Iraqi authorities on March 15th began to exhume the first mass grave of Yazidis slain by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) in the village of Kojo, south of Sinjar in Iraq's Ninawa province.
Relatives of the deceased began to weep as specialists from the Martyrs Foundation, an Iraqi government institution, started their work.
ISIS elements killed hundreds of young men and elderly men and women when they stormed Sinjar in August 2014, and buried them in around 70 mass graves.
They also abducted and enslaved young Yazidi women.
A solemn ceremony held to mark the start of the exhumation was attended by members of the victims' families, officials from the Iraqi government and Kurdish region, and representatives of international organisations.
Among them was British human rights lawyer Karim Khan, who is heading the international team tasked with investigating ISIS crimes.
Mass killings in Kojo
"After the terrorists invaded the village of Kojo on August 15th, 2014, it witnessed the worst massacres against Yazidi people," said Hassou Hourmi, head of the Yazidis in the Netherlands Institution.
Around 1,250 Yazidis were living in the village, he told Diyaruna, and according to the available information, about 400 of the men were killed, while the women and children were taken captive.
"Only 19 Yazidis survived the ISIS attack on the village," he said.
There are about 70 graves of Yazidi victims in total, "13 of which are located in Kojo alone", he said, noting that there is "a serious effort to open all the Yazidi graves and to make the catastrophic scale of the tragedy known to the world".
The UN is actively involved in the efforts to open graves and extract the remains, he said, and will "provide assistance in the most difficult procedures of DNA testing of the remains to identify the victims".
Documenting the process
Iraqi authorities wanted to begin the exhumation process in the presence of the international team so evidence could be documented, said Fadel al-Gharawi, who serves on Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights.
The international team is monitoring and documenting the process, and will present its report to the court system, he told Diyaruna, noting that this criminal evidence can then be used to prosecute the perpetrators.
Mass graves are among "the most important pieces of material evidence of the group’s brutality and heinousness of the crimes it committed in Iraq", he said.
The Iraqi government has made it a priority to support the families of ISIS victims, including members of the Yazidi community in Ninawa's Sinjar district, al-Gharawi said.
The government is working to allocate financial compensation, rebuild cities and villages and return the displaced to their homes, he said, expressing frustration however that bureaucratic red tape has impeded the provision of those services.
No Yazidi family spared
ISIS's crimes did not spare any member of the Yazidi sect, "as not one Yazidi family does not have a missing person that it expects to be found in these graves", said Keji Amo, one of the survivors of the 2014 massacres.
Amo was one of the hundreds of men that ISIS planned to execute when they overran Sinjar, but he and a few others managed to escape.
"Some families were wiped out entirely, with no one left, while other families have one or two survivors only," he told Diyaruna.
The suffering of these people "has grown more severe and intense today as they wait for their family members buried by ISIS to be found", he said.
After the exhumation process has been completed, the remains will be delivered to the Ninawa Health Department’s Division of Forensic Medicine for identification, said Ninawa civil defence director Col. Hossam al-Hamdani.
The remains will then be returned to the families, to be buried according to their religion’s customs and traditions, he told Diyaruna.