UN Goodwill Ambassador Nadia Murad: 'The Struggle of Yazidis against IS'

Summary of a talk to staff, students and public by Nadia Murad, who escaped from ISIS, given on 26 November 2016

In 1999, United Nations General Assembly resolution 54/134 designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Seventeen years later, gender-based violence remains as shocking, disturbing and damaging as ever.

Appropriately, on 25 November 2016 the School of History, Politics and International Relations inaugurated a series of lectures on the Kurds and the Middle East with a talk by Nadia Murad, UN Goodwill Ambassador and survivor of organised sexual abuse under the ISIS regime. The University of Leicester was honoured to be visited by Nadia, whose efforts to bring the horrors of ISIS to wider attention have garnered her the Council of Europe’s Vaclav Havel Award, the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr Alexander Korb, Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, introduced Nadia to an audience of students, staff and public. He explained that Nadia, a member of the Yazidi community, was living in a village in northern Iraq which was attacked by ISIS in August 2014, shortly after that organisation declared its ‘caliphate’.

Eighteen members of Nadia’s family were killed including her mother and six brothers. Nadia was taken to Mosul where she spent three months in captivity. After escaping from her imprisonment, Nadia made her way to a refugee camp from where she was able to travel to Germany.

Nadia herself does not speak English so gave her talk via a translator. “Today terrorism is the most dangerous thing we face as human beings,” she stated unequivocally. “The goal of terrorism is to end peace.”

At the start of her instructive and dignified talk Nadia emphasised that she was not here to talk about her personal situation, and that the problems she was describing did not relate to a single country or community but rather affected us all.

Referring to ISIS by its alternative name Daesh, Nadia described how the world had done nothing to prevent the organisation’s activities in Syria, how some countries had funded the terrorists through donation and collections and how some Sunnis in Iraq had actually welcomed ISIS into the country with sweets and flowers.

She described how non-Sunni groups were targeted by ISIS including Shias and Christians. Families were displaced and places of worship destroyed. Before attacking the Yazidis (who are ethnically Kurdish with a distinct religion drawing on elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism) the ISIS leaders declared Yazidism to be heretical and its followers not ‘People of the Book’. As such, she said it was decreed that Sharia required that the men be killed and the women enslaved. Even though most of the audience could not understand Nadia’s own words, her measured account of such a horrific, medieval idea, relayed by her translator, was shocking.

Unprotected by any military or government forces, the Yazidis fell victim to ISIS. Some escaped to the mountains where they were besieged for four days without food or water. Yazidi men were offered the choice of conversion to Islam or execution, but Nadia said that some who converted out of fear were killed anyway.

She said that women and children were divided by age and gender. Older women deemed of no use to ISIS were killed. Younger women, including Nadia who was 21, were enslaved. Young boys were taken away to camps to be brainwashed and trained as ISIS fighters. An insight into how chillingly formal and organised this was came in Nadia’s recollection that married women with babies were not raped for 40 days because they were classed as ‘infidels’. But once the 40 days was up…

“Crimes against these women do not relate to humanity,” said Nadia, adding that girls as young as eight or nine had also been raped. “Daesh committed genocide against us. Today Daesh is losing ground but there is no path to justice or retribution.”

Nadia observed that as the ISIS area of influence reduces, some ISIS militants have returned to their home countries. Some have even been seen as victims themselves. Nadia finished her talk with this harrowing plea for justice: “As one of thousands of victims, I would prefer to be dead instead of seeing those who committed crimes go back to their normal lives as if nothing happened.”

In a brief Q&A session, Nadia gave some figures relating to survivors of the genocide. More than 6,500 girls and women were captured by ISIS of whom more than 3,800 remain in captivity. Nadia is one of 1,100 taken in by the German government; the government of Canada has been approached about accepting the 2,000 or so who remain in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

A student asked the question on everyone’s mind: “What can we do to help?”

“You can do a lot,” replied Nadia via her translator. “Youth and students, we need your help to stand with us. Politicians will not start this, youth will start this. I have faith in people.”

Jill Marshall, Professor of Human Rights and Political and Legal Theory, brought the event to a close, pointing out that although the actions described by Nadia are clearly illegal under many international and domestic laws, actually enforcing those laws can depend on the effective functioning of the relevant state and the ability and will of the International community. She highlighted the special vulnerability of girls and women in times of conflict.

Professor Marshall drew a comparison with previous genocides where sexual violence played a prominent role in the 1990s, when she was a similar age to Nadia: “I could not believe this was happening in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and I can’t believe it’s happening now.”

Both Dr Korb and Professor Marshall alluded to the Holocaust and the determination of ‘never again’ which it created, a historical clarion call which seems bleakly ironic in light of what we had just heard. It is understandable that most survivors of genocide have no wish to revisit their memories of traumatic events, so Nadia Murad’s mission to raise awareness by describing what she lived through is astoundingly brave. Her talk left everyone in the lecture theatre thoughtful and deeply moved.

The event was part of the School of History, Politics and International Relations Public Lecture Series on the Kurds and the Middle East.

Dr Marianna Charountaki, Lecturer in Kurdish Politics and International Relations, said: “A fundamental goal for Nadia’s Initiative is to fight impunity for crimes committed against all margined communities devastated by global terrorism.

“Hers is a universal message and it strikes at the very core of the lecture series organised by the University of Leicester to highlight the plight of communities in conflict zones.”