When we consider slavery, we usually think of it in the past tense. However, the experiences of Nadia Murad show this is far from the truth. In 2017, slavery is still a horrific reality for thousands of Yazidi women and children under the control of terror group ISIS.
Nadia is one of the lucky ones – she managed to escape – and over the past two years, she has travelled around the world raising awareness of the plight of these women and children. Her travels have brought her for the first time to Israel, to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People.
“Beit Hatfutsot tells the unique story of the Jews, and yet so much of your story echoes the experiences of my people,” she explains. “Despite persecution, both communities have survived. The story of the Jews continues to be written each day, and for the past three years, ISIS have stolen the narrative from the Yazidi people. We won’t let them write our future. Israel shows us that a community can emerge stronger from suffering.”
Nadia is in Israel to coincide with a parliamentary Bill to officially recognise the Yazidi suffering as a genocide, something that so far has only been done by a handful of nations.
Nadia’s story begins in August 2014, when ISIS entered her remote village of Kocho in
the Sinjar region of Iraq, slaughtering the men and older women, and kidnapping thousands of others.
“I never imagined I wouldn’t grow up in my village. When I was in high school, my ambition was to become a make-up artist and I used to practice on my friends. Then we started to hear rumours about terrorists who hated our people and said we worshipped the devil, but I never expected them to arrive at my home.”
Who are the Yazidi people?
The Yazidis are a Kurdish ethno-religious community whose ancient religion, Yazidism, has roots in Zoroastrianism and other ancient Mesopotamian
In their attempt to escape, thousands ran to nearby Mount Sinjar, where ISIS surrounded them. In sweltering 45-degree summer heat, without food, water or medical supplies, they were trapped.
“It was all part of ISIS’ plan to wipe out the Yazidi people,” says Nadia. “First they killed the men and elderly women who wouldn’t convert. Then they abducted thousands of younger women and children, forcing them into warehouses and prisons.”
Among those girls was Nadia, who spent a month in captivity, enslaved and tortured. While she was lucky enough to escape when her captor one day left the door unlocked, she can’t forget the girls as young as nine who are sold as sex slaves in the market, or the boys as young as seven who are forcibly recruited to ISIS as fighters and suicide bombers.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t recall what happened to me. A big part of what I used to have is gone.”
In 2014, there were approximately one million Yazidi people globally, with 700,000 living in northern Iraq, where the community has lived for 6,000 years.
This includes her mother and six of her nine brothers, who were all brutally killed. In total, it is estimated that ISIS’ forced conversion campaign killed or kidnapped almost 10,000 Yazidis in a matter of days. Over one-third are still thought to be in captivity. However, the true scale of the horror may never be known.
Nadia managed to reach a refugee camp and, in the autumn of 2015, she became part of the Baden-Württemberg special quota project for vulnerable women and children from northern Iraq, resettling in Germany.
In December 2015, she testified in front of the UN Security Council in New York, and in September last year became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
The symbol of their faith is a peacock angel. However, a story in Islam holds the peacock responsible for allowing Satan into the Garden of Eden, and is seen by ISIS as a symbol of mutiny. ISIS considers the Yazidis to be ‘devil worshippers’.
A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she has received numerous awards for her campaign, Nadia’s Initiative, raising awareness of the plight of the Yazidi community, trafficking and gender-based violence during war and genocide.
Today, in her early 20s, Nadia continues to call for the security of ethno-religious minorities in Iraq, and for international accountability for ISIS perpetrators. “I’m trying to give a voice to the more than 3,000 still in ISIS captivity who are forced to remain silent. Slavery is alive and the world must hold perpetrators to account. I lost my belief that bad things only happen to people far away, but did not lose my belief in people. The past few days in Israel have shown that compassion still very much exists.
“At Yad Vashem, the message is that there are many ways to be a hero. Like Jews, the Yazidi people are showing resistance by holding onto our identity and practising our traditions, and we need the Jewish people’s mentorship to rebuild our community. Thank you for giving us hope.”
As for the future, Nadia still dreams that one day she will have her own make-up salon back home in Iraq.