How Humanitarians Are Crowdsourcing Evidence Of A Genocide By ISIS

The Yazidi people have been the victims of a brutal campaign of violence. But prosecuting ISIS at the International Criminal Court will require iron-clad documentation. Amal Clooney and a group of activists are taking extraordinary steps to get it.

Nadia Murad was a 19-year-old student living in northern Iraq when ISIS came for her in August 2014. She tells the story of her trauma–how they rounded up her village and killed 312 men, including her brothers and stepbrothers; how they killed her mother and made young women into slaves; how she endured rape and torture; and how she finally escaped her captors and got herself out of Iraq–over and over again. She has told her story to tearful diplomats and journalists and lawyers. She has traveled to 17 countries and has been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.


Murad puts herself through this because she has become the global spokeswoman of the Yazidi people, an ethnically Kurdish religious community who have been systematically murdered, enslaved, and forced from their homes by ISIS fighters over the last three years. A United Nations human rights inquiry has called the ISIS campaign against the Yazidi people an ongoing genocide. So has the European parliament, the U.K. House of Commons, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Camp Essyan is in the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq, where many Yazidis fled.[Photo: Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown]

But Murad is just one person.

To call ISIS’s actions a genocide, according to international law, means the International Criminal Court has to investigate and try the case. And for the Yazidis to prove their case, they’ll eventually need testimony by victims and witnesses to demonstrate that ISIS conducted a coordinated, systematic campaign to wipe out the Yazidis, who ISIS adherents view as “devil worshippers.”


This evidence is harder to gather than it would seem. While thousands of these witnesses exist, often spread out in refugee camps or still in Iraq and Syria, convincing them to talk publicly–like Murad has so bravely done–is a special challenge. Many fear that if they speak, they or their families could be targeted (an estimated 3,200 Yazidis are still held captive in Iraq or Syria). In recent ICC cases, including trials on ethnic violence and war crimes in Kenya and Darfur, witnesses have faced threats–and the court has not had much power to protect them.

In Dohuk, Iraq, last year, Luis Moreno-Ocampo meets with the head of the genocide investigation unit, who is showing Moreno-Ocampo the areas where ISIS attacked Sinjar in August 2014.

A coalition of humanitarians is now turning to crowdsourced photos and videos as an alternative. Their goal is to supplement witness testimony and strengthen the Yazidis’ case.

“There are so many people who still have members of their family being held by ISIS,” says Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, a woman’s rights advocate and cofounder of the multimedia communications firm Uncommon Union (and a sometime contributor to Co.Exist). “The data, on the other hand, stands for itself, so you don’t have to attach a name.”


Uncommon Union is working to push the case as part of Yazidis’ legal and advocacy team. A year ago, Schaeffer Brown joined former ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and Kerry Propper, a financial entrepreneur, activist, and producer of the documentary Watchers of the Sky, on a visit to the Yazidis in Iraq, and together they began crowdsourcing evidence and organizing “It’s On U,” a political campaign to get the governments to refer the case to the ICC. In May, the campaign approached the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who agreed to lead the case on behalf of Nadia Murad and the nonprofit Yazda, the global organization representing the Yazidis.

“When I visited Iraq last year, I was shocked,” Moreno-Ocampo told Co.Exist. “I was shocked because the Yazidi genocide is the first genocide that can actually be accomplished. Many Jewish survived. Many Tutsis survived. But now [the Yazidis] are in diaspora, and with no land they, they will disappear. It could be the first genocide to be fully implemented.”

Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown and Kerry Propper visiting with Yazda founder Murad Ismael’s relatives in Dohuk. After ISIS attacked Sinjar, 13 members of his family moved into the apartment. This picture shows four generations of his family.

Together, the team is working to build public pressure on world leaders. While this is happening, they are also gathering mobile phone evidence from those who were there during the attacks.


In a few months, their goal is to hand over the information to Clooney, who will assess how it could be most useful. In addition to building a legal case, it could also be used to help pressure international leaders to take a stand. That is necessary because Iraq is not a member of the ICC, so the court can’t intervene unless a member state or the UN Security Council refers it–and because of the politics of the Middle East today, that’s viewed as very much an uphill battle. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallstrom has said her government will argue for jurisdiction, after pressure from a petition campaign led by It’s On U with the support of Global Citizen.

Even if the ICC investigates the Yazidi genocide case, there are, however, unique challenges to using photo and video evidence.

First, validating it is crucial. “It’s easy to produce fake video and fake pictures. For the court, it would be very important to confirm the videos and photos are authentic,” Moreno-Ocampo, who stepped down from his role at the ICC in 2012, says.


Another challenge is connecting all of the data to a time and place so hundreds of pieces of scattered evidence can be woven together into a cohesive narrative.

“There are many survivors who can say ‘they killed my brother, they killed my father.’ Or there are women and girls, like Nadia, who were themselves abducted. They can mention their own suffering, but the technology can give a description of the attack that shows it was not just individuals or sporadic, or an isolated group, but it was coordinated,” he says.

A Yazidi family, in the Essyan refugee camp, remembers their brother and son who was killed before their eyes.[Photo: Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown]

For both of these technical elements, the team has turned to a U.K. research group called Forensic Architecture. It has built a reputation over the years for aiding human rights campaigns by building spatial models of how conflicts and atrocities unfold. For example, recently, the group worked with Amnesty International to conduct a detailed reconstruction of the Israeli bombing of Rafah, Gaza, over four days in August 2014, which led to anywhere from 135 to 200 civilian deaths and destroyed the area. The researchers could not access the site, but they compiled public accounts, witness testimonies, and hundreds of crowdsourced videos and photographs to provide a detailed reconstruction of what happened.


In this and in the Yazidis’ case, their method involves examining the metadata on all media files to locate them in time and space and attempt to construct a multimedia narrative. For files with corrupt or missing metadata, they build an architectural model of the area and attempt to place the image in it. Using “physical clocks,” such as shadows, plumes, or clouds, they work to reconstruct a time stamp, too.

The It’s On U campaign, says Schaeffer Brown, has been focusing on reaching out to Yazidis to collect mobile phone evidence, as well as information about the perpetrators of the attacks. They have targeted ads on Facebook and other platforms, and she was recently in refugee camps in Greece, where many Yazidis are staying. “We announced it there: If they do have evidence they should submit it. It was cathartic. It was like a concrete action for them to take,” she says. (Evidence can be submitted online via an encrypted form or dropped off in person at various refugee camp contact points.) So far, she says, they have received “hundreds” of submissions.

If the case is heard, it could be many years before there is any resolution. It would be the first time mobile evidence is used in a genocide case. Even if it does take a long time, Schaeffer Brown says it’s important to bring attention back to the human tragedy of ISIS’s actions.


For now, the Yazidis need more humanitarian support immediately. Refugee camps in Greece, Schaeffer Brown says, aren’t prepared for the coming winter and the Yazidis don’t feel safe there–where people claiming to be affiliated with ISIS have still threatened to kill them. Nadia Murad lived in refugee camps for a year after she escaped from her enslavers but was eventually taken in by Germany, which has taken in some Yazidi survivors with a two-year visa program. In the long term, Schaeffer Brown hopes they can go back to their sacred areas in Kurdistan and feel safe. But that’s a long ways away:

“It was clear to us when we were on the ground [in Iraq] that no one really cared about the Yazidis. They were stateless. Their own government wasn’t protecting them. Our government wasn’t protecting them,” she says. “We saw a pathway to start to do something.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire


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