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What will happen to the Yazidi sex slaves in Mosul?

At least 300 women from the minority sect are estimated to remain inside the city.

When fighters from the Islamic State (IS) attacked the Yazidi communities in northern Iraq in August 2014, they took many of their victims captive. They raped, forcibly married and converted to Islam thousands of Yazidi women, using them as sex slaves. IS is still holding a significant number of them.

Family members who managed to escape have been glued to their television sets watching the Mosul military operations. They wonder what it will mean for their missing women and girls, who have already endured so much. According to the United Nations, as of August, IS still held 1,935 Yazidi women, as well as 1,864 Yazidi men. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that IS has moved many of the women who were being held in Mosul to Syria. But a human rights worker, tracking the movements of prisoners from the Yazidi religious minority still held in IS captivity, told me this week that at least 300 Yazidi women remain inside the city. News media reported on 24 October that at least 70 Yezidi women and children have been rescued since the beginning of the operation to retake Mosul.

Yazidi families who escaped from IS in the last year told me in August that the mental health and other psychosocial support, the Kurdish regional Government, UN, aid agencies, and donors have provided in the 15 or more camps for the displaced Yazidis in Dohuk governorate has been inadequate. Now, with people caught in the middle of a huge battle, there is going to be an even greater need for these services.

The Iraqi central government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities, with the support of an international coalition, announced on 17 October  the start of the military operations to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which IS captured in June 2014. There are an estimated 1.2 million civilians in Mosul.

For Yazidis in Mosul who come under the control of the Iraqi authorities during or after the fighting, including women who have spent the last two years in sexual slavery, they are going to need urgent assistance to meet their basic needs and provide mental health support.

But aid workers in the nearby city of Erbil have told me that there has been no significant planning by the military forces to ensure access for aid groups to the city, once the fighting moves there or for the aftermath.

Since the beginning of the Mosul operations, Iraqi authorities have been calling on residents in and around the city to stay in their homes throughout the fighting.

Given the amount of resistance that anti-IS forces are currently encountering in the battle for villages surrounding Mosul and the likelihood that IS will put up significant resistance inside the city, there is a strong possibility that the battle for Mosul will be long.

I have asked human rights colleagues in Erbil what the military's plan is for assisting the Yazidi population inside Mosul, in the context of the military operation. They said this is a conversation that has not yet happened.

Even for the Yazidi women and children who have already been freed during the Mosul battle, it is not clear that they will have access to the emergency assistance they need, including support for the trauma they have endured. Human Rights Watch's research showed that since the Yazidis were taken captive and since some have escaped, the camps that house these displaced people have failed to supply adequate counselling and mental health support.

The anti-IS fighting force and the aid agencies working in the region urgently need to come to a basic agreement on how to provide assistance to the civilians of Mosul who are following the government’s advice and staying home.  A clearer plan is needed including the provision of special healthcare services, such as post-rape care for the victims of sexual violence. All sides in the conflict need to ensure that essential humanitarian assistance can freely flow to those who need it during the fighting, and that civilians can safely find their way out of the war zones and get the help they need to deal with the hardships and trauma of the past two years.

Belkis Wille is a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Iraq

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution