Mission Impossible: The Quest to Prosecute ISIS for the Yazidi Genocide
August 2015, Iraq
In a conference room in Duhok, Iraq, several chairs line one side of a table. On the other side, one empty chair awaits the survivor. Everyone on the “team” has arrived except for Taylor Krauss, the man with the recording equipment, who has been sent, maybe on purpose, somewhere else.
“How’re we going to film the testimony?” asks Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court. He doesn’t seem worried—he never seems worried. “Taylor has all the cameras.”
The team is lead by Luis and Kerry Propper, an entrepreneur, producer and activist. Other members include Elizabeth Brown, media expert and the only woman on the trip, and Murad Ismael, head of the Yazidi Yazda Foundation and one of the leaders in the Yazidi community.
The chairs in the conference room are covered with scratchy, synthetic fabric. A little plastic cup of water sits in front of the survivor’s chair. Elizabeth collects everyone’s iPhones and heaps them on the table. In Taylor’s absence, they will shoot video by filling up the memory of one phone and switching to the next. Elizabeth sits across from the female victims and has trouble restraining her tears as they describe their own torture and rape. Many of them witnessed their family and friends being murdered.
A woman with two children answers from the other side of the table. Held captive by ISIS while she was pregnant, she and her toddler son survived for days in a locked room without food or water. When her son began to die of thirst, she clawed at the door lock with bloodied hands until she broke through and ran.
She tells her story in a clear voice with her chin raised and her eyes dry. At one point she hands her squirming newborn to Elizabeth, who hands her iPhone to Kerry so he can continue filming. The woman explains that she lives with her brother. Her husband remains a prisoner of ISIS.
After hours of testimony, many of the women who have told their stories approach Elizabeth as she wipes her eyes. They hug her, lay their hands on her shoulders, and tell her everything will be okay. “Don’t be sad,” one woman says.
Including the ISIS attacks on the Yazidi, there have been at least 34 major genocides in the last 200 years. Looking back over the 21st century, one might conclude that the pace of human destruction has accelerated toward the present. It is easy to lose hope—particularly for the Yazidi, for whom the persecutions by ISIS are just the latest occurrences of ongoing mistreatment in their homeland in northern Iraq. The Yazidis have survived 72 massacres over thousands of years.
Though the Yazidis are as strong as any people, there are no more than a million of them in the world, and no more than half of those live in the northern Iraq Kurdistan region along the border with Syria. Like many ethnic minorities, they have always relied on the assistance of others for security. But in August of 2014 when ISIS crossed over from Syria and descended on the Yazidi villages, no one came to their aid. Murad said that at first there was no one on their side and no one between them and ISIS “except the few Yazidis who carried guns.”
The Yazidis—who have no formal political authority within Kurdistan or Iraq, no army and no unified voice—were uniquely vulnerable to the ISIS assaults that started in 2014. The Yazidi religion is a syncretic mix of pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam. Because the religion is based on oral traditions and lacks a written scripture, ISIS believed that the Yazidis failed to qualify as one of the protected “People of the Book” or dhimmi, individuals of recognized religious faiths shielded under Sharia law. Though ISIS had subjected many groups, including Arabs and Christians, to ruthless violence, they were particularly ruthless with the Yazidis. Labeled “mushrikin” (people, essentially, with no rights) by ISIS leaders, the Yazidis were enslaved and singled out for extermination. As thousands of Yazidis were captured, killed and chased from their ancestral home in 2014 and 2015, no one, except for a few limited US Special Operations missions and bombing runs, had come to the aid of one of the world’s few remaining distinct ethnic minorities.
June 2015, New York
At an event to raise awareness about the emerging plight of the Yazidis, Elizabeth and Kerry hear a man named Murad Ismael tell his story to a crying audience. Anyone now working with the Yazidis has heard of Murad Ismael, but in early summer of 2015 Murad is asking people for small donations to help feed the Yazidis in the camps in northern Iraq. Tall and lean, in his mid-thirties, Murad was originally from Sinjar (he emigrated to the US in 2009) where thousands of Yazidis were killed in August of 2014 and where many women are still held in captivity by ISIS.
“We need to go to Kurdistan,” Elizabeth says to Kerry. “We need to go there with Murad and see what we can do.” Few people are using the word genocide yet, but that is the nature of the crisis. As the producer of Watchers of the Sky, an acclaimed documentary on genocide and the creation of the International Criminal Court, Kerry can sense what is at stake.
Kerry raises his eyes to the ceiling. He’s been working hard at his business and he needs a rest. At this point Elizabeth and her family plan to spend part of the summer visiting her parents in Maine and Kerry plans to go on vacation to Nantucket.
“Come on,” Elizabeth says. “What’re you going to do on the beach?”
Kerry and Elizabeth are both restless by nature, both more content bearing down on a problem that can’t be solved than sitting in deck chairs. Every year Kerry devotes a portion of his time and his money to trying to solve international crises that governments and NGOs have failed to adequately address. If he thinks he can help, he will drop everything and take action. Elizabeth has the same instincts.
In July Kerry calls Luis Moreno Ocampo (who also cancels his August vacation) and Taylor Krauss (who doesn’t really take vacations), and they book the tickets. In August about a week before the interviews with the victims, the “team,” as Kerry calls their group, meets up in Istanbul for a 24-hour layover on the way to Kurdistan where they will meet Murad and the people who work for Yazda, the nonprofit Murad started to help his people. Kerry wants everyone to get to know each other better so they can focus on their three main goals: to help the Yazidi victims, document the genocide, and assist the Yazidis in preparing a case they can submit to the ICC charging ISIS with genocide.
If their agenda, especially the approach to the ICC, seems a little ridiculous and possibly hubristic, that’s because it is. Five people with no official authority or capacity will try to provoke the international community into intervening in the systematic destruction of an ancient minority culture in Kurdistan. Acting outside any governmental or nongovernmental organization and depending solely on Kerry’s checkbook, they will have to rely on themselves in a dangerous war zone where the sheer number of conflicting nations and groups in the region of northern Iraq and Syria is difficult to comprehend without a chart. There are the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in conflict with both Kurdistan and Turkey but beloved by the Yazidis; Turkey and Kurdistan; armed Sunni tribal elements waiting to take back territory around Mosul; Iraqi Shiite forces; YPG units (People’s Protection Units from Syrian Kurdistan); the Assad regime allied with the Russians fighting rebel forces—now also American CIA and Special Operations, and ISIS, among others. The sheer complexity of the competing agendas and alliances is enough to confound optimism.
In addition to navigating through the political morass of the region, the team must find a way to overcome the indifference of the international community. As the Yazidi genocide continues, governments and the people who elect them mostly ignore their plight. The small size of their population may limit people’s awareness and willingness to act. But no matter how many victims are persecuted, sovereign states often hesitate to officially recognize genocide for the simple reason that they don’t want to take action, which is expensive and dangerous.
A fundamental tension underlies the conscience of American and European liberal democracies: many citizens of these nations like to think of themselves as advocating for the kind of human rights expressed in their governments’ constitutions, but many of these same people consciously or unconsciously recognize that the Westphalian system of sovereign statehood that has dominated Europe and America for hundreds of years is fundamentally blind to the rights of noncitizens. Citizens of sovereign states are protected to varying degrees by the laws of those states. Everyone else—the stateless, the refugee, people who have become, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “superfluous”—is expendable.
A story reported in The Guardian based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act confirms that the Clinton administration knew of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda while it was occurring and chose to do nothing. At the time, President Clinton said, “Whether we get involved…in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake.” That is Rhodes Scholar for the United States is an entity that lets more than a million people die because there’s nothing to be gained economically or politically from stopping the killing.
The same country that declared it was not in their interest to save a million Africans later declared that they had a moral obligation to save the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. When the “coalition of the willing” defeated Saddam, and the “hearts and minds” ideologues Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer decided to throw all the former Baathists and Sunnis loyal to Saddam out of power, the seeds of ISIS were planted in the region. Thousands of alienated Sunnis and Baathists from Iraq eventually swelled the ranks of ISIS. Anyone paying attention in 2014 realized that American military adventurism and neocolonialism were indirectly responsible for the ongoing Yazidi genocide. But somehow the public conscience seemed to remain asleep. How, one wonders, is that possible?
It’s no surprise, really, that the United States government, despite its rhetoric, rarely acts to help the dispossessed and vulnerable unless acting is in its own self-interest. Self-interest is generally understood to mean national security pursuant to the economic interests of the business and political elite. Years before Clinton turned his back on the Rwandan genocide, thousands of Jews were turned away from US ports during World War II for what FDR called “national security” reasons. American slavery and the genocide of Native Americans serve as primary examples of the kind of crimes the ICC is designed to prosecute.
Whether they are ignoring the pleas of the helpless abroad or perpetrating crimes themselves, the United States has an atrocious human rights record. In fact, after the Genocide Convention was adopted, the Civil Rights Congress filed the first claim to the United Nations accusing the United States of genocide against African Americans. Of course, this case failed to proceed.
