Vian Dakheel grabbed the world’s attention with her urgent appeals at Iraq’s parliament to prevent a genocide of her people. From a hospital bed in Istanbul, she’s now pleading for countries to open their doors to Yezidis who she says will be killed should they return home.
The Yezidis face a “decree of death” at the hands of the Islamic State, Dakheel said in an interview in Istanbul today. “My people have survived 72 firmans throughout history and this is the 73rd,” she said, referring to orders Islamic rulers historically used to govern their territories. “They are afraid to return to their homes. European Union members and other countries should open their borders to us.”
The advance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq sent thousands of ethnic Yezidis and Christians fleeing onto the exposed slopes of Mount Sinjar. The humanitarian crisis that ensued triggered U.S. air strikes against Islamic State positions in the region, while France and Britain started supplying Kurdish forces with weapons on Aug. 13.
The U.S. “broke the siege of Mount Sinjar” with air strikes, President Barack Obama told reporters in Edgartown, Massachusetts on Aug. 14. A team of about 20 U.S. troops, including special forces, spent 24 hours on the mountain and found about 3,500 to 4,000 Yezidis there. The U.S. doesn’t “expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate,” Obama said.
Dakheel was brought to Istanbul’s American Hospital for treatment after she was wounded on Aug. 12, when an Iraqi military helicopter she was in crashed near Sinjar. The pilot was killed, and two journalists were also wounded.
Yezidis are ethnic Kurds spread across northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey who have a history of persecution. They follow an unorthodox blend of Islam, Christianity and ancient Zoroastrianism, one reason they’re being targeted by militants from the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist offshoot of al-Qaeda that controls territory in Syria and Iraq.
Dakheel, a member of the Iraqi parliament, is known for an Aug. 5 speech to fellow lawmakers in which she said her people were being “slaughtered under the banner of Allah” and Yezidi women were being taken as concubines. She collapsed at the end of the speech, calling for action to stop a genocide, as her mostly male colleagues stood stone-faced. Videos of the speech have been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube.
Eedo Khalaf, a 40-year-old Yezidi, described how his family of 10 fled their home in Sinjar town on Aug. 6, in fear of the Islamic State advance.
“I took my Kalashnikov to defend my family in case we got caught on the road,” he said from the safety of a camp in the Kurdish-run city of Erbil, where he said at least 3,500 people were sheltering. “We heard the fighting from a distance.” Khalaf said he drove toward Sinjar Mountain before leaving his car and trekking higher with tens of other families.
Next to his eight children and two wives, Khalaf described how he had heard accounts of mass killings and abductions of Yezidi men and women during the week he spent in the mountains, surviving on the little food they had brought with them and water from a spring.
The Islamic State “robbed and detonated our houses,” he said. Those caught were given the choice of adopting the Islamic State’s extreme brand of Islam or being killed, he said. “Either way they kill us in the end.”
Both Khalaf and other Yezidis said Kurdish and Iraqi forces fled in the face of the insurgent offensive.
Dakheel said she hoped that Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi, who today vowed to halt Iraq’s descent into chaos through more inclusive governance, “will hopefully try to bring change.”
She also requested that the Turkish government help fleeing Yezidis settle at “the villages of their kin” in Turkey. About 2,000 Yezidis are already in Turkey, and the country is taking care of another 20,000 inside Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday in Ankara, without giving additional details.
Estimates of the Yezidis’ numbers vary from 50,000 to 700,000, with several focusing on the range between 200,000 and 300,000, according to John Esposito, director of the center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. Most of them are in northern Iraq, inhabiting areas now surrounded by territory controlled by the Islamic State.
“We don’t want to leave our land, but the right to live comes before all,” Dakheel said. “The U.S. and the European Union have been very slow in acting.”
EU governments cleared the way for arming Kurdish forces to help them fight Islamic State militants at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels today.
“The aim must be to halt the murderous actions and the military advance,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after the meeting. “Individual countries will respond positively to requests for support by security forces in the Kurdistan region,” he said.