By Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International, in northern Iraq
Just as the dire humanitarian situation on north-western Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain was beginning to improve, news broke on Friday about one of the worst reported attacks in the weeks since fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or IS) had started their assault on the towns and villages in the surrounding areas. Scores of people were killed and hundreds abducted by ISIS fighters in Kocho, a small village about 15 km south of the town of Sinjar.
This fresh atrocity was a bitter reminder of the ferocity of ISIS’s advance. Since 3 August, when the armed group began its march to take control of the territory surrounding Sinjar, they have forced tens of thousands of Yezidis from their homes, killed hundreds and abducted thousands.
After two days of searching, I finally found some of the survivors of the Kocho attack, who had managed to escape from ISIS-controlled territory. They are injured, weary and terrified about the fate of their families. They told me that scores of their relatives and neighbours were killed and they have no news about their families and other villagers. They don’t know if their parents, children and siblings are dead or alive.
Survivors recount the terror
Elias, a 59-year-old nurse, told me: “At 11-11.30 (on Friday 15 August) ISIS called all the residents to the secondary school, which has been their headquarters since they came to the village two weeks ago. There they asked that we hand over our money, our mobile phones, and for the women to hand over their jewellery. After about 15 minutes they brought vehicles and started to fill them up with men and boys. They pushed about 20 of us onto the back of a Kia pick-up vehicle and drove us about one kilometre east of the village. They got us off the vehicle by the pool and made us crouch on the ground in a tight cluster and one of them photographed us. I thought then they’d let us go after that, but they opened fire at us from behind us. I was hit in the left knee, but the bullet only grazed my knee.”
He showed me a bullet-sized hole in his trousers, by his injured knee.
“I let myself fall forward, as if I were dead, and I stayed there face down without moving. When the shooting stopped I kept still and after they left, I ran away. Five or six others were also alive and they also ran from the place. The rest were all killed. I know two of them, they were right next to me: Khider Matto Qasem, 28, and Ravo Mokri Salah, about 80 years old. I don’t know who the others were; I was too scared to look around, I couldn’t focus. I don’t know what happened to my family, my wife, my seven children, my son’s wife and their two children; I don’t know if they are dead or alive or where they are. I can’t contact anyone as they took our mobile phones.”
Khider, a 17-year-old student, told me that he was also part of the first group of men and youths who were bundled into vehicles and taken to the village’s outskirts to be shot.
“There was no order, they (ISIS) just filled up vehicles indiscriminately. Me and my cousin, Ghaleb Elias, were pushed into the same vehicle. We were next to each other as they lined us up on the ground. He was killed. He was the same age as me, and worked as daily labourer, mostly in construction. I have no news of what happened to my parents and my four brothers and six sisters. Did they kill them? Did they abduct them? I don’t know anything about them.”
Khider escaped with what looked like a superficial bullet wound to his back.
A third survivor, Khalaf, a 32-year-old father of three young children, told me:
“I was in the third group. Before me, they (ISIS) took away two other vehicles full of men and youth. We were driven a very short distance east, maybe 200 – 300 metres. There was nobody else where we were taken. We were 20 or 25 crammed in the back of the pick-up, I don’t know for sure. When we got there they made us stand in a row and then one of them shouted ‘God is Great’ [‘Allahu Akbar’] and then there was shooting. There were maybe 10 of them (ISIS) but they were behind us, I don’t know how many of them opened fire. I was hit twice, in the left hip and the left calf.
“After the shooting stopped I heard the vehicles leave and another man and I got up and ran. I went in one direction and he in the other. I don’t know where he is now. I don’t know where anyone is, my children, my family. Where are they? Have they taken them? How can I find them?… Among those killed near me was Amin Salah Qasem, the brother of the Elias [the nurse who survived the first group killing], and his son ‘Asem, aged 10-12, and seven others whose names I know and another 10 or 12 whose names I don’t know because I could not see properly. I was so terrified; I kept my head down and when it became quiet and I was sure they had left I just ran away.”
Unknown death toll
The total number of those killed in Kocho is not known. According to the three survivors I interviewed, after assembling the villagers at the local school, ISIS fighters took away at least three groups of men and boys to be killed – 20-25 at a time. Most of the men and boys in the first and third groups were killed, while it is believed between six and eight managed to escape. It is not known if any survived in the second group, also numbering 20-25 people. It is not known how many other groups suffered the same fate. There are reports that hundreds of men, women and children from Kocho were taken to Tal Afar – halfway between Sinjar and Mosul – where ISIS groups are holding other abducted Yezidi civilians. But that could not yet be confirmed.
According to Kocho residents with whom I had been in contact prior to the incident, the village had a population of more than 1,200. Contact has been lost with them since Friday. Their relatives living elsewhere remain unable to get in touch and are extremely concerned for their safety.
Kocho had been under siege by ISIS groups since they took control of the Sinjar region on 3 August, and contact with residents has since been difficult.
Survivors of last Friday’s killing told me that pressure from ISIS fighters increased significantly a week ago, after residents of the nearby village of Hatemiyah, which had similarly been surrounded by ISIS, managed to escape:
“Since then surveillance on us became much tighter. We couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. We just stayed in our homes. ISIS initially demanded that we should convert [to the armed group’s fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam] but later said we did not need to if we did not want to, and said nothing would happen to us. But we were afraid.”
As it turns out, the people of Kocho were right to be afraid.
Now the pressure is on to find out what has happened to the rest of Kocho’s residents.
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Urgent need for protection of civilians in Iraq
Humanitarian efforts failing the hundreds of thousands forced to flee ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq (News story, 12 August 2014)
Eyewitness account of mass displacement caused by ISIS advance in northern Iraq (Storify)
Mass exodus from Iraqi towns and cities as ISIS advance prompts panic (News story, 7 August 2014)
Iraqis displaced by ISIS attacks in Sinjar ‘desperate’ for aid (News story, 5 August 2014)
The flight from Mosul: “We left everything behind to save our lives” (Blog, 28 July 2014)