Understanding ISIS’s crimes in Kocho: a demographic analysis

About the author(s):

A national of Trinidad & Tobago, I am a barrister specialising in international criminal and humanitarian law.

In 2018, Dr. Valeria Cetorelli and I established the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project with the objective of identifying every victim of the attack on the Yazidi community of Sinjar by the armed group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS). By combining our two disciplines, we hoped to establish a reliable dataset that would have multiple short, medium, and long-term uses. This included assisting in identification of remains in mass graves, and providing reliable information for use in planning for and prioritisation of members of the Yazidi community, including provision of counselling, increased medical interventions, and gender- and youth-specific needs. Significantly, we envisaged the dataset providing information of high probative value for use in criminal prosecutions before national, regional, and international courts and tribunals. Consequently, we took a similar methodological approach to the one previously used by the Demographic Unit of the Office of the Prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

On 10 July 2019, the Project published its first paper, a demographic analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho, in which we sought to answer the following questions:

  • How many victims of ISIS’s attack on Kocho can be identified by name, and what is the likely number of victims who remain uncounted?
  • What gender and age are the identified victims, and what types of violations have they suffered?
  • Do the results of the demographic documentation confirm the findings of testimony-based documentation?

The purpose of this blog post is to present the main findings of the report, on a date exactly five years after the Kocho attack. Before presenting them, we first briefly set out details of the attack.

ISIS attack on Kocho

On 3 August 2014, ISIS attacked the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, targeting the Yazidis, a millennia-old and oft-persecuted religious community. After controlling the main roads and strategic junctions, ISIS set up checkpoints and sent mobile patrols to search for Yazidi families. Within hours, Yazidis who fled too late or who had remained in their villages, found themselves encircled. Almost all villages were emptied within 72 hours of the attack, with the exception of Kocho village, which was not emptied until 15 August 2014. (See pp. 7-13 of the paper for a detailed overview of the ISIS attack on Sinjar, and of the events in Kocho between 3 and 15 August 2014).

On 15 August 2014, ISIS ordered Kocho’s residents to gather in the village school. Women and younger children were forced upstairs, while men and adolescent boys were kept on the ground floor. ISIS berated the Yazidis for their adherence to their religion, and gave them a choice: convert to Islam or remain as Yazidis in which case they would have to leave the Sinjar region, relinquishing their possessions. The Yazidis decided not to convert. ISIS fighters then ordered the men and older boys to surrender their valuables, before taking them out of the school in groups. Survivors described being shoved into vehicles that were driven short distances, though not all to the same location. ISIS fighters pulled the men and older boys from the vehicles and forced them to kneel or crouch on the ground before shooting them. Since ISIS was ousted from Kocho in May 2017, at least eleven mass graves holding human remains have been discovered in and around the village.

After most of the men and older boys had been taken out of the school, fighters ordered the women and younger children downstairs where their valuables also were taken from them. ISIS fighters began to select unmarried girls, mostly those between the ages of 13 and 16, and took them away. The remaining women, girls and boys were forced into vehicles and taken to the Solagh Technical Institute, closer to Sinjar town. There fighters continued to take away adolescent girls, as well as boys who were over the age of seven. Testimonies suggest that the boys were taken to ISIS training camps, where they were forcibly trained and later made to fight. In the early hours of 16 August 2014, ISIS fighters separated women deemed to be past childbearing age. After ISIS lost control of the area, a mass grave was uncovered in the grounds of the school. After sunrise on 16 August, fighters loaded the surviving residents of Kocho – all women and children – into trucks and buses and transported them to holding sites deeper inside ISIS-controlled territory where it is alleged that they were registered, sold under ISIS’s system of sexual enslavement, and suffered a range of mass atrocity crimes during their captivity. The fate and whereabouts of thousands of Yazidis are still unknown.

Many of the crimes committed against the Yazidis by ISIS have been documented by the United Nations, NGOs, and the news media. In 2015 and 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released separate reports determining that ISIS was committing genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes, in its coordinated assault on the Yazidis of Sinjar.

Much of the world’s understanding of what happened comes from testimonies of survivors, the majority of whom are female. Some, including 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, spoke out publicly while many others gave their accounts confidentially to a range of documentation entities. Earlier this year, the excavation of Kocho’s mass graves began. Yet, five years on, a full understanding of the scale of ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidis, and the identity of all the victims, remains unknown. It was to tackle this information gap that Dr. Valeria Cetorelli and I established the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project.