Almost half a century elapsed before the United Nations created an enforcement mechanism for human rights and the Genocide Convention. Only in 1998 did the international community form the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court to provide the necessary tools to pursue crimes against humanity, including genocide. But many nations—most notably the United States, China and Russia (all members of the Security Council)—have refused to sign or ratify the Rome Statute.
So here we are. There is dim hope for an intervention by the international community on behalf of the Yazidis. In 2015 the CIA, the US military and the State Department are mostly worried about ISIS and a Kurdish bid for independence from Iraq, which could spiral into a civil war and jeopardize their control of the region. The US doesn’t want to worry about fewer than a million ethnic minorities without their own state or political power and who are not players in the international struggle for influence.
The team is perfectly aware of what they are up against. Though they are merely private citizens acting on their own, they are by no means average citizens. Luis was the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague and has taught at Harvard and Yale Law School. Kerry is a business leader in New York and an experienced activist who has worked with George Soros. Murad is a Yazidi who worked in Iraq with US Special Forces and is now a geologist in Texas. Taylor is an experienced documentary filmmaker known for his advocacy work on genocide. Elizabeth is a media expert focused on promoting international causes. They know people, they know how the system works, and they have money—Kerry’s money. In some ways their independence works in their favor. They don’t work for anyone and they don’t answer to anyone, not even each other. This, too, is the American way.
And they have a couple other things working in their favor. We in America may have inherited the sovereign state system along with a history of imperialism and colonialism, but we also inherited Enlightenment ideals that serve as the foundation of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which states, We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
Though the Constitution does not compel the government to protect the rights of noncitizens, the notion that there are rights given to all people has been ensconced in America’s idea of itself from the very beginning. Many Americans—and people from elsewhere in the world, mainly from representative democracies with constitutions—do not like the idea that governments stand by and do nothing while innocent people are slaughtered, whether those people are citizens or not. In other words, vast numbers of people in America and in other countries believe in ideals that transcend individual and national self-interest. These citizens are better than the governments they elect to represent them. Often they will give money to help people in trouble around the world, and sometimes they will compel their governments to act against their own self-interest. In the best of times in a democracy, citizens can act as the conscience of their governments. This is what the team hopes will happen for the Yazidis.
The stakes are high for the Yazidis. By 2015 thousands have already died, more than 80 percent of the population has been displaced, and thousands of women, girls and children in ISIS captivity have been used as sex slaves and human shields. If the International Criminal Court convicts or even just agrees to investigate ISIS for genocide against the Yazidis, the political pressure, particularly in the United States and Europe, might compel leaders to act on behalf of the Yazidis even when action does not serve the narrow national interests as defined by politicians on a short-term election cycle. Action on the part of the ICC could lead to military intervention, increased humanitarian aid, reparations, political asylum, restoration of lands, and many other protections and benefits. According to Luis, recognition of genocide could also help the survivors begin to heal as a community.
Late August 2015, Istanbul
At the hotel in Istanbul where the team meets up before flying to Kurdistan, Luis unpacks his shorts. Having given up his vacation for this trip, he wants to squeeze in a little relaxation for an afternoon and has chartered a boat to cruise the Bosphorus.
“Let’s not put this on Facebook,” says Elizabeth, ever aware of public perception.
Once on the boat, Luis stretches out in a lounger on the rear deck, yawns and raises his chin to the blue sky. Elizabeth, reclining on a similar lounger, pushes her sunglasses over her nose and raises her head to peek at the passing architectural landscape. Taylor narrates the layers of history and the intersection between East and West.
“We’re going to fail,” Luis says without opening his eyes. “It’s an impossible mission. No one cares about the Yazidis.”
Kerry shifts in his deck chair. He has known Luis since Kerry produced Watchers of the Sky, and he seems practiced in what comments to ignore from the prosecutor. It is best, easier anyway, to just let Luis keep talking.
“We fail in style, though,” Luis says, gesticulating with his most distinguishing feature, his arboraceous eyebrows. “That’s important.”
For a short time after he took down the Juntas in his home country of Argentina, Luis worked as a Judge Judy figure on an Argentine TV show called Fórum, la Corte del Pueblo. Boyish at sixty-two, Luis is part Don Quixote and part Jonathon Goldsmith, the “most interesting man in the world” from the infamous Dos Equis beer commercials.
Hunching over in his chair and watching the outline of the city roll by (domes, narrow towers ready to announce the call to prayer), Taylor continues his narrative: first Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul, epicenter first of Christian power, then Islamic. Luis lifts himself onto his elbows.
“He doesn’t stop, does he?” Luis says.
“How many Jews do you think live in this city?” Taylor looks at Kerry. Both of them are Jewish.
Kerry takes out his iPhone and taps away. “Twenty-six thousand,” he says and eyes the rooftops.
Over supper at Kerry’s favorite Istanbul restaurant in the Georges Hotel, Taylor says he is concerned about the documentation process. Kerry has purchased $20,000 of video equipment to bring to Duhok, which Taylor will use to shoot video that can be archived. Though he supports the effort to build a legal case, Taylor wants to establish a lasting archive that “thinkers” and “students” can study and that helps prevent the tragedy from being forgotten.
“That’s fine.” Luis cuts him off with a brief nod, eyes closed. “Yale, all that. But we’re here for the Yazidis right now. What would be great is if you make soap operas for people in the camps.”
“Yes!” The “s” in yes buzzes with his Argentinian accent. He explains: Taylor will make soap-opera allegories that outline the history of genocide as an idea and how it functions in international law. “The ICC is for people who have no other options, who have no one else to appeal to. Those are the people we need to reach,” Luis says. “We need them to understand and support us.”
Taylor has no response to this. Clearly the idea of making a soap opera has never occurred to him. Taylor spent years in Rwanda on his project Voices of Rwanda, which documented survivors’ recollections of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Film from the project now resides at Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
Taylor is skeptical of the ability of international law to have a substantive impact on the lives of victims. Even if the team manages to put together a case for the ICC, they are likely to run up against a brick wall at The Hague. In April of 2015, the Kurds submitted a case accusing ISIS of genocide and were turned away. The Rome Statute of the ICC limits the court to cases involving nations that are signatories of the Statute, and only when those nations are unable or unwilling to pursue an investigation themselves. The ICC can also pursue cases that are referred by the UN Security Council, which rarely happens. The current Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declined to formally open a preliminary examination into the Yazidi situation, citing a “too narrow [jurisdictional basis] at this stage.” In other words, Iraq has not signed the Statute, so the ICC has no jurisdiction there. The US, Russia and China, as members of the Security Council, could recommend an investigation, but they won’t. Taylor doesn’t see how Luis plans to get around this.
Luis explains that the prosecutor did say she was open to receiving additional information, more specifically information “which could provide further clarity on the position occupied by State Party Nationals within the ISIS organizational hierarchy.” The prosecutor’s statement seems to open the door to a new approach, and that’s why Luis has come. He wants to help the Yazidis reformulate their case around the idea of prosecuting individual ISIS leaders. Though ISIS remains a stateless organization, and therefore difficult for the ICC to pursue under its current charter, many of its top leaders are citizens of state signatories of the Rome Statute. By identifying and prosecuting key leaders of ISIS operating in Iraq, the court could bring ISIS itself under its jurisdiction and prosecute. This would put the Yazidis on the international stage.
Kerry has known all along that the team has two main challenges when they touch down in Kurdistan. First, they need to convince the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG, to cooperate with the building of a second case for the ICC by providing access to ISIS prisoners and by supporting the cause of the Yazidis. Second, the team needs to convince the Yazidi community to pursue a course of international justice rather than a course of reprisal. The team’s eagerness to help is no guarantee of receptiveness from either side. Both Kerry and Luis know that their efforts are just as likely to be viewed as hostile by the very people they want to help.
Through the testimony and prisoner interviews, Luis will try to certify that a number of legal requirements have been met for the case to qualify as genocide: 1) evidence that the “gravity threshold” for genocide has been reached, 2) evidence of the systematic targeting of people based on their ethnicity or religion, and 3) evidence that the attacks are directed by a centralized leadership, many of whom are citizens of nations that have signed the Rome Statute.
The team needs fixers for the Yazidis and the KRG—people who can vouch for them and connect them to the right contacts. Kerry trusts Murad Ismael implicitly; Murad will connect them to the Yazidi community. As Director of the Yazda Foundation, Murad travels constantly between Houston, where he works as a geophysicist, and Duhok, where Yazda has medical facilities to support victims and the men and women displaced by the genocide. When the team arrives in Kurdistan, Yazda will facilitate victim testimony, the gathering of evidence, and the documentation of the genocide.
No one on the team knows anyone connected to the KRG, so they have sought the help of a consultant Elizabeth found through her network of security experts. The consultant has agreed to arrange meetings with KRG officials, including the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, and everyone else down the line. The consultant has refused compensation and doesn’t want to be written about, so we call him the “Guy.” From the beginning, Elizabeth worries about the Guy. Though he comes highly recommended, she doesn’t know him, and because he doesn’t want to be paid, she can’t be sure of his motives. The motives of the five people on the team are clear. They may have ego at stake—they want to win—but they are here for the Yazidis. The Guy is a question mark, but they have no choice. They have to rely on him.
