ISIS Tried to Kill Us: 5 Things We Want You To Know

This past March, the Obama Administration, via famed horse-faced statesman John Kerry, declared that ISIS was guilty of genocide in Iraq and Syria. You might've read something about it in between breathless coverage of Donald Trump's latest tweet.


Boy, it must suck to be one of those "other minorities" getting targeted for genocide but not even meriting a direct mention in an article about that genocide. Well, I went to Northern Iraq (no, really) to talk to the very people who narrowly fled being wiped out by ISIS. This is the fourth and final part of our series, Cracked Travels To The Front Lines Of the Battle Against ISIS, Christ Those People Are Assholes.

They Were Targeted For Genocide Due To A Misunderstanding

Via TheLipTV/YouTube

We open on a peaceful desert village, filled with smiling children in colorful clothes, doing whatever it is kids without iPhones do. Then, a cloud of dust appears on the horizon. Armed maniacs waving black flags and driving Mad Max-ian war rigs roar toward the town.

Except real-life Lord Humungus is somehow even more of a shit.

This Hollywood-as-fuck scenario is a real thing that actually happened to thousands of Yazidi people in 2014. They're a small religious minority whom you probably haven't heard of before now, and of the 700,000 Yazidis in the entire world, roughly 40,000 have been captured by ISIS. When the Islamic State swept through, a few of the Yazidis stayed and fought a desperate, suicidal rearguard while the rest retreated up nearby Mount Sinjar, leaving nearly everything they owned behind. "We escaped by car," one man told me, but he found himself with no water, no food, and no shade.

Google Earth
They were escaping to the "safety" of a landscape that looks like goddamned Mars.

Many of the people who stayed behind were executed. One survivor who didn't flee to the mountains told me, "They separated women from men. They told the men, 'You have to say the Islamic state will last forever' ... Then they took women and girls to ... the main checkpoint between Sinjar and Mosul ... I don't know where the men were taken." Mostly to unmarked mass graves; more than 5,000 Yazidi men and boys were executed by ISIS, while 7,000 women (read: girls, mostly) were taken into sexual slavery.

So ... why? ISIS isn't exactly nice to any non-Muslims, but genocide is not their official policy toward Christians, for instance (though they have managed to kill more than a few). They believe that as "people of the book," Christians are explicitly protected by Quranic law, as long as they pay a special tax. The Yazidis, however, are a different story. As one middle-aged Yazidi father told me, "We pray to the peacock angel. That's why they keep coming after us." Well, that's not the whole story. Despite worshiping the obscure and fairly flamboyant deity Melek Taus ...

Via Wikipedia
Seen here doing what every deity should strive for: not starting a holy war.

... misunderstandings over their faith have led centuries of angry Muslim kings to brand them polytheists, and ISIS to declare them devil worshippers. You can even find occult websites celebrating them as such.
Though maybe Angelfire pages which can't even be bothered to spell the name right may not be the most reliable source.

This misunderstanding has become entrenched in dumb internet circles ...
You sort of lose the right to mock the lettuce thing when you're spreading ghost stories with the same breath.

... and respectable news outlets alike. ISIS, which honestly doesn't need much of an excuse to unleash gruesome crimes against humanity, decided the Yazidis needed to be wiped out.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
Above: clearly agents of the devil.

One thing my conversations with Yazidi refugees had in common was a distinct lack of surprise that this had happened to them. As one man told me, "Whoever [comes] and wants to attack someone, they come and attack Yazidis because our religion is different ... this is the 74th time this has happened to the Yazidi people."

When ISIS Came, Their Defenders Abandoned Them

ITV News/YouTube

Hey, if the Yazidis get targeted for genocide more regularly than the U.S. holds elections, why didn't they have some sort of force defending them? Well, right up until the day ISIS attacked, they were defended by the best group of badasses available in the region: the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
Why green camo in a desert? Because the point isn't to hide his whereabouts; it's to draw attention to his ironclad testicles.

For the last two years, the Peshmerga have been the only force in Iraq to consistently repel ISIS on the ground. They have a formidable reputation in the region, and the Yazidis I spoke with trusted that reputation. It's why they didn't run when ISIS began its advance. "We didn't know anything about ISIS, but we heard they attacked Mosul. We decided to stay in our village because there were Peshmerga forces there. But [when the fighting started], even the Peshmerga retreated." As another refugee put it, "There were 10,000 Peshmerga" on August 2, but on August 3, "nobody came. They left."

One Yazidi man I spoke with was convinced that an order for retreat had come from the Kurdish Regional Government, and then added, "Also, be careful with this -- they will kill me, the government." I encountered a few conspiracy theories speculating that the Kurdish government had done this to let ISIS "clear out" Yazidi villages in order to fill them with more Kurds later. Whatever the reason behind it, the Kurdish Regional Government has admitted that the retreat was an act of "negligence" and vowed to look into the matter. Two years later, they're still looking into it.

In fairness, the Kurdish authorities have had sort of a full plate lately.

