On Aug. 15, 2014, Islamic State fighters who had surrounded her small Iraqi town for days ordered Nadia Murad and other Yazidis to walk to the local school, where men were to head upstairs, women downstairs. A sight along the way terrified the 20-year-old even more: backhoes at work. She’d seen videos of Islamic State fighters filling mass graves. One of her eight brothers said no, that couldn’t happen. The militant extremists weren’t about to kill a whole village of people.
Later that sweltering day, the militants shot dead five of her brothers and her mother, along with hundreds of other Yazidis. Murad and other young women were soon sent to religious courts to be registered by a photo and number as property of fighters who could then do with the women as they wished.
On Monday, Murad’s eyes were downcast, her voice soft, her memory fractured as she spoke in Washington, one of the many cities around the globe where she has traveled as part of a desperate Yazidi campaign for help. Murad is so traumatized she cannot remember how long she was held captive before escaping.
Four days after Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared Islamic State crimes against religious minorities to be acts of genocide, the push is on for justice. Murad’s D.C. tour — which included stops at offices of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the State Department — was part of an effort to shed light on the meaning of the word genocide. If the Obama administration agrees that the ancient Kurdish minority and other groups — including Shiite Muslims and Christians — are victims of genocide, what will be done?
Advocates such as Murad are seeking a broad variety of actions: the documentation of war crimes evidence such as mass graves, the rescue of young Yazidi men and women still held by the Islamic State as fighters and sex slaves, and the granting of refugee status in the United States to persecuted religious minorities.
The State Department on Monday said it is already helping to provide security around mass graves and is training security forces.
But Murad and experts at the Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide say much more must be done.
Murad’s presence was a dark reminder that Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq had been begging for help for years, to no avail — including before and during the 2014 massacres in Sinjar.
“No one even tried,” Murad said Monday through a translator, describing to a group of a few dozen genocide experts and journalists how the disabled, elderly and men were killed. “If they’d tried and failed, fine, but no one even tried.”
Naomi Kikoler of the Holocaust Museum’s genocide prevention center, which hosted the talk, said international and Iraqi leaders knew for a decade that atrocities against religious minorities could occur. “This is a moment when we should feel deeply ashamed,” she said.
Late last year, Congress ordered the State Department to outline a plan regarding attacks in the Middle East against religious and ethnic groups.
In a report filed Thursday, the department said it “supports a number of initiatives focused on the documentation of atrocities, which aim to lay the groundwork for future accountability for atrocities committed in Syria.”
It mentioned funding the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, an organization that investigates and documents abuses, the report said. In Iraq, however, despite $3 million in funding, efforts are hampered by funding and security problems and by the lack of an invitation by the central government in Baghdad, the report said.
Murad comes from the northern Iraqi town of Kocho. Multiple communities of religious minorities who lived in that region, including Shabak, Turkmen and Christians, began coming under increasing pressure from Sunni extremists in recent years. The 1,700 people who lived in the town in 2014, she said, were all Yazidis, mostly farmers.
On Aug. 3, 2014, when the Sunni extremist Islamic State invaded the region, “We weren’t given choices — it was convert or die,” she said. Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority whose faith has roots in Zoroastrianism, Islam and other faiths. A report by the Holocaust Museum last year found that Yazidis were singled out by the Islamic State for extinction.
Staring at the floor of the conference room Monday as she spoke in a soft voice, Murad described how the stifling August heat prevented many from escaping into the mountains.
Her voice remained flat as she described a disabled woman being burned alive, one of many hundreds of people from her town who were killed.
“All that time we were in touch with the United States, the United Kingdom, others, to try and rescue us, but no one did anything. Even until the last minute we had hoped someone would come, but nobody did,” she said through an interpreter.
The interpreter, Abid Shamdeen, who is also Yazidi, had worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq and in 2014 was living in Nebraska while his family remained in Iraq. He described how Yazidis saw the Iraqi forces who were supposed to protect them flee when the Islamic State fighters arrived. The young man began to choke on tears as he spoke.
“They didn’t even leave their weapons for us behind — they left people behind,” Shamdeen said, Murad to his right and Kikoler to his left at a table at the front of a sterile conference room. “I wish this world was a little more fair.”
Some Western Christian groups have been speaking out over the past decade about violence and persecution Christians in the Middle East are experiencing — a movement that gained significant volume with the rise of the Islamic State.
Shamdeen, whose Yazidi community in Nebraska is the country’s largest, told The Washington Post he was “very disappointed” that Christians only recently seemed to take up the causes of other religious minorities. “We were barely mentioned, even though we were the main ones.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the last sentence, a quote from interpreter Abid Shamdeen.