As she addresses the audience through an interpreter at a public seminar in Australia, Nadia Murad Basee Taha is spell-binding. She is slight, somber, with long dark hair. To describe her in this way isn’t meant to exoticize her, it’s to underscore how incredible it is that someone so young, a mere 21 years old, can survive such unimaginable horror.
Nadia is Yazidi. She is a slavery and genocide survivor. She is the voice of her dwindling people.
In the West, we tend to think of the ISIS threat as being about us. We, generally, are the infidels ISIS is bent on destroying in graphic, terror-inducing ways.
But what about those in ISIS’ direct, brutal, sphere of influence?
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority who have been persecuted throughout history. They number around 700,000 people, mostly living in the northern Sinjar region of Iraq. Their religion blends aspects of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, and worship of a fallen angel later forgiven by God is central to their beliefs. ISIS calls them devil worshippers, and uses this to justify killing them and selling them into slavery.
Nadia was there when ISIS invaded her village, Kocho. She saw her mother killed. Six of her brothers were killed. She can recount being continuously separated from her extended family, until she was left with just two nieces. Eventually, they were sold to different ISIS militants.
Hearing Nadia speak about her experiences is harrowing. She talks about the fateful day her normal life ended. Her speech is thankfully short, and she doesn’t go into details of the rape and sexual abuse she suffered in captivity. After she finishes, she stares into the audience as other panel members talk about the Yazidi people, their fate, and the responsibility of the international community to act. While they are presenting data and facts, Nadia starts to cry. She sobs silently as slides of mass graves are projected onto the screen behind her. Sixteen mass graves have been found so far. One contains the bodies of 80 women who were not “desirable”. Her mother is one of them.
The presenters talk bout how ISIS is currently committing genocide against the Yazidi. They are killing them, raping women and girls, but they are also destroying their culture and identity. Kidnapped children are forced to convert and fight for ISIS. Nadia’s tiny nephew now features in an ISIS propaganda film, vowing to kill his “infidel” Yazidi family if he ever sees them again.
In her world tour to highlight the extermination of her people, Nadia doesn’t sleep alone. She is afraid of the dark.
In early August 2014, the 24-hour news cycle across the western world was full of the story of the remnants of Yazidi villages, trapped on Mount Sinjar and surrounded by ISIS fighters. Around 40,000 people were stranded; they had little food or water. Children and the elderly died on their trek to find safety. There were reports of older Yazidis flinging themselves off the mountain so as not to slow down their families, and mothers leaving their babies behind. It was unimaginable.
The US and the UK airdropped humanitarian assistance. They also considered an armed rescue. Kurdish forces eventually broke the ISIS siege of the mountain.
Two years later, approximately 5,000 Yazidi women and girls remain hostage, while an estimated 400,000 have fled their homeland seeking safety. Nadia now lives in Germany.
As a brand new mom sitting in the audience, I was of course stricken by the slides of dead children left by the side of the path as the Yazidis fled to what they hoped was safety. But the photo that truly stabbed me in the heart was of a mother for sale.
The photo was doing the rounds of ISIS social media. She was being sold for a pitiable amount, but it was a two-for-one deal. She had her child slung across her chest. It is the same position I carry my baby in when she’s asleep.
What will happen to the baby? Will she be ripped from her mother’s arms when she is “ready” to be “married”, the ISIS code word for sexual slavery? Will her mother hear the negotiations for her baby? Will she see who comes to claim her child? I can’t imagine.
This is the stuff of our own horrific history, of African/African American slaves having their children ripped away and sold on. But it is also the stuff of our present.
Yes, ISIS wants to get us. But it has the Yazidi now. For all of us who have learnt about the slave trade, the Holocaust, Rwanda and Srebrenica, we need to say Never Again and mean it this time.
When Nadia addressed the United Nations Security Council – where the US is a permanent member with veto power – she called on the world to act, to help to protect and save her people.
When Trump and Clinton debate ISIS strategy in the lead up to this year’s election, remember that ending the ISIS threat isn’t just about protecting the people in our own countries, it’s about protecting everyone who needs it.