Monday, January 26, 2015

Genocide in Northern Iraq: Then and Now

What follows are two rather vivid and disturbing excerpts from eyewitness accounts of systematic executions of unarmed males.

Herein follows the first,

“Their opponents were helpless and there was no chance of any interference from any quarter whatsoever. Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instances the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown on a pile of dead.”

And the second,

“They took us to an open area in front of a trench. They told us to make a row. We looked down and we saw bodies. We were all lying on top of each other. They thought they killed everyone. They came through and shot everyone in the head and the back. Then they left.”

Both of these accounts describe massacres which transpired in Northern Iraq. They are quite similar. The latter comes from a 15-year-old Yazidi who survived being butchered like his many counterparts by hiding under dead bodies of people who, like him, were being put to death for who they were. That was just a few months ago. The first account however transpired in the same general region over 80-years-ago at Simele, the town after which the Assyrian massacre of Assyrian Iraqis is named.

Genocide is one of those terms which shouldn’t ever be employed lightly. After all given the various horrors and evil the term invokes and given what it has been used to describe in the past (the extermination of European Jewry, Saddam Hussein’s mass-murder of Kurds throughout his so-called ‘Al-Anfal’ campaign and the infamous genocide in Rwanda to name just a few) genocide is one of those words we rightfully reserve for the very worst of atrocities and crimes against humanity.

In Northern Iraq today the representatives of the Kurdish and Yazidi communities are calling on the International Criminal Court to classify as genocide the crimes of the Islamic State group. A Yazidi leader named Hazem Tazin Saeed insists that Islamic State is guilty of this crime. In the town of Sinjar his kinsmen, in his words, “have been displaced, they have been killed, raped, kidnapped, and executed en masse.” He rhetorically asks, “What more proof do you need to label this a genocide?”

As of writing the Kurds are pushing back Islamic States’s earlier territorial gains. In Sinjar Kurdish fighters are fighting to kick out the Islamic State forces who overran the Yazidi community there and, as Saeed reminds us, massacred many of the men (the way they execute unarmed men in large numbers and dump their corpses in large pits is uncannily reminiscent of how the Nazi German Einsatzgruppen systematically murdered Jewish partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II) and enslaved and raped many of their wives and daughters. Those Yazidi’s who managed to escape that onslaught, and ultimately that fate, ran the risk of nearly perishing on the mountains where they became trapped after frantically fleeing in terror.

Now the Kurds are taking the fight to Islamic State and are fighting to rid Sinjar of them while working on the political front to convince the rest of the world that those who they are fighting are guilty of the crime of genocide. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide defines genocide as, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Nations who have signed the genocide convention are encouraged to prevent genocide and/or punish those who perpetrate it. Given what Islamic State has done in that region in recent months the classifications of their actions as such doesn’t appear to be far off the mark. The group has made no secret of what they wish to do to their enemies and where they have been able to brutalize or butcher those they despise they have done so without any hesitancy, compunction or scruple whatsoever.

It’s remarkable that in roughly that same region of Northern Iraq the actual man, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide was preparing a legal presentation about this particular kind of war crime when, to his dismay, he got the news about the aforementioned massacre of Assyrians in 1933. The numbers of dead in that massacre were comparably small to most instances of genocide which transpired in the very bloody 20th century, estimates of the number dead run from around 600 to 3,000. Nevertheless it was the systematic nature of the massacre and the indiscriminate way Iraqi soldiers shot people when they entered the Assyrian communities which made that massacre so horrifying at the time.

End Genocide Now - Iraq

End Genocide Now

Before that massacre Lemkin had already been appalled by the killings of Assyrians and Armenians which transpired as the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. Even though a century has elapsed there is some acrimony and controversy over whether or not events of those years constituted genocide. In Turkey the idea that the Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign is officially denied, even though an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians and other minorities lost their lives in less than ten years in death marches and massacres. Similarly the Assyrians of Northern Iraq (a region which was then part of the Ottoman Empire) were targeted in a manner which leads most historians to conclude that it was indeed a genocide. Actions and killings such as those were distinctive in Lemkin’s mind due to their uniquely nasty nature. He subsequently explored what it was that distinguishes genocide from other crimes and excesses of war more deeply and ardently campaigned to have it recognized for what it is which led ultimately to the clear definition we have of it today.

Were any of the crimes Islamic State committed in Iraq the past few months genocidal?

While no human rights expert one nevertheless suspects the Kurds have a case here. Just because the number of those killed by Islamic States’ vicious rampage across that region doesn’t add up to the hundreds-of-thousands or millions doesn’t negate the fact that the intent was there on their part to do away with whole communities and peoples just because of their particular creed or ethnicity. That in and of itself makes their criminal actions particularly odious and certainly warrants a legal investigation to conclusively determine if Islamic State is guilty of genocide, the wickedest crime of all.

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