'I captured the horror on camera so no one could ever plead ignorance'

Would-be tourist turns war correspondent when search for Yazidi roots exposes genocide

After journalist Duezen Tekkal arrived to an IS bloodbath in August 2014, she put her camera 'where it hurts' to tell the world her people's overlooked story

Duezen Tekkal was a freelance journalist in Hanover, Germany, when she decided to visit her ancestral homeland just prior to the ISIS invasion and subsequent genocide. (Courtesy Duezen Tekkal)

NEW YORK — In 2012, Duezen Tekkal was a freelance journalist living in Hanover, Germany. One winter evening, as the snow fell gently outside, Tekkal sat around the dinner table with her family and made an announcement: She and her father planned to travel to Iraq.

Tekkal, a German-Yazidi, wished to explore her family’s roots with her father by her side. They would visit the Sinjar region, which is home to the Yazidi, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religious groups.

They decided to travel there the summer of August 2014, which would give them plenty of time to plan their trip. As it turned out, no amount of planning could have prepared Tekkal for what happened.

On August 3, 2014, ISIS fighters swarmed from bases in Syria and Iraq and attacked the Sinjar region. They gave the Yazidi the choice to convert or be executed, yet because IS reviles the Yazidis as infidels, its fighters summarily executed most of the men on the spot. They took the girls and women of the village captive; they would be forced into sexual enslavement. The fighters also seized some of the younger boys; they would be indoctrinated, trained and forced to fight.

Even so, Tekkal, who is one of 11 children, remained steadfast in her resolve to go. But now, no longer as a tourist, rather as freelance journalist.

“The terrorizing of my people turned me into a war correspondent over night,” she told The Times of Israel during a recent program about the Yazidi genocide at the American Jewish Committee in New York.

Duezen Tekkal (center) at the AJC conference on the Yazidi genocide. (Courtesy Duezen Tekkal)

She would give voice to the Yazidi, her people, to these survivors of genocide and mass atrocities.

“I couldn’t get a flight. Lufthansa cancelled. Austrian airlines canceled. Finally I saw that Turkish airlines were still flying. My father understood. But the rest of my family was upset. My mother was crying,” Tekkal said.

Tekkal and her father traveled from Erbil to Mosul and then to Sinjar. They arrived a day or two after the initial attack. She arrived as thousands of Yazidis converged on the upper plateau of Mount Sinjar.

‘I’m here, and I’m talking. But we are all dead’

A humanitarian crisis rapidly unfolded as IS trapped tens of thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children in temperatures rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. ISIS blocked access to water, food or medical care. On August 7, 2014, at the request of the Iraqi Government, President Barack Obama announced American armed forces would help the trapped Yazidis. Water and other supplies were airdropped and IS positions were bombed.

Hundreds of Yazidis died on the mountain before the Syrian Kurdish forces could open a corridor from Syria to Mount Sinjar, so those on the mountain could travel to safety.

A child sleeps as Iraqi Yazidis, who fled their homes when Islamic State militants attacked the town of Sinjar, sit in a building where they found refuge in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, August 10, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

It is of course impossible to convey the true horror of the Yazidi experience, which seems to have come straight out of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Triumph of Death.” But Tekkal’s documentary “Háwar: My Journey to Genocide” comes close.

The film tells the story of those who survived a maelstrom of slaughter, sexual violence and slavery at the hands of ISIS.

“I’m here, and I’m talking. But we are all dead,” Abdul Shosom said into the camera, sitting on a stony outcrop atop Mt. Sinjar. He fought against ISIS.

‘They beheaded my father. His body lay in a pool for two hours’

Her film tells the story of those in the Diyarbakir Refugee Camp in Turkey, strangers in a strange land.

A little boy clad in a red soccer jersey, speaks into the camera. Sobs wrack his body.

“The people were killed at random. My parents are dead. I want to leave Iraq. I want to come with you today,” he tells Tekkal.

A little girl, blond curls atop her head, is now an orphan.

“They beheaded my father. His body lay in a pool for two hours. They wouldn’t let us say goodbye to him,” she said.

A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community carries his daughter as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 11, 2014. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

And then there is the 10-year-old girl. Shaking her fist in the air, she screams at the world for its betrayal, for turning their backs.

Tekkal told their stories not to horrify or sensationalize, but rather to spur the international community into action.

“I captured the horror on camera so no one could ever plead ignorance in the future,” she said. “I had to put my camera where it hurts,” Tekkal said. “I had to tell their story.”

According to a June 2016 UN Human Rights Council report, about 3,200 Yazidi women and girls remain captives of IS. Most are inside IS-controlled areas of Syria. An unknown number of Yazidi boys have been or are being trained with ISIS forces. The fate of captured Yazidi men and older boys who survived the August 2014 attack remains unknown.

Islamic State group militants took this photo of Yazidi girl Nazdar Murat, as part of a database the militants have put together of Yazidi girls and women they have enslaved. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

After Tekkal returned to Germany she launched Háwar, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness. She wants root out discrimination against Yazidis in refugee camps and hosting communities, and work to promote and advocate for acceptance of Yazidi survivors of ISIS crimes by wider Yazidi community.

But there are numerous obstacles.

For one, the Yazidi aren’t considered refugees. According to international law, a refugee is someone fleeing their country because of political persecution or violence. They also must cross an international border. Because the majority of Yazidi are internally displaced, they currently don’t meet the requirements of refugee status.

“The really embarrassing thing for the US is it’s not taking in many Yazidis, and we’ve declared them to be victims of genocide,” said Robert Silverman, Director of Muslim-Jewish Relations at the AJC.

Of the 85,000 refugees settled in the US during the 2016 fiscal year, 317 were Yazidi, he said. Germany has done slightly better taking in about 1,000. But they were not given German citizenship, just temporary status.

Iraqis from the Yazidi minority carry a bed frame on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad. (Photo credit: AP/Seivan Selim, File)

The AJC is pressing the US to accelerate applications of Yazidi victims of genocide by amending US law to create a Priority Two (P-2) designation for genocide survivors and members of other persecuted religious and ethnic communities.

That means holding IS accountable for crimes committed in Syria and Iraq. As such the international community must take steps to preserve and document mass graves sites to preserve evidence of IS crimes for future war crimes tribunals.

“Like the Jews, most Yazidi are not going to go back to their homes, because just like the Jews after World War II, the perpetrators of the violence are still there. So who else other than the American Jewish community can help push this issue?” Silverman said. “We have to make sure that when we declare a genocide it’s not just a rhetorical declaration.”

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