminal investigators, the public prosecutor, psychotherapists, post-mortem investigators, and IT experts, have opened files for more than 1,600 allegations.
Often it is locals themselves who discover a mass grave when searching for clues about their missing loved ones. Searches in areas where they know ISIS had gathered people they may find a piece of a family member’s personal belongings which may indicate a possible mass grave. A call to the local security and the investigation Commission is then made.
After putting protection around the site the Commission will gather any evidence that may be on the surface. They have only dug up a few of the mass graves so far - ones where the evidence was at risk of being damaged or, for example, washed away by the rains. They have been advised by international professionals to secure most of the mass graves for now and leave them for when security returns to the area.
At one recently discovered mass grave, expected to hold the bodies of four victims, an ID document was found on the surface.
“From the ID, it shows that one of the victims is a Muslim from Sinjar,” Mostafa explained. “And one of the witnesses has witnessed the victim when he was abducted by ISIS at that time, I mean the time the crime had been committed. So the family members were searching for any personal belongings.”
Part of the Commission’s work is interviewing family members and recording their testimony.
They are constrained, however, by geography. As a Kurdistan entity, they cannot enter Iraqi territory to collect evidence and they are worried that information is being lost in Mosul.
Some sites are also inaccessible as they are in areas still under ISIS control. For this, the Commission is using Geographic Information System (GIS) so they can see the crime scene through satellite imagery and get a clear view of the site.
“For example, in a certain area, which is still under the control of ISIS, a massacre has been committed in a farm,” Mostafa recounted. A group of relatives had gathered on the farm when ISIS arrived. The militants separated the men from the women.
“And then they began to execute the males in an area not very far from the farm. And also they began to separate the females and the children and transport them to one of the detention centres in the surrounding area. So we began a kind of investigation following a timeline for the commission of the crime in that event. How the event began, from early morning and then when it has been done or finished.”
The Commission is also collecting blood samples to help them conduct DNA testing in the future. They do not have the funds for that at the moment, but are collecting and preserving all the evidence they can.
Such an expansive criminal investigation process has not been undertaken within the Kurdistan Region before. “The bulk of this is new - for the investigators, for the Commission, for the victims. It’s new for everybody,” said Mostafa.
They have received support and training from international organizations, including the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).
Though it is a steep learning curve, Kurdistan officials wanted to take control of the investigation because, once again, lack of trust is an issue. Erbil does not trust Baghdad to conduct a serious investigation or bringing justice to the victims.
“Baghdad has not forwarded a hand to start a court to investigate these crimes and what happened. Our proof with our evidence is Mosul liberation - it’s a big case, but they’re just liberating Mosul, they don’t have a team that works to investigate what’s happened in Mosul itself,” Hamdi said.
This distrust is rooted in history. Genocidal attacks on Kurds in Iraq have not been investigated and prosecuted properly.
“We have experience and Iraq has not done what they’re supposed to do,” Hamdi explained. “That’s why, if Iraq handles this kind of investigation and cases, the victims will not get what they need to get and their lives will not be rehabilitated.”
“Just liberating Mosul is not enough," Hamdi added, saying that the court and law can hold ISIS members accountable.
The Commission itself will not interrogate perpetrators or try them, its mandate is just to collect the evidence.
“We are focusing only on the victims,” said Mostafa.
This Part IV 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.