Three years ago I was one of thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped by the Islamic State and sold into slavery. I endured rape, torture and humiliation at the hands of multiple militants before I escaped. I was relatively lucky; many Yazidis went through worse than I did and for much longer. Many are still missing. Many have been killed.
Once I escaped, I felt that it was my duty to tell the world about the brutality of the Islamic State. Yazidi women hoped that recounting our experiences of mass murder, rape and enslavement would bring attention to the Yazidi genocide. We received sympathy and solidarity all over the world, but now what we really need is concrete action to get justice and allow our community to return to its homeland.
On Aug. 3, 2014, the Islamic State invaded the Sinjar region in northern Iraq with the mission of exterminating the Yazidis, whose numbers are estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000. Our religion dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and preserves pre-Islamic practices. Because of that, the Islamic State called us pagans without a holy book, and used that slander to justify murder. The majority of Yazidis fled, initially to the mountains of northwestern Iraq, and then to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kocho, my village of 1,800 people about 15 miles from the city of Sinjar, was under siege for almost two weeks before it fell to the Islamic State. The militants lined up over 300 men behind a school and shot them. Their bodies were buried in irrigation ditches. Among those bodies were six of my brothers.
The militants then took the women and boys to Sinjar and Solagh, a nearby town. My 61-year-old mother, Shami, and the other older women were killed. The younger women, including myself, were taken to slave markets throughout Iraq and Syria. The boys, including one of my nephews, 11-year-old Malik, were forced to join the terrorist group and brainwashed.
Over three years later, Malik remains with the Islamic State and calls his mother to tell her he believes in its ideology. Thousands of Yazidis remain missing, and hundreds of thousands are stuck in refugee camps. With few opportunities for work or education, they are often forced to rely on donations of food and clothing.
Again, I was lucky. I was among the 1,100 women and children moved to Germany through a program established in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Canada and Australia have also agreed to take in hundreds of Yazidi survivors of Islamic State brutality, and their families.
But the Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan’s refugee camps and elsewhere in the world live with the pain of losing their homeland and families. We live with growing frustration that the perpetrators are getting away. And the Yazidi religion is on the brink of dying out.
Yet we are hopeful that one day we will return to Sinjar, rebuild our families and practice our religion freely, and that our rapists will face justice.
That hope made us speak publicly about something as painful and private as our abuse by the Islamic State. By recounting what happened to us, we relived our pain and risked being judged harshly by those around us. When you ask a Yazidi to repeat her grim testimony, you should consider what an emotional toll that exacts. And when you recount what happened to us, please do not use that demeaning phrase “sex slaves” to refer to us. We are survivors.
Over the past three years, the world has come out in support of the Yazidis. But now we need to move away from the personal stories of survivors and take practical steps, steps toward prosecuting the Islamic State militants responsible for these crimes and toward reconstructing Yazidi areas in Iraq so that displaced Yazidis can begin to go back to their homes.
My lawyer, Amal Clooney, and Yazda, a global Yazidi rights organization, helped me to plead our cause at the United Nations and to put pressure on the Iraqi government and urge the international community to act. In September, the United Nations Security Council finally passed a resolution to establish an international investigation into these crimes. We hope this investigative team will be deployed soon and that it will carry out the long overdue inquiry into the crimes of the Islamic State, including by exhuming the 94 mass graves of the group’s victims that have been found in Iraq.
We continue to collect evidence of the genocide and are working with prosecutors around the world to get more cases heard. The lawyers helping us are working pro bono and with few resources.
The conditions in the Yazidi areas of Iraq remain bleak. Land mines and homemade bombs planted by the Islamic State litter the region. An overwhelming majority of the buildings in the Sinjar area have been destroyed; basic services such as sanitation, electricity and water are lacking. Access to the area, which is controlled by Iraqi Kurdish forces, remains extremely difficult both for humanitarian organizations and for the Yazidis wishing to return.
We are very grateful to President Emmanuel Macron of France, who pledged to help demine the Sinjar region. And together with the French government, we are working on starting the Sinjar Action Fund, a trust fund to rebuild Sinjar. But we need more help. I call on governments, international organizations, private entities and individuals to contribute to the Sinjar Action Fund and help us return home and rebuild our lives.
One day, I want to marry and have children. I will have to deal with the trauma of my rape personally and quietly. But like most Yazidi women, I am prepared to repeat my story, as long as it helps to achieve justice and to support genocide survivors.
Some months back, after I gave a talk at the United Nations about the plight of my people, a young African woman approached me. Boko Haram militants had kidnapped her and raped her. We instantly recognized each other as survivors and formed a bond. Since my escape I have learned how often women are victimized by war, from Rwanda to Bosnia, from Syria to Myanmar. Yazidi women now belong to a vast network of survivors of rape and enslavement.
Rather than emphasizing our victimhood, that connection to other women empowers us to take back our lives and to fight for our community’s future. Like those brave women, Yazidi survivors are much more than victims. We are activists and we need more than empathy.
Nadia Murad is the author of the memoir The Last Girl.