BAGHDAD (AP) — Five years after their lives were torn apart by Islamic State militants, the Yazidis of Iraq are still unable to return home or locate hundreds of their women and children kidnapped and enslaved by the extremists.
While the militants have since been defeated, Iraqi politicians continue to bicker over who is to administer the Yazidi hometowns, which lie in ruins and remain under threat of renewed attacks
Yazidi community leaders and Iraqi politicians met Thursday in Baghdad to commemorate the fifth anniversary of IS rampaging through the Sinjar region in northern Iraq in Aug 2014.
The militants destroyed villages, and religious sites, lined men up and shot them before kidnapping thousands of women and children and trading them in modern day chattel slavery. The United Nations called the attacks genocide.
"This is not a memory. We are still living this genocide until today, in all its details," said Yazidi lawmaker Saib Khider. "Our wounds are still open."
IS militants had transported Yazidi women and children into Syria and destroyed Yazidi sites. During the final battle to drive IS out of the last territory it controlled, in a small corner in Syria last March, dozens of Yazidis emerged among the survivors in that IS enclave.
After the militants were chased out of Yazidi areas in 2015, little has been done to heal the wounds or secure the minority group against a possible resurgence.
Hundreds remain missing and dozens of mass graves, over 70, have not yet be exhumed. Many children who were raised under IS and indoctrinated in jihadi ideology are believed to be still living in camps in Syria.
More than 400,000 Yazidis are living in displacement while control and administration of the Sinjar region remains disputed between Iraqi politicians.
Only days before the conference, two Yazidi men were kidnapped and killed by suspected IS militants in northeastern Sinjar — a traumatic reminder that the militants can still threaten them.
IS sleeper cells have continued to carry out attacks in different parts of Iraq, and the Iraqi military and security agencies recently launched operations to weed out the remaining militants.
The war against IS has displaced much of Iraq's population, and only some of them have returned to their homes. But Sinjar, in Iraq's northwestern Nineveh province and near the border with Syria, remains largely empty.
"How long can this go on?" survivor Hala Safil, enslaved for three years by IS, told The Associated Press, lamenting lack of progress on any of the issues that continue to agonize the Yazidis.
She called for the formation of a committee to search for missing Yazidis and appealed on the Iraqi parliament to pass a law that offers compensation and rehabilitation for the survivors. She urged politicians to direct money to the destroyed villages so that people can go home and resume their lives.
"The Yazidi woman has seen a lot: beating, rape, insult, killing, everything. And yet, she is still living in a camp," Safil said. "They think the woman in the camp is free. No. This is moving from one prison to another."
Safil said while the defeat of IS was no small feat, justice is missing. She called for holding the perpetrators accountable for crimes of genocide, enslavement and other crimes against humanity— not just speedy trials on charges of belonging to a terror group.
"Not a single family has been safe from this genocide," Safil told the gathering. Every moment she spent in enslavement "were equal to a thousand deaths."
The U.S.-based Yazda group, which organized the conference, said IS destroyed at least 68 Yazidi religious and heritage sites, calling it another war crime and crime against humanity.
Speaking at the conference, Shiite politician Ammar al-Hakim said eliminating IS is not only a security operation but requires addressing reconstruction, social issues and service provision. Ignoring those "could provide the psychological environment for the return of extremism and terrorism," he said.
The extremist group considered the Kurdish-speaking religious minority to be heretics.
Apparently addressing some in the Muslim community who also view Yazidis as apostates, Al-Hakim said the Yazidis are monotheists and targeting them is like targeting all Iraqis.
Al-Hakim also called on Yazidis to have patience and remain home instead of seeking refuge abroad.
"The best Yazidi response to Daesh terrorism is to stick to their land," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "We should be patient and stick together until we get over this crisis... Iraq is our home, all of us."
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut