The international community could and should have done more to rescue those captured by ISIS. The media also failed in its coverage of this crisis.
YAZIDI activist and ISIS survivor Nadia Murad has been named this year’s Nobel peace prize winner, along with Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, for their efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.
Nadia endured more than three months in ISIS captivity after her village, Kocho, was overrun by militants on 3 August 2014. Troops from the Kurdish Regional Government Peshmerga had left their positions all over the mainly Yazidi area of Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq, to defend the city of Duhok after the fall of Mosul that June.
Her mother is believed to be buried in one of the mass graves found close to her village after it was retaken by the Peshmerga; she also lost brothers, sisters and nephews. Nadia’s niece, ‘sister and soulmate’ was killed by a landmine whilst making her own daring escape from ISIS in 2016. Nadia took her passing particularly badly; by then she was safely ensconced in Germany and already advocating for rescues and aid.
Of the 331 individuals and organisations nominated for the Nobel peace prize this year, Nadia is absolutely the most deserved winner. I will freely admit my bias here: I met her first in the summer of 2015, during a trip to the UK with the AMAR Foundation. On this visit, she met the late Sue Lloyd-Roberts, whose last Newsnight dispatch before she passed away featured Nadia and two other ISIS survivors (all anonymously).
Yazidism, prior to the 2014 genocide, expelled those who had any sexual contact with non-Yazidis. Baba Sheikh, the religions patriarch, changed this when he said that those who had been in ISIS captivity should be honoured as ‘holy women’. This was hugely significant, removing some of the shame of speaking out about sexual violence and ensuring that ‘returnees’ were supported by their community.
In London, members of the Yazidi diaspora made long journeys from all over the UK to greet and honour Nadia and the two other girls, bringing small gifts, food and flowers. There was (almost) as much kissing and laugher as there were tears.
When Nadia talked, activists Ahmed Khuddiha and Mahar Nawaf and I struggled to retain the composure she kept throughout. Dressed entirely in black, she showed me scars still visible on her skin. Over the past four years, colour has slowly crept into her wardrobe and many of these wounds will have healed. But the toll of telling and retelling her story has left its own kind of mark.
Speaking out, Nadia explained that first day, is her way of fighting back. For her community, she has told her story again and again, expecting that assistance will follow. With notable exceptions including Germany’s Baden-Wuttenberg programme, that support remains largely elusive, inadequate, or in some cases, misdirected.
Inspired by meeting the survivors, I worked with Change.org and the brilliant Yazidi activist Rozin Khahil, a 17-year-old living in the UK, and in the middle of her A-levels at the time, to ask Theresa May, then Home Secretary, to help rescue 3,000 others still in captivity.
From Yazda activists, I received lists of missing people, including phone numbers (some of which still rang), and information about where they were being held. Yazda had shared this information with officials in Kurdistan, Iraq, the US and the UK, but no rescue missions were launched. They gave it to me in desperation, and I joined long e-mail and WhatsApp chains where people exchanged pictures of the missing and dead.
The advocacy and activism of Yazidi people in Iraq, and the diaspora, managed to free hundreds of those captured. In Duhok in late 2015, I visited camps where those freed from captivity lived, along with those displaced by the war. Conditions were appalling. I heard harrowing stories of sexual violence, torture and mass murder.
The only groups I saw providing aid in the camps — a year after the genocide — were the United Nations and the Germans. The UK Foreign Office told me at the time that our government was giving ‘support to all victims and vulnerable persons, including Yazidis, rather than specifically to Yazidis or any other group.’
Though the Yazidis had been singled out by ISIS as a minority ethnic group, efforts to help them from the UK did not. The same sectarianism and discrimination that the Yazidis experienced in war, and had experienced in Kurdistan for generations, was also evident in approaches to assist them in the aftermath of genocide.
The UK gave to a pooled UN humanitarian fund, and said it supported sexual violence awareness projects in the region — but couldn’t give me many details, due to safety issues of local partners.
Many Yazidis believe that money intended for them was siphoned off by the KRG to pay for the costly war their Peshmerga troops were, at the time, still losing. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) then consolidated their position in Sinjar, and took many Yazidis recruits within the ranks of their Syrian affiliate, the YPG. Some of these included ISIS escapees, to more tabloid fanfare.
Nadia’s resolve and furious eloquence in sharing her story soon turned her into a spokesperson of her Yazidi people. In 2016, at just 23, she was named the UN’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. She has been lauded by politicians and supported by celebrities — notably Amal Clooney, who wrote a moving forward to Nadia’s recently-published book, The Last Girl.
When we met again in 2016, when Nadia spoke at the UK House of Commons at the invitation of MP Brendan O’Hara, she was being showered with gifts.
As she became more famous, her story and that of the Yazidi genocide in general became easier for me to pitch to editors. But her message, in my mind, began to get lost. The terminology used to describe her — sex slave, ISIS hostage, sexual violence victim — was muddy and de-emphasised her and other survivors’ heroism.
What was lost was the reason that survivors spoke up: their wider concern for their community. Each of the escapees I met all conveyed this very clearly. They had made a simple calculation, waging that telling their story would help their families. Despite the intense personal toll, they persisted.
But instead of the stories of heroism in escaping ISIS captivity, the media focus shifted to the forms of sexual torture they had endured. As a feminist and a freelance journalist, newly let loose from the comforts of the newsroom, I found this disempowering in so many ways.
I had so much information I was expected to hand over to big-name media partners I knew well enough not to trust. Relationships I spent months building, with people I cared about, I was expected to hand over for a pat on the head and a day rate. I knew they wanted to make sexual victimhood horror stories and I felt complicit. If I couldn’t see the impact, what was the point? By that stage, no one could say they ‘didn’t know’.
A low point was discussing a potential documentary with a male commissioner who insisted that Nadia (still maintaining her anonymity at the time) and the other girls would have to show their faces whilst detailing their experiences of sexual violence.
Otherwise, he insisted, we’d be denying viewers ‘anything to look at.’ We discussed videos of sexual assaults I had heard that ISIS fighters were sharing. I got home and decided this wasn’t a search I wanted to undertake. I didn’t get commissioned.
I eventually stepped back, but Nadia kept on going, writing her book, meeting Hillary Clinton when she seemed about to be the first female US president, touring the world advocating on behalf of victims everywhere including meeting Boko Haram survivors. All whilst learning English and German and, earlier this year, getting engaged.
Like other Yazidi survivors I met, Nadia considers herself lucky. She talked more about what happened to her family and her community, than what happened to herself. She was in captivity for far less time than other girls, she would say. She’s safe and well in Germany; she has many nice things. I wasn’t to worry about her; there were many others.
Her Nobel peace prize deserves to be celebrated, but it cannot make up for the serious lack of international commitment to her cause. The tacit deal she made with us — with me, as with every journalist she spoke to — has been broken by our collective inaction.
Help to find those missing is still needed. Resettlement programmes must be supported along with adequate aid and meaningful education facilities in camps; medical treatment for the displaced, support for those who want to return to Sinjar; and some kind of dignified identification of remains that still lie decaying in open air mass graves.
By telling her story so bravely, Nadia has done her part — again and again and again. Now it’s time for the international community to do theirs.
OpenDemocracy.net, October 10. Lara Whyte is a reporter and award-winning documentary and news producer focusing on issues of youth, extremism and women’s rights.
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