In the desert dust of Sinjar, in north west Iraq, a walking stick lies on the ground.
Strewn casually alongside it are a couple of pairs of scissors, some household keys and a shoe. Bank notes flutter in the dirt.
But, if you look a little closer, the scene becomes a horror show. Clumps of hair and fragments of bone poke grotesquely out of the ditch. It is estimated that almost 80 women are buried in this mass grave, aged between 40 and 80-years-old. The bodies are of Yazidi women, murdered by Islamic State butchers.
As the world prayed for Paris, more than three thousand miles east another atrocity was being uncovered.
Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
Last week Kurdish forces – backed by British and American air strikes – liberated Sinjar from Islamic State militants, along with 28 other villages.
They discovered two graves. The first – containing the corpses of older women – was found west of the city’s centre, near the Sinjar Technical Institute. The second was ten miles west, and is believed to contain men, women and children. It is rigged with explosives and deliberately difficult to access.
The Kurdish government team will analyse the bodies in an attempt to uncover the grim story of what happened here.
But let’s be frank: it is not difficult to guess.
Over the past year, Islamic State forces have kidnapped thousands of young Yazidi women to use as sex slaves. Now we know what happened to those not deemed ‘attractive enough’ for them.
French President Francois Hollande has called the sickening atrocities carried out in Paris “an act of war” committed by Isil.
But for the Yazidis, persecuted in Iraq, this is not just a war. It has all the marks of genocide.
Reading about what happened to the Yazidis is difficult. At a time when the west is still mourning the victims of the co-ordinated terror attacks in Paris, more horrific news can seem too much to bear.
But the massacre of the Yazidis cannot be ignored if the true nature of the enemy in Hollande’s ‘war’ is to be understood.
Photo: REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
The Yazidis are a religious sect whose faith incorporates parts of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. To Isil, they are ‘devil worshippers’ – the lowest of the low – who should be either killed or enslaved.
In August 2014 the militants overran Yazidi territory in Sinjar and began killing and kidnapping thousands of men, women and children. The United Nations has already acknowledged that what happened in those dark days may be considered genocide.
In the village of Kocho, Isil militants gave the inhabitants a deadline by which to convert to Islam. If they refused, they would die.
Hundreds of men and boys were slaughtered; many killed by point-blank shots to the head or were pushed off cliffs. More than a thousand women and girls were kidnapped. The brutal sexual violence against these women and girls – passed around by Isil fighters – has been well documented.
Last year, one 17-year-old girl, part of a group of about 40 Yazidi women who were still being held captive and sexually abused on a daily basis by Isil fighters, told how they were raped on the top floor of the building, up to three times a day, by different groups of men.
“Our torturers do not even spare the women who have small children with them. “Nor do they spare the girls – some of our group are not even 13 years old. Some of them will no longer say a word.”
Now, another chilling part of the picture has been filled in: what happened to the older women.
After a two day offensive to recapture Sinjar, last Friday, Kurdish forces were met by young Yazidi women who had somehow managed to escape the clutches of the Isil kidnappers. They led their liberators to ditches containing the bodies of their mothers and grandmothers.
According to the survivors, these older women were taken behind the technical institute in the Solagh area, east of Sinjar. After a pause, gunfire was heard.
The belongings scattered by the dusty mass grave in Sinjar show this is no ordinary war. Elderly women who use walking sticks are not soldiers.
Islamic State’s attitude to women has been brutally laid bare in its division of the Yazidis into those who were young and beautiful enough to rape, and those who were not. Mothers and grandmothers who seemingly could not command a price in the sex market (reportedly a ‘packet of cigarettes’) were simply slaughtered.
It’s hard to imagine women being reduced to pieces of meat in a more savage manner.