ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Eighteen Yezidi (Ezidi) children and three women, who were recently rescued in Syria’s eastern town of Baghouz, were finally reunited with their families in the Kurdistan Region on Saturday after having spent years in the hands of the Islamic State.
The story of Mazin Salim, a 13-year-old Ezidi boy who was kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 in his hometown of Sinjar (Shingal), is a tragic one as the young teenager has been kept in the dark about the fate of his people.
“Has something happened to Shingal?” Salim asks those around him in the first footage of the boy to have been made public since he was rescued in Baghouz last week.
The video has since made waves on Kurdish social media networks. For many who saw the footage and commented, notably Ezidi survivors, the question struck a chord, suggesting the child - despite years under Islamic State control - held on to his memories of events leading up his kidnapping and the devastation of his hometown.
“I’m so happy to be free from Da’esh [ISIS] and reunited with my family,” an emaciated Salim told Kurdistan 24 as he stood surrounded by family members in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region. “We were many [Ezidis in Baghouz], but I don’t know what has happened to others.”
Salim may now be free from the Islamic State, but the whereabouts of his father, brothers, and sisters remain unknown. They were all kidnapped in 2014, and, in a common practice by the jihadist group, separated.
“I was also kidnapped [by ISIS], and haven’t seen my son in four years,” Gule Alo, Salim’s mother, emotionally recounted. “Today, I am overjoyed, and I thank everyone who helped for rescuing my son.”
The emergence of the Islamic State and its violent assault on Shingal led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of members of the Ezidi religious minority, who were considered by the jihadist group to be heretics. Most of them fled to the Kurdistan Region, while others resettled in neighboring countries in the region or Western states.
Others were not as lucky and remained stranded in the war zone, where they experienced atrocities and mass executions at the hands of the extremist group for years. Militants subjected women and girls to sexual slavery, kidnapped children, forced religious conversions, executed scores of men, and abused, sold, and trafficked women across areas they controlled in Iraq and Syria.
Prior to the 2014 attack, there were roughly 550,000 Ezidis in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. As the jihadist group took over large swaths of territory in Nineveh Province, 360,000 Ezidis escaped and found refuge elsewhere, according to the Kurdistan Region’s Ezidi Rescue Office.
So far, 69 mass graves which contain the remains of Ezidis have been excavated, along with untold numbers of individual graves.
As of now, over 3,300 Ezidis have been rescued from an estimated total of 6,417 kidnapped people of the religious minority group, according to the rescue office.
Hussein Qaidi, the head of the Ezidi Rescue Office in Duhok, has complained about the lack of efforts by the federal government of Iraq, claiming they are failing to contribute sufficient support to find and rescue the remaining Ezidis who have now been abducted and kept captive for over four years.
“They [the 21 Ezidi survivors] were rescued several days ago, but the Iraqi government shut down the border crossing between the Kurdistan Region and Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan], delaying the reunification of broken families,” Qaidi told Kurdistan 24.
Among the multiple traumas suffered by the Ezidis at the hands of the Islamic State was the erasing of their identities, with many of the recently rescued having forgotten their Kurdish dialect and mother tongue. Designed to make it harder for them to reintegrate, captives of the Islamic State, especially the young ones, were subjected to the jihadist group’s aggressive re-education campaign in Arabic.
Along with Salim, 20 other Ezidis were rescued. The whereabouts another few thousands more remain unknown, but members of the minority group expect to see more survivors surface as the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to push to liberate the last pockets of territory under Islamic State control in eastern Syria.
Editing by Nadia Riva
(Additional reporting by Mahir Shingali)