DOHA, QATAR—Though her words were powerful, it was what Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad didn’t say that echoed with a pall long after the standing ovation she received by the audience at the Doha Forum Sunday in Qatar.
She did not utter the words “United States” once in the painful 45-minute interview this morning, but we all knew it was the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that created the conditions for the near obliteration of Yazidi villages—including her home of Kocho—from the Iraqi map. It was here in this mountainous region in the north of the country that her people had settled and farmed the land for thousands of years and co-existed as an ethnic and religious minority. Today, she described Sinjar, occupied first by ISIS and then by various militias since 2014, as “completely destroyed, the buildings and schools empty, like ghost villages.”
Now, five years after the ISIS massacres that left over 3,000 Yazidis dead (most executed or buried alive) and over 6,500 kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery or brought into ISIS indoctrination camps, most of the population of 500,000 remain displaced, many in refugee camps. Some 4,000 people are camped out at the top of Mount Sinjar with no running water or electricity, feeling very much forgotten by the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, as Yazidi women and girls are slowly rescued by non-government entities from their captors across Syria and Iraq (there are still an estimated 3,200 still in the hands Daesh, says Murad), they are getting much needed care and longer-term treatment in Germany, Canada, Australia and France. Missing from that list is the United States. Washington’s help came early and was brief: airstrikes on ISIS militants in Sinjar during the massacre in August 2014 and dropping aid to the Yazidis who fled to the mountaintop in the chaos. Determined to keep America’s re-entry into Iraq to a minimum, President Obama sent no further armed assistance to help stop the ensuing occupation, killings or abductions.
There are only 445 recent Yazidi refugees in the U.S. today, a mere five of that total were let in during 2018 as President Trump’s new refugee restrictions took effect.
Murad, 25, is strikingly youthful in appearance but for her eyes, which are world weary, and sad. For good reason: six of her brothers were killed when Daesh raided her village in August 2014. Her mother was also killed, along with the older women and elderly. She was taken then, with the younger females of her family, and held as a sex slave in an ISIS-held home in Mosul. After repeated rapes and beatings, she escaped within months, and was living in a container in a refugee camp when she told the world her story in February 2015.
Her remarks before the international forum took place just days after returning to her village as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a public grieving in which she pledged to use her prize money to build a hospital for her people there. She expressed no visible anger as she declared simply that it was time for the international community to act. It needed to recognize the genocide, bring the remaining abductees home, rebuild, and exact justice on the individuals responsible. She appeared to show no interest in revenge, only justice. For her non-Yazidi neighbors who she said betrayed her people to ISIS, she had little spite, only lament.
“The surrounding villages supported ISIS and said we were infidels and were a stain on our village and were not to be in Iraq,” she told the forum audience. As Iraq descended into chaos in the preceding decade, the Yazidis were increasingly isolated, and lost 1,500 people in two suspected Al Qaeda bombings in 2007.
“We were not considered first-rank citizens, we were considered second-rate citizens,” Murad said in Arabic through an interpreter.
“We are peaceful, we are conservative. But (ISIS) made our women concubines, 3,200 are in the hands of Daesh and we don’t know if they are living or dead.”
“There are no attempts to find them,” she added. While there are no major government-wide campaigns to rescue the women, there have been reports of Turkish officials working with the Iraqi displacement and migration office to rescue abductees who have been smuggled into Turkey. Then there are the brave private rescue operations, usually involving large sums of cash to ransom women and children.
Murad has started her own non-profit organization to help rebuild Sinjar and to act as a voice for ISIS survivors, particularly victims of rape, abduction and sex trafficking. She was instrumental in helping to get the UN Security Council to open an investigation into the war crimes committed against the Yazidis by ISIS in Iraq in September. There have been reports of similar crimes against the Yazidis in Syria, but that was not included in the resolution.
“Iraqi women and Yazidi and Arab women, they keep mum when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual violence in our culture. Because it was taboo it was difficult for me to talk about it,” she said to the audience. But she knew the only way to eventually stop the violence was to talk about it.
“No Iraqi women talked about rape before. So I was strong and I talked about the rape and I talked about the minorities in Syria and Iraq. I want my dignity restored, with justice.”
When asked what she says to women who are rescued but afraid to return home due to the pain and stigma, she said, “I can say to her today the Yazidi women have become victims but the world is defending the Yazidi and ISIS is inching closer to demise so come back to your family, and come back to us and we will receive you…do not be ashamed.”
For herself, she is still a village girl but with outsized goals in her heart. “I came back to Singar, and I hope, as a matter of fact, the international community will help the Yazidis come back to their villages and get back their dignity… to farm their plots of land and breed their cattle; to coexist with the surrounding communities. I hope human trafficking would be dispensed with.”
When all that is done she wants to get back to her pre-ISIS dreams, to own a beauty salon in the village, “helping women put make up rather than talking about sexual trafficking issues.”
One wonders if and when Washington will be sufficiently shamed enough into helping her realize her dreams?
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC