Two mass graves were discovered around the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Sunday, officials and witnesses said, two days after an offensive by Iraqi Kurdish forces routed Islamic State fighters from the area.
Local media outlet Rudaw reported Sunday that witnesses had pointed out one of the graves to officials the day before. The witnesses told them the grave, near the Sinjar Technical Institute, contained the remains of 78 women between the ages of 40 and 80 years old.
The gruesome discovery was followed by the finding of another grave Sunday 10 miles west of Sinjar believed to contain the bodies of about 50 men. Both graves have yet to be excavated.
A reporter with Rudaw said Iraqi Kurdish fighters told him there potentially were six more graves in the area.
Iraqi Kurdish officials said the dead were probably Yazidis, members of a religious minority from Sinjar who were the target of a wave of terror by Islamic State fighters. The militants seized the town in August 2014 as they swept across northern Iraq from their bases in Syria.
“Killing these innocent people is one of the crimes ISIS perpetrated against the [Yazidis],” said security official Qasim Simo to Rudaw, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State.
The discovery of the graves followed a U.S.-backed operation last week by Iraqi Kurdish militiamen known as peshmerga who wrested control of the town from Islamic State.
Islamic State took over Sinjar in a bid to consolidate control over the a vital supply corridor linking Mosul, a major Iraqi city 80 miles to the east, to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group's de facto capital.
FOR THE RECORD
Nov. 15, 4:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Mosul is 80 miles west of Sinjar. It is 80 miles east of Sinjar.
But the takeover also heralded widespread abuse of Sinjar's Yazidi population, categorized as “devil worshipers” under the Islamic State's severe application of sharia, or Islamic law.
The militants rounded up and killed Yazidi men and boys, many executed by point-blank shots to the head or simply pushed off cliffs, according to eyewitness accounts. They also kidnapped women, who were reportedly forced to become sexual slaves in areas under the Islamic State's control.
Those Yazidis who managed to flee the onslaught made their way up Sinjar Mountain, where they risked death by thirst, starvation or at the hands of the Islamic State fighters surrounding them.
The crisis spurred the U.S. to send assistance to the stranded Yazidis and to begin an air campaign against the militants.
Iraqi lawmaker Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi, said Sunday that the speedy return of the kidnapped Yazidi women to their families would be “a completion for the liberation of Sinjar.” Hundreds of the women remain captive.
“We were overjoyed with the news we received of the heroic victories of Kurdish and peshmerga forces in the liberation of Sinjar,” said Dakhil in a statement, according to local media outlet Ekurd.
But she also called “on all parties to redouble their efforts to save the captive Yazidi women as soon as possible.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.