Middle East

Vian Dakhil, the voice of Iraq’s endangered Yazidi minority

Iraq's only Yazidi member of Parliament, Vian Dakhil looks down during an interview on September 20, 2014 in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED SAWAF

IRBIL, Iraq: Few people had ever heard of Iraq’s Yazidis until Vian Dakhil, who received the Anna Politkovskaya human rights award Monday, made a poignant appeal to save her minority from jihadists.

On Aug. 2, ISIS launched a broad offensive in northern Iraq, including against the city of Sinjar, in and around which much of the small Yazidi community lived.

The attack forced tens of thousands of them to flee, many running up Mount Sinjar, a mountain range where they remained stranded for days without food or water in searing summer temperatures.

Dakhil stood up in parliament and made a desperate plea for help, warning that Yazidis, a non-Arab and non-Muslim community whose unique customs make them barely human in the eyes of the jihadists, faced genocide. “We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity,” she said, breaking down in tears.

Two days later, the existential threat facing the Yazidi minority was one of the two main reasons cited by U.S. President Barack Obama for authorizing airstrikes in Iraq.

Dakhil, who is in her early 40s, ranted against the crutches she needed to walk when AFP met her in mid-September at her home in an upscale neighborhood of Irbil, where she lives with part of her family.

She was injured when the helicopter she was on crashed just after delivering aid to stranded Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. The pilot was killed.

“This newfound fame is not the result of something good, it comes from the misery we have been plunged into,” she said, and “it forces me to work even harder for the Yazidis.”

The siege of Mount Sinjar was eventually broken, but some had died of dehydration by then, others were killed in their flight from Sinjar and thousands are still missing.

Most of them are women, who rights groups say have been forced to convert, taken into slavery and sold into marriage to ISIS militants, including in Syria. Dakhil, who has reportedly welcomed some girls who had managed to escape in her home, puts the number at 5,000.

“When I’m invited on a TV set or at conference, before I even sit down or drink water, I begin by calling for their release,” the MP said.

With her light skin, auburn hair and colorful suits, Dakhil cuts a modern figure in stark contrast with the biblical scenes beamed on news networks of Yazidis in rags marching through the desert after the siege of Mount Sinjar.

Dakhil is also firmly rooted in her country’s politics. Her father was a politician and one of her brothers is also in politics. Her six other siblings are all doctors. She told AFP in September she would push for the creation of a territory alongside Kurdistan that could become a haven for minorities, a project also supported by leaders of the Christian and Turkmen Shiite communities.

Dakhil has been invited on many TV shows and a speaker to major conferences, but not all Iraqis think she can become an ambassador for the country’s embattled minorities.

“Vian is very active; no one can deny it, but the problem is that she is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of [regional president] Masoud Barzani,” said Dr. Ali al-Bayati, who heads a foundation defending Turkmen rights.

“She will only ever represent the Yazidis. We cannot expect her to represent other minorities,” he said.

With ISIS fighters still occupying Sinjar and rampaging through the Yazidi heartland in northern Iraq, Dakhil is focused on one thing: securing the freedom of her fellow Yazidi women.

“It is rare to see a Yazidi person who can feel happy from the bottom of their heart, due to the fact that our girls, women and children are in captivity as hostages of the most dangerous organization in the world,” she said in her award acceptance speech Monday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 08, 2014, on page 9.

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