The life of Nadia Murad, winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, changed forever when Islamic State militants overran her village in Iraq four years ago, intent on murder, kidnap and rape.
She had dreamed of being a teacher or working in a beauty salon.
Instead, she was rounded up, taken captive and passed among militants as a sex slave. Her six brothers and her mother were killed.
“It was genocide, pure and simple,” she later recounted in a speech to the United Nations. “I was not alone, and perhaps I was a lucky one.”
At least 6,800 members of the Yazidi religious sect were captured as a result of the Islamic State’s push on Sinjar. Thousands remain missing, including at least 1,300 women and children, according to Murad. More than 3,000 have escaped or been freed. Their stories permeate northern Iraq, sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted.
In 2015, I met with Sahira Habo. She used charcoal and a needle to etch her husband’s name into her skin as a reminder, as she was raped and passed from militant to militant, that her heart was only his as her body became no longer hers.
Her first captor, a Tunisian Islamic State militant, loaned her out to other fighters for nights. Her second, a Libyan, was possessive and full of rage and eventually beat her 2-year-old daughter to death. The interpreter cried as he translated her story.
It is for women such as Habo that Murad has raised her voice, choosing to speak out while battling her own trauma.
“We must work together with determination — to prove that genocidal campaigns will not only fail, but lead to accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the survivors,” Murad said in a statement Friday.
The Islamic State’s brutality was already well documented by the summer of 2014. The group was notorious for its brutal executions, which it filmed and distributed online in slickly edited videos. A few months before closing in on Sinjar, they had retaken Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, and the initial capture of the tiny villages clustered in the mountainous area drew limited international attention.
Kurdish forces, who had been tasked with protecting the area, withdrew with little resistance, leaving tens of thousands of Yazidis to their fate. The militants considered members of the sect, which has roots in Zoroastrianism, to be apostates.
As Islamic State fighters made their way from village to village in their pickup trucks, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to the hills of Mount Sinjar.
Those who were stuck on the mountain would call day and night. The calls were desperate — send planes, send airstrikes, send supplies. Why was no one helping them? Men who stayed behind had been killed, their women kidnapped, they told the outside world. Islamic State Humvees were approaching, send help, send help.
Citing the plight of the Yazidis, the United States eventually began its first airstrikes against the militants. But they were limited, and the calls for help continued.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the full image of the horrors that had befallen the Yazidi people, followers of an ancient religious sect, began to emerge. Even for a group that had shown itself to be so lacking in humanity, reports about Islamic State atrocities were hard to fathom.
Habo, who was 27 at the time, was first held at a chicken farm. She tried to believe that the shooting she heard outside was not the male members of her family being killed. But then the militants returned, their pants spattered with blood.
Her husband, her father and three brothers died that day, along with thousands of others — no one really knows how many.
Around 70 mass graves have been found, according to Kurdistan’s regional government. They have not been excavated yet, with the process being delayed by the political wrangling that has also held up the reconstruction of Yazidi towns and villages, long after they were recaptured from the Islamic State. Yazidi advocates hope that Murad’s Nobel honor may draw more attention to their plight.
Murad’s charity, Nadia’s Initiative, works to assist redevelopment in the area.
She is also taking her battle to the courts. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is representing her in a legal case against Islamic State commanders.
Habo has little hope that her tormentors will get their reckoning, in this life at least. Murad is fighting in the hopes that that’s a day some survivors may one day see.