Bearing Witness: Exposing the Reality of Modern Day Genocide

It was not so long ago that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. Many stayed quiet for so long — until it was too late. Jewish people lost entire families — mothers and fathers, sons Young displaced Iraqis wait for food distribution at a camp on the outskirts of Erbil. *MUST CREDIT* Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2015)and daughters. Entire communities were wiped out. And since that great atrocity, the world has been educated on the reality of evil and mass murder.

It is for this reason that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. continues to shout, “Never again!” and has not only taken on the great task of educating the public about the Holocaust, but has also continued that legacy of exposing the darkness of genocide and mass atrocities across the globe.

The Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide has dedicated itself to bringing global awareness to the issue of genocide, exposing it and bringing people together to help stop it. And it was this global mission and commitment to global action that ignited Naomi Kikoler, deputy director for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, and photographer Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin to travel to Northern Iraq to bear witness to these atrocities perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and their targeting of Iraqi minorities in Ninewa. These crimes against humanity were not only against the Yezidi people, but were perpetrated against Iraqi Christians, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaen-Mandaen and the Kaka’I people from June-August 2014.


Documenting the crimes

It was in 2015, that the two traveled to Northern Iraq to document the evidence that the world needed to see. And it was through their time there that they came to understand and realize the depth and breadth of the crimes and ethnic cleansing that the Islamic State (IS) were perpetrating against these ethnic minorities.

“We had to make “never again” a reality,” said Kikoler at a recent panel discussion on her trip to Northern Iraq held at the University of Miami’s Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life. “We had to capture what was going on to show people the truth and ensure future generations didn’t have to suffer these mass atrocities.”

And for Naomi Kikoler, the story is intensely personal. Her paternal grandparents were survivors of Auschwitz, and she was deeply affected by their experience.

“More than anything, it was my grandfather’s silence that affected me. I heard him mention his life before coming to Canada only twice. He had lost everyone and was completely on his own. This taught me the importance of standing with others, showing solidarity with people and a compulsion to try to do something about it so that future generations would not have to endure mass atrocity.”

This led Kikoler to become an attorney in the area of refugee law, and later join the Museum’s staff to combat genocide on a global scale.

The documentation that was undertaken in Northern Iraq was key in exposing the harsh reality of the events that were taking place off the world’s radar. And preserving the events to tell the stories through the use of photojournalism was crucial in getting the public to act and speak out against these horrible atrocities. This was to fulfill a central and critical part of the United States Holocaust Museum’s mandate to be a living memorial and to continue to bear witness.


The power of an image

Photographer Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin is also no stranger to documenting war crimes. Based in Istanbul, he has worked in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans in order to capture the central theme of his work, showcasing the reality of migration, displacement and diaspora. “My interest is more about telling the story of people’s lives within those circumstances, to be with the people and to some small extent enter into their lives and tell their stories.”

Knowles-Coursin discussed the power of a human image caught through the lens of a camera and how that directly impacts direct engagement with governments. “You put yourself at risk while documenting these atrocities, but it is an opportunity to tell their story and what happened to them. When you lock eyes with people, you speak the same language without having to say a word.”

Through their documentation, a report was issued condemning the genocide in 2015 entitled, “Our Generation is Gone.” The Islamic State’s targeting of Iraqi minorities in Ninewa.” Not only are the pictures shocking, but the numbers are as well. In just under three months in 2015, 800,000 people were driven from their homes.

“And these people lived similar lives to ours. Many fled with iPhones and documented what was happening. They did not live in tents before the Islamic State drove them out. They never thought they would be attacked and displaced,” said Knowles-Coursin.


Speaking up

And all of the people whose lives were uprooted in Northern Iraq thought some military would stop them. They were forced out with merely the clothes on their backs. “Nine-year-old girls were taken off into sexual slavery and seven-year-old boys were taken off to become military fighters,” said Kikoler. “I was really struck by it all; it was overwhelming.”

As the Islamic State has forced people to flee in massive numbers, religious and ethnic minorities, who had made up approximately ten percent of the population, no longer exist in Northern Iraq. There are no more Yezidis; there are no more Christians.

And Kikoler said there were early warning signs that these groups would be attacked. “When we talk about genocide, we are talking about having the intent to destroy people. You have plans to exterminate the whole or part of a people. There are many years leading up to this, which include increased attacks by extremists, hate speech, an increase in general insecurity and a failure of government to protect their people. These warnings went unheeded. These minority communities are not a priority, which makes them all the more vulnerable. We have to put pressure on governments to act and do something.”

Men, women and children continue to be victimized by the Islamic State. Take action. Write to your elected officials and get involved with organizations that are providing humanitarian relief. To read more on the work of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and to get involved, visit their website at You can also visit to view more photos and video.


Melissa ZelnikerPresser is a Jewish believer in Jesus who is chasing her God-sized dream of becoming a full-time writer. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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