Nadia Murad: from ISIS enslavement to human rights activist

Anika Michel | SIPA Class of 2018

How do you choose between sex slavery and death? 

Ask Nadia Murad Basee Taha. She opted to live, even though there were times when she wanted to die. 

At 23, she no longer smiles, but it’s no wonder after her recent plight in ISIS captivity. 

Two years ago, Nadia was living peacefully with her family in Kocho, a rural town in northwestern Iraq. Before ISIS came, Nadia dreamt about a future as history teacher or even as a make-up artist. She never worried about religious differences, as Muslims and Christians had been coexisting in her town for centuries.

Invasion of ISIS 

However, in summer 2014, she began to see TV reports of a group calling itself the Islamic State. When they came to her village on Aug. 3, she immediately recognized them. “This is the same group that we have seen committing crimes on the TV,” she told a reporter from Time magazine. “I did not know anything about what ISIS was or what it was going to do.”

Twelve days later, the militants forced members of Nadia’s village to walk to a school outside of Kocho. Separating the men from the women and children, the fighters murdered more than 300 men, six of whom were Nadia’s brothers and stepbrothers, Times quoted a United Nations spokesperson as saying. Nadia, then only 21 years old, said she witnessed the horrific killings. Her mother, considered too old to be a sex slave, was also executed. 

Genocide against Yazidis

The remaining women were taken to Mosul, where they stayed in a building with thousands of Yazidi families, all of whom were going to be enslaved. The Yazidis are monotheists, but worship seven spirits sent by Yasdan, who they regard as the Supreme Being. Their religion includes elements of many faiths, such as reincarnation. ISIS militants target Yazidis, who they deem to be devil worshippers because they do not practice Islam, in what has been considered genocide. According to the BBC, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in 2015 saying that ISIS had “the intent… to destroy the Yazidi as a group.”

Some women sought to avoid sex slavery by smearing battery acid on their faces to appear less attractive, or by committing suicide to end their misery altogether. “I did not want to kill myself,” Nadia said. “But I wanted them to kill me.”

“He was like a monster.”

At the building where Nadia stayed, ISIS soldiers exchanged children among themselves as erotic gifts. One of the soldiers tried to take Nadia. He was older and significantly bigger in size. “I was absolutely petrified. When I looked up, I saw a huge man. He was like a monster,” she said in her testimony before the United Nations Security Council in December 2015. “I cried out, I said ‘I am too young, and you’re huge.’”

The man then beat Nadia, hitting her and kicking her repeatedly. Then another man approached her. She asked him to take her to avoid being given to the larger man. “I begged him, I implored for him to take me. I was incredibly scared of the first man,” she said in her testimony. 

The second man agreed to take her. A few days later, he raped her. “He forced me to get dressed and put my make up on. And then that terrible night, he did it,” she testified. 

Things went from bad to worse for Nadia. She was beaten, raped and tortured on a daily basis. Not wanting this to be her lifelong fate, she decided to escape, but was caught by one of the guards and returned to her captor. “That night, he beat me. He asked me to take my clothes off, and put me in a room with the guards,” she said in her testimony. “Then they proceeded to commit their crime until I fainted.”

Three months later, Nadia made a second attempt to escape and succeeded. Her final captor, an ISIS bus driver, went to buy her a dress for an upcoming trip to his home outside of Mosul. Seeing that he had left the house unlocked, Nadia seized the opportunity and left. Once outside, she began knocking on doors until a family let her in and gave her shelter for the night. Using their daughter’s ID card to get past ISIS checkpoints, she made her way to Tal Afar, a city in northwestern Iraq, where she met her brother. 

Nadia then went to live in a refugee camp where her brother was living, located outside of Duhok, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. While there, she was selected to join a resettlement program in Germany. She has been living in Stuttgart ever since.   

UN Goodwill Ambassador 

Since giving her testimony at the UN in New York last December, Nadia has been using her new public platform to travel to different countries to speak about the Yazidi genocide. Earlier this year, she was nominated by Iraq for the Nobel Peace Prize. On Sept. 16, 2016, the United Nations appointed Nadia as Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. On Oct. 10, she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named in honor of the Czech writer and political dissident who served as president of his country after the fall of Communism.

According to the New York Times, Nadia’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador was the first time a survivor of crimes against humanity has received such a distinction. That same day, she launched Nadia’s Initiative, an advocacy organization devoted to helping victims of atrocities and human trafficking.

Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, a member of the Nadia’s leadership team, says that her perseverance can serve as an example.

“Nadia, who has suffered and witnessed the worse violence a woman can endure, has spent the last year traveling the globe to raise awareness about the genocide of her people,” Brown said. “She is not hiding from the world. By facing the world and asking that we join her in stopping the kind of crimes that threaten all of humanity, she inspires resilience in women everywhere.”

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