Late August 2015, Iraq, Day 1
Upon arriving in Erbil, Taylor tends to the camera equipment; Murad heads off to Yazda; and Kerry, Luis, and Elizabeth prepare for meetings with the KRG. Kerry has no idea who on their two-day list of meetings with the KRG might welcome them or oppose them, or who even has the power to help them. As usual, Kerry’s strategy is to listen and speak with great care. Luis’s strategy, on the other hand, is to just speak a lot and hope that someone gets it.
For those who maintain that private citizens should not meddle in international affairs, the first meeting in the capital, Erbil, serves as an example. Inside a generic concrete government building, Luis and Elizabeth immediately piss off Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, who Luis repeatedly refers to as the “Kurdish Ambassador to America,” a position that doesn’t exist because Kurdistan is not a nation. She is the “representative.” Bayan has spent much of the last few years in Washington, and she has the wardrobe and the stolid disposition to match. Luis shrugs off his mistake and continues to call her the “Ambassador.” Elizabeth stops the entire conversation by asking Bayan about sex crimes against Yazidi girls. Bayan’s eyebrows shoot up and her back stiffens.
The thirty-something Guy, gray-suited, over caffeinated, like a character in a TV political drama who holds the fate of the world in his hands, shows up after the meeting has ended and announces that Elizabeth has offended Bayan, who is related, apparently, to half the Kurdish government. Possibly Elizabeth has scuttled the entire mission by asking the same kind of lurid question the press has been raising. For the last year, droves of reporters have passed through wanting to hear stories about ISIS raping Yazidi girls. According to the Guy, many Yazidis and Kurds alike have begun to suspect the press of serving the interests of a prurient readership rather than justice for victims.
“And take off that head scarf,” the Guy says to Elizabeth as they leave the building where they spoke with Bayan. “People are going to think you’re Iranian.”
Elizabeth doesn’t take off her headscarf, and the armored KRG SUVs rumble through the streets of Erbil to their next meeting. Aside from the stone citadel on a distant hill, little remains to suggest that people have lived in the capital city since 5000 B.C. Construction cranes loom among the new buildings. Often referred to as the new Dubai, Erbil was considered secure until ISIS took nearby Mosul and was stopped where they currently remain, only a few miles away.
In a series of meetings, officials repeat that they hope the Yazidis will return to their homeland. Luis repeats his main idea that the KRG faces an opportunity with the Yazidi crisis. By helping the Yazidis and appealing to the international community for help on behalf of the Yazidis, the KRG can leverage assistance for their own problems with ISIS and the Iraq government. Knowing that the KRG wants independence from Iraq and that the US does not want that to happen, Luis sees an opportunity. No one on either side says anything incorrect or upsetting. On the other hand, everyone seems to be reading from a script.
After several fruitless meetings, the team drives toward the hotel. At this point Luis is despondent—he has sat through thousands of government meetings in his life. He knows better than anyone that they are getting nowhere. No one has any power in this government except the Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and maybe the Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani. So far, they have encountered empty formalities. They can only hope the meetings start to yield more results.
In the SUV, the Guy warns them that any of the meetings (particularly those with the Prime Minister) could be cancelled at a moment’s notice either because of the Prime Minister or because of the Guy, who might actually be working for someone else—maybe the US government. Elizabeth begins to think so. The Guy denies this, but that’s what Guys do, it seems to Elizabeth. For a host of reasons, the US does not want the KRG to make any progress toward independence from Iraq. The Guy might be here to discourage the team from pushing the very angle Luis is here to push. Luis knows the KRG wants to hear that a little international support (as a byproduct for supporting the Yazidis) would allow them to shed Iraq and keep their northern oil revenues to themselves. Of course, Iraq would never let this happen without a fight, and the very idea gives American officials anxiety. America has spent more than a decade trying to hold the country together.
At the hotel, the team meets in a conference room with another KRG official named Hussein Qasim Hasson, a Yazidi legal advocate, and the man connected to the first attempt to approach the ICC to seek prosecution of ISIS for genocide. He carries several large legal cases into the room, shakes everyone’s hands, and begins to unload stacks of paper onto the table.
“I am an advisor of the Prime Minister,” Hussein explains by way of introduction. Hussein puffs out his chest, which Kerry takes as a bad sign. Hussein does announce that he is also Yazidi. At least, Kerry thinks, we’re finally meeting a Yazidi on this journey.
“I have been gathering a lot evidence,” Hussein says and points to the papers he has stacked on the table. “People escape from ISIS prisons they come to our office and we record their statements. I have more than 220 statements. Sexual violence, raping…”
“How many places?” Luis asks.
“Different. Many. All. Some evidence from ISIS itself.”
Luis nods and Kerry sits back. Here they have part of what they need to go to the ICC. Hussein explains that he has a TV recording of the head of ISIS in Shingar saying that the Yazidi have to convert to Islam or die because their religion does not have a book. Luis affirms that they could and would use public statements by ISIS members as evidence that the genocide was planned from a centralized leadership.
“And we have at this moment 11 mass graves,” Hussein says. “We have bones and bodies. We took DNA samples.”
“What do they do with the ISIS prisoners when they capture them?” Kerry asks.
Hussein: “According to my information, we don’t have any prisoners. I’m not sure. Politics is involved.”
Luis and Kerry exchange glances. They know through their own contacts that there are prisoners who are not supposed to exist that have been captured and delivered by US Special Operations who are not supposed to be operating in the region at this time.
Luis asks what the Yazidi community wants.
“They want genocide recognition,” Hussein says.
“But are they organized?” Luis asks.
“No. They don’t trust the neighbors anymore. ISIS people from Egypt and Europe didn’t know which people were Yazidi, so the Iraqi Muslims in that area betrayed them by showing ISIS which people were Yazidi. If you ask the Yazidi people if they want to go back, they say no. These people are very scared. I would say 85 percent of the Yazidi want to go to Europe.”
“But they will lose their homeland,” Luis says.
“They know. But they don’t trust the people they used to live with. I am Yazidi. I am being very honest with you. What are they supposed to do?”
Kerry isn’t surprised to hear what Hussein has said, but he is saddened. It could be that the team has come too late to help the Yazidis hold their culture intact in their traditional homeland. Luis, who has spent most of his life fighting against hopeless odds, ignores Hussein’s bleak assessment. He leans forward and tells Hussein that the Yazidis need to assemble what he calls a Truth Commission, a group of respected members from inside the community (and not connected to the KRG) who can process the stories and evidence and help form a “common narrative” about what happened. This is the process of moving forward for people who must live among those who betrayed them.
“This is one of the first important steps,” Luis says. “Who will be in charge?”
Hussein (without hesitation): “Me.” And they already have a commission: “Four Kurdish ministers and me. I don’t think another commission is needed.”
And here we are—one step forward and three steps back.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Luis says, rolling his head, “but right now it is a Kurdish commission. The work of the Truth Commission needs to be done by the Yazidi community. Do you understand the difference?”
It’s clear from Hussein’s blank face that he does not.
“You did the job,” Luis says. “You collected the information, but your community is highly traumatized. They don’t know exactly what happened. They don’t know why it happened. They don’t know if the Kurdish forces there to protect them were in alliance with ISIS. The Truth Commission holds public hearings. They invite people to come and give public testimony. They collect thousands of statements. Then they summarize and find patterns. They find centers where people were tortured. Then they produce a report that says what happened. They don’t say who is guilty. They say what happened. This creates one common narrative for the Yazidis. And for the world.”
Luis has summed up much of what he has tried to accomplish around the world, with halting but important success. This is what he has done in Africa, Central America and elsewhere. He needs to get Hussein to see things from the Yazidi point of view in order to see what the Yazidi’s need. Right now Hussein is thinking as a Kurd.
Hussein whispers loud enough for everyone in the room to hear: “But Mr. Ocampo, let me ask you something. Can we talk, just you and me?”
On their way out, Hussein and Luis meet for a minute in the corner while the rest of the team heads into the lobby of the hotel. When Luis catches up, Elizabeth asks what Hussein wanted.
Though he doesn’t share his thoughts with anyone, at the end of the day of meetings, Kerry worries that the trip has been a disaster so far. They have offended at least one member of the KRG, Bayan; Hussein has seen them as a means to his own ambitions; and the other KRG officials have greeted them with what Elizabeth calls “barista smiles.”
The Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talibani and his wife, Sherri Talibani, who have spent much of their time not here but in their other home outside Washington, D.C., greet the team at their spacious and fortified home. Once inside the house, the dinner party might be in Washington instead of a few hours drive from ISIS.
A US citizen and a lawyer, Sherri Talabani is the Deputy Vice President for Policy and International Relations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which is not really a corporation but a free-market-leaning US foreign agency funded by Congress and established under Bush redux. Qubad Talabani, predicted to be the next Prime Minister, recalls the fallout from the first Iraq war, Desert Storm, when the US allied with the Kurds and subsequently abandoned them: “I remember going to Washington. I was called into the State Department with Iraq’s Foreign Minister and we were told by the State Department: ‘Go and get a deal with Saddam. There is nothing we can do for you.’ That was 1991.”
