Sinuni, Iraq: The wild dogs found the bodies first.
In February a Kurdish sheep herder discovered the mass grave a few miles from the tiny Iraqi village of Sinuni, 270 miles north of Baghdad. Among the 37 skeletal remains were women and children as young as two. The dogs fed on the dead, scattering their bones.
The victims had been captured, herded together and beheaded or shot. The Islamic State group (ISIS) was responsible for the killings, said Kurdish soldiers who are fighting the Islamic terrorists in northern Iraq.
On this occasion, the Islamic State terrorists took no prisoners – no matter their age. Other times the terror group kidnapped women and girls as young as six and then sold them into sexual slavery, according to a 2014 United Nations Human Rights Council report.
A few thousand people once lived in Sinuni, but today it’s a ghost town with little signs of life – just graves. Sinuni is one of 11 mass graves discovered in northern Iraq. The Kurds believe another dozen graves, with many hundreds of remains, are in neighboring Syria. Those graves have yet to be unearthed because their locations are under Islamic State control.
Human Rights Watch calculated the death toll in northern Iraq from the graves and the mass killings in the streets in August 2014 to be between 3,000 and 5,000. Some were buried alive, the advocacy group reported. Another 3,000 women are held captive, waiting to be sold.
The dirt was still piled high from the tractor Islamic State forces used to dig the seven-foot-deep grave when American Media Institute visited the site in September. About 30 feet away, two concrete chicken coops stood where Islamic State jihadists held the victims before they were taken to the grave and killed, Kurdish soldiers told AMI through an interpreter.
In February, family members had identified the decomposed victims through their clothing, trinkets and what little had been in their pockets, the soldiers said.
Inside the grave, blood had darkened on the brittle dirt walls. A deflated rubber ball rested alongside a toy gun inside the pit. Unmatched sandals, torn clothing and a bone from a finger could be seen among the rubble. A foot away from the mass grave, a baby doll’s head rolled in the wind amid spent shell casings.
What silenced Kurdish soldier Qasam Ismael was a dusty purple blouse, worn by a girl no older than two, that was clinging to the rocks of a memorial erected inside the grave.
He just stared at it.
“Some of these people are from my village,” Ismael said through an interpreter. “They lined them up on the edge of this wall and beheaded them. Then put them in the grave all together. When I arrived their flesh was all gone. There was a little girl I recognized by her hair. It was blond.”
The Islamic State’s killing fields are similar to the atrocities in Cambodia nearly 40 years ago when the Khmer Rouge came to power under Pol Pot and killed men, women and children and dumped their bodies into mass graves. Like Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Islamic State terrorists have slaughtered thousands, but sometimes spared the lives of young boys to indoctrinate them into the jihadi movement. The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague called the Cambodia killings genocide, and the Kurds want the same phrasing to be used in Iraq.
“We want the world to recognize this genocide – we are Kurds, Yazidi, and we don’t want to be an Arabic region any more. We need the Western coalition to protect us and help us fight these monsters,” Ismael said.
The Islamic State considers Yazidis “devil worshippers” because they are not followers of Islam. Yazidis believe in God as the creator of the world, which he has placed under the care of seven holy beings or angels.
Islamic State terrorists killed more than 700 Yazidis in Kocho, another small village in northern Iraq in August 2014. American airstrikes had pushed back the invaders at the end of that month, which allowed Yazidi fighters to re-enter the village. They described the scene as a “massacre,” with bodies piled on top of each other as pools of blood covered the streets.
The Free Yezidi Foundation and the U.S.-based human-rights group Yazda detailed those massacres and the Sinuni grave in a report to the ICC at The Hague. The savage rapes of young girls were detailed in the report. Boys between 8 and 15 years old were “taught how to load and unload guns, shoot using live bullets and launch small and medium-sized rockets and forced to watch videos of beheadings.”
However, because Syria and Iraq are not signatories to The Hague treaty, the ICC ruled in August that it had no territorial jurisdiction over crimes committed by Islamic State militants.
Nariman Hassan, a Yazidi mother who escaped Islamic State terrorists last year from Bashiqa, a town in Mosul district, said the situation remains grave for many Yazidi families. She spoke through an interpreter.
