For the first time ever, an Iraqi woman became a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prize to Iraqi war survivor, Nadia Murad, along with Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
Murad, a young, petite, frail Iraqi Yazidi woman with beautiful eyes that still carry the deep sadness of her past, endured indescribable horrors at the hands of terrorists from the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The news of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize brought her joy, but it also revived her personal, almost unspeakable, trauma as a captive sex slave of ISIS.
Yazidis are a minority group in northern Iraq. With a population of around 550,000 in Iraq prior to 2014, an ethnic and religious group of Yazidis speak a Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji, and practice an ancient religion that worships a single God and the “leader of the angels” in the form of a peacock. A smaller number of Yazidis live in Syria and Turkey. The extremist Sunni ideology of ISIS considered Yazidis infidels and “devil worshipers.” When ISIS pushed Iraqi government forces out of a number of cities and started establishing territorial control in Iraq in 2014, Yazidis were targets of the terrorist group’s systematic extermination campaign.
While Murad survived the ordeal of repeated rapes, torture, and beatings, she has put aside her own trauma—and shame—to come forward to tell the world about the genocide that ISIS has attempted to commit against her people.
A global public figure and a staunch political activist since 2016, Murad has been tirelessly recounting the chilling details of the ISIS crimes against humanity.
A global public figure and a staunch political activist since 2016, Murad has been tirelessly recounting the chilling details of the ISIS crimes against humanity, even though it opens her wounds every time. She has said that she felt she had the responsibility to bring ISIS to justice and to honor the lives of all of the murdered and brutalized Yazidis.
Murad lived a simple life with her large family in Kocho, a village of 1,800 people in the Sinjar Province in northern Iraq. They raised sheep and wheat on their small farm. As she recounted during her speech at Harvard University this past spring, “People wouldn’t think that a farm in the desert would be a great life. But it was our life, it was peaceful to us, and we would love to have experienced it just a little bit longer.”
As a small girl, her dream was to finish secondary school and open a beauty parlor in her village. The dream was shattered when she was 21 years old. ISIS took over Kocho in 2014, capturing her and her family.
Although she along with 3,000 other Yazidi women and girls were sold into sexual slavery, her mother and six brothers were executed upon capture and thrown into mass graves. She learned about their murders after she had escaped from a three-month long captivity.
Since the start of ISIS’s genocide campaign, nearly 100,000 Yazidis have fled Iraq. According to some estimates, ISIS killed or abducted close to 10,000 Yazidis within a matter of days in 2014. Terrorists either killed young Yazidi boys or took them to become fighters to kill their own people.
So far, nobody has been held to account for the genocide of the Yazidis.
ISIS executed at least 5,000 Yazidi men when the group took over northwestern Iraq. Believed now to be in captivity, more than 3,000 Yazidis are still missing. Some freed Yazidis have returned to Iraq as the terrorist group lost its territorial grip on this country. So far, nobody has been held to account for the genocide of the Yazidis.
Murad considers herself lucky in that she managed to escape from ISIS. She stresses that thousands of other Yazidi women were brutalized more severely than she was and are still enslaved. While she may have been lucky to have run away, ISIS treated her no better than others during her captivity.
“I endured rape, torture and humiliation at the hands of multiple militants before I escaped . . . . One day, I want to marry and have children. I will have to deal with the trauma of my rape personally and quietly. But like most Yazidi women, I am prepared to repeat my story, as long as it helps to achieve justice and to support genocide survivors,” wrote Murad in her New York Times op-ed last year.
After escaping ISIS, with the help of a Sunni family in Mosul, she initially found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Later, she was reunited with her sister in Germany, where she lives now. Dedicating her life to defending human rights and bringing ISIS to justice, Murad became one of the world’s prominent activists. Her persistent efforts to draw the world’s attention to the genocide and ongoing suffering of the Yazidis led to the UN investigation into the ISIS crimes against the Yazidis.
In 2016, UN designated Murad its first Goodwill Ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.
In 2016, UN designated Murad its first Goodwill Ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking. That same year, she launched her advocacy organization called Nadia’s Initiative, which gives voice and assistance to survivors and victims of genocide. In 2017, she published a harrowing account of her captivity and the crimes committed against the Yazidis in her memoir called The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
Murad has been pushing world leaders to help find and free the missing Yazidis, prosecute ISIS militants for their crimes, help resettle displaced refugees of her community back in Iraq, rebuild their homes, and provide basic utility services, such as clean water, electricity, and sanitation. She is part of the global advocacy that has been pressuring the Iraqi government and global leaders to take these actions. She took this message to the White House, when she met with President Donald Trump in July 2019.
With so much courage, persistence, and dedication to restore dignity to the Yazidis and to hold perpetrators accountable for the genocide, Murad is an extraordinary woman who moves mountains—with enough allies and support. Whether the world will keep its attention on the plight of Yazidis and do something to help her people is still unclear.
Turkey’s incursions have already led to widespread carnage and bloodshed, with dangerous implications also for the Yazidis in Syria.
President Trump’s October 6 decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria created an opportunity for Turkey to attack the Kurds (a minority group denied recognition in Turkey) in northeastern Syria. Turkey’s incursions, greenlighted by this decision, have already led to widespread carnage and bloodshed, with dangerous implications also for the Yazidis in Syria.
Since 2011, Kurdish forces in Syria have provided protection to religious minorities, including the Yazidis. They saved thousands of Yazidis when ISIS attacked the latter in Iraq in 2014. With Kurdish forces now being under attack from Turkey, Yazidis are afraid of losing the protection of the Kurds. Since the beginning of the Turkish military assault two weeks ago, hundreds of Yazidis have been displaced in northeastern Syria. They fear that ISIS followers in the area may be encouraged to start attacking them.
The world may need a thousand Nadia Murads to bring an end to ISIS and to help her people. But as a force of one, she continues to persist. Hopefully, her efforts will pay off.