Our interpreter suddenly paused, then swallowed slowly. He obviously did not feel too comfortable with what he had just heard. There are some things that people simply do not like to talk about, especially if they are from the Middle East.
Salam was not just our interpreter and guide but an Iraqi refugee as well. As a legal organization, we were trying to gather evidence of genocide perpetrated against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities, in order to ensure that witness statements could eventually be submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other international tribunals.
During our visit, Salam had been bold, courageous, and resourceful. But here he was, for the first time, hesitant to translate what the other man, Surlak, had just said. But eventually he began to tell Surlak’s story.
“They tied a rope around his leg, just above his left ankle”, Salam told us. “They then let him hang head down from the ceiling for hours, day in and day out. They poked him with nails, whipped him with wire rods, and used pliers and scissors on his body until he passed out”, he said. “This went on for a whole month”, he added, his eyes wide.
It was not easy to write down and record Surlak’s detailed account of the torture he had experienced. He had suffered greatly. Many times he thought he would die there. In fact, he confided that more than once he had wished for a quick death. Frankly, it is a miracle that Surlak is still alive. ISIS does not usually let its prisoners go — unless they are in a body bag.
Surlak’s story is like many others. Like many Iraqis, he grew up in a small town — in his case, near the city of Mosul on the Nineveh plain in northern Iraq. Many Christians lived in that region — until the summer of 2014 when ISIS forces attacked. Mosul fell in July of that year.
Qaraqosh, a mainly Christian city in the same region, followed Mosul’s fate in August 2014. Most people managed to escape to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdishcontrolled region of Iraq. Thousands of people are still there, housed in refugee camps, living in tents, and relying on the benevolence of the few Christians in the city. Those with sufficient financial resources — or those with cars to sell — were able to purchase visas and airplane tickets to escape to nearby countries like Jordan.
This is where our team met Surlak. He was there in the city of Amman, hiding in a ghetto, hiding in the cheap, worn-down districts of Amman, along with thousands of Iraqi Christian families similarly struggling for survival.
One of the difficulties is that none of these refugees are allowed to work. Technically speaking, Jordan received Iraqi Christians as ‘visitors’ not ‘refugees’. This makes their lives a bit more complex.
The Kingdom of Jordan is known for its tolerance towards other religions. Minorities generally have a fairly safe life there. Nevertheless, Iraqi Christians have to pay for their food and lodging — and Jordan is not cheap. Since they are not allowed to earn money, most of the new refugees have used up whatever financial resources they had stowed away. They are now desperate because they know that they will be unable to survive much longer. Many of them have applied for visas to go to other countries. But after months and even years of waiting, most are still waiting — and hoping — for visas to Canada, the United States, or Australia. “We are all hoping to be granted refugee status to leave the Middle East and continue on to Canada or Australia — or any other safe place — where we can start over again”, Salam explained to us.
Salam, who is a young Christian from Qaraqosh, the Assyrian city in northern Iraq, introduced us to other Iraqi families in Amman. Like him, all of them admitted to being desperate to leave Jordan. Most of them don’t even want to go back to Iraq: They simply don’t trust their neighbors anymore.
One man recounted how he saw several of his former friends enthusiastically welcoming ISIS into Mosul. He told us how he saw them giving little chocolate bars to the fighters. Other refugees shared stories of friends and relatives undergoing the same kind of imprisonment and torture that Surlak had describe. For many, there is simply no going back.
The importance of evidence & accountability
We videotaped and recorded the testimonies of many Christians and other religious minorities who had escaped ISIS. It was crucial to have such evidence and eyewitness testimony of the crimes they had been committing. We worked against the clock, for we knew that the more time passed between the actual atrocities and their examination, the more likely it was for crucial evidence to be lost.
We had gone to Jordan to make sure that this would not happen, that evidence would be preserved — and the families we met were grateful. As one of the refugees told us: “My greatest fear is that once ISIS is defeated, the people who committed all these terrible things will just shave off their beards and go on living their normal lives without being held accountable for what they have done.” Thus, accountability — holding people responsible — is also essential.
History is much on our minds as we do this difficult work. Holding torturers and the perpetrators of genocide accountable is something that we recognize as crucial for the preservation of civilization. In fact, if we recall the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials in October 2016, we remember that they were the first of their kind. War criminals of the Third Reich had been tried and sentenced for the atrocities they themselves had committed or had helped others to commit. This had only been possible with the voluminous evidence that had been gathered.
