Last week, American-backed forces liberated the town of Baghouz in Syria. In so doing, they uprooted the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the last vestiges of its territory in Syria. The physical state that ISIS established has been destroyed after years of brutal war.
As ISIS lost territory, its strategy metamorphosed; now, it is a worldwide network of terror cells, stretching from the Libyan deserts to the Philippines. As we focus on our own problems with domestic terrorism, and as ISIS strikes abroad as its physical territory dwindles, it is easy to forget the damage done to the region and to its peoples.
Among those people are the Yazidis, who suffered some of the most acute and devastating cruelties during the reign of ISIS. The Yazidis are a religious minority who practice an ancient faith and who dwell historically in northern Iraq. When ISIS rose, the Yazidis were specifically targeted as polytheists and unbelievers. What followed was genocide.
The Iraqi government reported of the traditional lands of the Yazidis at the time of ISIS’s invasion that it had killed at least 500 Yazidis in one town, burying women and children alive. As they moved from town to town, they sometimes gave a simple ultimatum: convert or die. By the time ISIS surrounded tens of thousands of Yazidis on Sinjar mountain, it is estimated that they brutally killed at least 3,000 Yazidi men. After murdering their husbands, brothers, fathers and uncles, the Islamic State abducted the women and girls and enslaved them. They were sold as sex slaves — young girls were captured and sold into sexual slavery. Once sold, they were repeatedly raped by their masters. Some women and young girls — children — were sold and resold multiple times. Their masters would force them to take birth control and perform forced abortions when that failed to prevent pregnancy. In its English language magazine, Dabiq, ISIS boasted about its reinstatement of sexual slavery, writing, “… one should remember that enslaving the families of the [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”
As time passes, the suffering of the Yazidis will pass from our consciousness if it has not already. It may seem like remembrance is a passive act, or perhaps even useless to the victims of genocide, but in fact, memorial is a sacred obligation — it ensures that those who suffered are not forgotten, and this itself is a victory against both their tormentors and the evil that inspired them.
I know firsthand how important memory is to the survivors of a genocide — and its victims. My grandparents survived the Holocaust, and much of the trauma my grandparents suffered was due to the fact that their family members had no graves, no monuments to their memory. They left behind no physical evidence that they had even existed, much less suffered. When my grandfather passed away, my family put the names of his lost family members on his gravestone. This seemed fitting; he had carried their memory with him throughout this life, and he would carry them into the next.
Now that the Islamic State has been destroyed and some of its victims can return to a semblance of normality, one can only have faith that the peoples of the Middle East find their peace, or, at the very least, that justice prevail where evil once did and that those who have been broken are made whole — that the “bent shall be made straight.” One can hope. But for us, thousands of miles away, separated by distance and history, memorial should not be underrated or discounted. Our duty is remembrance — to not forget the names of the victims, to not forget their pain and their suffering.
Aaron Bondar is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.