A woman from the Yazidi people speaks about an unspeakable nightmare. Nadia Murad’s village was ravaged by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters. All the men were killed, and she, along with other girls, was forced to become a sex slave. The horrors that Nadia described to us are happening now on a daily basis. While the big powers, the high and mighty, squabble over spheres of influence, a great crime – reminiscent of the Holocaust – is taking place virtually unnoticed. This interview is a cry for help from people facing genocide. Nadia Murad survived being an IS slave and tells her harrowing story today, on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Nadia, you used to live in the Sinjar district of Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. Your village, Kocho, was destroyed by ISIS. What happened that day, when they came to your town?
Nadia Murad: They invaded the town of Sinjar on August 3, 2014. Before seizing our village, they had already captured all the Yazidi settlements nearby. Many Yazidis had the chance to escape or hide in the mountains; but my village is far from that area, so we had nowhere to run for shelter. The militants blocked us in the village. They killed thousands of men and abducted thousands of women. Their goal was to destroy our nation and our identity.
SS:So you mean to say that no one was able to escape from your village?
NM: They attacked our town in the morning and surrounded the village, so there was no way out. There were families who managed to escape but they didn’t have enough time to reach a safe place. The fighters killed the men who were caught and the women were taken away as slaves.
The Sinjar district is home to many villages. Many residents from settlements closer to the mountains were able to flee. But towns like ours didn’t have that opportunity. Those whose villages were next to Muslim villages couldn’t run away either, since many of the inhabitants had already joined Daesh. Our town was close to a Muslim village and we had nowhere to escape.
SS:Nadia, you said that when ISIS terrorists captured cities like Mosul, Christians and Shiites were allowed to take their belongings and leave. Why didn’t they offer the same to Yazidis?
NM: When Daesh militants seized Christian or Shiite territories, areas of the Shabak people or the Sabians, they simply forced them out of their homes and settlements. Many Christians and Shiites lost their property but were able to leave unharmed. However, when Daesh’s fighters stormed Yazidi villages in the Sinjar district, they gave us the choice – convert to Islam or die.
SS:Why did they treat Yazidis in such a way?
NM: I don’t know what reasons they might have. Based on what I understood from the time I spent in Daesh, and what I saw with my own eyes, I believe they consider us infidels. They attacked Yazidis to kill all of them. They attacked many people of other confessions, forced them from their lands but Yazidis were never even considered as people, we were never given a chance to simply leave.
SS:You say that after your village had been captured you were blocked inside it for two weeks, that you stayed in your homes. What happened during this time? What was life like? What were ISIS fighters waiting for?
NM: Between August 3rd and 15th, the militants had our village under siege but they didn’t enter our homes. They, however, did capture anyone they saw with a gun. After several days they set forward an ultimatum – we had to convert to Islam. We were given a choice — to either change our faith or be killed.
There was no life in the village during the siege. It felt as though we were already dead. We didn’t know what was in store for us. We saw horrific images on TV; we saw how Daesh abuses Yazidis. Before us they had already taken thousands of young women captive and killed thousands of men. Many of the Yazidis that managed to escape died of hunger and thirst in the mountains.
SS: So during the siege you thought that was it, you were going to die?
NM:We didn’t know what would happen… We were thinking about trying to escape, we contacted different agencies that we hoped could help us, we pleaded for help. But it was all in vain. We were in a very difficult situation. We couldn’t get out of the village. The fighters would come every hour demanding that we convert to Islam… We didn’t know what would happen to us, we didn’t know when they would come for us. We didn’t know if they would kill everyone! Or take the women away! On August 15th, the last day of the siege, they gathered us in a school on the outskirts of the town, we understood what was going to happen then…
SS:So in that school they separated the men and women — what did you understand at that moment?
NM: Before they took the men away, they demanded yet another time that we convert to Islam. But no one agreed. Then they separated us – the men from the women. They took all our valuables that we had on us. After that they led the men away and executed them. We could hear the gunshots. We could see them being killed one by one outside of the school. The militants then picked out the youngest women, the little girls and also me. They set apart the elderly women, too. All of us were taken to another district where they divided us into groups — the young women, children, married women and elderly women. And then they took each group to a different area.
SS:You just said they killed all the men. We know you had six brothers – what happened to them? Were they murdered that day?
