Nadia Murad is not just my client, she is my friend. When we were introduced in London, she asked if I would act as her lawyer. She explained that she would not be able to provide funds, that the case would likely be long and unsuccessful. But before you decide, she had said, hear my story.
In 2014, ISIS attacked Nadia’s village in Iraq, and her life as a twenty-one-year-old student was shattered. She was forced to watch her mother and brothers be marched off to their deaths. And Nadia herself was traded from one ISIS fighter to another. She was forced to pray, forced to dress up and put makeup on in preparation for rape, and one night was brutally abused by a group of men until she was unconscious. She showed me her scars from cigarette burns and beatings. And she told me that throughout her ordeal ISIS militants would call her a “dirty unbeliever” and brag about conquering Yazidi women and wiping their religion from the earth.
Nadia was one of thousands of Yazidis taken by ISIS to be sold in markets and on Facebook, sometimes for as little as twenty dollars. Nadia’s mother was one of eighty older women who were executed and buried in an unmarked grave. Six of her brothers were among the hundreds of men who were murdered in a single day.
What Nadia was telling me about is genocide. And genocide doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan it. Before the genocide began, the ISIS “Research and Fatwa Department” studied the Yazidis and concluded that, as a Kurdish-speaking group that did not have a holy book, Yazidis were nonbelievers whose enslavement was a “firmly established aspect of the Shariah.” This is why, according to ISIS’s warped morality, Yazidis—unlike Christians, Shias, and others—can be systematically raped. Indeed, this was to be one of the most effective ways to destroy them.
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What followed was the establishment of a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale. ISIS even released a pamphlet entitled Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves to provide more guidelines. “Question: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty? Answer: It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse. Question: Is it permissible to sell a female captive? Answer: It is permissible to buy, sell, or gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property.”
When Nadia told me her story in London, it had been almost two years since ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis had begun. Thousands of Yazidi women and children were still held captive by ISIS, but no member of ISIS had been prosecuted in a court anywhere in the world for these crimes. Evidence was being lost or destroyed. And prospects for justice looked bleak.
Of course, I took the case. And Nadia and I spent more than a year campaigning together for justice. We met repeatedly with the Iraqi government, United Nations representatives, members of the UN Security Council, and ISIS victims. I prepared reports, provided drafts and legal analysis, and gave speeches imploring the UN to act. Most of our interlocutors told us it would be impossible: the Security Council had not taken action on international justice in years.
But just as I write this foreword, the UN Security Council has adopted a landmark resolution creating an investigation team that will collect evidence of the crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a major victory for Nadia and all the victims of ISIS, because it means that evidence will be preserved and that individual ISIS members can be put on trial. I sat next to Nadia in the Security Council when the resolution was adopted unanimously. And as we watched fifteen hands go up, Nadia and I looked at each other and smiled.
As a human-rights lawyer, my job is often to be the voice of those who have been silenced: the journalist behind bars or the victims of war crimes fighting for their day in court. There is no doubt ISIS tried to silence Nadia when they kidnapped and enslaved her, raped and tortured her, and killed seven members of her family in a single day.
But Nadia refused to be silenced. She has defied all the labels that life has given her: Orphan. Rape victim. Slave. Refugee. She has instead created new ones: Survivor. Yazidi leader. Women’s advocate. Nobel Peace Prize nominee. United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. And now author.
Over the time I have known her, Nadia has not only found her voice, she has become the voice of every Yazidi who is a victim of genocide, every woman who has been abused, every refugee who has been left behind.
Those who thought that by their cruelty they could silence her were wrong. Nadia Murad’s spirit is not broken, and her voice will not be muted. Instead, through this book, her voice is louder than ever.
Early in the summer of 2014, while I was busy preparing for my last year of high school, two farmers disappeared from their fields just outside Kocho, the small Yazidi village in northern Iraq where I was born and where, until recently, I thought I would live for the rest of my life. One moment the men were lounging peacefully in the shade of scratchy homemade tarps, and the next they were captive in a small room in a nearby village, home mostly to Sunni Arabs. Along with the farmers, the kidnappers took a hen and a handful of her chicks, which confused us. “Maybe they were just hungry,” we said to one another, although that did nothing to calm us down.
