The 2015 Women In The World Summit,  Lincoln Center, New York City; 4/23/2015

Vian Dakheel Saeed still gets emotional watching the address she gave to the Iraqi parliament in August of 2014. On April 23, she saw her emotional plea broadcast for thousands at the Lincoln Center in New York during the annual Women in the World Summit. The magnified image showed the dark haired woman standing opposite a scattered parliament, crying out for protection of the Yazidi minority against their persecution by the Islamic State or ISIS. Her tortured voice described the desperate state of the Yazidis, many of whom had been pushed atop Mount Sinjar in the Kurdish lands of northern Iraq in search of refuge and awaiting relief from starvation and dehydration. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!” she screamed at last, before collapsing to the ground. When the lights in the theater turned on, Saeed was crying.

Forty-three-year-old Vian Saeed is one of two Yazidi MPs in the Iraqi parliament, and has come to be widely seen as the hero of the Yazidis. She has been the greatest advocate of the minority sect since ISIS began a campaign of genocide against them in the summer of 2014. Now, Saeed is ISIS’ most wanted woman. When moderator Deborah Roberts asked Saeed at the Women in the World summit how she deals with this threat, the Yazidi representative responded with great conviction. “I don’t matter. It is nothing for me, because now I am not thinking about my life. I am thinking, ‘How can I help those people, those poor people? How can I help the minority in Iraq? How can I help the Yazidi in Iraq?’” Her voice grew angry and loud. “I do not think about my life. It is not important.”

A History of Persecution

The Yazidi are one of Iraq’s smallest minorities, totaling about 700,000, and have a long history of persecution in the region. Their religion originated around 750 C.E. in the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq, and since then they have been repeatedly targeted for their unique belief system: a mix of ancient Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. The sect has also been historically mischaracterized as devil-worshipers. Due to their unorthodox beliefs, the Yazidis have been the victims of a stunning 72 genocides throughout their history. They were most recently targeted in the 1970s by Saddam Hussein.

United Nations officials issued a statement in March that the attacks of ISIS against the Yazidis constituted genocide. While ISIS gave other religious minorities a chance to convert and escape death, even the Yazidis who agreed to convert to Sunni Islam were not spared. Hundreds of men and boys over the age of 14 were systematically shot into mass graves, while younger boys were forced to begin training as ISIS fighters. Women and girls were captured and enslaved. In August 2014, 70,000 Yazidis fled to the top of Mount Sinjar. Since Saeed’s speech begging for aid to the area’s suffering families, the Iraqi parliament has responded with a rescue mission, bringing food, water, milk, and diapers, as well as helicopters to ferry out the very sick. President Obama, also moved by Saeed’s plea, ordered U.S. aid in the rescue and air strikes on ISIS vehicles surrounding the mountain. Saeed and fellow Women in the World panelist Alissa Rubin almost died in one of the rescue helicopters; the vehicle had been overloaded with desperate refugees and crashed to the ground.

The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces operating in northern Iraq, were able to secure the region around Sinjar and liberate the majority of the Yazidis who had fled there by the end of last December. However, the condition of the families that have been able to leave is not much improved, and Saeed continues to be their advocate even as press coverage wanes. “We have two types of the Yazidi people now,” she explained. The first and larger group of Yazidi people are refugees living in camps in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. “The condition of those people is very, very bad,” Saeed said. “No food, no water, no schools, no health care centers.” She estimated that between 400,000 and 420,000 Yazidis are currently living in these inadequate refugee camps. Furthermore, they are still living in fear for their lives. ISIS militants reportedly massacred more than 300 Yazidis near the city of Mosul earlier this month.

The other Yazidis, Saeed continued, are the 5,000 who have been captured by ISIS. 700 of them, young children, Saeed believes are being trained to become “the new generation of killers” for ISIS. “These are my people,” she lamented.

Women as Weapons

Those under ISIS control also include 3,000 women and girls forced to serve as sex slaves for ISIS fighters. At the Women in the World summit, Saeed described their horrific lifestyles, explaining that girls as young as nine might be raped 10 times a day. These women and girls are being used as weapons of war as a part of the terrorists’ strategic campaign of sexual violence. This practice, in addition to spreading psychological and physical trauma, can also raise revenue for the extremist organization. At WITW, Saeed recounted a conversation she had with a father who was offered the opportunity to buy his daughter’s freedom for $2,000. Unfortunately, he did not have the money. “He was crying and he said, ‘Vian, please, I need to buy back my daughter’,” Saeed remembered tearfully.

Vian Saeed’s sister, Dr. Delan Dakheel Saeed, was also on the panel and used the opportunity to communicate the personal suffering of the Yazidi women and girls sexually terrorized by ISIS. A resident doctor in the Rizgary Teaching Hospital in Erbil, Iraq, Dr. Saeed provides medical services in the Yazidi refugee camps in the country’s north. She has adopted a 15-year-old Yazidi girl who had been sold as a sex slave twenty times by ISIS fighters until she finally escaped. She is helping her foster daughter achieve her dream of going to medical school. Dr. Saeed told the audience about the horrible lives and even worse deaths of girls who never escape. The audience was silent as she described one particular scene: a mother’s reaction when, one morning in an ISIS controlled house, fighters selected her nine year old daughter to rape. “The mother got crazy, and they burned her hands,” she said. “She started screaming, and at that time, they [shot] her in the head, in front of all [the] other girls. They left her there in her blood.” The daughter later died from rape-inflicted wounds.

By telling the stories of women and girls permanently traumatized by ISIS, the Saeed sisters wanted to paint an intensely personal picture of the Yazidi genocide.

Once the audience at the Women in the World summit gained an understanding of the emotional situation, Saeed continued to appeal to their humanity for further assistance. “All of these girls,” she said, “ask me one thing: How can the international community help [them]? Because you know, in Iraq and in Kurdistan also, we don’t have a specific health center to help those escaped girls … All of these girls need hope for a new life, but we don’t have a trauma center.”

Many months after her appeal to the Iraqi parliament, Saeed persistently makes these kinds of demands to her government and the world. With her leading the charge, the Yazidi people will hopefully regain the security and quality of life that the Islamic State has taken from them.


Image source: Wikimedia 

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