Nadia Murad is a Yazidi activist and advocate for survivors of genocide and sexual violence. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
In 2014, a few months before the Islamic State attacked Sinjar in Iraq, extremists killed a young border patrolman named Ismail from my hometown of Kocho. After I had escaped my own enslavement at the hands of the Islamic State, I realized his death had been a sign of what was to come. Iraqis — not just Yazidis, but also Kurds and Arabs, Sunni and Shiite — knew of the Islamic State before it even had a name. It was an ideology and a legacy of war. But we didn’t put the pieces together.
At the time, Ismail’s death was simply viewed as a tragedy. Now, as survivors, we are better at reading the signs.
Last month, the White House announced that the Islamic State’s “territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria.” But Yazidis and other survivors know that even though the Islamic State has been weakened, the gaping wounds it left behind still exist. Unless survivors of Islamic State violence are heard, supported and made part of the reconciliation process, Iraq and Syria will never heal.
In particular, the concerns and demands of Yazidi survivors — among the most brutalized by the Islamic State — must be centered. Today, approximately 80 percent of Yazidis remain in refugee camps in northern Iraq. Thousands have moved to Europe as refugees, and many more will follow. Some predict that soon Iraq, like Turkey, will no longer have a vibrant Yazidi population.
I am not that pessimistic. I believe that Yazidis will one day return to Sinjar, where many of Iraq’s 600,000 Yazidis once lived, and that our return is crucial to reconciliation. But for that to happen, Iraqi and international authorities must play a role.
Sinjar is not secure. Militias still patrol the region and there is no central control. Access to necessities such as food and clean water is limited. Towns that are lucky enough to still have school buildings don’t have enough teachers. Hospitals destroyed in battle have not been rebuilt.
The Iraqi government should work to return services to Sinjar so that Yazidis can move home and reconciliation can begin. Authorities should work to regain our trust and recruit locals to form regional security forces. Once the area is secure and the Iraqi government streamlines the process to obtain the necessary permissions, initiatives such as the Sinjar Action Fund — an effort I helped found to try to rebuild Sinjar — can begin constructing hospitals and other infrastructure to help redevelop what was lost.
But this rebuilding process also requires political commitments. All survivors, including Yazidis, need to be a part of discussions and negotiations going forward. Yazidis have demanded reparations to compensate for the land, livestock and possessions lost to the Islamic State. These demands must be heard and considered at the highest level.
Iraq must also prosecute Islamic State fighters for sexual violence and other crimes committed during the genocide, not just for vague charges of terrorism. Without acknowledging the rape that was part of our enslavement, Yazidis and other survivors will struggle to move forward. Tribunals established decades ago in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda can be our models for justice.
Finally, the Iraqi government and international actors must help preserve evidence of the Yazidi genocide and other Islamic State attacks, including mass graves, documents and the testimonies of survivors. We are ready to face our captors and rapists in local and international courts, and even participate in a truth and reconciliation committee. Do not let our stories and our bravery go to waste.
Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law visited Ismail’s widow in the hospital in Syria. It was the first anyone from Kocho had seen her since she and her young son were kidnapped, along with thousands of other Yazidi women and children, in 2014. They had been taken from Tal Afar to Mosul, then to Syria, where she had been enslaved for nearly five years.
“I did everything they told me to do,” she told my brother-in-law, “just to keep my son alive.”
This year, U.S. airstrikes killed her captors and she escaped. But her trauma is far from over. She and her son were close to safety — maybe 110 yards away, she thinks — when they were hit with a mortar. Her son died and she was hospitalized. Now all she wants is to go home to Kocho, where she belongs.
After the tragic death of her husband and son, her wish to return to her homeland and start to rebuild her life is a sign of what is needed for lasting peace and reconciliation. It’s time for the international community to take note and offer its support.
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