Nadia Murad: From jihadists’ slave to global champion for women

At 25, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate has become a renowned campaigner against sexual violence as a weapon of war, and for fellow Yazidi victims of Islamic State

In this file photo taken on June 21, 2016, human rights activist Nadia Murad arrives at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Getty Images North America/Mark Wilson)
In this file photo taken on June 21, 2016, human rights activist Nadia Murad arrives at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Getty Images North America/Mark Wilson)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — Nadia Murad survived the worst cruelties ever inflicted on her people, the Yazidis of Iraq, before becoming a global champion of their cause and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Friday, Murad and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the prize for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war,” Nobel committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said in unveiling the winners in Oslo.

The 25-year-old Murad, her thin, pale face framed by her long brown hair, once lived a quiet life in her village near the mountainous Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar in northern Iraq, close to the border with Syria.

But when the Islamic State jihadist group stormed across swathes of the two countries in 2014, her fate changed forever and her nightmare began.

One day in August that year, pick-up trucks bearing the black flag of the jihadists swept into her village, Kocho.

IS fighters set about killing the men, taking children captive to train them as fighters and condemning thousands of women to a life of forced labor and sexual slavery.

Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who escaped Islamic State captivity, tours Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on July 24, 2017 (Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

Today, Murad and her friend Lamia Haji Bashar, joint recipients of the EU’s 2016 Sakharov human rights prize, continue the fight for the 3,000 Yazidis who remain missing, presumed still in captivity.

IS fighters wanted “to take our honor, but they lost their honor,” said Murad, now a United Nations goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking.

It is an evil she personally experienced during a harrowing three months.

After being captured by IS fighters, Murad was taken by force to Mosul, the de facto “capital” of the IS’s self-declared caliphate.

During her ordeal she was held captive and repeatedly gang-raped, tortured and beaten.

The jihadists organized slave markets for selling off the women and girls, and Yazidi women were forced to renounce their religion.

Seen as heretics

For the jihadists, with their ultra-strict interpretation of Islam, the Yazidis are seen as heretics.

In this file photo taken on December 13, 2016, Nadia Murad, a public advocate for the Yazidi community in Iraq and survivor of sexual enslavement by the Islamic State, delivers a speech after being awarded the 2016 Sakharov human rights prize at the European parliament in Strasbourg. (AFP Photo/Frederick Florin)

The Kurdish-speaking community follows an ancient religion, revering a single God and the “leader of the angels,” represented by a peacock.

Like thousands of Yazidis, Murad was forcibly married to a jihadist, beaten and forced to wear makeup and tight clothes — an experience she later related in front of the United Nations Security Council.

“The first thing they did was they forced us to covert to Islam,” Murad told AFP in 2016.

Shocked by the violence, Murad set about trying to escape, and managed to flee with the help of a Muslim family from Mosul.

Armed with false identity papers, she managed to cross the few dozen kilometers to Iraqi Kurdistan, joining crowds of other displaced Yazidis in camps.

There, she learned that six of her brothers and her mother had been killed.

With the help of an organization that assists Yazidis, she joined her sister in Germany, where she lives today.

In this file photo taken on March 9, 2017, Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad speaks at a UN Headquarters meeting on ‘The Fight against Impunity for Atrocities: Bringing Da’esh to Justice’ in New York. (AFP Photo/Kena Betancur)

She has since dedicated herself to what she calls “our peoples’ fight,” becoming a well-known spokeswoman even before the #MeToo movement swept the world.

The Yazidis numbered around 550,000 in Iraq before 2014, but some 100,000 have since left the country.

Many others have fled and remain in Iraqi Kurdistan, reluctant to return to their traditional lands.

Slight and soft-spoken Murad has now become a global voice, campaigning for justice for her people and for the acts committed by the jihadists to be recognized internationally as genocide.

And she and the Yazidis have won a high-profile supporter — Lebanese-British lawyer and rights activist Amal Clooney, who also penned the foreword to Murad’s book, “The Last Girl,” published in 2017.

The same year, the UN Security Council committed to helping Iraq gather evidence of IS crimes.

Yet in contrast to all the tragedies that have befallen her, recent pictures on Murad’s Twitter feed show happier times.

In August, she announced her engagement to fellow Yazidi activist Abid Shamdeen.

“The struggle of our people brought us together & we will continue this path together,” she wrote.

Underneath, a photo showed her next to a young man in a bow tie, her face still framed by her long brown hair, but this time, bearing a broad smile.

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