deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Human Rights Watch. He’s been in Iraq for a week and visited Yazidi encampments in recent days prior to U.S. airstrikes. He joins us from Erbil.
As we continue our coverage of the crisis in Iraq, we turn to the plight of the Yazidi religious minority fleeing a jihadist advance in the north. Thousands of Yazidis remain trapped without food or water on Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border. They have taken refuge there under the threat of attack from the Islamic State, which has branded them as "devil worshipers." Iraq’s human rights minister, Mohammed al-Sudani, says the Islamic State has killed at least 500 Yazidis in recent days. Some victims were reportedly buried alive. Around 300 women were also reportedly kidnapped as slaves. In addition to its airstrikes targeting the Islamic State in northern Iraq, the United States has also carried out airdrops of relief aid onto Mount Sinjar. We go to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil to speak with Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Human Rights Watch. Stork has been meeting with Yazidis fleeing Islamist fighters in northern Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of the crisis in Iraq, we go to northern Iraq to deal with the plight of the Yazidi religious minority fleeing the jihadist advance in the north, thousands of Yazidis remaining trapped on Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border, taking refuge there under the threat of attack from the Islamic State, which has branded them as, quote, "devil worshipers." Iraq’s human rights minister, Mohammed al-Sudani, says the Islamic State has killed at least 500 Yazidis in recent days. Some victims were reportedly buried alive. Around 300 women were also reportedly kidnapped as slaves.
AARON MATÉ: Thousands of Yazidis have been able to escape the militants’ advance, but many are trapped on Mount Sinjar without food or water. In addition to its airstrikes targeting the Islamic State in northern Iraq, the U.S. has also carried out airdrops of relief aid onto Mount Sinjar. President Obama has said the U.S. is coming to their aid to prevent a potential genocide.
For more, we’re joined by Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Human Rights Watch. He’s been in Iraq for a week and has visited Yazidi encampments in recent days prior to the U.S. airstrikes, joining us now from Erbil.
Joe Stork, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you give us the latest in northern Iraq?
JOE STORK: I’m glad to be with you. Well, the latest is kind of as you’ve outlined. The situation of the Yazidis continues to be very grave. I mean, look, last Sunday, August 3rd, when ISIS moved on into the town and surrounding villages of Sinjar, you had about 400,000 Yazidis there flee. I met some of them. About 100,000 of them fled to the east into—right directly into Kurdistan. But the other about 200,000 fled north into those mountains, expecting to be able to sort of come off the other side and then move east. But they got trapped up there in the mountains as ISIS kind of surrounded the base of the mountains. And as a result, we’ve seen over the last, well, now 10 days, a growing stream of people managing to get off the mountains, but there’s still probably—well, we don’t know, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 or 50,000 people still up there, and probably the most vulnerable people—the elderly, people with infants or young children, people who have been sick, worn out from exposure. There’s very little shade up there. There’s very little vegetation. There’s very little water. Some people are extremely dehydrated and hungry and very weak. And so, people who could make the long trek down the mountain and then the 15 or so kilometers into Syria, and then—and so forth, you know, I think we’ve seen—we may have seen the end of that. There needs to be some sort of safe access, safe passage established in order to get the rest of the people off the mountain.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s quite remarkable to think that those that are fleeing from Iraq are safer in Syria. But, Joe Stork, can you tell us who the Yazidis are? You recently visited a Yazidi village a few days ago?
JOE STORK: Yeah. I mean, Yazidis are—as a religion, goes back about 4,000 years. So, you know, it’s before Islam. It’s before Christianity. They have certain unique kinds of rites and beliefs, which set them apart from Islam, from Christianity, which leads them to be seen by hard-line religious types, at least Islamic types, as infidels and as not worthy of any respect whatsoever there. I think what’s happening is there’s basically a sectarian cleansing campaign. I mean, that’s fundamentally what this assault of ISIS is about, clearing out from the governorate of Nineveh basically all non-Sunni Muslim minorities, starting with the Christians and Yazidis. But the Yazidis, I think, unlike the Christians, the ISIS basically wants them out of there. They want them to go someplace else. With the Yazidis, there really seems to be an attempt to really destroy them as a people, by a combination of forcing them out, to leave their historic homeland, where their traditional shrines are and so forth, by forcing them out, by treating them—treating the Yazidis, treating them, treating their property—and they consider women to be property—by treating them as, you know, fair war booty to be exploited and taken over by the ISIS.
AARON MATÉ: And can the Yazidis count on the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, to protect them?
JOE STORK: Well, they haven’t been able to. That’s the issue. The Peshmerga forces that were in Sinjar, they were quite numerous, as I understand, but they were, as your previous conversation alluded there, pretty lightly armed with AK-47s, some heavy-caliber machine guns on the backs of trucks, but not much beyond that. We’re talking about ISIS, which, as you know, back in June, took over Mosul, and the Iraqi army ran and left quite a storehouse of very state-of-the-art American weapons. So there’s really a mismatch, the Peshmerga much more numerous, but the ISIS much better armed. And when the shooting started—it would be too much to say that Sinjar was taken without a shot being fired—there were shots fired—but there were relatively few shots fired. The Peshmerga just sort of packed off and withdrew without giving any kind of warning to the population. Of course, the population saw what was happening. This was early on Sunday morning, August 3rd. They saw the Peshmerga jeeps and Humvees and so forth leaving, and they immediately panicked. At least the Yazidis panicked and took off en masse. I mean, this happened in a matter of hours. It’s just—I mean, it’s massive in numbers, and it was so—it’s incredibly rapid, what’s happened.
AMY GOODMAN: And how important to the U.S. are the oil resources, so concentrated there in Kurdistan? Chevron’s there. ExxonMobil’s there. President Obama hasn’t talked about oil, but how important is it actually?
JOE STORK: Oh, I think, you know, the importance is oil in the Middle East generally, in the Arab countries, and in Iraq specifically. I think it’s—you know, I think the United States would probably like to see the oil industry in Iraq functioning, flourishing, albeit with the collaboration and participation of American companies like Chevron. I don’t think they have any particular interest in seeing, you know, a Kurdish separate entity developing its own oil resources, or separate from the government. That’s a big dispute now, as the Kurdish regional government has tried to actually start exporting oil on its own. I don’t think that’s—I think the United States would probably like to stay away from that problem as much as it can, but it’s certainly interested in a flourishing oil industry in Iraq operating with a big American presence.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Stork, I want to thank you for joining us from Erbil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program for Human Rights Watch. He’s been in Iraq for about a week visiting Yazidi encampments.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to St. Louis, Missouri, where protesters for days now have been demanding justice for a police shooting that killed an unarmed African-American teenager. Stay with us.