NM: Daesh rounded up more than 700 men from our village. I witnessed them killing some of them but we don’t know if they murdered everybody. Some say there were people who escaped the massacre. My six brothers were among the men taken away by the terrorists on that day. But we don’t have any information about what really happened to them. Maybe the fighters took some men captive, which means they are now in the hands of those murderers. But most probably all of my brothers were killed. Many mass graves have been uncovered in our town.
SS:So you don’t know whether your family is alive or not?
NM: We don’t know exactly what happened to any of the Yazidis captured by Daesh. If they were killed or taken captive. I only know what happened to the women and girls who ended up as slaves just like me. I know what they are facing and what they are going through right now…
SS:Did ISIS fighters enslave all women? Did they draw a line between the young women, the married and the senior ones?
NM: They abducted all women, girls and children, all Yazidis from the villages of Hardan, Til Ezer, Siba, Gire Ezer. There were thousands of women. In the first days I witnessed fighters taking girls who were over the age of nine to rape them.
They didn’t touch the married women until later – under sharia law, a woman can marry again 40 days after a divorce. So the militants would wait 40 days and then rape them as well. As for the senior women, they were killed. My mother was murdered along with 80 other women from our village. They were killed because of their age; they were too old to be slaves. Children were taken away – the little boys were sent to Syria for training in terrorist camps and brainwashing.
SS:Were there at least some children who were allowed to stay with their mothers? Or did ISIS take all of them to their camps?
NM: They took all the boys aged 4 and over to training camps. And all the girls over 9-years- old were taken away as slaves. They didn’t allow anybody over 5-years-old to stay with their mothers. Toddlers under the age of 3 could stay but everybody else was taken away.
SS:The militants put you on the bus and took you to the ISIS stronghold of Mosul. Did they tell you where you were going? What would happen to you?
NM: When they put us on the bus, we didn’t know what would happen to us. We saw them killing men; we saw them killing the older women. When they took us away, we didn’t know if they would kill us, or make us their wives. While we were on our way, before we reached Mosul, they started harassing us on the bus. They touched and humiliated us. They told us openly, “You are our sex slaves.”
They took us to a building in Mosul, where we saw hundreds of other girls like us. Those girls hadn’t been distributed among the militants yet. Some of them were married, some had children. We asked them how they were being treated, because they were taken from other Yazidi villages in Sinjar before us. The girls told us that once in a while somebody is taken away and raped. The militants could sell or trade us among themselves. They took the children away from the married women. Women who were several months pregnant were forced to have an abortion because the militants said they were pregnant from infidels – Yazidi men.
SS:What happened next? Where did they take you?
NM: We stayed in Mosul for several days, before we were distributed among Daesh fighters. They would come and take girls away. They would even separate sisters. There wasn’t a single girl left who hadn’t been raped. Girls were sold or rented to militants between Syria and Iraq. They distributed us between ISIS headquarters, between all the areas controlled by Daesh: Mosul, Raqqa, Shaddadi, Tell-Afar, Al-Hamdaniya. Yazidi girls were in every place, every house controlled by Daesh.
SS:The terrorist that took you wanted to convert you to Islam. You refused. Weren’t you afraid that he might kill you? Were you ready to die?
NM: Yes, I was ready to die. I personally asked the terrorist to kill me. There were hundreds of girls who were with me, and they all wanted to be killed. We already saw men and women killed, our Yazidi brothers, our fathers and our mothers. Every single hour, every single minute I hoped they would kill us as well. But they did not kill the girls. They had no intention of killing Yazidi girls. They wanted us as sex slaves.
SS:When he raped you, did you try to resist? Could you tell him “no”?
NM: Of course, I resisted. I didn’t want to be treated this way. But he beat me. He would put a gun next to my head – not to kill, just to intimidate. And then he would brutally rape me.
They did this to all the Yazidi girls. They would take little innocent girls, bring them to their headquarters and dozens of militants would rape them there. How can one weak girl resist them?
Even if we refused, this wouldn’t change a thing. There was nothing we could do. Even when we refused to convert to Islam, they forced us to go to the Sharia court in Mosul and say the Shahada.
SS:This terrorist, did he use you only as a sex slave? Did you have to do any kind of work for him?
NM: No, they didn’t take us to work or serve them. They only made us serve tea or water when militants came to the headquarters, so they could take a look at us. They only took us for rape and then to sell or rent us out. There were even cases where a man would get a girl and then hand her over to his brother the same day. Militants never kept girls for more than two weeks. We never stayed at the same place for longer than a month. They always kept reselling us.
