A sex slave survivor fights back
Nadia Murad Basee, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman, is sitting in an elegant living room high up on the Wilshire corridor, staring out the window. Her ebony hair hangs to one side of her face, falling over her shoulder like a blanket. As she turns her head, about to speak, her eyes appear glassy, as if on the verge of tears. But her expression is vacant.
More than two years ago, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters invaded Murad’s village of Kocho in northern Iraq and began a siege that devastated her life and decimated the Yazidi population. Murad was barely 20 when she was separated from her family — a mother, eight brothers and three sisters (her father died when she was 10) — and then abducted and sold into sexual slavery.
The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle
for existence, the world does little to help
She remembers the sound of the firing squad that murdered six of her brothers and her mother, and the nightmarish months that followed when she was bought and sold like chattel, beaten and sexually assaulted daily.
“The total number of men that raped me was 12, and I will never forget their faces,” she said during a visit to Los Angeles last November.
And yet, Murad considers herself one of the lucky ones. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred on the spot, and an estimated 3,200 Yazidi women still languish in sexual slavery. Since regaining her freedom, Murad has launched a global campaign to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide and draw attention to the plight of those still in captivity. Over the past year, she has testified before the United Nations alongside her lawyer, Amal Clooney, and was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for human trafficking. Last October, she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, and, for a time, was considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.
But none of those honors has brought her joy; her focus is on rescuing her people and bringing ISIS to justice for its crimes. As she recounts the details of her story through a translator, her trauma is evident.
At times, she stares ahead blankly, avoiding eye contact. And during parts when she is overcome, tears streaming down her face, she barely seems to notice. She is so far away — her heart, her imagination, everything she loved still in Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi population in Iraq.
“My life before Aug. 3  was only life inside the small village,” she said of Kocho, with a population estimated at 2,000. “I didn’t even know other parts of Iraq.”
Murad grew up in a family of farmers that eked out a modest living tending sheep. They were so poor, her parents couldn’t afford to send her siblings to school, so her brothers wound up serving in the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. By the time Murad came of age, though, their economic situation had improved and she was able to enroll in classes. She recently had completed her 11th year of schooling when ISIS stormed into town.
After Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were protecting the area retreated, Sinjar was left defenseless. According to a report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, most villages in the Sinjar region were completely emptied within 72 hours of the siege, with the exception of Kocho. For nearly two weeks, villagers like Murad and her family huddled together in their homes awaiting rescue, even as they heard rumors of mass executions.
Before ISIS cut off the local cellphone tower, Murad’s family reached out to everyone they knew, begging for help. They could smell the stench of rotting corpses wafting from the countryside. “We told [everyone we could] that they will kill the men and take the women and the children,” Murad recalled. But help never came.
The family considered escaping, but with three pregnant women in the house, it would have been too arduous a journey. The night before the family was captured, they considered taking their own lives. “My brother said, ‘I know they will kill us and they will take the women and children. Perhaps I should kill you and then kill myself because I do not want to see you taken,’ ” Murad said.
The next day, the family was rounded up and sent to the local school, where male and females were separated promptly. Men and boys ages 12 and older were given the choice to convert to Islam or die. Hundreds of Kocho men were subsequently beheaded or shot. Girls ages 9 and older were transferred to holding sites in larger cities, where they were sold as sex slaves. Depending on their youth, virginity and beauty, girls could fetch prices from $200 to $1,500, and were often sold back and forth among ISIS fighter-owners.
When Murad arrived at a holding site in Mosul, the women and girls were instructed to wash. After being abused during transport, many knew there was more to come. “The first place they took us was the shower, the bathroom, and there was blood on the walls,” Murad said. “Women tried to commit suicide.”
Murad testified at the U.N. that the first fighter who tried to buy her was a “huge man, like a monster.” She pleaded with him to let her go. “I cried out — I said, ‘I’m too young, you’re huge!’ But he hit me, kicked me, beat me.”
