Twenty-five-year-old Yazidi activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad carries the weight of her people’s world on her shoulders.
Murad managed to eventually flee the genocide and sexual slavery enforced by the Islamic State, but many in her family weren’t able to. When the Islamic State attacked her village in northern Iraq, they executed her mother and six brothers.
An estimated 5,000 people were killed in the weeks that followed the attack and over 7,000 women and children were captured to become sex slaves and child soldiers. Eighteen members of Murad’s family were either killed or enslaved. Countless women and children are still enslaved.
“Girls as young as 9 years old were used as sex slaves, their fate is unknown, but we know that they are facing horrible treatment as sex slaves,” Murad says.
Murad, who shared her painful story with the United Nations and the world over three years ago, published a memoir in 2017 about her experiences entitled “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.”
For director Alexandria Bombach’s new documentary on Murad, titled “On Her Shoulders,” she followed her and the people around her, including international human rights barrister Amal Clooney, to document Murad’s exhausting campaign against sexual violence in conflict and the emotional price for sharing her story.
Bombach says it was heartbreaking to watch Murad have to repeat the horrific details over and over. “I questioned whether or not each interview that asked her questions about her sexual slavery and the murder of her family was worth it, if it truly made an impact for the Yazidis,” she says. “When I met Nadia, I think she was starting to question this, too.”
Today, Murad is a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations who advocates for survivors of human trafficking. She recently announced her plans to be married to Abid Shamdeen, 30, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army and a human rights activist.
“Our hope is to build a family, of course, and live our lives together,” says Shamdeen. “But we are going to keep working and fighting for the Yazidi case until things change.”
This interview was conducted with the help of Shamdeen to translate.
The Lily: What was life like before the Islamic State?
Nadia Murad: Very simple, but we were happy because we were all together as a family. Yazidis were always neglected so we had very limited services in our villages. We worked hard and lived happy with our community.
TL: Has the world taken enough notice?
NM: I believe the world has heard our message and heard about the suffering of Yazidis; nations and many people around the world have been sympathetic with our cause. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground for Yazidis has not improved because of lack of action. Eighty percent of Yazidis live in IDP [internally displaced person] camps still and hundreds of women are still in captivity. Hundreds of Yazidi children are in captivity. Mass graves are out in the open, unprotected and unexamined.
TL: What more do you hope to achieve by sharing your story?
NM: My hope was and still is that I can help my community recover from this genocide by bringing back those in captivity, making sure our areas are reconstructed and Yazidis are protected in the future. My hope is that no other woman in the world, anywhere, will face what I faced.
TL: What more needs to be done?
NM: Half of our homeland is not demined. Our areas are destroyed and Yazidis are still displaced. I hope we can reverse all of this and help rescue those in captivity.
TL: What must be done so that Yazidis can have their rights returned to them?
NM: Justice should be done and those who committed crimes against our community. The government of Iraq must help the victims and pay reparations to those who lost their property and their family members.
TL; What must be done so women and children will not be victims of war anymore?
NM: The international community should carefully study what happened to Yazidi women and children. It’s a shame that in 2018, hundreds of Yazidis are being traded as slaves. This should never have happened to anyone.
TL: What is it like for the Yazidi refugees you visited in the camps in Greece?
NM: Many of them still live the same tents from few years ago. Some kids who were born in tents don’t know anything but the life of camps. A whole generation of Yazidis will grow up without education. Many families live on handouts. They don’t have any source of income and they live in unsanitary conditions.
TL: What is something you have learned about the world from your experience?
NM: The world can help vulnerable people, but unfortunately, we are too slow to act in many cases.
TL: What do the Yazidi people need most right now?
NM: Demining, reconstruction and security.
TL: What are misconceptions that people still have about the Yazidi people and genocide?
NM: Yazidis are peaceful people, a small minority that just want to live without fear. A minority that wants to be respected just like the rest of the people in that country.
TL: When will your role as a human-rights spokesperson end?
NM: After publishing my book and after doing few years of advocacy, I will slow down but will always continue to seek help for Yazidis and advocate for human rights.
TL: I saw film footage of your return to Kocho in 2017 and it looked terribly difficult for you. Were you surprised by your reaction?
NM: I knew what happened there and I knew it will be difficult but going there was different.
NM: It just brought back all the memories and good times with family and friends. The whole town was inhabitable.
TL: The film shows how the demands of being an activist takes a toll on you. Did you see that coming?
NM: No, I didn’t. In fact, when I first testified at the U.N. [in 2015] I thought it was just a one-time testimony and I didn’t know it would end up like this.
TL: What do you hope the film will achieve?
NM: I hope the film will be another way to reach our message to as many people as possible.
TL: What were some of your challenges?
NM: The whole process was a challenge, going over my childhood, family, friends and what happened during the 2014 genocide.
TL: What keeps you going?
NM: I always believed our case is a noble one and we didn’t deserve this. Even in captivity this gave me strength to survive. We were attacked just because our faith is different and that is wrong.
TL: Do you think it will be possible to bring your tormentors to justice?
NM: I sure hope so. We are fighting for it every day.
TL: What message would you like to convey?
NM: We have done our best to covey the message of our people to the world and the message of other oppressed communities. Unfortunately, the progress is not being made in the case of Yazidis. The majority of our people remain in camps, our home is destroyed, and thousands are in captivity and missing.
TL: If you could stop one thing hurting humanity today, what would it be?
NM: I wish people would just accept each other and not discriminate against each other based on race, religion, gender.
TL: What can we do to help?
NM: People can help by educating others about this minority and by helping through NGOs and reaching out to their representative in the government.