Demographic Analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho

The project’s first paper conducted a demographic analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho. It analysed data from two independent sources (p. 13). The first was a list of victims gathered by trained Yazidi enumerators, primarily from close family members and occasionally from more distant relatives, friends and neighbours, in camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The second source was a list of victims compiled by one of the few Kocho community leaders who survived the attack. Information on victims’ status – dead, missing, or rescued – was updated to August 2018. The data was, as detailed in the paper, screened, merged and validated. A dual system estimation was applied to determine the likely number of victims who remain uncounted.

The consolidated list of victims contains the names of 1161 people believed to have been present in Kocho on 15 August 2014, almost all of whom – if not all – would have been forced into the school by ISIS fighters. The dual system estimation indicated that the total number of victims, including those who remain uncounted, is likely to be 1170. This accords with various testimony-based estimates of there being approximately 1200 people in Kocho on 15 August 2014. Kocho’s population appeared almost equally split along gender lines, with 579 of the identified victims being male and 582 being female. Kocho had a young population age structure, with 558 (48%) of its residents aged under 20 years.

The demographic analysis supported the data gathered from testimonies taken from the survivors, which indicated that while Kocho’s entire population was targeted by ISIS, the violations suffered varied depending on the gender and age of the victims. Of those who were reported dead or missing (some victims’ relatives were unwilling to list them as having died in the absence of witnesses to their murder or confirmation of the presence of their remains in the mass graves), 90% of men aged 20 years and above  – 257 out of 290 – were reported as dead or missing.

Far fewer women were reported as dead or missing – 26 (14%) among the 187 women in the age range 20–39. There was, however, a sharp increase in the number of women over the age of 40 who were reported as dead or missing, with 42 (52%) of the 81 women aged 40–59, and 42 (88%) of the 48 women aged 60 years and above being so reported. The demographic analysis accords with survivors’ accounts which described ISIS executing men and adolescent boys in and around Kocho on 15 August 2014, while older women were executed hours later at Solagh, a few kilometres away. Exhumations of multiple mass grave sites of Kocho’s victims are ongoing.

A demographic analysis of those who were rescued from captivity – a catch-all term governing a diverse range of situations through which abductees returned to their families – also revealed important insights into the ways in which ISIS targeted Kocho’s Yazidis.

The number of boys and girls under 10 years who were reported as rescued is 135 (86%) and 119 (83%) respectively. Among those aged between 10 and 19 years, 56 (41%) and 84 (69%) were rescued. Only 28 (10%) of the men aged 20 years and above were identified as rescued. The number of those rescued was 161 (86%) among women in the age group 20–39; and 39 (48%) among those aged 40–59. As one might expect, given the number of older women reported dead or missing, only 6 (12%) among those aged 60 years and above were reported as having been rescued.

Children and women of childbearing age were much more likely to have been kept alive in ISIS captivity and, consequently, to have the possibility of rescue. Following ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria, the fate and whereabouts of the still-missing women and girls (as well as boys under the age of 7 who were more likely to have been allowed to remain with their mothers) remains a painful and largely unanswered question. Hope still remains, with reports of Yazidi women being rescued during raids in areas once held by and now liberated from ISIS. Recently, several Yazidi boys who had been forced to fight with ISIS have also been rescued. Precisely how many survived the training and/or the battlefield remains unknown. Nevertheless, the data gathered by the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project indicates that more boys who were trained and made to fight as part of ISIS have survived than testimonial evidence has previously suggested.

With the Security Council’s establishment of the United Nations Investigative Team to promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh (UNITAD), we are inching towards accountability, most likely in the form of trials before domestic courts. As the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project progresses, similar analyses will be conducted for all Yazidi villages and Sinjar town. It is hoped that the analyses, and underlying data, will provide reliable information that may easily be entered into evidence in prosecutions across multiple jurisdictions.

Sareta Ashraph is a barrister specialised in international criminal and humanitarian law, and is the co-principal of the LSE Middle East Centre’s Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project. From February to August 2019, she served as Senior Analyst on the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). In 2018, she authored the Global Justice Center’s report ‘Gender, Genocide, and Obligations under International Law’. While serving as Chief Legal Analyst on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria from 2012-2016, Sareta led the reporting for the Commission’s June 2016 report “They Came To Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis“, which determined that ISIS was committing the crime of genocide, among other international crimes. She is an associate tenant of Garden Court Chambers in London. @SaretaAshraph

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