Foreign Policy Magazine
Foreign Policy MagazineJune 1, 2017
‘Bulgarian Donald Trump’ Wants Gay Politicians Outed
Ahead of next week’s pride parade, one parliamentarian suggests homosexuality is a conflict of interest for politicians.
SINJAR, Iraq — A middle-aged man sporting a bushy moustache grins widely into the camera. Hassim, 31, carefully slides his finger across the screen of his phone. The man with the moustache is replaced by a smiling teenage boy, casually leaning on the handlebars of his blue bike. “My family,” says Hassim, a member of Iraq’s Yazidi community. “They’re all dead.”
He was working elsewhere in Iraq in August 2014 when the Islamic State entered Sinjar, an area in the north of the country close to the border with Syria and Turkey. Tens of thousands of Yazidis — members of a 4,000-year-old religion the jihadi organization was determined to wipe out — fled their homes only to become trapped in the Sinjar mountains. In and around the town, Islamic State fighters kidnapped and killed thousands of Yazidis — a massacre the United Nations and United States have described as a “genocide.”
Sinjar was largely liberated from the Islamic State by the end of 2015. Since then, authorities have found more than 30 mass graves, which are estimated by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to hold over 1,500 bodies. The human remains are key to identifying thousands of missing Yazidis, allowing the community to determine the fate of their loved ones and begin the processes of healing and closure.
But who exactly has been buried in the graves remains unknown — the exhumation is yet to start. And so Hassim’s loved ones lie in pits beneath the ground that his community has called home for centuries.
When will he be able to bury them with dignity? “I really have no idea,” Hassim says, shaking his head. “We have become part of a political game in which even our dead are not respected.”
The question of who bears responsibility for exhuming the graves has become a political football in Iraq. It highlights how political rivalry leaves recaptured areas in the country near-ungovernable and blocks reconciliation.
The scene of the crime
“The longer we wait, the less remains of the bodies,” says Fawaz Abbas, the deputy head of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Iraq, from his office in Erbil. The organization, which is based in The Hague, helps governments worldwide find and identify missing people, often as a result of armed conflict, and has been active in Iraq for years. But in Sinjar, the ICMP has been limited to surrounding the grave sites with iron fences that bear a sign that reads: “Warning: Mass Grave Site.”
It’s not our fault, Abbas says. His organization and local experts have been on standby for more than a year to get started on the exhumation, but have been held up by a lack of government approval.
There are potentially profound legal consequences to this delay. The number of graves, the causes of death, and the victims’ ethnicity are essential details to demonstrate in court that the massacre against the Yazidis amounts to genocide. “These sites are crime scenes,” Abbas says.
However, the question of who will lead this forensic investigation is up in the air. Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and its law system does not contain provisions for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. For the purposes of evidence gathering and prosecution, human rights organizations are pushing the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the KRG to come up with a clear legal strategy to deal with the Islamic State’s atrocities before exhuming the graves.
But as the Islamic State — a common enemy — loses strength and territory, old grievances between these two sides are increasingly bubbling to the surface. In Sinjar, Baghdad and the KRG are bogged down in a dispute over which side is the legitimate authority — and the graves of the massacred Yazidis are caught in the middle.
Baghdad and the KRG have fought side-by-side against the Islamic State, but a conflict over land continues to fester behind the scenes. Iraq has never formally delineated the border of the Kurdish region. While an article in the constitution was meant to clear this up through a referendum, political wrangling has thwarted the process. “The implementation of that constitutional article has been dead for years,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.
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