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Father Patrick Desbois spent over a decade documenting some of the Nazis’ least known atrocities in the killing fields of Ukraine. In turning his attention to Iraq’s Yazidi minority, he hopes to thwart a genocide going on right now.
Like most people unfamiliar with the ethnic hodgepodge of northern Iraq, Father Patrick Desbois had not heard of the Yazidis before the summer of 2014 – when the Islamic State (IS) group carved a “caliphate” out of large parts of Syria and Iraq, and set about cleansing it of all “infidels”. “It is a cruel irony to first hear about a people when it faces annihilation,” Father Desbois tells FRANCE 24.
The Yazidis, thought to number some 400,000, are members of a religious sect whose beliefs borrow from several ancient Middle Eastern creeds. They live primarily in Iraq’s northern Nineveh Province, though Yazidi migrants and refugees have spread far and wide. It was a chance encounter with one of them in a barber’s shop in Brussels that set Father Desbois on their trail.
Two years on, the French priest has finished a book, published in October, about the Yazidis’ persecution at the hands of jihadist militants. Based on interviews with more than one hundred former IS group captives, the book, “La Fabrique des terroristes” (The Terror Factory), documents the killings, abductions and enslavements that have struck the Kurdish-speaking minority and chased it out of its ancestral lands.
Holocaust by bullets
Father Desbois, 61, is no stranger to the mechanisms of mass murder. He has spent much of the past 15 years shedding light on one of the lesser known chapters of the Holocaust: the murder of some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, Roma and Soviet commissars, shot and buried in mass graves by the Nazis’ mobile death squads and local auxiliaries, between 1941 and 1944 — the “Holocaust by bullets”, as it is commonly known.
Father Desbois’ interest in the Holocaust dates back to his childhood, when he quizzed his grandfather, who was one of 25,000 French soldiers sent to the notorious Nazi camp at Rava-Ruska on Ukraine’s border with Poland. The grandfather remained tight-lipped, confessing only to his curious grandson that life in the camp was harsh, “but that others fared far worse”. The “others” included Ukraine’s once large Jewish population, which was wiped out during the war.
The young Desbois was ordained as a priest in 1986, after stints working as a math teacher in Burkina Faso and setting up homes for the dying with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He studied Hebrew, Jewish religion and anti-Semitism, eventually becoming a Vatican adviser for relations with Judaism.
In 2002 he made his first trip to Rava-Ruska. When he asked the local mayor what had happened to the Jews, the mayor said he didn’t know. “I kept going back and asking the same question, until a new mayor took me to a mass grave, accompanied by villagers who had witnessed the massacre,” he says. “The mayor told me, ‘I can show you a hundred more of these graves’.”
The priest has since made multiple trips to the region, accompanied by an interpreter, a photographer, a cameraman, and even a ballistic specialist. So far they have located more than 1,900 killing fields and interviewed almost 5,000 witnesses of the massacres.
While the “Holocaust by bullets” was well known to historians, Father Desbois’ investigations helped raise awareness of its sheer scale, and of the physical and emotional scars it left behind. Thanks to his clerical collar and non-judgmental approach, he was able to extract confessions kept silent for decades, exposing the role played by civilians in digging graves, stripping Jews of their belongings, and sometimes finishing them off with clubs or spades in order to save bullets.
‘The murders of the present’
Father Desbois’ work on the Holocaust has earned him many awards, including the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honor, and a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His work has also attracted financial support from private donors, including one who wrote to the priest in August 2014 encouraging him to turn his gaze to “the murders of the present”. The IS group’s jihadist onslaught, then in full swing, was an obvious choice.
“I felt I couldn’t only take care of the past, but that I had to do something about the present. Besides, Daesh concerns us all, it is not just a local problem,” he says, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the IS group. “Its members have struck in our own countries. They come from France, Britain, Norway or Australia.”
The priest travelled to Iraq in the company of the Roma activist Costel Nastasie, an expert in the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Gypsies. They visited Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland that was plundered by the IS group in 2014, and the refugee camps where its people now live. There they met with youths who had been held captive by the jihadists, and their parents who racked up huge debts to pay their ransoms.