Kocho, for as long as I have been alive, has been a Yazidi village, settled by the nomadic farmers and shepherds who first arrived in the middle of nowhere and decided to build homes to protect their wives from the desert-like heat while they walked their sheep to better grass. They chose land that would be good for farming, but it was a risky location, on the southern edge of Iraq’s Sinjar region, where most of the country’s Yazidis live, and very close to non-Yazidi Iraq. When the first Yazidi families arrived in the mid-1950s, Kocho was inhabited by Sunni Arab farmers working for landlords in Mosul. But those Yazidi families had hired a lawyer to buy the land—the lawyer, himself a Muslim, is still considered a hero—and by the time I was born, Kocho had grown to about two hundred families, all of them Yazidi and as close as if we were one big family, which we nearly were.
The land that made us special also made us vulnerable. Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries because of our religious beliefs, and, compared to most Yazidi towns and villages, Kocho is far from Mount Sinjar, the high, narrow mountain that has sheltered us for generations. For a long time we had been pulled between the competing forces of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, asked to deny our Yazidi heritage and conform to Kurdish or Arab identities. Until 2013, when the road between Kocho and the mountain was finally paved, it would take us almost an hour to drive our white Datsun pickup across the dusty roads through Sinjar City to the base of the mountain. I grew up closer to Syria than to our holiest temples, closer to strangers than to safety.
A drive in the direction of the mountain was joyful. In Sinjar City we could find candy and a particular kind of lamb sandwich we didn’t have in Kocho, and my father almost always stopped to let us buy what we wanted. Our truck kicked up clouds of dust as we moved, but I still preferred to ride in the open air, lying flat in the truck bed until we were outside the village and away from our curious neighbors, then popping up to feel the wind whip through my hair and watch the blur of livestock feeding along the road. I easily got carried away, standing more and more upright in the back of the truck until my father or my eldest brother, Elias, shouted at me that if I wasn’t careful, I would go flying over the side.
In the opposite direction, away from those lamb sandwiches and the comfort of the mountain, was the rest of Iraq. In peacetime, and if he wasn’t in a hurry, it might take a Yazidi merchant fifteen minutes to drive from Kocho to the nearest Sunni village to sell his grain or milk. We had friends in those villages—girls I met at weddings, teachers who spent the term sleeping in Kocho’s school, men who were invited to hold our baby boys during their ritual circumcision—and from then on bonded to that Yazidi family as a kiriv, something like a god-parent. Muslim doctors traveled to Kocho or to Sinjar City to treat us when we were sick, and Muslim merchants drove through town selling dresses and candies, things you couldn’t find in Kocho’s few shops, which carried mostly necessities. Growing up, my brothers often traveled to non-Yazidi villages to make a little money doing odd jobs. The relationships were burdened by centuries of distrust—it was hard not to feel bad when a Muslim wedding guest refused to eat our food, no matter how politely—but still, there was genuine friendship. These connections went back generations, lasting through Ottoman control, British colonization, Saddam Hussein, and the American occupation. In Kocho, we were particularly known for our close relationships with Sunni villages.
But when there was fighting in Iraq, and there always seemed to be fighting in Iraq, those villages loomed over us, their smaller Yazidi neighbor, and old prejudice hardened easily into hatred. Often, from that hatred, came violence. For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that began in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full-fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous. Neighboring villages began to shelter extremists who denounced Christians and non-Sunni Muslims and, even worse, who considered Yazidis to be kuffar, unbelievers worthy of killing (kafir is singular). In 2007 a few of those extremists drove a fuel tanker and three cars into the busy centers of two Yazidi towns about ten miles northwest of Kocho, then blew up the vehicles, killing the hundreds of people who had rushed to them, many thinking they were bringing goods to sell at the market.
Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, spread orally by holy men entrusted with our stories. Although it has elements in common with the many religions of the Middle East, from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism to Islam and Judaism, it is truly unique and can be difficult even for the holy men who memorize our stories to explain. I think of my religion as being an ancient tree with thousands of rings, each telling a story in the long history of Yazidis. Many of those stories, sadly, are tragedies.
Today there are only about one million Yazidis in the world. For as long as I have been alive—and, I know, for a long time before I was born—our religion has been what defined us and held us together as a community. But it also made us targets of persecution by larger groups, from the Ottomans to Saddam’s Baathists, who attacked us or tried to coerce us into pledging our loyalty to them. They degraded our religion, saying that we worshipped the devil or that we were dirty, and demanded that we renounce our faith. Yazidis survived generations of attacks that were intended to wipe us out, whether by killing us, forcing us to convert, or simply pushing us from our land and taking everything we owned. Before 2014, outside powers had tried to destroy us seventy-three times. We used to call the attacks against Yazidis firman, an Ottoman word, before we learned the word genocide.