A smaller man, the first of a dozen captors, bought her, forced her to dress up, wear makeup and then raped her at will. When she tried to escape, he locked her in a room with a number other fighters, who gang raped Murad until she was unconscious.
None of this violence is arbitrary. It is a deliberate, organized system designed to annihilate dignity, hope and prevent future population growth.
“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will Be happy then.” — Nadia Murad Basee
In describing the way rape is used as a mechanism of genocide, the U.N. report emphasizes the assault on human dignity. “The sexual violence being committed by ISIS against Yazidi women and girls, and the serious physical and mental harm it engenders, is a clear step in the process of destruction of the … group — destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”
The Islamic State’s use of sexual slavery is uniquely insidious because it ensures women are doubly victimized — by their gender and their religion. In the case of the Yazidis, the organized sexual violence occurred on such a massive scale, women and girls as young as 9 years old were subjected to “multiple — sometimes hundreds — of rapes by their various fighter-owners.” The combination of physical and sexual violence with psychological trauma “rises to the level of torture” — a war crime — according to the U.N. report, and is ultimately designed to prevent future birth of the Yazidi population. When sexual desire is vanquished, so is a group’s future.
The challenge of proving and prosecuting the Yazidi genocide will fall to Clooney, who faces the daunting task of creating precedent for it within the international justice system. At present, the International Criminal Court is the only tribunal that could hold ISIS accountable, but neither Syria nor Iraq are party to the league of nations invested in it. When an attempt to issue a special referral was made by the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed it.
“This is a clear case of genocide, and genocide that’s gone completely unaddressed and ignored,” Clooney told NBC last fall. “I can’t imagine anything worse being done by one human to another.”
During her visit to Los Angeles, Murad met with members of the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID, which currently is providing disaster relief and psychosocial support to Yazidi survivors in Greece, Iraq and Germany, where Murad is based, along with other refugees of the Syrian war.
“The typical response we get from Syrian refugees is that they’re shocked to see Israelis and Jews working with them, and it takes a while to build trust,” Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAID said. “But with the Yazidis, it was the opposite. They came to us and said, ‘We want to work with the Jews.’ ”
According to Polizer, the Yazidi advocacy organization Yazda reached out to the Israelis because they wanted to learn how to document their genocide as efficiently as Jews documented the Holocaust. “They came to us and said, ‘We need mentorship. We want to learn from the Jewish experience how you were able to rebuild your communities after the Holocaust, rebuild your peoplehood, and build strong advocacy around the world.’ ”
Over the past year, IsraAID has worked with Yazda to help train Yazidis to collect survivor testimonies. “We’re helping them build their own Yad Vashem,” Polizer said.
While much of the world remains indifferent to Yazidi suffering, Polizer said the Jews have a responsibility to help. “There’s a very special connection between Yazidis and Jews,” he said. “We’re both religious minorities in the Middle East; we’ve both suffered from a lot of atrocities throughout history, and according to the Yazidis, [when there were still] Jews in Iraq, they had a strong connection to the Jewish community there. They are big fans of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, which is kind of unique in that neighborhood. There’s a feeling of shared destiny.”
And yet, Polizer lamented, “I don’t feel like we’re doing enough. With all that’s happening in the Middle East, the Syrian crisis, and with everything going on in the U.S., the Yazidis have been suffering from the worst persecution you can imagine and they’ve been sort of left behind.”
Murad was fortunate enough to escape her captors, but her people remain trapped by an intractable conflict. To counteract the international community’s silence, Murad is determined to broadcast her story in forums around the globe. The more she speaks out, the more ISIS threatens her life. The stakes are impossibly high. “I don’t know if Yazidis will continue to exist as a people or not,” she said.
Worn down by so much sorrow and loss, Murad is a young woman who seems old already. Her skin is marked by the acceleration of time that comes with too much tragedy too soon.
“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will be happy then,” she said defiantly.
But the terrible truth of the matter is that for now, “the path to accountability remains blocked,” according to the U.N. report. “The genocide of the Yazidis is on-going.”
How to help
LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.
CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.
DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below: