Today, Nadia Murad and Dr. Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work against rape and sexual assault in warfare. Nadia is an Iraqi, a Yazidi, who was captured in August 2014 when ISIS attacked the Sinjar region, committing genocide.
Nadia lost 18 family members to ISIS, either by death or enslavement. She herself was captured and made a sex slave for months before she finally escaped.
No one knows exactly how many people were killed that August day, but dozens of mass graves mar the landscape. In Nadia’s hometown of Kocho, the epicenter of the genocide, ISIS executed more than 300 men behind a local school. Older women were also killed. Younger women were taken to slave markets, while younger boys were taken for indoctrination.
Thousands of Yazidi women and children are still missing, some held by ISIS to this day.
“Most people die once in their lifetime,” Nadia said, describing her experience in ISIS captivity. “But we were dying every hour. Our hearts were constantly full of fear as we had no idea when they could come for us.”
Nadia endured rape and abuse. She knew firsthand about the punishment for trying to escape, yet reached for her freedom anyway. After one failed attempt at escape, Nadia was beaten and gang-raped by six militants. “They continued to commit crimes to my body until I became unconscious,” she said.
The abuse that Nadia suffered is unimaginable to most of us. It was so devastating that it altered her very core.
“I feel like every part of me changed in their hands,” she says. “Every strand of hair on my head, every part of my body got old. I got worn out by what they did to me, and now I am totally different in every way. I never imagined that these things could happen, and I can’t really describe them in a way to make you understand.”
Yazidi women are taught from an early age to be modest, to have personal dignity. According to Yazidi custom, any form of sexual contact with someone outside the Yazidi community meant banishment—even if it wasn’t consensual. ISIS abducted and raped thousands of Yazidi women.
But the Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, declared that anyone who was kidnapped by ISIS is still Yazidi, still a member of this ancient, close-knit community. A new ritual—not unlike baptism—was introduced to commemorate their return and perhaps offer a measure of healing. “The women were taken by force,” Baba Sheikh told The Guardian. “They didn’t choose this.”
Over and over again Nadia has told her story on a global stage. It’s painful, unveiling the most private, wounded parts of herself, to ask the world to understand and believe her darkest moments. But despite this, Nadia is speaking anyway, because she wants the world to know about the pillage of her people, to respond to it. She speaks, “so that one day we can look our abusers in the eye in a court… and tell the world what they have done to us. So my community can heal. So I can be the last girl to come before you.”
The Yazidi people are still vulnerable, still marginalized. Though ISIS is defeated, their homeland sits just a few miles west of the Syrian border. More than once this year, Turkish warplanes have bombed targets on Sinjar Mountain. Just last week, several men and women were reportedly abducted by the Turkish army. Many Yazidis still cannot safely return home.
Nadia is free from ISIS, but she will continue to push forward, continue to give her people a voice. “I will go back to my life when women in captivity go back to their lives, when my community has a place, when I see people accountable for their crimes,” she says.
Yazidi people like Nadia, like our soapmaker friends Faris and Gozê and Sozan, are working to reclaim their lives, their hope since it was shattered by ISIS. They are speaking truth to us from podiums and microphones, as they sit with us in their homes. They are stepping out in bravery, sharing their stories, believing, knowing they can remake their future, the world.