So the Yazidis fled, and those who could held off ISIS to cover the evacuation. I spoke with one volunteer who fought for 12 straight hours as part of the last-ditch operation to keep ISIS out of Sinjar City. From August 3 until the American airstrikes began on August 8, a small band of armed Yazidis held off ISIS's pursuit without outside support. "We fight, just Yazidi."

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They Found Out That ISIS Had Been All Around Them


After August 3, ISIS fighters were in control of Iraq's Yazidi heartland. They immediately started hauling out the old genocide standbys: mass graves, gang rape, theft, etc. Most of the Yazidis we visited -- the ones who made it out -- lived in the Shariyah camp, outside of a city called Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
Hundreds of identical tents seem a lot homier when they're the alternative to a bombed-out city of slave-trading rapists.

It's a bleak place, but it does have the advantage of being an all-Yazidi camp. At this point, the Yazidis don't feel super safe hanging out around anyone else. Why? Well, if during our description of ISIS's onslaught, you were picturing a bunch of black-clad, dead-eyed jihadists like this guy ...

Even that shirt looks alarmingly dogmatic.

... you've got it wrong. As one refugee explained: "Those ISIS who attacked us, they were our neighbors. People who used to live with us. They were people inside our villages; people we used to live with together in peace. At the beginning, those people told us, 'Don't run away. It's fine. ISIS didn't do anything to us.' But when things happened, they started selling us to ISIS."

Being massacred by their neighbors is one experience the Yazidis share with nearly all of the world's other genocide survivors. It happened to Jews during the Holocaust, Bosnian Muslims during the '90s, and Rwandan tutsis, also during the '90s. The man added that the assurances of their neighbors that ISIS didn't mean the Yazidis any harm was another major reason they hadn't evacuated sooner. The folks they lived and worked with told them they'd be fine. "Our friends betrayed us."

That right there is the central problem with so many politicians' proposed solutions for ISIS.


Business Insider

If you carpet bomb "the shit" out of the Islamic State, you kill the people they're holding hostage too. ISIS isn't a uniformed army occupying an island fortress. They've taken over towns full of regular folks -- some of whom cooperate and join, some of whom fight, some of whom simply try to hunker down and wait it out. If you say "Fuck it" and drop the bombs anyway, you quickly find out that all of this horror didn't pop into being because some douchebag designed a sweet black flag and declared a caliphate. The bitter cultural divisions which made the Yazidi genocide possible won't go away once we've killed enough Bad Guys. Those tensions are baked into the region, and we'd just be adding to them.

Imagine, for instance, being a displaced Yazidi and hearing that American bombers came along and turned the whole region into the surface of the moon (or, as Ted Cruz suggested, dropped nuclear bombs to turn it into a radioactive wasteland). Sure, the members of ISIS in the region are dead ... as are the female members of your family whom they kidnapped into slavery.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
"I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." -- Ted Cruz

What would the reaction be, not only from the grieving Yazidi, but also Muslims around the world? In the process of trying to kill ISIS, you've convinced millions of people that they were right all along.

Near the end of my time with the Yazidis, I ran into a young painter, a woman who'd fled to Mount Sinjar when ISIS attacked and turned her home in the refugee camp into something of a gallery,

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked
Though the walls of a refugee camp may be the only "gallery" which does the subject matter justice.

The unfinished painting on the left is an enslaved Yazidi woman hanging herself to escape, a choice hundreds of women have made. The painting on the right is a man the artist saw while fleeing Mt. Sinjar. He was hiding his face in shame because he'd been unable to protect his family. Later that night, our Kurdish translator, Ayar, told me he'd found the painting striking as well. He'd seen the same gesture from his father when their family fled Kurdistan for Turkey in the early '90s.

To balance out how grim all of that is, here's some pictures of a cute little survivor playing with a tire:

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
Try not to think about the fact that this tire is probably his only toy.

They Survived Thanks to A Combination Of American Airstrikes And Muslim Communists

BijiKurdistan/Wiki Commons

OK, so ISIS drove the Yazidis out of their homes and into the mountains. How did those tens of thousands of people go from starving in the mountains and chased by terrorists to the safety of a refugee camp? If this were a movie, some badass group of Navy SEALS would've shown up to kill the Head Terrorist and lead them to freedom.

Paramount Pictures
"Don't worry, refugees! Jim from The Office is here to save you!"

And hey, wouldn't you know it? The U.S. military did help rescue the Yazidis. They just worked alongside a bunch of, uh, communist Muslim militants.

On August 8, 2014, President Obama authorized the first U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in half a decade to stop advancing ISIS forces from taking the Kurdish capitol of Erbil or from reaching the Yazidis hiding on Mount Sinjar. The U.S. also sent food aid, which one survivor I spoke with considered a mixed success. ("Some helicopters brought food to the mountain, but when they dropped it, it exploded and got dirty and wasn't enough to eat.") And while the Peshmerga I interviewed lauded the effectiveness of the American airstrikes at stopping ISIS's advance, the Yazidi refugees I spoke got a very different view from the ground. "Nobody helped the Yazidis but the YPG. YPG opened ... a route ... between Iraq and Syria."