SS:This militant that held you captive, did he have a family, a wife? Do all militants have families?
NM: Yes, many of the militants have families. The one that took me captive didn’t bring me to his family. But some of the militants would take a girl into their family for a day or two. But the families didn’t help any of the girls. They treated them the same way militants did. Those were Daesh families, they were no better than the militants. But very few militants would take the girls to their homes. They kept us at their headquarters, where they had a better opportunity to show us off and sell us to others.
SS:Tell me something, if those militants were married, isn’t it wrong for a Muslim to cheat on his wife? And does Islam even allow such violence?
NM: Their wives knew that the fighters took us as sex slaves, they didn’t consider us equals. They were even glad. They didn’t consider it as cheating, because the militants were doing everything in the name of Islamic State. They raped Yazidi girls and sold them to one another. Their wives knew about it. They knew that their husbands wouldn’t keep those girls in the family for a long time or marry them. Militants never treated me as their family member. They only used me for sex. Why would their wives be jealous? I would be sold in an hour or two, and I would no longer be in their house.
SS:How did the militants justify their actions – did they just say they were doing everything in the name of Islam?
NM: Yes, they even forced me to pray, to memorize the Koran, to read the Koran. Even if Daesh was doing all these things in the name of Islam, even if it calls itself Islamic State there are many Muslims that are against the things they do. But there are those who join Daesh, and not just in Iraq and Syria. They have people from many different countries. I heard these fighters speaking languages I couldn’t understand.
SS:Nadia, you tried to escape, but you were caught. Could they kill you if you attempt to flee? What happened after you were brought back to your captor?
NM: They didn’t kill girls for trying to escape. After I was caught, they took me to their headquarters, I was beaten and many ISIS fighters came and took turns raping me. They did this to all the girls who tried to escape. Some of these girls were very young, many of them virgins. Many Yazidi girls committed suicide after being raped like that. If anybody tried to run and got caught, they wouldn’t try it again.
SS:What happened after? Where were you taken?
NM: They caught me and kept me in their headquarters in Mosul. The militants raped me, sold me and rented me out. I met many girls who were treated the same way. I was not the only one. But I was lucky, I was able to escape once again. That last time I escaped alone. I ran to a house and the family that lived there hid me from the militants. Yet some girls were not as lucky as I was. A girl from my village tried to run away from militants in Syria. After they caught and raped her, she set herself on fire and burnt to death.
SS:I’ve met a Yazidi girl who is helping girls like you who were able to run away from the militants. She told me that some girls killed their guards. Have you ever thought about it?
NM: I couldn’t kill anybody. Maybe there were girls who were able to kill, but I wasn’t. I was never left in a house with just one guard. They kept me in their headquarters but there were dozens and maybe even hundreds of militants. Even if I would kill one of them, there were twenty more in their headquarters.
SS: You have been sold and transferred several times. Tell us about it. Were you bought and sold at a slave market? How does it look like?
NM: Sharia courts serve as markets. Militants would come to a court to look at the pictures of the girls. Some would also come to their headquarters to choose a girl. I was kept at one such place. Militants could come and look at the girls, including me. If somebody liked me, he would take me. They would visit different places and choose the girls they liked from dozens and even hundreds of girls. All the Daesh militants know each other. When they talk to each other they share information about girls in this or that place. Then they come to look at the girls and take whomever they like. We were sold in courts and at markets. There are markets, big halls in Syria where thousands of girls are being traded. Militants go there to buy girls. The first time I was with 60 others – we were kept in two different rooms. Militants would come and buy us as if we were merchandise.
SS:How much did they pay for you? What is the value of a human life according to militants?
NM: They never treated Yazidis as humans. We are like animals to them. Often we were given away as gifts for their friends; they would exchange girls and sell them for less than $100. We had no value – our lives were worth nothing to Daesh.
SS:Were all the militants Arabs? Were there Iraqis and Syrians among them? Were there foreign fighters from Europe and the U.S.?
NM: There were many militants from Arab countries, many were Syrian. Some came from other countries. I don’t know exactly where from, but I know for sure that people from many different places, not only Arab countries, joined Daesh. You cannot say that Daesh is fighting against Iraq – this war is a threat to the whole world. So the whole world has to fight against Daesh and destroy it, because Daesh is a threat not only to Yazidis, but to the whole world.
SS: The USA and their allies have been conducting airstrikes against ISIS militants for over a year. Have you ever witnessed a bombing?
NM: I don’t know where the coalition military forces conduct airstrikes, but I’ve never witnessed a bombing, though I know from TV news reports that there are airstrikes.
SS:How did you manage to escape? Did anybody help you?
NM: When I ran away the first time, I was caught by the militants. But my second attempt was successful. A Muslim family from Mosul hid me and helped me get out of the area controlled by Daesh.
Many girls managed to escape and get back to their home towns. Some did it on their own, others were helped by someone.
SS:Many local people who agreed to help wanted to be paid. Where did you get the money?
NM:Right, some people offered to help the girls who wanted to escape – for money. But the family that helped me did this without asking for anything in return. I had a brother who was living in a tent camp in Kurdistan, he sent them a small amount of money to help me leave Mosul. They never asked for money – I asked my brother to send me some.But sometimes relatives have to pay huge ransoms for the girls in Syria.
SS:How much does it cost to escape? How much do relatives have to pay?
NM: Relatives have to pay over $20,000. Sometimes Yazidi families have to pay even more. But in recent months very few girls have been able to escape. It’s been very difficult. Some of them were sold to Syria to be returned to their families for ransom. But before that happened, they were raped by dozens of militants.
SS: What would happen to people who helped the girls escape if militants found out?
NM: Well, the militants never knew about it. ISIS militants still know nothing about the family that saved me. I have never named the people who helped me.
SS:You said that militants were looking for you, that your photos were all over the city and at checkpoints. How did you manage to get out of the city unnoticed?
NM: The militants demanded that all women wore an abaya, which covered the whole body, a niqab, which covered the head, and a khimar, which fully covered the face. I’m sure you know what it looks like.
So I put all this on and they didn’t recognize me. I was wearing black clothes, so no one knew who it was. But it was their own demand that all women in Mosul and in other places under Daesh control wear these things. All the girls who managed to escape were wearing these clothes.
SS:Where did you go after escaping ISIS captivity? How did you get to Europe?
NM: The family which saved me, helped me get to the border with Kurdistan near Kirkuk. So I came to Kirkuk - there’s no Daesh in Kirkuk. Then I spent some time in the tent camps in Kurdistan.
Later German authorities decided to invite one thousand Yazidi women, who escaped from Daesh, for treatment. I was among those women, so I went to Germany. Germany was treating us better than other countries. They welcomed us, provided us with treatment, helped us get legal status and gave us a place to stay. They are still helping us. I was lucky to have come to Germany.
SS:Nadia, you are an exceptional person in every sense of the word, because you not only managed to escape from captivity, but you were also brave enough to tell your story. Not every girl would be able to do that. Do you fear ISIS persecution?
NM: After everything I went through, my life doesn’t mean anything to me. I have nothing to lose. I once had a family, but I lost it. The society I lived in was torn apart and divided. The future of the Yazidi people is uncertain. Still 3,400 Yazidi women and children in Syria and Iraq are being sold, rented and exchanged. Nobody is helping the Yazidis. Therefore I have no fear for myself. I lost everything: my honor and dignity, my family, the Yazidis lost everything. I have nothing more to lose.
SS:I know that you’ve been nominated for the Nobel Prize. What does this mean to you after everything you’ve been through?
NM: Yes, you are right, I’ve been nominated, but I have an important mission and a big job to do. It’s more important than any prize. My people, half a million Yazidis have been forced out of their land. Thousands were killed. Over 20 mass graves have been found near Sinjar.
Nobody helped us when we were in Sinjar. No institution has ever helped us to release our girls. No country or organization has ever sent anyone to Sinjar to see our graves. Sinjar’s land is covered with the dead bodies of our sons and daughters. We are not able to bury our dead. Maybe the world could help me to do that?
Yes, I’ve been nominated for the Nobel prize. But this prize should stand for all of my people, for all the minorities and ethnic groups, for each woman and child suffering from torture and abuse. Only then this prize can be a good, sacred prize respected by the whole world. But I’ve got something bigger than that. I have a greater task. My people are suffering genocide. I need to stop the genocide against Yazidis that is still going on.
SS:Nadia, I cannot simply say ‘thank you’. It’s very brave of you to share your story. After this interview, I know that you have survived for a purpose, you have a very important mission – to preserve your people – the Yazidis. I’m very grateful to you for this interview. I wish you strength to reach your goals. Thank you!