“We left everything behind – our documents, pictures everything” said Hassan, who now lives in an unfinished building with other Yazidi and Christian families, called the Al-Amal Hope Center. “But the most important thing that we left behind was our children’s future.”
Hassan recalled the horror stories from relatives and friends who didn’t make it out in time. She said they were “slaughtering Yazidi men, raping and kidnapping our young girls.
“The majority of the people began to think the U.S. is behind this,” she said. “The people were astonished at how a powerful nation like the U.S. can’t take out Islamic State because it is not only a threat to us but to [the U.S.], as well.”
Ismael said his people feel betrayed. “Arab villagers in our province assured the [Yazidi] people who were unable to leave that (the Islamic State) would not harm them. They lied to us, and the weak, those too old, the children and those who could not leave stayed behind,” Ismael said.
Some managed to escape. Bazi (not her real name) freed herself from her captor with the help of Khider Domle, an activist and journalist who has slept little since Islamic State forces invaded his village, a short distance from where the 37 skeletal remains were found.
Bazi, 20, is a member of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. She was held as a sex slave after Islamic State forces invaded her town of 1,700 in August 2014 and killed most of the population, said Domle, who learned English at the University of Baghdad.
She testified during closed-door hearings last year before Congress that an Islamic State fighter known as the “Prince of America,” because he claimed he is from the United States, bought her at a slave market for $40. He beat and raped her repeatedly until she managed to run away.
Bazi told the United Nations: “I don’t feel that I am back and out of their hands, because there are many, many other girls that are still in their hands. I know what is happening to them, so I don’t feel that I am freed yet.”
Domle said there are thousands of other women like Bazi, except they remain in captivity with little hope of being rescued.
A year ago, President Barack Obama vowed to provide assistance and help save the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who were stranded on Sinjar Mountain as they fled from persecution. But those rescue missions were scrapped because U.S. Army Special Forces who reached the mountain said the Yazidis are in “better condition than previously believed, and continue to have access to food and water that we have dropped,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in August 2014.
Domle disagreed with Kirby’s explanation. By the time U.S. troops arrived in the Sinjar Mountain area last year, Islamic State forces had killed thousands and captured thousands more women, he said. However, the elderly, sick and children who were unable to make the trek to Iran’s northern Kurdistan region were left stranded on the slopes of Mount Sinjar. Many of those who fled before the massacre or escaped while in captivity now languish in overcrowded camps, Domle said.
About 400,000 Yazidis exist in refugee camps with limited resources, according to the United Nations. This is more than half the Yazidis’ worldwide population of 700,000.
“It’s been one year since the genocide, and the United States has done nothing to support any Yazidi projects in areas that have been liberated,” Domle said. “The people have very little water, no health centers, no decent roads, no electricity and no municipalities.”
U.S. officials and the Iraqi government have broken their promise to provide the necessary aid for the displaced Yazidis, Domle said as he prepared to depart to America to ask Congress for more aid. “If nothing is done, then ISIS wins,” he said, using a variant of the Islamic State’s name.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala denied that the Yazidis have been forgotten. “The United States is committed to assisting people of all ethnicities, religions and nationalities who are fleeing persecution, violence and other drivers of displacement.”
She also said not all members of ethnic and religious minorities seek resettlement. “Many members of minority communities have indicated that they wish to return to their homes if they can do so in safety and in dignity at a time of their own choosing,” she said.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), who listened to Bazi’s testimony, puts the blame on the Obama administration.
“The Yazidis and the Kurds would not have been in this position had the administration decided to use air power to hit ISIS when they first fled Ra’aqa Syria for Iraq,” said Royce, referring to the Islamic State’s northern Iraq offensive in 2014.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne declined to comment on why U.S. forces were not involved earlier in operations against Islamic State terrorists.
It wasn’t until late August – after jihadists advanced into northern Iraq and slaughtered thousands of Yazidis, as well as Christians and other minorities – that President Obama ordered limited airstrikes, Royce said.
By then Bazi, and many others, “had paid the terrible price,” Royce said.