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A Massacre in Ninewa

A displaced Yezidi man shows the bullet that was pulled from his leg. He was shot by Islamic State fighters but was lucky enough to survive and escape. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

As fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) attacked the Sinjar region in northern Iraq in early August 2014, about 400 Yezidis fled the town of Kocho. Some of them were killed as they headed for nearby Mount Sinjar, which was seen as a sanctuary.

The remaining residents of Kocho—about 1,200 men, women, and children—were led to believe they might be spared when IS—known locally as Daesh—captured the town on August 3.

On the second day of the siege, IS demanded that the residents turn over their weapons in exchange for not being harmed. On the third day, the leader of the Yezidi community in Kocho and the leader of a nearby hamlet that also was surrounded by IS reportedly were told by IS’s emir that residents had three days to convert or face death. Kocho’s leader told the emir that they could not convert in three days and would need more time.

For 12 days, besieged by IS, the remaining residents of Kocho tried to go about their daily lives, trusting that they would ultimately be allowed to leave should they not convert. There was talk in the village that a senior IS official had “forgiven” them and that they might even be allowed to stay without converting.

But early in the morning of August 15, bulldozers rumbled through the village—a bad sign. Shortly after, all of the residents were told to gather at the town school, where their money, gold, phones, and car keys were taken from them.

And then a chilling sorting took place. The men and adolescent boys were grouped on the school’s ground floor. In classrooms upstairs, women, girls, and younger boys were divided into three smaller groups: elderly women, women and children, and a group of younger women.

IS’s emir told the men that he had asked them to convert. He then reportedly said, “If you stay, you will be welcome. If not, that is OK.” The men who were gathered thanked him. They thought that they would be allowed to leave. The men were then crowded into pickup trucks and taken in groups by IS fighters to various locations on the outskirts of town, where they were lined up and then shot. In 2019 and 2020, the Iraqi government, with support of the UN, exhumed 17 mass graves in and around Kocho. Identification and the return of the remains for dignified burial are ongoing.

Amnesty International and news organizations report that IS killed up to 400 men that day (PDF). The bulldozers that had moved through town earlier reportedly were used to dig mass graves for their bodies.

The women and children could hear the shooting. They were taken to Solagh, where women deemed to be past child-bearing age were executed by IS. A mass grave with their remains was exhumed in 2020. Younger women and girls were transferred deeper into IS territory, to Tal Afar and Mosul, where they were registered, entered into a system of enslavement, and sold to IS fighters. While held as chattel, Yezidi women and girls were subjected to sustained physical and sexual abuse, including sexual enslavement.

Throughout the time that Kocho was under IS control, individuals in the town were in contact with family members outside of Kocho, international human rights organizations, the United Nations, and US government officials.

Survivors of the IS attack on Kocho show visitors the lists they’ve made of missing family members, some of them with 50 or 100 names on them.