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Mass Graves In Iraq Thought To Hold Members Of Yazidi Minority Killed By ISIS

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As the Islamic State's territory shrinks, we're learning more about the extent of its brutality. ISIS extremists have scattered mass graves across Iraq and Syria, and the Associated Press has documented and mapped 72 of those graves. It's unclear how many bodies will be found. The smallest contains three bodies. The largest mass grave could hold thousands. Many of the dead are Yazidis, a minority ethnic religious group in Iraq that ISIS has targeted to the point where the U.S. has deemed it a genocide. We reached Naomi Kikoler of the U.S. Holocaust Museum. She works with populations at risk of genocide and has traveled to Iraq to meet with religious minorities. Welcome to the program.

NAOMI KIKOLER: Thank you very much, Renee, for having me.

MONTAGNE: When you went back to northern Iraq, the area around Mount Sinjar, what did you find?

KIKOLER: I found an area that was completely devastated, both in terms of the destruction of homes and villages, but also the destruction in terms of the social fabric of the people of the Yazidi community that were living there and were the victims of genocide.

MONTAGNE: So why would Yazidis be targets?

KIKOLER: The Yazidi community are a religion that has polytheistic beliefs that have been perceived by many religions as being essentially devil worshippers. As a result, they have been targeted for past attacks - in their own community, they believe over 70 genocides over the past few centuries because of their unique religious beliefs.

MONTAGNE: Show how many of the people who are thought or known to be in these mass graves are thought to be Yazidis?

KIKOLER: In the areas around Mount Sinjar, the vast majority are believed to be Yazidi. I spoke to men who had lost over 100 family members, primarily elderly women, young women, some who are still being held by the Islamic State. But the majority of those people are believed to be now in these mass graves.

MONTAGNE: And these graves, you know, have not been excavated, but are there also efforts being planned to exhume these bodies and identify them?

KIKOLER: Right now, the majority of the mass graves that are located in liberated areas where ISIS is no longer in control are still lying somewhat exposed to the elements. There have been some very nascent efforts by small, local organizations to try to preserve the evidence by roping off some of the mass graves, but there's been no concerted international effort to gather, preserve and analyze that evidence right now.

MONTAGNE: And why is that?

KIKOLER: I think, in all honesty, it's a question of political will. Right now, the emphasis is very much on fighting militarily the Islamic State, as we can all understand. But pursuing justice and accountability should be a key component of the counter-ISIL strategy. I think that there needs to be more assistance from the international community to the Iraqi governments and the Kurdish regional governments to start that process of collecting evidence and analyzing it.

MONTAGNE: So this is something that is a very long-term project?

KIKOLER: You know, we saw, in the former Yugoslavia, survivors wait over 20 years to see perpetrators held accountable. I think many Iraqis know that this is going to be a long-term effort, but it's one that has to start today. And starting today will allow people who are wary of moving home begin to consider the possibility to return because they'll see that there's actual justice being done, not just at the international level, but the local level, for the people who did commit crimes.

MONTAGNE: I gather you interviewed Yazidis and others. Is this something that's very important to them at this point in time?

KIKOLER: I think the thing that is most important for especially Yezidis who still do not know where their loved ones are is to be able to have some certainty as to whether or not their mother, their father or their daughter is alive or dead. And part of the process of excavating, for example, mass graves is to be able to do that type of identification and to give survivors that answer so that they can know what happened to their loved ones. I think that the second concern that many of them have is they do want to see justice. They've lived in a country where there has been mass atrocities committed for decades with rampant impunity, and they want to see that finally someone is held responsible for the crimes that they've committed.

MONTAGNE: Naomi Kikoler is with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thank you for joining us.

KIKOLER: Thank you, Renee. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.