SINJAR -- Residents of the Yazidi-majority district of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, gathered Saturday (February 6) under cloudy skies to hold a mass funeral for loved ones slain by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
The 104 Yazidi men being reinterred in the Ninawa province village of Kojo were killed by ISIS and buried in mass graves after the group overran Sinjar in 2014.
Among the funeral attendees was 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who was there to bury the remains of two of her brothers.
"After six years, I was able to bury the remains of two of my brothers," Murad said in a Monday post on Twitter.
"My community of Kojo was able to lay over 100 of our loved ones to rest. This is just the beginning of justice for Yazidis. Thousands of families still wait for the identification and burial of their loved ones."
After the defeat of ISIS, dozens of mass graves were discovered in Sinjar and its outskirts, according to the Kurdish regional government's Deputy Minister of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, Barvan Hamdi.
Procedures to open 17 mass graves in Kojo began in March 2019, with the exhumation process concluding in October 2020.
The process was a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Martyrs, the Iraqi Martyrs Foundation's Directorate of Mass Graves and the Iraqi Ministry of Health, with various international organisations also involved in the effort.
The bodies of the victims were transported to Baghdad.
Here they were identified by experts from the Iraqi Medico-Legal Department of the Martyrs Foundation, with the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of ISIS (UNITAD) and the International Commission on Missing Persons.
Before the bodies were returned to Sinjar, Iraqi and international officials and Yazidi community members on Thursday attended a funeral ceremony in Baghdad, at the Unknown Soldier memorial.
A dignified burial
Thousands of community members attended the Saturday burial ceremony in Kojo, along with dozens of Yazidis who travelled from abroad to be there, according to Yazda, a multi-national Yazidi global organisation.
A procession of coffins was transported to the site, each bearing a photograph of the deceased, and Yazidi religious rituals were performed.
"For the first time in Yazidi history, the remains of Yazidi victims are returned to their families to be buried in a dignified way," Yazda's president Haider Elias said in a statement.
"We commend the Iraqi authorities and all the parties involved in the process for this milestone and hope that more remains will be identified in the near future," he said. "The identification of the remains is an important step that helps the families and the community to start the healing process."
Nadia's Initiative, an organisation founded by Murad that advocates for survivors of sexual violence and rebuilds communities in crisis, also thanked the US State Department for its support.
In their 2014 attack on Sinjar, ISIS elements killed and took captive thousands of Yazidi men, women and children, many of whom are still unaccounted for.
To date, 83 mass graves containing the bodies of hundreds of Yazidi victims have been found in Sinjar and nearby towns, Khairi Bouzani, general director for Yazidi affairs at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs said in August.
"We expect to find even more mass graves," he said.
The Yazidi mothers' grave
Murad was the first Iraqi to win the Nobel Peace Prize, at the age of 25.
When ISIS overran Sinjar in 2014, she was kidnapped by the group -- one of thousands of Yazidi women and girls who were abducted, raped and brutalised by ISIS during their assault -- and held captive for three months.
After her escape, she became a figurehead for efforts to protect the Yazidis, and was later named a UN ambassador for victims of human trafficking.
"I have been enslaved, sold, and rented out dozens of times in Mosul, Tal Afar, and al-Hamdaniya over a period of three months; I was separated from my mother and siblings and have not seen my mother since," she said during a 2015 testimony at the UN.
The UN has described the assault on Sinjar as genocide.
In October 2020, Iraqi and UN teams started to exhume a mass grave in Sinjar that contained the remains of Yazidi women and children killed by ISIS.
"The grave, known as the Yazidi mothers' grave, contains the remains of 78 Yazidi women," Hassou Hurami, who heads the Netherlands-based Yazidi Foundation, said at the time.
Almost all the women believed to be buried there have been identified by name and age with the exception of seven whose identities remain unknown.
The 71 women who have been identified were all residents of Kojo, he said. Among them was Murad's mother, Shami Salih Aman.