Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad: ‘We must support efforts to focus on humanity, and overcome political and cultural divisions’

26-year-old Nadia Murad has been advocating on behalf of the Yazidi community and survivors of genocide ever since she escaped ISIS captivity in 2014. At 19, Murad’s peaceful existence was shattered when Jihadists attacked her village, slaughtering hundreds of people (including 20 members of her family) and forcing the younger women into sexual slavery. Subjugated with thousands of other Yazidi women, Nadia endured three months of rape and torture before she was able to escape, eventually seeking asylum in Germany. In 2016, Nadia was named the United Nations very first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. In 2018, she became the first Iraqi, and the second youngest after Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Dr. Denis Mukwege) for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. 

Since her ordeal, Nadia has refused to accept the social codes that compel women to remain silent. She publically shares her painful story with the hope of empowering victims to reclaim their lives. iAWW had a chat with Nadia about becoming a voice for captive women and her hope for the second half of 2019.

Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood?

I was born in Kocho, Iraq – a small, peaceful farming village. I grew up as a typical farm girl. I went to school and helped my family. I had a large, loving family – there were 20 of us. 

What was your childhood dream? 

Like all young girls, I dreamed of finishing high school. I dreamed of one day marrying and living in Kocho with my own family. I dreamed of becoming a hair and make-up artist. I loved watching brides get ready for their weddings. I would sit quietly and observe every step of the process, memorizing how make-up was applied and hair uniquely styled. I dreamed someday I would have my own salon.  

Were you aware of the escalating tensions with ISIS?

As a young girl, I didn’t understand the unspeakable horrors mankind could commit against each other. I did not know of ISIS, nor could I imagine their impact on me, my family and my community.

In an instant, you lost everything when jihadists invaded your village. You were held captive for 4 months, and along with your community, faced unimaginable atrocities. 

Yes, the peaceful lives of the Yazidi community were savagely interrupted in August of 2014, when ISIS attacked our homeland in Sinjar – with the intention of ethnically cleansing Iraq of all Yazidis. Unfortunately, facing genocide is not unusual for Yazidis.  Throughout history, Yazidis have been targeted for extinction many times — simply because of our religious beliefs. 

The Yazidi minority is an ancient monotheistic religion.  How did ISIS misconstrue Yazidi oral traditions and use them as a tool of oppression?   

ISIS saw the Yazidis as the worst type of non-believers whose women could be enslaved. Guidelines were distributed – detailing what ISIS fighters could do with the Sabaya – their sex slaveA Committee for the buying and selling of slaves was established so Yazidi women could be sold in markets. ISIS’s glossy propaganda magazine justified the enslavement as spoils of war and a religious right of the soldiers.  

Sex slaves that were as young as 9 — who just days before were free, playing in fields, living normal lives. Suddenly, without notice, innocence was lost forever. Women and young girls were raped until their bodies were forever damaged and their spirits shattered. 

Do you feel the world turned a blind eye and a deaf ear?

There is no eloquent way to say the world betrayed the Yazidi community. The Iraqi and Kurdistan governments failed to protect us from ISIS and the international community compounded this inaction by neglecting to rescue the Yazidis. The world stood by and watched the attempted annihilation of the Yazidis — with very little action. Our homes, our families, our traditions, our people, our dreams – all destroyed.

How has your survival come with a purpose and an obligation? 

I am one of the lucky young women that managed to escape. At the time of my escape, I believed the world didn’t actually know the horrors ISIS inflicted on the Yazidi community. I believed if the world knew the truth, global leaders would act, the Yazidi people would be rescued and future genocides would be stopped. Sadly, this isn’t the case.  

Why so? You have travelled the world, meeting with global leaders (including the President of Iraq) for help. Where are we today with freeing the Yazidis?

After the initial genocide, the Yazidi community was met with expressions of concern and sympathy — internationally and locally. The reality is the genocide is still on-going.  ISIS and their supporters continue to celebrate the enslavement of more than 3,000 women who remain in captivity.  

It’s now past 4 years. How many displaced Yazidis are still living in Iraqi refugee camps?

Approximately 350,000 Yazidis live in IDP camps in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, unable to return to Sinjar because ISIS destroyed everything that was sacred.  

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that if the world still fails to act, my community – the Yazidi people — will cease to exist.  

You have refused to accept the social codes that compel women to remain silent. Was it a difficult decision to share your story publicly?

Deciding to speak out and tell my story was a difficult choice — for no one wants to discuss such horrors publicly. Ultimately, I chose to speak publicly because I believed the world needed to know the truth and I wanted justice. I wanted ISIS to be held accountable. If we are not able to hold ISIS responsible, with all of the overwhelming evidence, and our sophisticated justice systems, then we need to be honest and admit we are giving a green light to groups like ISIS – we are giving perpetrators power to act.  

How can ‘justice’ be a powerful instrument?

Justice is a very powerful tool. Survivors deserve justice. It is not only about accountability or punishment – it is recognition for survivors. It is the legal acknowledgment of the truth about what happened to victims. Formalized justice – prosecuting perpetrators of mass atrocities is crucial — but informal mechanisms such as reparations for victims is equally as important.  International law recognizes that victims of serious crimes, including rape, are entitled to reparations, yet few are actually compensated.

Courageous women from across the globe, come forward to recount tragic stories of abuse and violence – hoping their bravery will make a difference – they hope telling their stories will lead to formal or informal justice. But it rarely does. This must change. I believe if victims knew justice would be served, they would be more willing to step forward and tell their stories.

Why did you start Nadia’s Initiative and why is it important?

I started Nadia’s Initiative because I wanted a vehicle to stimulate change. To create change, one must assume responsibility. I learned this lesson through all of my meetings with global leaders – a lack of responsibility results in stagnation and empty promises. Change is virtually impossible without acknowledging a responsibility and moral imperative to act.  

Along with Denis Mukwege, you were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for your efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. Do you see the prize as a big step towards achieving justice?

Yes. Nadia’s Initiative recently launched the Sinjar Initiative — a targeted program to advance reconstruction efforts in the Sinjar region. I personally seeded this initiative by donating 100% of my Nobel Peace Prize money. I hope the Sinjar Initiative will be the centerpiece of a global commitment to bring justice to the region and restore the homes, lives, and dignity of those who have suffered horribly at the hands of ISIS. 

In a recent interview, you said, “Change is possible and can happen in an instant.” What is your hope for the second half of 2019?

Peace and prosperity is what future generations deserve. We must support efforts to focus on humanity, and overcome political and cultural divisions – prioritizing humanity, not war. Nadia’s Initiative — dedicated to rebuilding communities in crisis and advocating for victims of sexual violence — envisions a world where humanity is the priority and all human beings have the same freedoms and live free from persecution. I believe a world without genocide and sexual violence is possible.

To learn more about Nadia’s Initiative or support this important effort, please visit: https://nadiasinitiative.org

by JSK

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