When we heard about the ransom demands for the two farmers, the whole village went into a panic. “Forty thousand dollars,” the kidnappers told the farmers’ wives over the phone. “Or come here with your children so you can convert to Islam as families.” Otherwise, they said, the men would be killed. It wasn’t the money that made their wives collapse in tears in front of our mukhtar, or village leader, Ahmed Jasso; forty thousand dollars was an otherworldly sum, but it was just money. We all knew that the farmers would sooner die than convert, so the villagers wept in relief when, late one night, the men escaped through a broken window, ran through the barley fields, and showed up at home, alive, dust up to their knees and panting with fear. But the kidnappings didn’t stop.
Soon afterward Dishan, a man employed by my family, the Tahas, was abducted from a field near Mount Sinjar where he watched our sheep. It had taken my mother and brothers years to buy and breed our sheep, and each one was a victory. We were proud of our animals, keeping them in our courtyard when they weren’t roaming outside the village, treating them almost like pets. The annual shearing was a celebration in itself. I loved the ritual of it, the way the soft wool fell to the ground in cloudlike piles, the musky smell that took over our house, how the sheep bleated quietly, passively. I loved sleeping beneath the thick comforters my mother, Shami, would make from the wool, stuffing it between colorful pieces of fabric. Sometimes I got so attached to a lamb that I had to leave the house when it came time to slaughter it. By the time Dishan was kidnapped, we had over a hundred sheep—for us, a small fortune.
Remembering the hen and chicks that had been taken along with the farmers, my brother Saeed raced in our family’s pickup truck to the base of Mount Sinjar, about twenty minutes away now that the road was paved, to check on our sheep. “Surely, they took them,” we groaned. “Those sheep are all we have.”
Later, when Saeed called my mother, he sounded confused. “Only two were taken,” he reported—an old, slow-moving ram and a young female lamb. The rest were grazing contentedly on the brownish-green grass and would follow my brother home. We laughed, we were so relieved. But Elias, my eldest brother, was worried. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Those villagers aren’t rich. Why did they leave the sheep behind?” He thought it had to mean something.
The day after Dishan was taken, Kocho was in chaos. Villagers huddled in front of their doors, and along with men who took turns manning a new checkpoint just beyond our village walls, they watched for any unfamiliar cars coming through Kocho. Hezni, one of my brothers, came home from his job as a policeman in Sinjar City and joined the other village men who loudly argued about what to do. Dishan’s uncle wanted to get revenge and decided to lead a mission to a village east of Kocho that was headed by a conservative Sunni tribe. “We’ll take two of their shepherds,” he declared, in a rage. “Then they’ll have to give Dishan back!”
It was a risky plan, and not everyone supported Dishan’s uncle. Even my brothers, who had all inherited bravery and a quickness to fight from our father, were split on what to do. Saeed, who was only a couple of years older than me, spent a lot of his time fantasizing about the day he would finally prove his heroism. He was in favor of revenge, while Hezni, who was over a decade older and the most empathetic of us all, thought it was too dangerous. Still, Dishan’s uncle took what allies he could find and snatched two Sunni Arab shepherds, then drove them back to Kocho, where he locked them in his house and waited.
Most village disputes were solved by Ahmed Jasso, our practical and diplomatic mukhtar, and he sided with Hezni. “Our relationship with our Sunni neighbors is already strained,” he said. “Who knows what they will do if we try to fight with them.” Besides, he warned, the situation outside Kocho was far worse and more complicated than we imagined. A group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, which had largely been born here in Iraq, then grown in Syria over the past few years, had taken over villages so close to us, we could count the black-clad figures in their trucks when they drove by. They were holding our shepherd, our mukhtar told us. “You’ll only make things worse,” Ahmed Jasso said to Dishan’s uncle, and barely half a day after the Sunni shepherds had been kidnapped, they were set free. Dishan, however, remained a captive.