The YPG (roughly translates to "People's Protection Units") were formed initially by Kurds in Syria to defend themselves against the government of known cock-weasel Bashar al-Asad. And right around here, you start to get a hint of how complicated this situation is. See, while most politicians refer to "the Kurds" as a single block ...


The Washington Post

... the truth is that there are a bunch of Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The YPG is closely tied to a group known as the PKK, or "Kurdistan Workers Party." The PKK are officially considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government, and have carried out attacks in Turkey. Also, you might have noticed that "People's Protection Units" and "Kurdistan Workers Party" sound pretty darn communist. That's because they are -- the PKK are a Marxist-Leninist party, and the YPG is heavily inspired by an American "libertarian socialist" writer named Murray Bookchin. They even pick their officers via popular vote.

So yes, they are Muslim communist terrorists -- the very thing conservatives have been accusing Barack Obama of being since 2008. Not only did the YPG hold ISIS at bay and save the city of Kobane in Syria ...

Voice Of America News
Or at least salvage it as well as a city caught in a rocket fight could hope for.

... but three days after American airstrikes started, on August 11, the YPG and PKK descended into Iraq to rescue the trapped Yazidis. "[They] helped the Yazidis into Syria," said one elderly survivor. "Help[ed] all the people in the world. YPG organization ... help humanity." I should note that the guy telling me this was an old man full of gratitude, not a spokesman for the YPG.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
We somehow doubt ISIS can point to many people wearing most of what they own but still filled with thankfulness.

He made a point to say this to me in his very best English, because he thought it was important. He also thought it was important to tell me this: "When ISIS attacked Sinjar, they killed the [pregnant] women ... killed the women by the knife, pulled the children [out]."

Said one foreign activist for the Yazidis, "I've talked to lots of people ... who never got visited by any NGO, never got visited by the government, but the PKK came and brought them food." This activist had the chance to interview far more survivors than I did, and as he explained it, the YPG and the PKK "punched a corridor through to the mountain, and they held that corridor open for two months. They broke through IS lines ... evacuated tens of thousands of people from the top of the mountain."

The YPG then set out to give the Yazidis a better shot at defending themselves in the future. They helped train up a Yazidi militia, the Yebishey, and also established fighting units of Yazidi women. In November of last year, these new Yazidi militias, alongside the PKK, YPG, and official Kurdish government forces, retook Sinjar.

Wall Street Journal

Oh. I mean Kurds retook Sinjar. Sorry, Wall Street Journal. Sure, that's way more interesting than "Marxist, quasi-anarchist militias cooperate with U.S. Air Force to retake Iraqi City of Sinjar from Islamic State." But hey, why split hairs? This is a Disney Channel ending to a horrible story. The Yazidis ran away, made new friends, came back, and retook their homes. Roll credits!

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There Are Bitter Cultural Differences, Even Among Allies

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)

It's easy to make fun of American politicians and media for grossly oversimplifying everything that happens in the Middle East. But the situation in Iraq is such a tangled fucking mess that it's impossible to avoid oversimplifying something. I just did it in the last paragraph. This is very much not a happy Disney ending. Genocides don't get those.

Oh, life in Kurdistan is certainly friendlier to the Yazidis than, say, life in ISIS-held territory, but they still face bigotry, and even violence. In one incident, the Yazidi and Arab Muslims in the camp clashed over use of the word "Shaytan" (Satan) in the call to prayer -- the call denounces Satan, while the Yazidis believe it's forbidden to even say the name out loud. "It was like a little riot in the camp," says a local pro-Yazidi activist. "A Yazidi guy took a bottle of wine and broke it inside the mosque, and said, 'If you're not going to respect us, we're not going to respect you.'" Muslims in the camp showed up with guns and shots were fired into the air. No one was killed, but the damage was done -- Yazidis started to flee the camp, feeling like it was August 3 all over again.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
Signs like these aren't posted for decoration.

There were even dust-ups between the Yazidi and their YPG saviors -- these groups also have very different beliefs. If these conflicts sound petty and primitive, please remember that these guys just survived someone trying to annihilate their culture, and that elsewhere on the internet, Americans are spending hours bitterly arguing against an all-female Ghostbusters.

There will be no neat ending here. Think, for example, about the little Yazidi children we watched playing games of soccer and roll-tire in their camps. These kids will grow up fast. How will they process what they've been through? What will they tell their own children about it? While I interviewed a family, my photographer Magenta snapped these pictures of some children playing outside. Note the toy AK-47.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (Click for larger pic)
At least the gun in these pictures is a toy.

Once she'd finished, she asked our interpreter if he thought the kids were play-acting out something they'd seen on TV. Ayar said,

"I don't think they had TVs where they came from."

If you want to help Yazidi refugees re-start their lives, you can donate here.

Robert Evans just wrote a book; A Brief History of Vice. It's about how sex, drugs and music built human civilization.

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