This is the way it is. At every turn there is historical pain and self-interest. Luis makes his pitch, but halfway through he seems to lose steam. It is hard to see his eyes beneath his eyebrows. Sherri announces that she hopes the Yazidi will return. “They will be welcome,” she says with a smile, and Kerry cringes. Many people in the KRG have said the same thing in the same blithe manner that seems to characterize the Yazidis as insolent children who have run away from home. Kerry assumes that these people either don’t understand the full extent of what has happened to the Yazidis in their own backyard and the role the KRG has played in the genocide or they are choosing to ignore the facts. Later testimonies from Yazidi survivors will confirm that the Peshmerga, the military of the KRG, knew of the impending attack on the Yazidi at Mount Sinjar in 2014. Yazidis seeking to flee the area ahead of advancing ISIS fighters were turned back at Peshmerga checkpoints. Told by the Peshmerga that they would be protected, many Yazidi returned and were killed or captured.
On the way to the supper table, Luis says to Sherri Talibani: “There is a saying: to be one hour happy, drink wine; to be one year happy, marry; to be happy forever, grow a garden.”
She pretends to laugh.
On the way out after supper, Kerry shakes his head. “That was just odd,” he says. “What was the point of that?” Then he answers his own question: “I guess we had to kiss the ring of the opposition. That’s all we were doing there. To make sure they don’t stop us.” Luis nods. Control of the government passes between two main families, the Barzanis and the Talibanis, and there would be no success for the team’s mission unless both families agreed. Tomorrow they meet Prime Minister Barzani.
Late August 2015, Iraq, Day 2
In the morning, the team meets with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani at the palace. In a room lined with polished wainscoting and gold accents, they all shake hands and smile the barista smile. “You’re back,” the prime minister says to the Guy. “Good to see you again.”
For what seems like the hundredth time, Luis outlines why they are here. Kerry fears the prime minister will talk in generalities, as his ministers have, about the lack of resources, or he will avoid the subject of the Yazidis as the Talibanis did.
Not caring whether or not the Guy hears, Luis does his best to outline why it is in the KRG’s own interest to approach the global community as advocates of the Yazidis, and how Luis plans to approach a case for the ICC. Many of the ministers the team has already met sit in the ornate chairs and watch Luis. The prime minister seems attentive but impassive and hard to read.
Murad Ismael has come from Yazda to join the team for this meeting, and for the first time on this trip, he tells his story just as he did in New York several months earlier. During the 2014 ISIS attack on Sinjar, Murad joined other Yazidis in the US and travelled to Washington, DC. They formed the Sinjar Crisis Group, a collection of people who set up a phone and social media chain with Yazidis on the ground in Sinjar. One friend of Murad was on the phone with his cousin when he heard gunshots, and the phone went silent. A moment later, a member of ISIS picked up the phone and said, “I have killed your cousin.”
When the US finally agreed to limited airstrikes, they turned to Murad for information on the Sinjar region. Murad was able to combine the intelligence coming from Yazidis on the ground in Sinjar with his knowledge of the local geography to successfully direct the bombing of ISIS positions around Mount Sinjar—a campaign that may have saved more than 100,000 Yazidi lives.
By the time Murad finishes describing the women he and others spoke to moments before they were captured and those Yazda has tried to help after they escaped, many in the room have tears in their eyes. The prime minister’s face softens and for a few moments it looks as if he might cry, too. When the prime minister stands, everyone else stands as well, and he looks at Murad. He promises he will help. He will do whatever he can.
When the team piles into the SUV, they are silent until Kerry sighs. “Wow,” he says. “My God, he gets it. He just cares! They all do. You can see it. Now I feel like maybe we’re actually doing something.” And it seems right that Murad has turned the tables.
Later on, I ask Kerry if the prime minister and the other ministers had not known the story of what had happened to the Yazidis. Surely Murad had not given them new information?
“They knew before, but when Murad spoke they knew it differently,” Kerry says and explains that the KRG only has heard from the Yazidi political elite. “I think the KRG had been focused on why the Yazidis were not joining the Peshmerga to help fight and less focused on them as victims. When Murad spoke, I think they understood that the Yazidi were victims just as the Kurds had been victims of the Baathists during the Saddam regime. They identified.”
The Guy arrives at the hotel with good news. He informs the team that Kerry and Luis (and just those two) are cleared to meet with the ISIS prisoners who don’t exist and were not captured by the Navy Seal types Elizabeth did not meet an hour earlier outside the hotel gym. But first they have to meet with the KRG head of security, Masoud Barzani, for “instructions,” which include promises not to report anything that is said in the meetings with the prisoners. Nothing goes into the press—that is the directive. And another thing: they are not allowed to ask the prisoners anything about oil. The word oil should not even be mentioned.
At first Kerry doesn’t understand the concern, but then he thinks about the two ruling families in Kurdistan, the Barzani family and the Talabani family. The Barzanis have a long-standing relationship with Turkey. The international news has reported that ISIS oil has been moving through Turkey. The money from those oil sales has been fueling the ISIS campaign.
“I’m sure there’s a clear line between ISIS oil and Turkey, probably at a high level,” Kerry says, “and people in the KRG could be protecting the Turks.” From his experience in international business, Kerry knows something about how oil moves around the world.
It’s worth pausing a second to consider this. Without evidence, it is conjecture to say that the Kurds are directly or indirectly protecting ISIS oil revenue. Without being able to ask the prisoners about oil, there is no way for the team to know. Here it is also worth noting that, unlike governments, the team suffers from a limited view of what is happening behind the scenes. Their experience in Kurdistan is limited. The team has to interpret what they can see. Even if they ask people they know what is going on behind the scenes, they can’t always trust the answers they might get.
The team is left to speculate. Throughout the whole trip, Luis has returned to the idea that members of ISIS should be tried as criminals who committed crimes against humanity rather than pursued as combatants who threaten sovereign states. And in a criminal investigation, he says, you follow the money. Oil money in this case. And oil is what the KRG doesn’t want the ISIS prisoners to talk about. So what does this mean? It might, of course, mean that the KRG is allowing ISIS oil to pass out of the country—something that would not benefit the country but might benefit a few of the country’s leaders. A familiar story in sovereign states.
Early September 2015, Iraq, Day 3
During the 2 1/2-hour drive from Erbil to Duhok, where the team will meet and record victims at Yazda, the heat blasts the arid landscape. Taylor, who has been busy readying the camera gear, has said something to upset the Guy and has been sent to the wrong location in a Peshmerga SUV.
“I hope he’s okay?” Elizabeth says.
No one answers. Kerry holds a contraption that looks like a cellphone from the ’80s with a red panic button he can push if things go wrong. His location will be instantly beamed to an old college buddy, who also happens to be a former Delta operator now running a security firm. No one else has a button like this, but everyone riding with Kerry is pleased that Kerry has the button.
“He’ll be fine.” Luis’s words of comfort about Taylor arrive after such a delay that everyone looks confused for a moment. Elizabeth remembers that Taylor was kidnapped before, while filming in Africa.
Even though AC cools the inside of the armored shell of the SUV, all the men have removed their coats. Out the window, the land sweeping toward distant mountains seems as raw and menacing as the American southwest of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. To reach Duhok, the team will pass close to ISIS.
Murad has arranged for interviews with victims. Despite Murad’s assurances, Kerry worries that people will not open up to Luis’s questions and won’t understand what the team is trying to do. The team needs the cooperation and support of the Yazidi people and their community leaders. After gathering testimony and explaining their mission in the camps, the team will meet with Yazidi religious leaders at Lalish, a Yazidi religious site, in order to persuade influential members of the Yazidi community to support submitting a case to the ICC.
As the SUVs pull up to a Yazidi IDP (internally displaced people) camp of the kind one might see in Darfur, Haiti or elsewhere, Kerry thinks of the criticism Luis faced when he charged Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan. Many, including Taylor, have accused Luis of exacerbating the suffering of victims in Sudan by pursuing an indictment that would never lead to an arrest. Bashir ignored the warrant issued by the ICC and used the threat of arrest to consolidate his power in Sudan by killing more people.
Clearly, it is dangerous to descend on a group of people and presume to know what they need. Taylor, who worked on Kerry’s documentary Watchers of the Sky, has always disagreed with Kerry about Luis’s tactics, which he calls “the celebrity approach.” From the beginning Taylor has been clear that his priority on the trip is to provide immediate and ongoing relief to the victims on the ground and to document the genocide. He is uncertain about the prospects for international justice. “International justice certainly doesn’t cause leaders to not engage in activities they shouldn’t engage in,” he later tells me—a statement that is hard to disagree with. “It certainly doesn’t prevent certain crimes at this point,” Taylor says. “And the danger is that getting people to testify years after something has taken place becomes a painful indignity for the possible hope of reparations or putting the perpetrators in jail, while it often does little for the actual victims.”
The question is whether the kind of public political pressure Luis brings to bear can give decent politicians the cover they need to do the right thing, which often means using force to stop people from dying. In fact, this is what Obama did when he approved the bombing of Sinjar that Murad helped direct and which saved Yazidi lives in 2014.
