As the war against ISIS enters its final phases the victims of ISIS are still suffering.
Hundreds of thousands remain in displaced persons camps and cities and towns across Iraq and Syria are still in ruins. Many religious minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians, cannot return to their homes, which were often laced with ISIS bombs or destroyed.
ISIS carried out its worst mass murder between June and August 2014, targeting Bedouin tribes in Syria, Shi'ites in Camp Speicher and Tal Afar, and then Christians in Mosul and Nineveh plains in Iraq. In August 2014, Yazidis in Sinjar awoke to news that Islamic State was attacking villages across areas of northern Iraq where their minority group lives. Within days more than 300,000 Yazidis had to flee and more than 10,000 were kidnapped by ISIS. In their most brutal and cruel act of a long list of atrocities, ISIS separated the Yazidi men and women and put the women on buses to be sold into slavery. In scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust they then took the men and elderly women and systematically murdered them, dumping their bodies into mass graves across northern Iraq's Sinjar region.
Eventually more than 30 mass graves would be found.
I was able to visit two of these mass graves soon after they were discovered in December 2015 when the area was liberated by Kurdish fighters. I photographed the destruction in Sinjar city and refugees who had fled to Sinjar mountain. Earlier this month a photographer named Khalid Al Mousily went to Sinjar and photographed some of the same areas.
His photographs reveal that almost four years later almost nothing has changed.
In December 2015 the mass grave sites had been recently discovered. Some of their locations were known because Yazidis who had fled to Sinjar mountain were able to look down on the plains below and watch as ISIS murdered their relatives. In rare cases survivors of the massacres, hiding under the bodies or having escaped somehow, brought news back. There are exact parallels to the mass murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen during the Holocaust. I was struck by the fact that the mass graves looked identical to photos I'd seen from the Shoah. I was not prepared however to see the matted human hair, the skulls, the soccer jerseys and blindfolds the people wore, decaying on the ground. When I arrived it was more than a year after the bodies were dumped in the ground. Rain had brought the bones and human remains up to the surface. People said that stray dogs had eaten at the bodies. And this happened in August 2014, before the world's eyes with basically no attempt to stop the mass killing, despite the fact that drones could easily have seen what was going on. From 1941 to 2014, nothing changed, except the fact that ISIS used smart phones to make videos cheering the killing, videos uploaded to social media.
An Iraqi police officer looks at a Yazidi mass grave site near Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. (REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily); A mass grave site near Sinjar in December 2015. (Seth J. Frantzman)
Remarkably the photos that Mousily took show that little has been done to really preserve the locations of the mass graves. In one location a photo from February 2019 shows a sign with the logo of ICMP, the International Commission on Missing Persons. According to ICMP they began a program in January 2017 with support from Canada to government authorities involved in Sinjar. In February 2018 a press release says that for the first time DNA was able to identify a missing person from a mass grave. But overall the photo of the mass grave from 2019 shows that not much work has been done to preserve the site. As in December 2015 there isn't a wall or fence to protect the remains. This is a testament to the lack of investment by the 79-member international Coalition that is supposed to be combating ISIS.
A man looks through the ruins of his house in Sinjar city, February 4, 2019. (REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily); A ruined house in Sinjar city, December 2015. (Seth J. Frantzman)
Another photo from Mousily shows a destroyed house in Sinjar and a man picking through its ruins. When I was in Sinjar in December 2015 the city was still covered with improvised explosives and booby-traps ISIS had left behind. We were not allowed to enter side streets and were warned about the dangers. De-mining teams from Kurdish peshmerga units, some of them with training by the Coalition, were slowly going through the ISIS tunnels to remove ordinance. In 2019 it appear that the city is still in ruins and not fit for civilian life. This is despite years in which investment could have come from the international community or local authorities.
A third and fourth photo from 2019 show Yazidis refugees who fled to Sinjar mountain. In 2014 the mountain was a place of shelter and ISIS was not able to take the area, which was defended by Yazidi fighters. Heroic Iraqi pilots helped airlift some off the people and the People's Protection Units (YPG), a group of Kurdish fighters from Syria, helped people flee to safety. But tens of thousands of Yazidis chose to stay on the mountain, in miserable conditions, resisting ISIS and within eyesight of their former homes below. When I got there in December 2015 the destitute people had nothing. They were living in tents and got water from wells. One clinic served more than 10,000 people with basic medical needs. There was no education system, no hospitals, nothing.
A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. (REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousil); A general view of a Yazidi refugee camp on Mount Sinjar in December 2015. (Seth J. Frantzman)
In 2019 it appears basically the same. People still live in tents, some of them reinforced over the years. Other tents have become shacks. Life appears still miserable and lacking all basic services. Yet this area has been liberated for years. ISIS was removed from the plains below between 2015 and 2017. And yet despite investment pouring in to some other areas, such as Mosul, there seems to be no investment for Sinjar.
A Yazidi woman holds her baby at a refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. (REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily); A tent used by Yazidis displaced from Sinjar in December 2015. (Seth J. Frantzman)
The story of Sinjar is symbolic of the war against ISIS more broadly. While the war has largely been won, there is little interest by the international community in winning the peace. Although the Coalition talks about "stabilization" in its meetings, such as the recent one in Washington on February 6, there is little concrete discussion about investing in places like Sinjar. The US involvement in the war against ISIS began when news of the ISIS genocide in Sinjar reached Washington. "I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain," US President Barack Obama said on August 7, 2014. The scenes of people dying on Mount Sinjar and ISIS crimes motivated the first airstrikes and humanitarian aid. But years later much of that interest in Sinjar has gone.
The photos from this month are proof of that.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.