The remains of more than 100 Yazidis massacred by ISIS are finally being returned to their home village to be laid to rest.
It will be a bittersweet day for Alyas Qasim, one of only a small number of survivors from his village of Kocho, in Sinjar, in Northern Iraq. The memory of what happened here seven years ago is seared into his mind, and that of every Yazidi.
In August 2014, ISIS militants attacked, and gave the villagers an ultimatum of three days to convert to Islam or be killed. When they refused, the men were separated from the rest, and ISIS fighters opened fire. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds of women and children were taken captive as slaves.
"At noon the ISIS militants gathered the villagers in the school building, and men above 18 were kept on the first floor. Later we were taken in groups of 30 to 40 people, and the fighters opened fire, but they rushed after hearing the sounds of fighter jets flying over,” Qasim, 66, told VICE World News via phone from Kocho, where he returned two weeks ago to help prepare the graves.
"I got hit below my right knee, but it was a minor injury, and I pretended to be dead for a while, and then crawled in the fields, found some other villagers who survived and we walked toward the Sinjar mountain."
Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, who escaped ISIS captivity to become a global advocate for Yazidis, lost two of her brothers as well as friends and neighbours in the massacre at Kocho. “I miss my brothers every day,” she said in a statement.
ISIS killed more than 5,000 people and took more than 6,000 women and children captive as slaves during their bloody campaign to control the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar, committing a genocide against the ethnoreligious community that they justified according to their twisted interpretation of Islam because they saw the Yazidis as heretics. Thousands of Yazidis are still missing.
On Saturday, the 104 victims from Kocho will be buried in marked graves in the village after being transported from Baghdad, where their remains had been taken to be identified, and for evidence to be collected.
“I am glad to be able to honour them with a proper burial, but my heart remains broken for the thousands of Yazidi families whose loved ones remain in mass graves,” Murad, who will be attending the ceremony, said.
ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, but still remains a threat. The group claimed to have carried out a deadly twin suicide bombing at a busy market in Baghdad last month, the first such attack in three years. Seven years after the tragedy of the Yazidi people, and three years since Sinjar was retaken, 100,000 Yazidis have returned to their homes, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Many are still living in camps and struggle with the aftermath, and the enormity, of what happened.
The Iraqi government, which held a funeral procession in Baghdad yesterday to honour the 104 Yazidi victims, has previously promised to allocate 5 percent of public sector jobs to Yazidis, but a bill enshrining this in law fell short in parliament.
Murad is among the most prominent voices calling on the government and the international community to do more to help survivors, and prosecute ISIS members for crimes against humanity.
"For survivors from Kocho and Yazidis across the region, ISIS's violence is still a lived reality. We feel that violence in the absence of the 2,800 women and children still in captivity,” she said.
Qasim lost his wife, three sons, five brothers, one sister, and two nephews in the attack, while two of his daughters were enslaved by ISIS but managed to escape, and now they are safe in Germany. His family members are not among the 104 people being buried on Saturday.
“I gave my blood sample three times, but no one from my family has been found yet,” he said.
While 104 victims of the massacre have been identified, many more have not. More than 500 graves have been dug in the village, and most will remain empty after tomorrow’s memorial.
"We dug 517 graves in the main square of the village where we used to celebrate our holidays, and hold our weddings. It will become the graveyard for our martyrs, and they will finally rest in the place where they had their best memories,” Qasim said.
"It is really difficult to bury our loved ones, and it is even harder to do it in batches because seeing the coffins of our kin opens our wounds again.”
For Qasim and other Yazidis returning home to Kocho, any happy memories of life before 2014 will always be intermingled with the horror that followed.
“Tomorrow, the festive square in the village will become the graveyard for our village,” he said. “We'll always remember what happened to our people, and I pray our loved ones finally find some peace.”