Kerry perpetually turns situations around in his mind in order to see the various angles. He admires Luis for his single-minded focus. Luis goes into every situation and interaction with the goal of promoting international justice for victims. But just because the team has the right idea and the purest intentions doesn’t mean they are doing the right thing. Luis can’t afford to think in this way; Kerry can’t help it.
At the IDP camp, rows of white canvas tents form a permanent city. The orderly Yazidi camps are no more than a year old, and the inhabitants have set up temporary shops, evaporative coolers, and other amenities. Some interiors contain rugs and framed photos (pieces of home people were able to take with them when they fled Sinjar) and small televisions they have managed to purchase.
The victim testimony the team films with iPhones yields the kind of evidence Luis will need to build the case. As Elizabeth switches out iPhones and Luis asks questions, each victim confirms the severity and gravity of the ISIS assault. The testimonies also confirm that ISIS operates under a centralized command structure and that the group specifically targets, murders and enslaves the Yazidis with the intent of wiping them out. Combined with testimony from ISIS prisoners and other evidence, Luis will have what he needs to assemble the brief to submit to the ICC. Now they need to try to explain to the people they are trying to help what, exactly, they are doing.
In a central area under an awning at one of the camps, Murad and the team sit among a group of middle-aged and elderly men with lined, sun-darkened faces and explain why the team has come. Murad, whose face strains at every moment, points to members of the team, and the faces of the men in the group lose focus. Their eyes wander. One man produces a cell phone containing the photo of a missing relative. Another man shows a picture of a boy and says, “This person Farjal. He’s right now in Tal Afar. He’s captive, born in 2000, and they are asking for money for his return. If we don’t pay for our children to be returned, they will be used as human shields.” In addition, according to Murad, Yazidi children are drugged and sent into combat as suicide bombers.
Luis looks off in another direction. He clearly strains to block out what he is hearing. Kerry looks at everyone who speaks. He and the team have come bearing an opportunity, and he wants the Yazidis to understand and embrace that opportunity, but of course the Yazidis probably find it hard to focus on anything beyond their immediate distress—their missing relatives. How can the promise of international justice compete with their terrible losses? Kerry needs them to understand that the push for international justice will help the Yazidis as a group and possibly lead to freeing some of the captives. But the pursuit of international justice is a lengthy and uncertain process, and the people standing in front of him are desperate.
Elizabeth visits tents with a translator to speak with women who have either escaped ISIS or have family still in captivity. In one tent a mother and two daughters sit on a carpet. The mother holds a framed photo of her son, who was taken by ISIS and has not been heard from since. Communication repeatedly breaks down when Elizabeth tries to explain why she and the others have come. The women start crying. The translator starts crying. “Just stop ISIS,” one of the daughters says. The faces of all three contract as their pain rises to the surface.
In the last tent, Elizabeth finds a young mother and her three-year-old daughter. The woman spends all day watching channel Z that covers ISIS news. She hopes to hear something of her husband, who has been missing since the Sinjar attack. Others have seen evidence on TV that their relatives remain alive or evidence of the opposite. Every day her three-year-old asks, “Where’s Daddy?” An eight-year-old boy comes into the tent. “Your son?” Elizabeth asks. “No,” the woman says. “His parents and brothers are with ISIS. So I look after him.”
When Elizabeth steps outside, she notices a commotion at the back of a crowd around Luis. An old woman with leathery skin pushes her way forward. When she reaches Luis, she bends her knees, tilts her head, and looks up as if at the Empire State building. Indeed, Luis is way, way up there with his overhanging eyebrows. She shouts while waving her hand in the air. All of her children were murdered, the translator says. Then they were chopped up, and she was forced to eat her own children. Her story sounds like the worst thing one could imagine rather than the worst thing that could happen. But ISIS has been in the business of enacting people’s worst fears. That has been their recruitment strategy.
“They don’t understand why we’re here,” Luis says later in the SUV. “We did nothing here and they have nothing. They don’t even have soccer balls—we could have at least brought that. The Yazidis are not united. They have no real leader, no one to help them form a common narrative around what has happened. Lack of understanding creates more trauma because the cycle of violence will continue. What do you think will happen when the Kurds or the Americans take Sinjar back? Reprisal, reprisal.”
Early September 2015, Iraq, Day 4
With up to 80 percent of the Yazidi people displaced and in disarray, Kerry and Luis will need the elders of the Yazidi community to help form what Luis repeatedly calls a common narrative about what has happened to them and what they need to do to move forward. Murad can’t do this on his own from Texas. And it has become clear that some in the Yazidi community may now see Murad as an outsider because he has moved to the US.
Only 36 miles northeast of ISIS-held Mosul, the team meets with Yazidi elders in Lalish, a small mountain village dating back 4,000 years that contains one of the most important Yazidi holy sites. After the ISIS attack on Sinjar in 2014, many Yazidi fled behind the mortared stonewalls that at least must have offered the illusion of permanence and safety.
In a building adjacent to the ancient stone shrine, Luis sits with the elders on a long sofa against a wall. The bearded elders, some with canes, all clothed in long white tunics held in place with black belts, wait to hear Murad’s translation of what Luis has come to say. Yazidi women sit on a similar sofa along the wall to the right of the elders. Other women approach the elders singly and in pairs to tell the anguishing stories of what has happened to them or their families. Every word seems to weigh the heads of the elders down into their stout bodies. Their authority rests on their ability to protect their community, and that ability has been tested recently.
As Taylor and media crews set up to film the event, Luis stands up and starts to explain, in his usual self-assured manner, the different possible approaches to submitting a case to the ICC. He implores the elders to lead the way in forming a Truth Commission. It’s impossible to know what the idea of a Truth Commission means to them. They seem to have heard enough. Murad’s ability to cofound Yazda, bring in aid and resources, and attract international figures like Luis essentially usurps the authority of the elders and highlights their lack of agency.
Luis shakes hands with the elders as the cameras roll, and the press reports the event as the beginning of a hopeful collaboration even though the atmosphere is so tense that the team slow jogs for the SUVs when it’s over. Luis and the Guy get in one of the black SUVs and drive for Erbil. Luis has to get back. Soon he has to teach at Harvard, and after that he is scheduled to help negotiate with the FARC.
At this point Kerry doesn’t know what to think. The prime minister’s support of their mission has seemed genuine, though possibly motivated by Luis’s argument for how submitting a case on behalf of the Yazidi could help the KRG. But in the meantime, they have come up against the same old story of self-interest, either national or personal, that poisons the possibility of efforts that could benefit the whole Yazidi community.
September 2015, Iraq, Day 5
Before flying back to the US, Kerry and Elizabeth have a final meeting in Erbil with Vian Dakhil, the only female Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament. Vian has become one of the most internationally visible members of the Yazidi community. Vian’s desperate televised appeal to Obama in August of 2014 may have initiated the US bombing campaign that enlisted Murad Ismael’s assistance.
Having failed to win any support from the religious leadership at Lalish, Kerry knows they need a strong partner with an established and influential Yazidi political leader. Someone in addition to Murad, who now lives in the US. Kerry also hopes to enlist Vian to help with their plan B. If the ICC does not agree to pursue the genocide case based on the nationality of ISIS members, Luis hopes that Iraq will grant temporary jurisdiction to the ICC for the area around Sinjar, an approach that amounts to a kind of back door into jurisdiction for the ICC. In order for this to work, the Iraqi government would have to petition the ICC to assume temporary jurisdiction in Kurdish territory, a move that might upset the Kurdish ambitions for independence.
Essentially, Luis and Kerry are coming at the jurisdiction problem from two angles. One approach enlists the help of the KRG and depends on the ICC pursuing the case without territorial jurisdiction in Iraq, while the other approach enlists the help of the Iraqis, who do have jurisdiction and can invite the ICC to investigate even though they are not signatories to the Rome Statute. One can assume that the KRG would be very unhappy to know about plan B (the Iraqi approach) because it would not help with their bid for independence. On the international level, plan B would help Iraq’s reputation. At the same time, the Iraqis would be displeased to hear about plan A (the approach that enlists the KRG and leverages their bid for independence). It is hard to say how the US would feel about either approach. At a minimum, the US wants stability in the region: they want to keep Iraq glued together as a nation state that they can control and they want to get ISIS out of the way. They don’t necessarily want the ICC poking around in a war zone they are trying to manage by proxy, but they also don’t want to seem to be getting in the way of international justice for the Yazidis.
Kerry and Elizabeth approach Vian with the assumption that she will be interested in any approach that will help her people. The team needs Vian to reach out to the Iraqi prime minister and make the case for approaching the ICC.
Vian arrives at Elizabeth and Kerry’s hotel with a bodyguard. A tired-looking former professor of biochemistry in her mid-40s, she announces right away that she is no politician. The genocide changed the course of her life, so here she is—a reluctant leader.
Kerry explains the various possible approaches to the ICC.
“Maybe you say Sinjar case instead of Yazidi,” Vian says. “There are many Shia victims in Sinjar.”
Her move to draw attention away from the Yazidis catches Kerry a bit off guard.
“We need to be very careful,” Kerry says. “If the case is not identified as a Yazidi genocide perpetrated by ISIS because of the Yazidi religion, then we’re lying and also the case will not be defined as genocide. And the Yazidis will feel betrayed.”
Vian’s eyebrows arch, possibly because this guy from New York is telling her how her own people will feel. But this moment doesn’t really make sense to Kerry. She is Yazidi, and for some time she has been one of the most vocal advocates for her community and for international intervention on behalf of the Yazidis. She has led efforts to buy women and girls back from ISIS. In many cases, Arab Iraqis have helped negotiate the return of Yazidi girls and women, which may in part explain why she spoke up for the Iraqi Shias. A number of Sunnis thrown out of power when Saddam’s regime was toppled by the Americans joined ISIS, and some of them took revenge on the Shias of northern Iraq. Kerry realizes that there is potential common cause between the Shias and the Yazidis, but the Shias have not been the victims of the specific crime of genocide. Trying to conflate the two on the international stage would benefit no one.
Kerry proposes that Vian write a letter to the Iraqi prime minister suggesting the idea of temporary jurisdiction for the ICC. The letter should quietly outline how such jurisdiction will not open Iraq up to further ICC investigation. The investigation will be limited in time, scope and geography. It will be targeted, essentially, on ISIS.
“Okay, here’s the thing,” Vian says. She leans over the table and lowers her voice. She explains that she is lucky to even be alive. “People are all the time trying to kill me. I need to know who works with this group.”
She does not sound like someone asking a question; she sounds like someone pointing the finger.
“I thought you said you were no politician,” Kerry says.
“I am a friend with all of them,” Vian says with a forced smile. “My relation with the KRG is strong. My relation with the Arab is strong also. It’s not easy for a Yazidi woman in Baghdad. I am alone. But after five years I have made a good relationship with the Arab people.” She goes on to complain that outsiders have set up hospitals for the female survivors of ISIS, but the outsiders don’t know what they are doing. “They don’t understand the Yazidi culture. There is a lot of shame for women who must go to these hospitals.”
Kerry realizes she is talking about Murad and his nonprofit, Yazda (even though Murad is no outsider), and concludes that Vian suffers from the same competitive jealousy as Hussein and the religious elders.
“I have been trying to raise money,” she says, “to help the women and girls.” She looks at Kerry intently. “Some people in Baghdad support ISIS,” she continues. “Also we have people in parliament who have relationships with ISIS leaders.”
Kerry knows this.
“We need to do whatever we can do to help the Yazidis. Don’t you think that’s true?” Kerry asks.
She is silent for a long minute, and finally she assents. “Tell me what this letter should say.”
September 2015, Back to New York
Despite strained encounters with the elders and Vian, Kerry feels that the team has accomplished much of what they have set out to do in Kurdistan. In terms of the ICC case, they have gathered evidence and convinced the KRG to cooperate. In terms of work with the Yazidis, Taylor has finally set up the cameras at Yazda that will enable long-form testimony for documentation and short-form testimony for the legal case. Taylor has begun the process of training people to use the equipment. The Watchers of the Sky Initiative (Kerry) has donated funds to Murad’s nonprofit Yazda for food and medical supplies, and the team has reached out to the Yazidi community to try to explain the benefits of the new approach to the ICC.
Elizabeth and Kerry return to New York, Murad to Houston, Luis to his busy itinerary. Now the real work begins. Luis and Kerry communicate with Murad about the logistics of submitting the case to the ICC. Luis and some of his former colleagues at The Hague assemble testimony and evidence from Iraq for the brief while Kerry makes arrangements with Murad and representatives of the KRG to travel to The Hague and present the case to the prosecutor. They have enough players on board to push forward. Luis also sets to work on a letter Vian can send to the president of Iraq (she says she wants him to write it) urging him to grant temporary jurisdiction to the ICC. The three-pronged approach is ready to go: submit a case to the ICC, push Iraq to grant jurisdiction, and begin Elizabeth’s public relations campaign to encourage the UN Security Council to act to protect the Yazidis.
Right away things do not go as planned. Vian doesn’t return Elizabeth’s calls, and a couple days later Vian shows up with an escaped Yazidi girl at a conference in Paris that includes many UN members and loudly begs the international community to arm the Peshmerga (the KRG military) so they can crush ISIS. No mention of genocide, the ICC or international law. It turns out that Vian has her own plan, one that would consolidate her own power and directly benefit the KRG military.
“The Yazidi public is furious,” Murad says to Kerry by phone. “She and an escaped woman asked for weapons for KRG and tried to use the Yazidi genocide for the advantage of the KRG!”
Luis predicts that it won’t be long before the Yazidis get the chance to take revenge on their Arab neighbors. “And some of them will.”
Just as Kerry is about to buy his plane ticket to The Hague, Murad calls from Houston and threatens to back out of submitting the case to the ICC because the KRG insists on submitting the case with him. He doesn’t think he can work with the Kurds after what he and many Yazidis describe as an outright betrayal during the ISIS assault on Sinjar in August 2014. And who can blame him?
In activism as in business, Kerry has seen many people get cold feet. Unlike Luis, who simply rolls over people’s doubts as he promotes his vision of a world held together by international institutions, Kerry is a patient listener, and the first thing he tells Murad is that he understands. Of course, Murad feels that way. He has every right to feel that way, as do the other Yazidis in Kurdistan who have lost everything. But Kerry implores Murad to think of those still in captivity and of the future of his people.
Kerry tells Murad that with the religious elders and Vian refusing to work with them, Murad will have to serve as a leader for his people. Through his work at Yazda, he has already helped so many people. As Yazda grows with international donations, the Yazidis will look to him even more than they have. Submitting the case to the ICC is just another step toward assuming a leadership role in his community. Kerry also argues that the Yazidis need the Kurds. The Peshmerga might have failed the Yazidi in 2014, but the Yazidis need the Peshmerga to retake Sinjar and offer protection going forward. Even if the Kurds, the Iraqis and the US can retake Sinjar and Mosul, someone will have to hold the territory. There can be no justice and healing without security in the long run.
Murad relents in the face of Kerry’s arguments and, exhausted from his day job, Kerry boards a plane for The Hague. On September 24, 2015, they submit the case and have a press conference on the steps of The Hague with the Free Yazidi Foundation (another NGO connected to the Guy), the KRG Foreign Minister, and Murad representing the Yazda Foundation. The global press covers the effort and begins to debate the merits of the case. There is a great deal of skepticism, particularly in America.
Kerry believes there are many ways their effort could be considered a success. The ideal outcome would be a full investigation by the ICC, but that might never happen. At the moment they need the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, the US government and the international community to recognize the genocide.
Elizabeth launches a media campaign called “It’s on U” (a play on “It’s on US,” a White House campaign to counter sexual violence on campuses). The campaign targets government officials in the United States and pressures the Security Council to refer the Yazidi genocide case to the ICC. They hope their message will reach Samantha Power at the US Mission and, through her, John Kerry, who has the authority to label the crimes genocide. If this labeling were to occur, there would be increased public pressure both in the US and abroad to intervene on behalf of the Yazidis.
Elizabeth also reaches out to Andrew Gilmour, director of the Secretary-General’s Office for Political, Peace-keeping, Humanitarian, and Human Rights affairs, who promises that the Secretary-General’s October 13th address to the Security Council on Women, Peace and Security will “add some extra momentum” to the cause. In the speech, the secretary says, “The systematic killings, torture, rape and sexual slavery by Da’esh against the Yazidi community may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. We must ensure accountability.” In essence, he calls for a formal investigation, but he doesn’t have the authority to compel anyone to act.
Kerry contacts people he knows at the Spanish Mission of the UN and arranges to have the head of the Free Yazidi Foundation, Peri Ibrahim, speak in front of the Security Council to persuade them to refer the case to the ICC. Murad teams up with a young female victim of ISIS, Nadia Murad (who will soon become the most prominent voice for her people), and she tells her story to the Security Council. The Global Justice Center, a group committed to protecting human rights through international law, writes a formal letter to Fatou Bensouda, the new chief prosecutor of the ICC, imploring her to support the genocide case.
The drive to raise awareness about the Yazidis and force the international community to act begins to gain momentum. But in the middle of their efforts, the team experiences push back. Elizabeth is called into a meeting with the chief of staff of a department in one of the largest intergovernmental organizations in the world, which, for Elizabeth’s welfare, we will call the Organization. Elizabeth’s business has been performing contract work for the Organization, so she doesn’t suspect anything as she heads to the meeting. At their offices in New York, the chief of staff and her assistant sit Elizabeth down and tell her, with straight faces, that the Organization has received a report that Elizabeth is planning to use the Organization’s troops to invade Erbil.
“What?” Elizabeth says. This is the most ridiculous thing she has ever heard. She laughs and tells them that she is not in command of any army, so no one has to worry. The chief of staff replies that of course the report is not credible—that isn’t the point. “You have stepped into a snake pit,” the woman says.