“I was stunned by the tender age of the witnesses and the proximity with their persecutors,” says Father Desbois, whose work on the Holocaust had involved a much older audience, their memories of genocide not so raw. “This time I was interviewing children, with the black flags of their tormentors still visible in the distance. Many had never left their villages, until Daesh showed up one day, ripped apart their families and carted them across its so-called caliphate.”
Sex slaves and jihadists
The candid interviews, some of them transcribed in Father Desbois’ book, present harrowing tales of death, enslavement and indoctrination. Guided by his simple questions, the witnesses recount their stories, flicking through a folder with stills from the IS group’s propaganda videos, which sometimes refresh their memories, help locate a scene or identify a key figure.
In one case, a young woman recalls being forced to witness the grisly execution of the captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in public. Another girl, “who thinks she is 20”, says she was bought and sold three times by jihadist militants. They kept her locked up in Mosul’s brothels, where she was bound and repeatedly raped by the soldiers of the “Caliphate”.
The young woman’s last owner sent her to work in a garage, wrapped in an explosive vest. There she witnessed the making of fleets of car bombs: an expert’s job that involves drilling a hole in the car’s belly, inserting an explosive device, and patching up the gap with a welding torch to leave no trace.
Learning to carry and deliver bombs, fire guns and hate all infidels is the fate reserved to Yazidi boys as young as 8 years old. In some cases the brainwashing endures long after their release, as one mother says. “When he wakes up in the morning he wants to dress like them [the jihadists]. He insults the Yazidis and calls us ‘kuffar’,” she says, using a derogatory Arabic term for “unbeliever”.
In his book, Father Desbois says the demonisation and debasement of Yazidis and other “kuffar”, including Christians and Shiites, serves an ideological purpose, allowing the IS group to cement its sense of “superiority” and righteousness —
much as anti-Semitism comforted Nazi talk of Aryan supremacy. “The Yazidis are to Daesh what the supposedly inferior races were to the Nazis,” he writes.
Comparing any massacre with the systematic destruction of Europe’s Jews during World War II is a perilous exercise, and Father Desbois is careful to distinguish the two. “Daesh wants the Yazidis to cease to exist as a people,” he explains.
“It is a genocide by law – not by comparison with the Shoah,” he adds, using the Hebrew term for “catastrophe”, which is used in France to refer to the Holocaust.
The priest speaks of a “utilitarian genocide” to describe the Yazidis’ ordeal. They were kept alive provided they could be exploited as fighters, slaves or pawns to be ransomed. The rest were put to death, including adults who refused to convert to Islam. In no way could they hold on to their ancestral beliefs and customs.
Mass murder in the age of social media
In June a UN-appointed panel investigating the IS group’s crimes against Yazidis came to a similar conclusion, arguing that attempts to “erase [Yazidi] identity” met the definition of genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. In a 40-page report, the panel said the IS group had tried to destroy the Yazidis’ identity by forcing men to choose between conversion to Islam and death, raping girls as young as nine, selling women at slave markets, and drafting boys to fight.
At least 30 mass graves have been uncovered in the Sinjar area, the report said, calling for further investigation and urging major powers to rescue an estimated 3,200 women and children still held by the jihadist group, most of them in neighbouring Syria. “No other religious group present in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq has been subjected to the destruction that the Yazidis have suffered,” the report added, referring to the IS group by another acronym.
Carla del Ponte, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and member of the panel, stressed the fact that persecuting the Yazidis had become a key component of the IS group’s propaganda. “ISIS made no secret of its intent to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar,” she noted. “[A]nd that is one of the elements that allowed us to conclude their actions amount to genocide.”
Father Desbois said the militants’ use of social media to publicise their actions opened a grim chapter in the history of crimes against humanity. “I fear their actions could serve as a template for future genocides,” he says. “Which makes it all the more critical that we stop them now—and bring them to justice.”