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Surviving ISIS: University of Toronto alum speaks with Yezidi who escaped sex slavery, death

Naomi Kikoler on the risks to ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq

Iraqi Yezidi refugees in Newroz camp receive help from the International Rescue Committee (Photo by Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee via Flickr)

Alumna Naomi Kikoler interviewed survivors of a horrifying siege of a northern Iraqi village last year by ISIS, but it was only when she returned from Iraq recently that the story became even more heart-breaking.

Kikoler took part in a roundtable discussion on Nov. 20 at the University of Toronto's Munk  School of Global Affairs. The topic was ISIS and confronting non-state terrorism, in the wake of the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and injured more than 300.

Read more about the Munk sessions

Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., told the panel that while the world is rightly focused on the Paris attacks and the plight of Syrian refugees, one of the overlooked issues is the “personal experiences of people living every day under the Islamic State.”

In August, 2014 ISIS surrounded the Yezidi village of Kocho in Ninewa province for 12 days, demanding the inhabitants convert to Islam or die. Iraq's 500,000 Yezidis live primarily in Ninewa province and Iraqi Kurdistan, and practise a 4,000 year-old religion that contains elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.    

After 12 days, Kikoler said, ISIS separated the men and women and took younger women and female children away to be “sex slaves” and forcibly trained young men and boys to become fighters. The older women, about 80 of them, disappeared, she said.

Less than two weeks ago a mass grave was found containing the bodies of the women, aged between 40 and 80. It was found west of Sinjar, just recently liberated from Islamic State militants by Kurdish forces, backed by British and American air strikes.  

Kikoler (pictured below) earned a B.A. in international relations and peace and conflict studies from Trinity College in 2002.  She went to northern Iraq in September, 2015 to learn about the atrocities and assess the future risks to ethnic and religious minorities and other civilians in the region.

Photo of Naomi KikolerIn a report released in November by the centre, Kikoler writes “we met with one man who wrote down the names of 52 missing family members, including his mother, wife, three sons and two daughters. Another man was missing 105 loved ones. Each person we spoke to told similar accounts of the 12 days they lived under IS, and of the day they escaped death.”

The report, entitled “Our generation is gone,” outlines the barbaric nature of ISIS, which seems to be acting “in a culture of impunity” throughout northern Iraq, Kikoler said in an interview with U of T News after the roundtable.

In the report, she writes “we met with individuals and families who had been forced to flee with little more than what they were wearing. We spoke with Yezidis, Shia Turkmen and Shia Shabak whose loved ones had been killed or kidnapped. 

“We learned about villages and towns that have simply ceased to exist. We heard stories of the minority communities that helped to shape Iraq’s rich and diverse history and today face extinction in the country. As one man told us: We have no future. Our generation is gone.”