Ahmed Jasso was a smart man, and the Jasso family had decades of experience negotiating with the Sunni Arab tribes. Everyone in the village turned to them with their problems, and outside Kocho they were known for being skilled diplomats. Still, some of us wondered if this time he was being too cooperative, sending the message to the terrorists that Yazidis would not protect themselves. As it was, all that stood between us and ISIS were Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, who had been sent from the Kurdish autonomous region to guard Kocho when Mosul fell almost two months earlier. We treated the peshmerga like honored guests. They slept on pallets in our school, and each week a different family slaughtered a lamb to feed them, a huge sacrifice for the poor villagers. I also looked up to the fighters. I had heard about female Kurds from Syria and Turkey who fought against terrorists and carried weapons, and the thought made me feel brave.
Some people, including a few of my brothers, thought we should be allowed to protect ourselves. They wanted to man the checkpoints, and Ahmed Jasso’s brother Naif tried to convince Kurdish authorities to let him form a Yazidi peshmerga unit, but he was ignored. No one offered to train the Yazidi men or encourage them to join the fight against the terrorists. The peshmerga assured us that as long as they were there, we had nothing to worry about, and that they were as determined to protect Yazidis as they were the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We will sooner let Erbil fall than Sinjar,” they said. We were told to trust them, and so we did.
Still, most families in Kocho kept weapons at home—clunky Kalashnikov rifles, a big knife or two usually used to slaughter animals on holidays. Many Yazidi men, including those of my brothers who were old enough, had taken jobs in the border patrol or police force after 2003, when those jobs became available, and we felt sure that as long as the professionals watched Kocho’s borders, our men could protect their families. After all, it was those men, not the peshmerga, who built a dirt barrier with their own hands around the village after the 2007 attacks, and it was Kocho’s men who patrolled that barrier day and night for a full year, stopping cars at makeshift checkpoints and watching for strangers, until we felt safe enough to go back to a normal life.
Dishan’s kidnapping made us all panic. But the peshmerga didn’t do anything to help. Maybe they thought it was just a petty squabble between villages, not the reason Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, had sent them out of the safety of Kurdistan and into the unprotected areas of Iraq. Maybe they were frightened like we were. A few of the soldiers looked like they couldn’t be that much older than Saeed, my mother’s youngest son. But war changed people, especially men. It wasn’t that long ago that Saeed would play with me and our niece, Kathrine, in our courtyard, not yet old enough to know that boys were not supposed to like dolls. Lately, though, Saeed had become obsessed with the violence sweeping through Iraq and Syria. The other day I had caught him watching videos of Islamic State beheadings on his cell phone, the images shaking in his hand, and was surprised that he held up the phone so I could watch, too. When our older brother Massoud walked into the room, he was furious. “How could you let Nadia watch!” he yelled at Saeed, who cowered. He was sorry, but I understood. It was hard to turn away from the gruesome scenes unfolding so close to our home.
The image from the video popped back into my head when I thought about our poor shepherd being held captive. If the peshmerga won’t help us get Dishan back, I will have to do something, I thought, and ran into our house. I was the baby of the family, the youngest of eleven, and a girl. Still, I was outspoken and used to being heard, and I felt giant in my anger.
Our house was close to the northern edge of the village, a one-story row of mud brick rooms lined up like beads on a necklace and connected by doorways with no doors, all leading out to a large courtyard with a vegetable garden, a bread oven called a tandoor, and, often, sheep and chickens. I lived there with my mother, six of my eight brothers and my two sisters, plus two sisters-in-law and the children they had between them, and within walking distance of my other brothers, half brothers, and half sisters and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. The roof leaked in the winter when it rained, and the inside could feel like an oven in the Iraqi summertime, pushing us up a staircase onto the roof to sleep. When one part of the roof caved in, we patched it with pieces of metal we scavenged from Massoud’s mechanic shop, and when we needed more space, we built it. We were saving money for a new home, a more permanent one made of cement blocks, and we were getting closer every day.
I entered our house through the front door and ran to a room I shared with the other girls, where there was a mirror. Wrapping a pale scarf around my head, one I normally wore to keep my hair from getting in my eyes when bending over rows of vegetables, I tried to imagine what a fighter might do to prepare for battle. Years of labor on the farm made me stronger than my appearance let on. Still, I had no idea what I would do if I saw the kidnappers or people from their village drive through Kocho. What would I say to them? “Terrorists took our shepherd and went to your village,” I practiced in the mirror, scowling. “You could have stopped them. At least you can tell us where he was taken.” From the corner of our courtyard, I grabbed a wooden stick, like the ones used by a shepherd, and made for the front door again, where a few of my brothers stood with my mother, deep in conversation. They barely noticed when I joined them.
