'Jews and Yazidis Have a Lot in Common,' Former Yazidi Prisoner of ISIS Says in Israel

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Human rights activist and U.N. goodwill ambassador Nadia Murad delivers a speech during a conference on terrorism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria on May 23rd, 2017.
Human rights activist and U.N. goodwill ambassador Nadia Murad delivers a speech during a conference on terrorism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, at the Hofburg palacCredit: Ronald Zak/AP

Update: Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist treating victims of sexual violence, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist, win the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize 

She looks sad, but also brave and strong – as if her happiness had been taken away from her, but not her spirit. On the one hand, you want to embrace her, and on the other be embraced by her. When she gazes at the world, it’s with a mixture of disappointment and hope. Her messages are clear, direct and strong, and when she speaks you immediately forget her fragile appearance.

Nadia Murad Basee Taha has been through the worst hell imaginable, but she managed to escape and is now dedicating her life to help others.

Yazidi survivor and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human trafficking Nadia Murad visits her village for the first time in Kojo, Iraq on June 1st, 2017 after being cCredit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/REUTERS

Murad was born to a family of farmers in Kocho, a Yazidi village in northern Iraq. The Yazidis are members of an ancient religion they say even predates Judaism. There are around 1 million Yazidis in the world; most lived in northern Iraq but today are scattered as refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe.

The Yazidis believe that God bestows upon people both good and evil, which created a myth that they worship the devil. This is the reason they have been persecuted for centuries; the genocide by the Islamic State is yet another chapter in their tragic history.

Murad describes a happy childhood where she went to school and played with her nine siblings and many friends. They would put on makeup and film themselves as different characters.

“The only future I imagined was of me studying, getting married and having a family, but reality was so different for me,” she says. “There was a distant rumor about cruel terrorists who hate my people because they believe we worship the devil, but I could never imagine it to be true.”

But on August 3, 2014, when she was 19, Islamic State fighters reached her village. They killed hundreds of people, among them six of Murad’s brothers and her mother, and took the younger women and girls away. Murad was among the 6,700 women and girls taken captive as a spoil of war. She was sent to Mosul, where she was sold to an Islamic State fighter, who beat and raped her constantly. Over three months she was sold to 12 different men; they all treated her the same.

But one day she managed to escape. A guard accidentally left the door open and she ran away, finding refuge at the house of a Muslim family. They hid her, gave her first aid and kept her safe for a few days. Afterward they helped her escape beyond the ISIS-controlled area, until she reached a refugee camp in Duhok, a city in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. In 2015, she was one of 1,000 lucky women to get accepted to a refugee program in Germany.

After a few months in Germany, Murad’s life took another unexpected turn. She was invited to the UN Security Council to tell her story and shed light on human trafficking and the Yazidi genocide. Surprisingly, it was the first time the Security Council had been briefed on human trafficking.

Thanks to her pleas to help others, Murad became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, the first such survivor to receive this distinction. Later the Iraqi government nominated her for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize (which was won by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos).

Murad travels all over the world to meet with victims and listen to the saddest stories imaginable, while she also meets with world leaders in luxurious offices. She has founded the organization Nadia’s Initiative, which provides advocacy and assistance to victims of human trafficking. She seems exhausted; after all, it’s tiring to constantly talk about your trauma, give interviews and speeches, and try to convince the masses of your cause.

“In December, it will be two years that I’m a goodwill ambassador. I haven’t stayed in one place more than a couple of days,” she says. “I am tired. I hope that in December other Yazidi women will join my efforts and I will be able to travel less. My biggest hope is that Iraq will become a safe place and that I will be able to go back and rebuild our home there.”

So how does she describe her life today?

“Well, the genocide is still going on and there is not a day that I don’t remember my previous life, my home, my family and what had happened to me. My life today is a living memory, proof.”

A Yazidi woman carrying a child fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in Sinjar, Iraq on August 11, 2014. Credit: Rodi Said, Reuters

Still, she says she has never lost her faith in God.

“God has given justice to people, and it’s up to the individuals whether they would be helpers or oppressors,” she says. “The thing that has happen to us hasn’t happened because of God, but by people who don’t understand the rules of God. I pray more than ever.”

Murad is also campaigning to prosecute Islam State fighters for genocide and human trafficking. “Seeing justice being done is one way to deal with trauma,” she says. “The Nuremberg trials sent a strong message to the world, a message that should be sent again.”

This plea is being made alongside her friend and attorney, Amal Clooney. They are calling for a trial both at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and in various countries where returning citizens are returning after a stint with the Islamic State.

An address by Clooney to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, where she briefly described Murad’s ordeal and implored the United Nations to press charges against the Islamic State, went viral and was widely reported on by the media. But so far neither Clooney’s high profile and the media coverage are moving things forward – nothing has been achieved in the judicial system so far.

Murad says she still has hope for a better future.

“Hope is one of the things that gets me going,” she says. “I was very much hoping that the international community will do more in order to save the Yazidis that are still in captivity. The world leaders should change their approach towards ISIS and be more active in their fight against the organization and its fighters. I’m doing all I can to make this hope a reality.”

During her visit to Israel, Murad visited the Knesset and met with legislators; her trip to Israel coincided with a bill proposed by MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union). Under the legislation, Israel would recognize the atrocities done to the Yazidis as a genocide, commemorate the victims every August 3 and teach school students about the genocide.

As Svetlova puts it, “Some of my family member are Holocaust survivors, and the motto of the Jews is ‘never again,’ meaning we won’t forget the Holocaust and we will make the biggest effort to prevent such things from happening again, to us or to others.

“I don’t want it to be a hollow statement. As Jews, we have a moral obligation to help others who are going through persecution. I can’t stay indifferent to what’s happening to our neighbors. Israel can do a lot, and this law is only the first step.”

Murad, meanwhile, also says there’s a strong bond between the Yazidis and the Jews. “I have visited many parliaments around the world, but in the Knesset there was a different feeling. I know that being freed is a strong motive in the Jewish culture. I am trying to free my people and to give voice to the ones whose voices are silenced,” she says.

“Jews and Yazidis have a lot in common, also from a historical point of view. Most of the people I have met here in Israel have or had a family member who has gone through atrocities like the Yazidis. I see how Israelis understand my stories and are familiar with such emotions. Yesterday, when I was visiting Yad Vashem, I saw at the exhibition sights what I have seen with my own eyes just two years ago.”

Murad also cites a few key ways Israelis and others can help the Yazidis now that they have been freed from Islamic State tyranny.

“There are many Yazidis who would love to study at an Israeli university. There are also thousands of Yazidis who were freed from slavery and live in terrible conditions in refugee camps; they can use any kind of help,” she says.

“And there is of course a big need for psychological guidance and rehabilitation. There are many things that can be done, both on a national and on a personal level; it’s only a matter of will.”

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