Persecution by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the Yazidi population of Sinjar, Iraq, has been the focus of attention recently following the United Nations' recognition of these ongoing actions as genocide.
Children try to get warm in early morning chill at collective informal shelter for Yazidis refugees who fled ISIL attacks in Iraq. The shelter, in Sirnak province, south-east Turkey (an abandoned military barracks near coal mines) houses around 1200 Yazidis. They have relied on the generosity of the municipality, locals and help from ECHO-funded partners who have been providing tents, improving existing shelter conditions, running a primary health care centre ( with a local implementing partner, Doctors Worldwide), non food items, hygiene, psychosocial support and cash assistance (Photo credit: Caroline Gluck/EU/ECHO)
The extent of the killings and kidnappings as well as the demographics of those targeted has until now remained unclear. In a new study published in PLOS Medicine, Valeria Cetorelli of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, and the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, UK, and colleagues, report findings from their retrospective household survey of displaced survivors in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, providing documented insight into the extent of the attack and in particular the disproportionate burden of killings and kidnappings of children.
The researchers present a compelling and disturbing account of the events that occurred over a few days in the area of Mount Sinjar in August 2014. Their survey, conducted in November and December, 2015, covered a random sample of 1,300 displaced households sheltered in camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Information about reported killings and kidnappings of household members was recorded. Using these data, the authors estimate that 9,900 Yazidis were either killed or kidnapped (95 per cent) confidence interval (CI): 7,000 - 13,900), amounting to 2.5% of the entire Yazidi population of Sinjar. Of these, an estimated 3,100 (CI: 2,100 - 4,400) were killed, with nearly half of them executed by gunshot, beheading or being burned alive, while the rest died from lack of water and food or injuries during the ISIS siege on Mount Sinjar.
The authors estimated that 6,800 (CI: 4,200 - 10,800) were kidnapped, with over one third still missing at the time of the survey. In one of the most distressing aspects of the study, which distinguished between children and adults as well as males and females, the authors reveal that children were disproportionately affected: children accounted for nearly all those who died on Mount Sinjar during the ISIS siege and children were also much less likely to escape captivity following kidnapping compared to adults.
Reports from escapees documented torture, sex slavery and forced religious conversion once kidnapped. The authors suggest that their analysis may have underestimated the actual toll of killings and kidnappings because of the unknown number of families who were captured in their entirety with no one surviving to report. Limitations of the study include inference from a surveyed sample of displaced households to the whole Yazidi population of Sinjar, and uncertainty of that population's exact size at the time of the attacks.
This study provides systematically obtained evidence of the extent of violence against the Yazidis, most of whom remain displaced in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Such evidence is important to keep attention focused on the rescue, assistance and protection of this minority population. The authors note: "Combined with other existing evidence, these estimates can support a formal genocide investigation by an appointed judicial authority."
This study was funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy through the LSE Middle East Centre. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Cetorelli V, Sasson I, Shabila N, Burnham G (2017) Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS Med 14(5): e1002297. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002297
Center for Humanitarian Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America
Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel
Department of Community Medicine, College of Medicine, Hawler Medical University, Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq