Escape to freedom, but back to misery

The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against The Islamic State reviewed by Tahreem Khalied (Penguin Random House, 2018, 320pp)

Escape to freedom, but back to misery

Nadia Murad was 21 years old when the Islamic State besieged her village in northern Iraq. The 2014 siege of Kocho lasted two weeks, with Yazidi elders frantically trying to reason with militants even as the latter carried out systematic killings throughout the Sinjar district. After two weeks of agonizing uncertainty, the militants gathered the villagers and executed nearly all the men and older women.

Murad lost her mother and six brothers in the massacre, and was subsequently taken by the militants, along with hundreds of other young women and girls, to be sold and used as sex slaves. ISIS used these girls as a global recruiting tool, distorting verses from the Quran to justify violence against Yazidi women.

After three brutal months in captivity, sold multiple times by various ISIS militants, Nadia managed to escape with the help of a Sunni Arab man, Nasser, and his family by pretending to be his wife as they fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, little respite awaited Nadia in Kurdistan. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan border officers insisted that Nadia, with Nasser’s input, narrate her harrowing experiences on camera before she was granted entry and promised only officials would see the tape. That same night, however, the group broadcast the tape on national television as political propaganda against a rival Kurdish group to highlight the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s inability to protect the Yazidis in Sinjar, abandoning them to ISIS militants.

The broadcast featured Murad and Nasser, a pseudonym, showing their faces and putting all at risk of ISIS retaliation. Accounts confirmed that ISIS had found out that Nasser had helped Murad escape, later seizing him and his brothers. Nadia realized for the first time how her story, a “personal tragedy, could be someone else’s political tool.” Incorporating this theme in her narrative, she continued to raise awareness for Yazidis still persecuted and held captive by ISIS. (The militant organzation’s “caliphate” was toppled by US-backed forces in 2019.

Since her escape, Murad was and remains vocal about the plight of the Yazidi community. With the help of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Murad took her case to the United Nations, insisting that perpetrators of sexual war crimes be brought to justice as individuals. Enforced accountability for war criminals who engage in sexual violence, she insists, could serve to deliver justice for survivors. ISIS had released documents and videos online, and their intentions towards the Yazidis as well as constant abuse of Yazidi women, were clear. Despite the difficulty and cultural stigma around such traumatic sexual encounters, numerous Yazidi women who escaped ISIS, including Yazidi activist Lamiya Haji Bashar, repeatedly spoke out about the torture endured as sex slaves in television appearances, public addresses on college campuses and books.

Enforced accountability for war criminals who engage in sexual violence could serve to deliver justice for survivors.

Despite the survivors’ best efforts and Murad winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her work as a human rights activist, the world largely remained woefully unresponsive even ignorant about the Yazidis’ plight. Murad met with US President Donald Trump in July 2019 to request assistance for Yazidis in refugee camps. The president demonstrated little familiarity with her work and asked her to explain why she had received her Nobel Prize. “They [ISIS] killed my mom, my six brothers,” Murad said. Trump replied: “Where are they now?” Murad responded: “They are in the mass graves in Sinjar. And I’m still fighting just to live safe. Please do something.” The president merely nodded.

ISIS cells nonetheless still targeted Yazidis for death and held Yazidi women captive. Murad questions if anti-immigrant sentiment rising at alarming rates throughout Europe and the United States might contribute to the lack of response and even exacerbated the suffering of displaced Yazidis. She has repeatedly made pleas at the United Nations, urging world leaders to aid Yazidi refugees. While leaders express sympathy, most remain adamant that they cannot accept one-half a million devastated Yazidis.

Speaking at Yale University in April 2019, Murad reiterated how Western governments that had a pivotal role in destabilizing the Middle East must step up to help resettle the Yazidis of Sinjar. The initial ISIS attacks followed by internal fighting in Iraq had prevented Yazidis from returning to their villages, and they remain stranded in refugee camps in Syria and Mount Sinjar in Iraq. For now, the European Union and the United States have not supported efforts of the Yazidis to return despite the conviction of Murad and others that the focus for assisting the Yazidi population should be on Sinjar.

The European Union and the United States have not supported efforts of the Yazidis to return home despite the conviction of Murad and others.

Official estimates suggest that 700,000 Yazidis or about 85 percent of the entire Yazidi population lived in camps for internally displaced people in Iraq and Syria. According to the Kurdistan region's Office for Yazidi Abductees, based in Dohuk, an estimated 3,425 Yazidi women were freed from a total of 6,417 abducted. The office also reported that 1,921 children, born to the abducted women, were also saved. The traumatized women and children who escaped enslavement are witnesses of the atrocities, yet fail to receive the proper care. Conditions at the refugee camps are well documented, and while secure for the time being, mental and physical health facilities are severely lacking. Now there’s a new worry: that the Covid-19 pandemic will reach them. The lack of compassion from the international community is unacceptable.

Yazidi survivors reveal painful details about the magnitude of crimes committed by ISIS. These narratives are not told in vain as most survivors refuse to be labeled as simply ex-sex slaves they want their stories to reach the world and inform relief efforts to rehabilitate Yazidis in Sinjar. For now, the camps remain poorly equipped to deal with the pain and trauma that will linger for generations. Rehabilitation efforts are slow. As Murad reiterates, though, nothing is more cathartic for victims of violence than knowing that their offenders are being brought to justice for their crimes, and that is how the international community should start making reparations to the Yazidis.

Tahreem Khalied, most recently a finance support specialist at Yale University, has reviewed books for Dawn and other newspapers. This review was first published on YaleGlobal Online.

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