A clear definition of genocide
At the time of the opening of the Nuremberg trials, US chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson declared in a famous opening statement: “Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance.” The Nuremberg trials not only condemned the crimes against humanity perpetrated during World War II, by documenting these atrocities, the trials also helped to strengthen the international community’s resolve to punish those who inflict bloodshed on innocent populations. At the time, “never again” had been the unanimous response to Nazi atrocities.
Consequently, on 9 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” The document, which has been ratified by 147 countries, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It further refers to acts that cause serious bodily or mental harm to such people, deliberately inflicting conditions of life on that group calculated to bring about its physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
This is exactly what has been happening in the Middle East since the rise of ISIS in 2014. The terrorist group has deliberately targeted religious minorities for destruction and in just a few years, the number of Christians has dropped from over 2 million to less than a million in Syria, and from 1.4 million to under 260,000 in Iraq.
The Yazidis in the region of Kurdistan have been almost entirely wiped out. The atrocities against them include the assassination of church leaders, torture, mass murder, kidnappings, sexual enslavement, and the rape of Christian and Yazidi girls and women. In addition, ISIS has overseen the destruction of churches, monasteries, and cemeteries across the region under their control. If the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were reduced to a check list, ISIS would tick every single box.
Timid international reactions
So far, the international community has reacted timidly at best. Nothing has been done despite the outrageous crimes committed by the terrorists — and despite the recognition of these atrocities as genocide by the US State Department, the British Parliament, and international institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. And even with thousands of documents, videos, and other supporting evidence, much of it made available on social media by ISIS itself, all of which testify to the group’s intent to destroy everything that does not adhere to its ideology, the international community has been unable and seemingly unwilling to act.
So far, the ICC has refrained from getting involved — although it was designed precisely to prosecute perpetrators of genocide. In April 2015, the ICC Prosecutor even decided not to launch an investigation into ISIS-perpetrated crimes. The ICC will only get involved if the United Nations Security Council officially refers the matter to the ICC through a resolution calling for an investigation.
Despite several attempts to pass such a resolution, the UN Security Council has yet to refer the matter — nor does it seem likely in the near future given the political deadlock between its permanent members (especially Russia and the US). Once again the law appears to be utterly laggard, as Robert H. Jackson said 70 years ago.
A change of attitude is needed. A resolution passed on 11 October 2016 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) could bring about this necessary change. Parliamentarians representing 47 Member States of the Council of Europe unanimously urged the ICC to recognize its jurisdiction over the perpetrators of genocide in Iraq and Syria as far as possible. To date, there has been no response.
The resolution was partially motivated by another fact that has been ignored for too long: that Europe is the biggest exporter of terrorists. More than 7,000 Europeans are engaged in fighting on behalf of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. With European combatants involved in genocidal acts, the ICC can and should claim jurisdiction over them — especially the leaders amongst them. Assisting the desperate The Christian refugee families we met in Amman have a very hard time understanding why the international community is so slow to act — especially since it has been proven beyond measure that genocide is indeed taking place. They not only seek justice; they also desire simple freedom of movement. Having lost everything, they want to be able to start over in a different place, rebuild their families and communities, and provide their children with a better life.
“There is not future for us in Iraq”, Mikhail, another refugee, explains. But even here, in Amman, his family feels unsafe. There are rumors that ISIS is growing rapidly in the city. Yet Iraqis like Mikhail cannot leave. And since they have not been granted refugee status, they cannot work either. So he and his family, like so many others, are now stuck in Jordan with no prospects, no future, and little hope.
Under the definition of international law, Mikhail and his family should be considered victims of genocide. They deserve some kind of protection and, at the very least, the right to migrate elsewhere, if they wish to do so. But so far, they are being ignored and perhaps forgotten.
Elsewhere, the situation is not much better. In the US, the government has officially recognized the atrocities being committed against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities as genocide. But only a tiny fraction of the refugees accepted into the country belong to the minorities most being persecuted. The same is true of most European countries.
Perhaps the testimony obtained from Surlak and Mikhail will help convince those in positions of power to do more to assist those who are most desperate. But until the international community decides to be more firm in its efforts to bring those committing genocide in the Middle East to justice, the desperate will have to wait.
In the meantime, Mikhail only has one dream for his family: “I want my children to grow up in a better place, where they are safe, and where they can live without fear.” That place is certainly not the Middle East — at least for now.