MAEVE LAZOR, CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF | SEPTEMBER 24, 2016
On Friday, September 23rd, Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who escaped ISIS sexual enslavement, spoke at Bard College abouther captivity and journey to spread awareness about the Yazidi Genocide.
Murad’s visit to Bard, sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Bard’s Human Rights Project, the Center for Civic Engagement and the Bard Model UN Initiative, was her first visit to an American college as a human rights activist.
“As Yazidis we do not know what our future is. We still have 3,500 women and children in captivity. As a person I’ve lost a lot: I’ve lost my mother, my brothers, and as a girl I’ve lost my life. I’ve lost many people close to me but also the question is I don’t know who I’m going to lose next,” said Murad, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and was appointed as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. International Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney has also supported her in seeking justice before the International Criminal Court. She spoke in her native tongue of Kurmanji with English translation.
The Yazidi minority group of Northern Iraq practice a syncretic religion influenced by elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions and Zoroastrianism. Yazidis, who have experienced a long history of discrimination, have wrongfully been labeled “devil worshippers” by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, otherwise known as ISIS.
In August 2014, ISIS overran the town of Sinjar, Iraq and systematically killed around 5,000 Yazidi men and boys who refused to convert to Islam, and captured about 7,000 Yazidi women and girls who were subsequently sold as sex slaves. 400,000 Yazidis in total have been forced from their homes.
Murad was twenty-one when ISIS militants took her and her sisters from their home village of Kocho, Iraq, on August 3rd, 2014 and brought to Mosul, where they were enslaved. Six of her nine brothers were executed; her mother, considered too old to be sold as a slave, was also executed.
In Mosul, Murad witnessed girls as young as six sold off to ISIS fighters as “gifts.” Every morning, the women were required to line up so that the militants could pick and choose the women they found attractive.
Murad recalled some women smearing battery acid on their faces to look less appealing to their captors. Several women killed themselves while in captivity.
Facing unbelievable cruelty in Mosul, Murad attempted to escape but was caught and subsequently beaten and gang-raped by six ISIS members. At this point she no longer feared death and was even begging her captors to kill her. Three months later, she saw another opportunity for escape and this time succeeded. She fled out of the country and made it to Germany where she received medical attention. Both of her sisters survived and found asylum in Germany.
Many Jihadi fighters believe that according to Islam, it is their right to rape women who practice a religion other than Islam and that if a woman is raped ten times, she will be converted. Many fighters pray before raping their victims, reciting verses in the Quran to justify their actions. The practice of systematic sex slavery has gradually become a tool to recruit young men into ISIS.
“ISIS gives no value to women and girls, what they want is to own them and to use them in whatever way,” said Murad.
According to a pamphlet issued by ISIS, a man cannot have intercourse with his slave if she is pregnant. It also states that even having sex with a child is permissible. As a result, ISIS fighters aggressively forced the women to take birth control pills or injectable contraception to maintain a supply of sex slaves.
The women and girls who are in refugee camps or who have found asylum in European countries still suffer every day from psychological trauma and most are not receiving the treatment that they need. As a survivor and human rights activist, Murad founded Nadia’s Initiative with support from the Yazda Organization, a non-profit organization which strives to provide long-term approaches to healing sexually traumatized victims by developing and supporting field programs in health care, psychosocial support and education for women and children.
“When I meet people like you at the universities it’s more important for me than meeting a president of a country because we’ve been waiting for months and years for this to change but nothing has changed yet,” Murad said on the state of refugee camps hosting Yazidis.
Murad’s message is one of unity: “When you want to help someone, you don’t have to be a president or the head of a state. Once there is collective willingness then you can do it. Many girls like myself are at the refugee camps. Maybe if you just go and sit with them and look them in the eye maybe that is good enough support for them,” she said. “It’s important for them to be sitting with you and have them tell you what has happened to them.”
Visiting refugee camps in Greece and Germany, Murad spoke to countless Yazidi women and children. She discovered that many Yazidis are facing violence from Muslims in the camps, who view them as infidels. The camps’ police have still not properly addressed the problem.
“[The combined refugee camps] are a problem especially for the women and girls—for example when they hear the prayer “allahu akbar” they think they will be enslaved again so for that I ask the government to give them separate camps so they can feel safer but that’s something that hasn’t happened,” she said.
What is most frustrating for Murad in her endeavors to help Yazidi refugees is the lack of action on behalf of the UN. “For two years we’ve been trying to get in an inquiry and an investigation going in Iraq, and there has been no investigation against the crimes. This week we’ve met with the UN and many world leaders and we ask them for the proper investigation to take place. And this is a bad situation because we have there is no accountability for the crimes committed,” Murad said.
On her website, Murad states that she wants to prompt peace through deradicalization. Nadia’s Initiative focuses not only on helping women in Iraq, but also in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. This is an ambitious goal, but Murad believes that in addition to the UN, with the help of students, it is an attainable one.
In an interview with Bard Watch, Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, underlined Murad’s goals: “…As she said, simply having someone like yourself, an American student, come and hold their hand or look at them in the eye can mean an enormous amount to a refugee who feels like they have been forgotten by the world and many of them have been forgotten by the world. And simply to look at them can be a powerful statement…she would like to send students to these refugee camps to teach and talk to them.”
There is also talk of recruiting Yazidi students at Bard College and its global campuses. This year Bard College Berlin awarded five Syrian refugees receiving a full scholarship, and while there has not been nearly as much focus on Yazidi refugees, Bard would like to make something similar happen at any of its campuses.
The Yazidi Genocide is not receiving as much attention as it should on the world stage, which calls for the help of individuals—students.
“The human rights program [at Bard] has an archive a couple different human rights cases including a video archive of the Slobodan Milosevic trial and the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India…So if we could create an archive of events, newspaper clippings, reports, photos, interviews of the Yazidi genocide that could work,” said Berkowitz. “These people have been raped, enslaved, and over time their memories will fade. By the time the UN gets around to investigating, these people may be dead or have forgotten, but one of the things that needs to happen is we need to take witness. These are the kinds of things they need volunteers for—I don’t know what Bard can do along these lines—there are safety issues, but there is no reason we can’t send students to camps in Germany and Greece that are safe, which we’ve already done. We’d like to help them in any way we can.”
Murad can’t do this alone. She needs all the help she can get—from the UN, presidents, prime ministers, and now, students. It is too much of an emotional burden for one person to carry, and the weight of her ordeal could be seen when she began to tear up answering audience questions, reliving the memories of her time in Mosul.
“I do this because of the suffering of others…These people have no future, they have no life, they have no voice. Every day that goes by it is taking something from me—it’s taking my soul and my heart but I do this because of others and I don’t know how much more I can do this but I am,” she said.
Photo by Anne Burnett/ Bard.
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This article was originally published in the Bard Free Press.