Doris Strub Epstein
The nightmare began on August 3, 2014. ISIS militants attacked the Yezidis in their millennial-old homeland in northern Iraq, killing thousands of men and older women on the spot and displacing more than 360,000 others in days. Thousands of women and young girls, some as young as nine, were raped repeatedly, sold as sex slaves, and passed around to ISIS fighters. Some fifty thousand fled to Mt. Sinjar, the holy place of the ancient Yazidi people, with just the clothes on their backs.
Horrified viewers watched the carnage on television, and the UN declared it a genocide; still, no one helped. The Yezidis’ suffering continues, even after the defeat of ISIS. Thousands live in squalid refugee camps lacking food, water, and heat. They risk their lives daily, fleeing to Greece on rubber boats. Many drowned along the way. Nearly 3,000 remain in captivity, their fates unknown. Oppressed, enslaved, forgotten – this is their little-known story.
“Forgotten on Sinjar: A Story of Survival,” an extraordinary documentary by Israeli- born, Toronto-based filmmaker Igal Hecht, follows the lives of survivors of the genocide in Greece, Canada, and Germany, where way too few have finally found safety and asylum. Emma Broyan, an attractive Yazidi woman with expressive, sad eyes, who gave up everything and moved to Greece to help her people, guides us throughout the film.
Through the lens of talented videographer Israeli Leor Cohen, we see the hardships of living in the Greek DP camp in Lesbos. Rows of white tents sprawled on barren stony earth are home to hundreds of families. Particularly heartwrenching are the children talking about their memories of ISIS, the deaths, and their lives today in the camp. Cohen’s blunt use of closeups of the children is vivid and moving.
Here we meet Steve Maman, a Montreal businessman, and father of six. Maman, a Sephardi, parallels their tragedy with the Holocaust, noting essential differences. “… in the Holocaust, [Nazis] burned bodies of people already dead; here, [ISIS militants] burning them to kill them,” he says. In the summer of 2015, he launched a campaign to save girls and women from the hands of the Islamic State militants raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the release of the captives. He and his organization also helped get many Yazidis to Germany.
In Germany, where 11,000 Yezidis have found refuge, we meet Bayam, a young Yazidi woman who escaped ISIS: She tells her story. “They handcuffed the men and old women and killed them. The Kurdish forces that were supposed to protect us vanished. That night they took us to Mosul. I was with my mother, but after 15 days, they separated us. They took me to Raqqa in Syria, where they raped and sold us to one another. They did dirty things. We were serving them, taking care of their kids, cleaning their houses. They were marrying us and saying, “You are Yazidi infidels …” She was bought and sold 12 times in her 15 months of captivity. “[These memories] will stay with me until I die. I will not be happy. My happiness is over,” she said quietly.
However, her eyes light up when told the crew filming this documentary was Canadian and primarily Jewish. She says she was saved by Jews from Canada, referring to Steve Maman.
Toronto is Sheik Mirza Ismail’s base of operations. Tall, bearded, and soft-spoken, the Yezidi, Human Rights Organization International Chairperson is relentless in his efforts to rescue and help give his people new lives. We first see him at a demonstration for Yezidis in downtown Toronto dressed in his official white garments.
“Canada has brought in more than 50,000 Syrians because of the civil war there and just a couple of hundred Yazidis. But the Yazidis have faced genocide and are on the edge of total annihilation,” he tells me. Thus far, Canada airlifted over 55,000 Syrians; but only a few hundred Yazidis. In comparison, Germany has taken in 11,000 in one year.
He implores the Canadian government to give the Yazidi refugees equal rights. “They’ve lost everything and for many that include their loved ones that are still missing, still being bought and sold in sex slave markets.”
The demonstration, and many others, was organized by Renanah Gemeiner, cofounder of Canadian Jews and Friends for Yezidis. She likens the Yazidi tragedy to the Jews in the Holocaust – persecuted and killed for simply being Yazidis and abandoned by the world. “If all of us would stand up and oppose evil, these tragedies would never happen,” she says.
According to international law, once a government declares violence as genocide, it must ensure survivors’ safety. However, despite declaring the Yezidi people the target of genocide, the Trudeau government remains shockingly deaf and blind to Yezidis’ fate and future, as it does to other persecuted minorities of northern Iraq, such as Christians, Shiites, Mandeans, and Bahai.
Forgotten on Sinjar: A Story of Survival will premiere on the Documentary Channel, January 18, at 10 pm.
Doris Strub Epstein is co-Chairman of CIJR, Toronto-division.