In 2014, ISIS launched an attack on Sinjar, Iraq, taking thousands of Yazidi women captive and killing hundreds more. 

Nadia Murad was one of those captives. She was forced into sexual slavery.

Murad’s ordeal has led her to speak out against the Yazidi genocide and sexual violence as an act of war. Along with Denis Mukwege, she was jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. 

Just a few weeks after her honor was announced, she spoke at Duke Monday evening as part of the 2018 Crown Lecture in Ethics. Judith Kelley moderated the free public talk, called "Truth is my Weapon: A Campaign Against Sexual Violence and Genocide," and fellow activist Abid Shamdeen interpreted for Murad. She detailed how ISIS launched its genocide against the ancient religious minority.

“[ISIS]’s goal was to eradicate the [Yazidi] community,” Murad said through Shamdeen. “But they specifically targeted women. They wanted to enslave the women.”

Murad explained that ISIS knew that for a small community like the Yazidis, the most important thing was dignity and honor. ISIS therefore specifically took Yazidi women into sexual slavery in order to break the community.

Many of those who were not captured faced death. Murad said that ISIS killed her mother and six of her brothers, and two nieces were killed after being taken into captivity.

“Each Yazidi family has a story like that,” Murad said. “Some of them don’t have stories because the whole family was taken when ISIS attacked. Then they just basically shot everyone.”

Despite ISIS’s efforts to break the community, Yazidi religious leaders made a powerful decision—that the women and girls who were taken captive must be reintegrated into the community and respected when they came back.

“It was a very courageous decision to...accept them back, despite the ISIS propaganda that they told the women that when they go back they will be killed and not accepted,” Murad said. “We wanted them to know that’s not true.”

However, the community faces its own challenges due to the scale of ISIS’s destruction. Murad explained that ISIS destroyed everything—schools and medical centers included.

Shamdeen recalled that when Murad went home last May, ISIS’s sheer destruction was apparent.

“Even the doors and the windows in her house were taken,” Shamdeen said.

Still, Murad worries that the Yazidi people will disappear due to their fractured state. 

According to Murad, since the genocide began in 2014, about 65,000 Yazidis have returned to their homes, and 350,000 have remained in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). She added that 85,000 Yazidis have immigrated, mostly to Europe.

“What we fear now is that we might lose our identity if we lose our homeland,” Murad said.

Murad said the only way to maintain that homeland is if they are able to go back there and safely live there. In the past four years, her efforts have been focused on asking nations to help the Yazidi people rebuild and go back home.

Although Murad has met with many leaders, progress has been slow.

“Many [leaders] have expressed sympathy, but so far we have not seen action on the ground,” she said. “They have not acted.”

Murad explained that she constantly follows up with these leaders. She said that she met the prime minister of Norway five times.

“Every time I ask her to at least do something in Sinjar and help us build something,” Murad said. “But obviously, that didn’t happen.”

However, Murad fears that if the international community only worries about defeating ISIS and not holding them accountable for their crimes, sexual violence will be perpetuated.

In the past, groups such as Al Qaeda, Taliban and Boko Haram have used sexual violence as a weapon of war, and that there was no justice for the victims of these crimes, Murad explained.

She said that this is why ISIS uses this tactic—they know there will be no consequences for their crimes against women.

Along with other Yazidi women, Murad said she has testified and worked hard to hold ISIS accountable for their sexual violence against Yazidis. However, Murad said that she has not seen one ISIS member in court being punished. She said she fears that if ISIS is not held accountable now, other groups will continue to use sexual violence.

“If nobody speaks about what ISIS did to us, ISIS will simply get away with their crimes, and especially their crimes against Yazidi women,” Murad said.

She emphasized that there is still a long fight—thousands still reside in camps for IDPs or are held captive, and homes are destroyed. Winning a Nobel Peace Prize does not solve all of the issues, she said.

Indeed, Murad said that it was hard for her when she received word that she was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She thought it would be even more difficult for her to live the simple life that she always wanted.

"Just like all the students here, I wanted to simply...study and go to school and have an education,” she said. “My dream was, prior to ISIS, to have a makeup salon...but I was not able to do any of that.”

However, Murad has been able to capture one piece of a simple life—love.

“What is your next big step?” Kelley asked Murad.

“Marrying me,” Shamdeen said, to the laughter and applause of the audience. The pair became engaged this August.

Eric Wei