Nadia Murad and the Yazidi Genocide

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Written by Leila Iskandarani

On Thursday, April 18, the Genocide Studies Program at the Macmillan Center hosted Nadia Murad, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and survivor of the Yazidi genocide. The event was the keynote address of a two-day symposium entitled “The Yazidi Genocide: Prosecution, Protection, and Preservation,” which focused on the attempted genocide of the Yazidi people by the Islamic State (IS). The event was presented as a conversation between Murad and David J. Simon, Director of Genocide Studies at Yale.

The Yazidis, an ethnic minority in northern Iraq, have “carried the weight of historical oppression and persecution… and suffered greatly as they have been, and continue to be, victims of sexual violence and enslavement,” according to Pericles Lewis, Yale’s Vice President for Global Strategy. Murad was confronted with the attempted genocide in 2014, when IS — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Daesh — attacked her home of Mount Sinjar “with the intention of ethnically cleansing all Yazidis from Iraq,” Lewis said.

In opening the conversation, Simon provided a brief background to the conflict. On August 3, 2014, Daesh successfully mounted an assault against the city of Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in 2014. In its aftermath, Simon said, “Daesh attempted to perpetrate the genocide against the Yazidi people, who inhabited Sinjar and the surrounding areas.” Five thousand Yazidis were killed, another 10 thousand were abducted, and 200 thousand were forced to take flight. Murad, a 21-year-old student at the time, was among those abducted. After being held captive in Mosul and enduring what Simon called “unspeakable horrors” for weeks, Murad was able to escape through an unlocked door.

Since finding freedom, Murad has devoted herself to advocated for survivors of genocide and sexual violence. After becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, Murad wrote “The Last Girl,” a book detailing her experience. She also founded a nonprofit organization, Nadia’s Initiative, which “advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis,” according to its website.

Speaking through an interpreter, Murad first spoke of her chilling abduction and subsequent advocacy work. When she first escaped, she fled to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, where some of her surviving family were living. At the time, she did not know whether she was going to dedicate her life to advocacy work. “I was sure that life would not be normal again,” Murad said, but she “did not know what life would look like” for herself.

Murad made ISIS intent behind the persecution of Yazidis clear.

“When ISIS came… the execution of men and the exploitment [sic] of women and the attempted genocide of the Yazidi people” was intentional, Murad said. “This was not secret; ISIS published this in their videos, in their documents…. the world knew what the Yazidis were going through.”

Asked about her decision to go public with her story, Murad emphasized the importance of the support she received from her community. Though this is not the first time Yazidis have faced attempted genocide, Yazidi women — who have historically been the victims of sexual slavery and other sex crimes — do not usually speak publicly about these issues. However, after other Yazidi women came forward with their stories and received an outpouring of support from their families and communities, Murad decided to speak about her own experience.

She then elaborated about the needs of the Yazidi people today, nearly five years after the beginning of the attempted genocide. She expressed frustration at the lack of progress in returning Yazidis back to their homes, despite widespread awareness of the Yazidis’ struggle.

“Our needs are known to the international community, to the [Iraqi] government, to everyone,” Murad said. “Unfortunately, we have failed to get these needs met.”

According to Murad, the “effects of the aftermath of the genocide on the Yazidi community are perhaps greater than the genocide itself.” One of the barriers preventing Yazidis from returning to their homes is the political status of Sinjar. The area is disputed between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government, and the presence of several military groups prevents Yazidis from returning home. Aid initiatives offer temporary relief to Iraq’s Yazidi community, 80 percent of which is still displaced. However, given the scope of the Yazidis’ needs, short-term aid has been insufficient. Through Nadia’s Initiative, Murad has tried to shift the conversation away from short-term aid and IDP camps, and toward returning the Yazidis to Sinjar.

“It is very difficult to treat the trauma, especially of women,” Murad said. Despite receiving care from humanitarian aid organizations, “at the end of the day, the women will go to a tent that was set up in 2014.”

In closing, Murad urged attendees to support the Yazidi community.

“You can be a voice for them. You can open doors for them that they cannot open,” she said.