The assistant to the chief of staff leans forward and says, “And Luis Moreno-Ocampo cannot protect you.”
This begins to sound like a threat to Elizabeth. At the very least, someone is trying to send her a warning. She thinks about the opening to Kafka’s The Trial, which she read in college: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”
Elizabeth tries to imagine where this strange report could be coming from. The Guy? But she doesn’t see how he can be connected to what the chief of staff is telling her. Later he denies any involvement, and one of Elizabeth’s good friends, a Special Forces officer who worked in intelligence in Iraq, tells her that, as a general rule, if you suspect someone is a spy, they are not.
Elizabeth also thinks back to the KRG’s fear that the ISIS prisoners Kerry and Luis spoke to would reveal information about ISIS oil routes through Turkey. After the team returned to the US, the KRG shut down international press access. The push back could be coming through the KRG. Then there is Vian, who clearly felt threatened by the team, as did the Yazidi elders. Or it could be someone closer to home trying to give her a scare. Soon after returning to New York, Elizabeth learned from a former CIA contact that her phone texts were being “scraped by someone.” How many people are capable of scraping texts? In 2014 The Guardian reported on the “Dishfire” program in which the NSA was scraping through 200 million text messages a day. Possibly the last organization in the world to want the ICC to investigate war crimes in Iraq is the very same organization that has been blowing the country up for the last decade—the US government.
Even on a good day, Elizabeth is oriented to think that things are going on behind the scenes. Her uncle and stepfather both worked for the CIA in different capacities. Her father, a former State Department lawyer, worked with the CIA in Chile in the 1970s. She was born with a sense that people are up to no good.
When Elizabeth asks the chief of staff where the information has come from—a simple and straight-forward question—the woman says, “We can’t tell you,” which is when Elizabeth realizes that the department of the Organization she has been contracting with is not on her side in this situation. Speaking slowly, as if to a child, the chief of staff repeats that she wants Elizabeth to understand that the message is something she should take seriously. “There are risks when you go outside the system,” the chief of staff admonishes. She adds that the Organization will be reviewing the work Elizabeth has done for them, work for which Elizabeth still hasn’t been paid. “There is a reason why we haven’t gone into the Syria/Kurdistan region: it’s a snake pit.”
“I know that,” Elizabeth says. “I was just there.”
“Well, you may not even be safe here in New York,” the assistant says. “Do you understand me? And do not write about this. Remember, you have a son.”
Elizabeth is speechless and can’t believe what she has heard. The origin of this report, she realizes, could be the people sitting in front of her. Either way, she has heard enough.
Out on the street, Elizabeth finds herself walking briskly and breathing in quick shallow bursts. She’s sure she will never forget the words, “Remember, you have a son.” When, later that same day, she wonders aloud to the team if she should quit the effort (she does, after all, have a son), Luis says, “No! You can’t do that. Someone is just trying to scare you—scare us.”
“Well, it’s working!” Elizabeth says. “And why are they picking on me?”
“Because you’re the only woman on the team, probably,” Kerry says.
“They’re going after the only woman in a group of people trying to help Yazidi women,” Elizabeth says.
“And you’re not connected to an organization that can hit back. Either way, you can’t quit,” Kerry says.
She says she has no intention of quitting, but at the moment, that is exactly what she wants to do.
Whatever the explanation, the team has experienced the first serious attack on their efforts, but it won’t be their last. Murad soon receives death threats and tells Kerry his life will be in danger if he returns to Iraq, both because his work has attracted the attention of ISIS and because of what Kerry calls the “entrenched power players” in the region: other Yazidis and Iraqis, possibly others.
As they consider the threats, more bad news arrives. The genocide case hits a brick wall at The Hague. Luis emails Kerry from Argentina to say that his people at The Hague think the Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is reluctant, maybe even personally afraid, to pursue ISIS in Iraq. Luis is furious, but he is no longer in charge at The Hague. He is no longer the prosecutor. Kerry takes the news in stride. After all, they have expected something like this all along.
With almost perfect timing, Kerry receives news that his film, Watchers of the Sky, will receive the Justice Award from the Cinema for Peace Foundation in Berlin, and that the new prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, will present the award to him.
Not someone who usually seeks the stage, Kerry looks forward to his Berlin trip so he can publicly pressure the new prosecutor to have the courage to actually do something aside from hand out awards. During his acceptance speech, Kerry urges the prosecutor (standing right next to him) to pursue the case against ISIS on behalf of the Yazidi. “Everyone talks about justice for the Yazidi,” he says to the large crowd, “but not international justice. The Yazidis deserve international justice, and that justice should start with the ICC.”
Slowly, the ice starts to break in the international community. The United States Holocaust Museum declares the crimes against the Yazidis a genocide. Throughout the fall and winter, individuals and groups in the US begin to speak of genocide committed by ISIS, though they do not single out the Yazidis. The declarations include other groups, such as Christians. The European Parliament, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Pope Francis, and religious groups in America and the US House, among many others, call for genocide recognition for the Yazidis and also for Christian minorities in northern Iraq.
The coopting of genocide for political gain infuriates Kerry and Luis. “For the idea of genocide to have any meaning, it has to have a clear definition,” Kerry says. “Because genocide has a specific legal definition, many horrific crimes fall outside the definition and may belong in another category, such as ‘crimes against humanity.’” The crimes committed against Arabs and Christians do not constitute genocide. “You can’t lump the Yazidis and Christians together,” Luis says.
The term genocide is reserved for the most acute and heinous form of human destruction we have been able to name. The term, as conceived by Jewish genocide activist Raphael Lemkin and defined after World War II by the United Nations Genocide Convention, refers to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” To conflate different crimes under the term genocide risks jeopardizing the integrity of the definition and the welfare of the victims the term was created to represent.
On March 17, 2016, when US Secretary of State John Kerry announces, “In my judgment, [ISIS] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims…,” Kerry is not surprised. “That was clearly a compromise,” he says to me by phone. In reporting on John Kerry’s announcement, The New York Times discusses the efforts of Luis, Kerry and the other members of the team to gather evidence and submit the 49-page case to the ICC, and they go on to assert that most experts agree that the different groups mentioned in John Kerry’s speech had “not suffered equally.” That is something, but the waters have been muddied.
“At least he mentioned the Yazidis first and mentioned them uniquely,” Kerry says. “And the Secretary [of the UN] did say that ‘the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and by formal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.’ But by tribunal I think he meant some kind of terrorism court. That’s not what we want,” Kerry grumbles.
“It should be the ICC,” Luis says by email, but he doesn’t seem discouraged at all by John Kerry’s announcement. Forever scheming, Luis now sees that John Kerry’s speech combined with the sudden fame of Murad’s new partner at Yazda, Nadia Murad, a young woman who survived ISIS captivity through a daring escape, has opened a door for them. He calls Kerry and they begin to talk about the next phase of their mission.
“The new plan,” Kerry says to me when I see him in New York, “is a compromise. We take a letter to Iraq saying we need jurisdiction for the ICC to investigate crimes against the Arabs (that will make the Iraqis happy), crimes against Christians (that will make the US happy) and then we’ll throw in genocide against the Yazidis as an afterthought because…why not? Who will notice?” he says in his deadpan voice. All their plans, and especially this latest one, involve trying to either shame people or appeal to their self-interest. Or both.
According to Luis, if Iraq grants temporary jurisdiction and requests an investigation, the Court will have a hard time saying no. In the process of an investigation, the ICC can determine the unique nature of the crimes against each group. The cases will not be conflated because only the Yazidis have genocide standing. It’s a roundabout approach, but there seems to be no other way.
The team meets with Murad and Nadia at Kerry’s place in Manhattan to discuss how to proceed. In Kerry’s expansive living room, Kerry’s cat appears, and Nadia yelps and jumps behind Elizabeth.
“In Iraq, cats attack people,” Murad explains.
Luis has opened discussions with the Iraqi ambassador and feels that the new approach might actually work. The Iraqis love Nadia. Her story of running away from the house where she was captured and seeking shelter with a family of nearby Arabs has captivated people all over the world. Since Nadia has been nominated to become a Nobel Laureate and made a Good Will Ambassador of the United Nations, members of the Iraqi government have signaled an interest in granting temporary jurisdiction to the ICC. Nadia has become the hero of the Shia as well as the Yazidis, a union that opens a possible way forward.
“The US has been telling Iraq not to let the ICC in to investigate,” Kerry says, smiling, “but maybe the Shias are ready to stop listening to the US.”
Luis and Murad eat falafel and talk about what needs to be done in addition to pursuing the genocide case. Luis insists that they need to find a way to purchase land for the Yazidis so they will have a place to feel secure. Murad adds to the list of needs: food, education, medical supplies and treatment, psychological treatment. When Elizabeth asks what is most important, Murad’s face flushes.
“How can I say one is more important than another?”
Murad is worried about Nadia’s safety. Nadia, who speaks little English, looks away from Kerry’s cat and focuses on Luis. Members of her family remain in ISIS captivity, and ISIS continuously sends her death threats. She has circles under her eyes and looks exhausted, but she smiles at Luis. Most people in the US have never heard of Luis, but if you are part of a minority group that has been pursued, attacked and targeted for extermination, Luis is famous.