A few minutes later a white pickup truck from the kidnappers’ village came down the main road, two men in the front and two in the back. They were Arabs I vaguely recognized from the Sunni tribe that had taken Dishan. We watched as their truck crept down the main dirt road that snaked through the village, slowly, as though totally without fear. They had no reason to drive through Kocho—roads around the village connected cities like Sinjar and Mosul—and their presence seemed like a taunt. Breaking away from my family, I ran into the middle of the road and stood in the path of the truck. “Stop!” I shouted, waving the stick over my head, trying to make myself look bigger. “Tell us where Dishan is!”
It took half my family to restrain me. “What did you think you were going to do?” Elias scolded. “Attack them? Break their windshield?” He and a few of my other siblings had just come from the fields and were exhausted and stinking from the onions they were harvesting. To them, my attempt to avenge Dishan seemed like nothing more than a child’s outburst. My mother was also furious with me for running into the road. Under normal circumstances she tolerated my temper and was even amused by it, but in those days everyone was on edge. It seemed dangerous to draw attention to yourself, particularly if you were a young, unmarried woman. “Come here and sit,” she said sternly. “It’s shameful for you to do that, Nadia, it’s not your business. The men will take care of it.”
Life went on. Iraqis, particularly Yazidis and other minorities, are good at adjusting to new threats. You have to be if you want to try to live something close to a normal life in a country that seemed to be coming apart. Sometimes the adjustments were relatively small. We scaled down our dreams—of finishing school, of giving up farmwork for something less backbreaking, of a wedding taking place on time—and it wasn’t hard to convince ourselves that those dreams had been unreachable in the first place. Sometimes the adjustments would happen gradually, without anyone noticing. We would stop talking to the Muslim students at school, or be drawn inside in fear if a stranger came through the village. We watched news of attacks on TV and started to worry more about politics. Or we shut out politics completely, feeling it was safest to stay silent. After each attack, men added to the dirt barrier outside Kocho, beginning on the western side, facing Syria, until one day we woke up to see that it surrounded us completely. Then, because we still felt unsafe, the men dug a ditch around the village as well.
We would, over generations, get used to a small pain or injustice until it became normal enough to ignore. I imagine this must be why we had come to accept certain insults, like our food being refused, that probably felt like a crime to whoever first noticed it. Even the threat of another firman was something Yazidis had gotten used to, although that adjustment was more like a contortion. It hurt.
With Dishan still captive, I returned with my siblings to the onion fields. There nothing had changed. The vegetables we planted months before were now grown; if we didn’t pick them, no one would. If we didn’t sell them, we wouldn’t have money. So we all knelt in a line beside the tangles of green sprouts, tugging bulbs out of the soil a few at a time, collecting them in woven plastic bags where they would be left to ripen until it was time to take them to market. Will we take them to the Muslim villages this year? we wondered but could not answer. When one of us pulled up the black, poisonous-smelling sludge of a rotten onion, we groaned, plugged our noses, and kept going.
Because it was what we normally did, we gossiped and teased one another, telling stories each had heard a million times before. Adkee, my sister and the joker of the family, recalled the image of me that day trying to chase the car, a skinny farm girl, my scarf falling in front of my eyes, waving the stick over my head, and we all nearly tipped over into the dirt laughing. We made a game of the work, racing to see who could pick the most onions just as, months before, we had raced to see who could plant the most seeds. When the sun started to go down, we joined my mother at home for dinner in our courtyard and then slept shoulder to shoulder on mattresses on the roof of our house, watching the moon and whispering until exhaustion brought the whole family to complete silence.
We wouldn’t find out why the kidnappers stole the animals—the hen, the chicks, and our two sheep—until almost two weeks later, after ISIS had taken over Kocho and most of Sinjar. A militant, who had helped round up all of Kocho’s residents into the village’s secondary school, later explained the kidnappings to a few of the village’s women. “You say we came out of nowhere, but we sent you messages,” he said, his rifle swinging at his side. “When we took the hen and the chicks, it was to tell you we were going to take your women and children. When we took the ram, it was like taking your tribal leaders, and when we killed the ram, it meant we planned on killing those leaders. And the young lamb, she was your girls.”
Featured Image: Fred R. Conrad/Redux; Author Photo: Thomas Duffé