Staring at the same four walls day after day, unable to find work, reunite with relatives, or send your children to school. The Covid pandemic has rendered this bleak picture a reality for many people across the globe. Yet for many who have survived or are living through conflict, these hardships are hardly novel.
For the Yazidi ethnic minority in Iraq, Islamic State’s 2014 genocide created adversity long before the pandemic ever did. For more than six years, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis have been in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) staring at the same four walls of their tents. They are unable to find work because Isis razed their farms and businesses. They cannot reunite with relatives still in Isis captivity or attend the burials of family members whose bodies remain in mass graves.
It will come as no surprise that the pandemic has made matters worse. As countries turn inward to cope with Covid’s impact, those on the periphery of protection – the displaced, conflict-afflicted and survivors of sexual violence – are pushed further into the margins. The consequences of this abandonment will probably be just as deadly and even more protracted than the pandemic.
At present, these consequences manifest in increased vulnerability to the Covid virus and a sharp decline in mental health. In the first 16 days of 2021, 11 young Yazidis took their own lives. Clustered cases of suicide have been surfacing in IDP camps since the 2014 genocide, but a precise picture of Yazidi mental health trends is muddled by a lack of resources for research and a failure to respond to the issue’s root causes.
There is no doubt that the atrocities perpetrated by Isis – including massacres, enslavement, conscription and rape – have inflicted communal and individual trauma. A study published in 2018 by BMC Medicine found that more than 80% of participants (Yazidi women, aged 17 to 75) met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The rates reached nearly 100% for women who had survived captivity.
It is clear that in the absence of adequate support Isis’s violence continues to harm Yazidis. But this is not the only factor exacerbating the community’s vulnerability; the trauma of genocide is continuously compounded by poverty.
Even before the Yazidi genocide, an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report identified high rates of suicide in Sinjar which it partially attributed to the lack of economic opportunity, security and religious freedom. Each of these root problems has been aggravated by genocide, displacement and the pandemic. Yet efforts to comprehensively address them by sustainably redeveloping Sinjar are deferred and deprioritised time and again by national governments and international agencies.
Earlier this month, my organisation Nadia’s Initiative met a committee of Yazidis to discuss their needs. Female survivors were unanimous in their priorities. Foremost is the desire for justice – for courts to try to sentence Isis perpetrators for their crimes of sexual violence and genocide.
Trials would serve to hold these criminals accountable. Perhaps more importantly, they would provide a formal acknowledgment of the harm and trauma endured by survivors and a recognition that the criminality of rape lies with the abuser, not the victims. Such an acknowledgment would hopefully help survivors reintegrate into their communities and lessen the emotional load of injustice.
The second – but equally critical – priority identified by the committee is livelihood support. A handful of organisations offer limited psychological care, but therapy is not a remedy for lack of income, clean water, education and healthcare. Yazidi survivors see work as a form of therapy. It keeps hands and minds busy, puts food on tables and revitalises communities. Livelihood opportunities generate hope to replace the despair that has settled in our hearts.
However neither of these priorities will be met until Yazidis are able to voluntarily and safely return home to a dignified living environment. The governments of Baghdad and Erbil have the ability to restore local governance, security and basic services in Sinjar, but political disputes have consistently undermined durable solutions. To governments and foreign actors, Sinjar is one piece on a political chess board. But for Yazidis, it is our home, dignity, livelihoods and mental health that are sacrificed for their strategic interests. The international community must pair on-the-ground support with diplomatic pressure on Iraqi stakeholders for the sake of stabilising the Sinjar region.
The needs of many post-conflict communities have been deprioritised during the Covid pandemic. Their pathways to recovery face insurmountable odds with an international community that often neglects to provide comprehensive support to those most marginalised. Discussions around Covid’s impact must include and be led by these communities.
It is vital that we use the opportunity to rebuild from Covid to spotlight the compounded effects of the pandemic on post-conflict communities and empower them to develop a healthier, more prosperous and more peaceful future.