Nadia asks to be excused so she can sleep in one of Kerry’s spare bedrooms.
“There are thousands still in captivity,” Murad says in a lower voice after Nadia has left.
“We’re all tired,” Kerry says later when we talk alone at his kitchen table. He carefully unwraps one Dove chocolate after another as I ask him about the prospects for international justice. “If the ICC could grow,” he says, “it would have power and relevance, and it would become a path for people who are marginalized and face mass atrocities. People I talk to in the US and Spanish Missions also want a path. They just don’t want it to be the ICC; the Brits and the French don’t want it either. The ICC has too much baggage for policy makers—there’s only one prosecutor, there’s no money for it, no enforcement, and it’s always politicized, and most of all—it takes power away from the states! The British Ambassador told us: ‘We want to try them [ISIS] as our own criminals. We want primacy. Why would we give that up to the ICC?’ Then I asked him, ‘Why can’t you and the ICC both prosecute?’ And that’s where the conversation stopped.”
In Kerry’s mind, people are so invested in the status quo of the Westphalian sovereign state system that they fail to see its limitations. “They want national terrorism courts,” Kerry says. “That’s the new concept. The terrorism court would have a narrower focus, which is what they [states] like. But terrorism courts won’t impede the power of the states.” He shakes his head. The power can’t stop with sovereign states. That has never worked. Terrorism courts might pursue the enemies of states rather than those who committed crimes against innocent, vulnerable people.
One wonders if the very idea of justice, as a human right, as an “unalienable” right, has any meaning outside of a form of international justice that applies to all people, regardless of national citizenship. But there has been a lot of opposition to this thinking. By recognizing an authority higher than themselves, some citizens of powerful nations would potentially see their power in the world diminished. The same is true for the elite of poorer nations, who might find a higher authority questioning how they treat their own people. The United States would find itself answering hard questions about its domestic prison system, the Guantanamo system, torture and voting rights record. Other people are simply skeptical that the various nations and peoples of the world could ever agree on a common ethical vision to which all strongmen would submit.
As I pack up to leave his loft, Kerry says, “It would be great to create a path where if you are a group of marginalized people there is a place you can go. This was Raphael Lemkin’s vision when he created the word genocide. We’re trying to continue his work. The policies are aligned behind the Yazidis now. They are the most marginalized people in the region. They are the ultimate victims. ISIS is the ultimate aggressor. Everyone seems to agree that ISIS is the enemy and that the Yazidis should be protected. If the global community can’t succeed at this, then it’s a problem. In the meantime, we have to keep the Yazidis in the spotlight so they are not overlooked amidst all the different agendas.”
The team never returns to Iraq because the Iraqi government begins to fracture and destabilize, just as the US has worried it would. Luis and Kerry feel that the government will not be able to successfully back an approach to the ICC.
Though increased military activity in northern Iraq and Syria has led, in isolated cases, to the freeing of captured Yazidis, the basic challenges facing the Yazidi community have not been addressed. Several thousand Yazidis remain in ISIS captivity. As Luis has pointed out from the beginning, military force can regain and temporarily hold territory, but little else. The Yazidis continue to live in exile and without adequate resources or assistance. The deep ruptures within the Yazidi community and between the Yazidis and their Muslim and Kurdish neighbors endure. No common narrative has emerged within the Yazidi community or the larger region, and no one has been held accountable in an international court. Few steps have been taken to seek the kind of legal justice that can restore health to the Yazidi community and lay the groundwork for preventing future genocide. By some estimates, 10,000 Yazidis have been killed. By the standards of 20th-century genocides, the number is low. But, as Elizabeth points out wherever she travels with Nadia Murad, the number of deaths is not the point. A systematic attempt to destroy an entire people, no matter how numerous the targeted group, is an assault on all of humanity.
By 2017 Nadia Murad has become an international sensation. Until recently no one had heard of the young woman from Kocho, a town of 2,000 in northern Iraq near the eastern border with Syria. She was a student living peacefully among her family and other members of the community when in September of 2014 ISIS took her captive while killing 600 people from her town, including 6 of her brothers. Like many of the over 6,000 Yazidi women taken by ISIS that same year, she was tortured and raped before she managed to escape.
Nadia signs a seven-figure book deal with a major publisher to tell her story, The Last Girl. Elizabeth tries to help Nadia, who does not speak fluent English, negotiate between the various media outlets, celebrities and officials who wish to be associated with her fame and moral authority. Many seem to associate themselves with her story in order to advance their own agendas.
Nadia and everyone on the team recognize that her celebrity is an opportunity to help the Yazidi people. Luis and Elizabeth contact Amal Clooney, international activist and wife of George Clooney, and she agrees to represent Nadia and the Yazidis in their effort to seek international justice at The Hague. The media attention increases and over time it begins to seem as if the international media is the only courtroom where the Yazidi victims can seek relief.
Nadia donates the proceeds from her book to the Yazda Foundation. In 2018 she wins the Nobel Peace Prize for work the Nobel committee describes as striving “to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” People who know little or nothing about the Yazidis—who have never even heard of them before—now know the intimate details of her story, which is full of dramatic events. The question isn’t why she has become famous—the reasons are obvious—or even how she feels about her fame (by all accounts, ambivalent), but of what her fame means in the context of the Yazidi genocide. Elizabeth notices that many people seem to equate Nadia’s newfound success with the fates of the people she represents. A culture obsessed with fame depends on this confusion so it doesn’t have to face its own complicity in the ongoing failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from the worst kinds of violence and atrocity. During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia thanks the international community for the recognition but says she would have preferred that the world help her people rather than give her an award. The international community has given her a medal, but they haven’t given her people security. One wonders if they have given her a medal so they don’t have to give her people security.
Despite the complexity of Nadia’s newfound fame, she and the team have little choice but to use her visibility to advance the cause of the Yazidis. On the international stage, the Nobel Peace Prize carries moral authority. And much is accomplished. Luis, Kerry and Elizabeth continue to work with Nadia, who flies around the world to meet with leaders and is instrumental in getting nation states to recognize the Yazidi genocide and in persuading them to make public “declarations” on behalf of the Yazidis. Many of these nations also donate money.
Sinjar and northern Iraq are finally freed of ISIS control by military action. Nadia and the team pressure the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 2379, which finally opens an investigation into the crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidi people. In the summer of 2018, the team establishes a partnership with the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) and obtains funding from France and the United States to de-mine Sinjar, a process that will take a long time. In a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, Nadia convinces France to accept Yazidi refugees. Progress by increments.
On December 14, 2018, Nadia returns to Sinjar and donates one of three replicas of her Prize to the people there. Of the original team members, only Elizabeth and Kerry are still working hard with Nadia on the cause. How can people ignore the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize? Elizabeth wonders. But, of course, the world has changed since Obama was president. The rise of nationalism in Europe and the US has led to the rise of citizens calling for their self-interests to be recognized and the plights of refugees to be ignored.
Meanwhile, many Yazidis have not returned to the region because they haven’t been able to, in part because of a lack of access—for political reasons, the Sihela road from Sinjar to Duhok in northern Iraq, which would allow Yazidis back into their homeland, has remained closed. Only a meeting between Nadia, Kurdish authorities and Vice President Mike Pence (who has taken an interest in the persecution of religious minorities—particularly Christians), finally prompts the US to act, and the road opens. Pence promises $100 million dollars in aid to religious minorities in the region. Though it is clear that Pence primarily cares about Christians, Nadia hopes some of that money will funnel to the Yazidis. But Nadia wonders how any of her people will recover when they can’t even live safely in their homes.
In 2017 the Kurdish people voted overwhelmingly for independence. The referendum was nonbinding, however. Now, in 2019, the power dynamic in the region has reached a crisis as Trump pulls the US military back from Syria. The Turks and the Iranians push forward into the region while Baghdad shows little interest in protecting the Yazidis, who historically have relied on Iraqi and US forces for their security.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Sinjar, the traditional home of the Yazidis, is a power vacuum currently patrolled by Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units, which have pushed those who have returned to the region to take up arms and divide into local factions. The danger, as Luis pointed out several years before, is that the cycle of vengeance and tyranny will renew itself, ad infinitum. There is little reason for Yazidis who have fled the region to return—unless they have no choice but to return because the international community starts to turn its back on them. And for those who live in their homeland, there is no security, no justice. Only reprisal and the law of the gun.
These days, as European and American politicians rush to close the doors on huddled masses escaping tyranny in their own nations, one thinks again of Hannah Arendt’s assertion that as long as stateless refugees have no human rights in our world, none of us do. She would know. In 1933 she fled from her native Germany, where she was a citizen, to Czechoslovakia and from there to Switzerland and Paris before escaping, just in time, to the United States. Her US citizenship protected her for the rest of her life, but that has not always been the case for many Americans. Even those of us who feel secure in our citizenship now, might not be secure in the future. And in the meantime, there are far too many people around the world suffering under the banality of evil. They are the true angels of history—a constant reminder that if we abandon them, we abandon ourselves.