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A Fresh Approach to Help Iraq's Forgotten Minorities?
By Holly Johnston
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An innovative exhibition hopes to renew support for victims of the Islamic State (ISIS) -- particularly the Yezidi community.

Five years since their heartland of Shingal was torn apart by ISIS in early August 2014, little has changed for the Yezidi ethno-religious minority of northern Iraq.

Nobody's Listening is a London-based initiative combining virtual reality, art, and photography to document the genocide of Yezidis and other minority groups targeted by ISIS.

The project run by Yazda, a global Yazidi NGO, has been produced with Surround Vision, an award-winnning virtual reality production company based in the UK.

The immersive exhibition aims to offer hope that the world is listening through social media stations allowing visitors to recognize the genocide and send messages of solidarity to its survivors.

Although the project centres on the Yezidi community, the team is eager to emphasize the widespread devastation caused by the terror group, which targeted a variety of communities including Shiite Muslims, Shabaks, and Christians.

Its partners include In Defence of Christians, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Ryan D'Souza, its coordinator, spoke to Rudaw English about the volunteer-run project. He said the name of the project was coined following visits to Yezidis in Iraq this year.

"'No one's listening' was something we heard time and time again," he told Rudaw English.

D'Souza felt compelled to act following a meeting with Nadia Murad, a Yezidi survivor and Nobel Laureate who has become a beacon of her community.

He emphasizes the project is a "hand-in-hand" partnership with Iraqis, including members of the Yezidi community.

Nobody's Listening offers not just a reiteration of old messages, but a new and compelling way of calling for support for groups affected by ISIS.

The idea for the virtual reality experience dawned upon him in a container in Mogadishu, Somalia, during a previous posting with the UN, he said. Discussions with staff from Yazda, a global Yezidi NGO, highlighted the need for a new approach as the minority remains trapped in limbo.

"We needed to find a new way of telling stories. The era of writing reports is over. It's not enough," D'Souza said.

With the world "completely desensitized" to the genocide, which he insists is ongoing, D'Souza set out to bring the suffering of the Yezidis to life and raised £60,000 from private donors to create a virtual reality experience based in Shingal -- before, during, and after the genocide.

What is perhaps most impressive is the painstaking action taken to preserve the wellbeing and dignity of survivors, many of whom have returned from ISIS captivity to tents in the Kurdistan Region with little to no psychosocial help.

Regarding the photos used for the exhibition, D'Souza emphasized the efforts made to move away from simply labelling them as survivors.

"We don't want to picture them just as survivors. They are becoming the leaders of their community... we're not here to bracket them as victims."

Equipped with experienced psychologists and protection experts familiar with the community, Nobody's Listening did not interview any survivors for the project -- instead using existing testimonies already in the public sphere.

The fear of retraumatization among survivors -- both those who survived captivity and the wider community -- is high, and something the team has carefully aimed to avoid.

"We advise anyone who has been affected by ISIS not to watch the VR," he said. Even the script was combed through by psychologists for material potentially harmful to viewers.

The VR, which was soft-launched at an exhibition in Baghdad on August 3, will accompany artwork, photographs, and cultural artefacts from various communities affected by ISIS at a formal launch in spring 2020, to be opened by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie.

"The new approach has impact. It feels like you're there [in Shingal]," D'Souza added.

The artwork produced by Christian and Yezidi artists is to be housed in a future memorial museum in Shingal and Assyrian artwork defaced by ISIS has been partially restored by top London art conservator Hamish Dewar ready for exhibition.

D'Souza said he was "astounded" by the "incredible goodwill" the project has received from across the globe, a welcome reprieve from the non-stop grind the project has required.

The multi-faceted initiative is constantly evolving, most recently with the addition of a Cultural Heritage component, which will confront visitors with 3D models of destroyed Yezidi temples, dubbed a genocidal act by the UN.

The 12-minute VR opens with an overview of the Shingal region, which remains mostly in ruins four years after it was liberated.

Viewers are introduced to the community, one of the oldest in the world, and their holy site of Lalish, just north of Shekhan in the Kurdistan Region.

They are then transported to Kocho, where men, women and children were separated at the local school. The bottom floor meant death -- the top a journey to slave markets in Raqqa and Mosul.

Viewers can then choose to follow a female survivor, a male survivor of Kocho's mass shootings, or an ISIS fighter in the aftermath of the 2014 attacks.

The tape avoids the topic of sexual violence, instead focusing on the wider impact of the genocide on all Yezidis. There is no blood or graphic material, D'Souza added.

The new approach has been praised as the "future of advocacy".

"This is an incredibly moving, affecting exhibition. It takes you beyond what pictures and oral testimonies can do by plunging you into the awful, appalling world ISIS created for their Yazidi captives," said Shiraz Maher, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London.

"I've studied the Syrian conflict since it began and few exhibitions relating to the horrors of this conflict have moved me the way this has," he added.

As many Yezidis are still missing, the Nobody's Listening team has called for action amid international complacency.

"All Yezidis I have spoken to believe there will be another genocide. It's just a matter of time," D'Souza warned. "If we don't do anything now, these crimes will happen again."

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