Skip to Content

Never again? The legacy of Belsen

When a five-year-old child was chained and left outside in a courtyard to die by her ISIS captor, her enslaved mother never thought she would see justice done. Six years later, on October 25th, 2021, Jennifer Wenisch, a 30-year old German convert who had joined Islamic State, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to ten years in prison.  Rania was punished for wetting the bed. Wenisch’s was the fifth trial in which German citizens were found guilty under universal jurisdiction for international crimes committed in Iraq and Syria.

Nora T is the Yazidi mother who watched as her child died of thirst in the searing summer heat in Fallujah. Wenisch threatened to shoot her if she did not stop crying. Wenisch became a member of Hisbah, the morality police that enforced the strict Islamic dress code, and married an Iraqi national , Taha al Jumailly, also on trial in Germany. The couple kept the mother and daughter as slaves.

On Tuesday this week (30th November), a Frankfurt court made the historic decision to jail 29-year old Taha al Jumailly for life. He was found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and other crimes. It sets a legal precedent, the first case worldwide to deliver a genocide verdict in relation to the Yazidi community.

Wenisch was arrested by Turkish security services in Ankara in 2016 after she told a taxi driver her story while she was trying to return from Iraq to Germany. It turned out he was an FBI informant, the car was wired, and Wenisch was subsequently extradited to Germany. 

This high-profile case will mean a lot to Yazidi survivors who still seek justice for the 2014 genocide. It will contribute to the community’s attempt to heal. It is estimated that 10,000 Yazidis were killed; 7,000 women and girls were enslaved; many more young boys were forced to become ISIS soldiers. Some 2,800 Yazidi women and girls are still missing, and 200,000 Yazidis are internally displaced.

International human rights barrister Amal Clooney represented Nora T. She said it was “a victory for everyone who believes in justice. I am grateful to the German prosecutors for bringing this case, and I hope that we will see a more concerted global effort to bring ISIS to justice.” While France, Latvia, and The Netherlands have also issued proceedings against ISIS members, no international or regional court has been established.

One question is why the 5,000 European citizens who volunteered as foreign fighters want to return home, whether they are a security risk and whether or not they have committed crimes. Of the 900 Britons, about 40 per cent have already returned.

In the last year, two genocides have been acknowledged. Between 1904-1907, the Germans committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people of Southwest Africa, now Namibia. It is estimated that approximately 80,000 indigenous people were murdered, about 80 per cent of the Herero people and 50 per cent of the Nama population. This is considered the first genocide of the twentieth century. On April 24th 2021, American President Joe Biden finally recognised the Armenian Genocide, 106 years after it began. Genocide continues today, not only against the Yazidi but also others, such as the Uighurs in China; despite saying that we will learn the lessons, we never do. We need to show constant awareness of the constant threat in today’s world of another genocide.

Dr Jan Ilhan Kizilhan is a psychologist, author and publisher, who has spent twenty years studying the Yazidis. At the beginning of 2015, Dr Kizilhan began talking to 1,403 Yazidi women in northern Iraq, survivors of war, slavery and rape. It’s a number he says he will never forget because he interviewed and assessed every one of the women.

After ISIS overran parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, the German government decided to act. State premier Winfried Kretschmann agreed to open the doors of Baden-Württemberg, the German state he led. The Special-Quota Project brought women and children, held by ISIS, to Germany for mental health treatment.

The German state allocated €95 million to help one thousand of the most vulnerable female survivors for whom they could provide treatment. The two-year pilot programme was transformed into a project where the women and their families could resettle in Germany. Jan Kizilhan believes the chance to stay in Germany was fundamental to their recovery.

Dr Kizilhan, who was born in Turkey and moved to Germany as a child, was a researcher at the State University of Baden-W ürttemberg. As the chief psychologist, he spearheaded a team of diplomats, government officials, and Iraq experts. They travelled to Nineveh to find the most vulnerable women to assess them and take them to Germany for medical and psychological treatment.

He and Dr Mizra Dinnayi, a Yazidi who had moved to Germany in 1994 to study medicine, co-piloted the project. In 2019, Dr Dinnayi was awarded the prestigious US$1 million international humanitarian award, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, to honour “courage, commitment to a humanitarian cause and impact on the world”. The prize is given in Yerevan, Armenia and is rooted in Armenian history.

Kizilhan tells one story of a 16-year old girl who fought off her ISIS tormentor who had tried to rape her numerous times. That was until his wife decided to help, “believing” this to be her duty as a “good” Muslim wife. She held the girl’s hands as her husband violated the teenager. Afterwards, she told the girl, “don’t worry, you now belong to our community and are now one of us”. The act of sexual violation was her initiation. The 16-year old told Kizilhan that rape is a mechanism of conversion.

In Yazidi culture, family honour is attached to a woman’s “purity”. It was not clear that the community would accept their return. Baba Sheikh, the High Priest, told the women that they belonged to the community and could go to Germany with his blessing. “It was very emotional,” said Kizilhan, “some of the women were fainting and crying.”

One of the reasons that Kizilhan believes the women survived was that they have developed coping techniques. The Yazidis believe that they have been the victims of seventy-four genocides over the last eight hundred years. These experiences and trauma have become part of the Yazidi narrative, passed down from generation to generation. They speak of “fermans“, orders promulgated by Muslim rulers to commit genocide, and they have developed resilience through these historical traumas. Kizilhan believes it gave them an inner strength in a community that shared solidarity and supported each other.

What any prelude to genocide does is to dehumanise the target. As a result, the person becomes an object, and because it is a thing, you can destroy it. Kizilhan interviewed many ISIS fighters who were imprisoned in Iraq. As a psychologist, he was curious to know where this violence came from and asked when he interviewed them. “How can you kill someone or rape an eleven-year-old girl, knowing this is forbidden, that it is not normal.” They looked in his eyes, very clearly, very rationally, without emotion and said, “They are not human. If someone has not accepted our religion, we have the right to kill them.” The world is divided into “us” and “them”, with “them” being seen as a threat to the existing social order. In the 21st century, totalitarian narratives are still powerful.

Radical groups believe they have to control the world and, in this case, that everyone should be Muslim. The belief has morphed into an ideology where only they are right.

“Normally, empathy is something biological which exists in all people. You react to someone who is crying or to someone who is hurting you emotionally; you show a reaction; you empathise if someone is sad or someone is in pain. But a totalitarian ideology can stop this empathy. One of the IS fighters told me ‘I react more emotionally when I kill the chicken than when I kill a Yazidi’. They can stop the idea of being a human. But when it comes to their own group, they are very emotional.” Life in stark black and white is a lot easier to navigate than the gradients of grey.

As the ISIS fighters gained strength, they also believed they could establish an Islamic State. Some soldiers were Christians who converted to Islam. These were often young people who had many social and psychosocial problems. “People,” says Dr Kizilhan, “who were traumatised, had experienced violence in childhood, and were not integrated into their communities in the UK or in Germany or France. They turned to Iraq or Syria to join IS.”

Converts are often the most zealous, more brutal than the original Muslims. Kizilhan found they wanted to show other Muslims that they were the better Muslims. “Converts used drugs, so IS soldiers never accepted them and misused them. They used them because they were brutal, and they were good fighters, and the converts accepted everything.” In return, they were given women, or money, or something else. “They killed and killed themselves, and they killed hundreds of Yazidi women without any emotion.”

Kizilhan’s youngest patient is an eight-year-old girl. She’s been sold at least seven times on ISIL slave markets and repeatedly raped by her captors. “She always asks me ‘why are people doing this?’ To be honest, I don’t have an answer. As a scientist, I can explain academically, but how do you explain to an eight-year-old girl why a human being is so evil? ” 

The jihadists had no issues with turning the stolen Yazidi children into child soldiers and teaching them to kill. These children were taught Arabic, to read the Quran, and were taught how to behave and behead people. By the time they were rescued, many had forgotten their language and their roots. Some wanted to stay with their ISIS families and found it difficult to reintegrate. With psychotherapists and doctors to support them, Dr Kizilhan has hope that they will learn to cope. It’s not just about medication; it’s talking and exploring, which takes time.

These have been kids brainwashed by ISIS. They can be aggressive when returning to their families because they are suffering from PTSD and depression. The natural parents and their children were alienated from each other. The child is mourning the loss of their old life. They can struggle with their own identity and want to return to ISIS.

It’s haunting to hear young boys of ten or eleven ask, “Doctor, why are people so evil?” They are looking to understand what has happened to them and their community. “I have no answers,” he tells them. “But I have many theories.” He wants them to have another perspective. He tells them that the social workers, psychotherapists, are all excellent people and that “they are listening to you.” He hopes time and therapy will heal their wounds. When it comes to evil, he says it’s there, “but as humans, we also have to power to love and to do good things.”