UPDATE: It was announced in October 2018 that Nadia Murad—along with activist Denis Mukwege—have been awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. The below, which originally ran on Glamour.com in 2017, is an excerpt from Murad’s book The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
In 2014, when I was 21 years old, ISIS invaded my village, Kocho, in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. They gave the Yazidis—my people—only one choice: Convert to Islam or die. We didn’t convert. Soon after, residents were taken to a local school, and the men, including six of my brothers, were taken away and executed within earshot. Then the Islamic State militants turned their attention to the women and children.
I’ll never forget how my mother looked that day, her white headscarf pushed back, her hair wild and messy. Without saying a word, she rested her head on my lap. When one of the men grabbed me and tore me away from her, I screamed and begged. The last thing I heard my mother say was “I am going to die.” I never saw her again.
Girls like me were loaded onto buses. While we waited, a militant walked over with a weapon in his hands and asked me if I wanted to convert. I shook my head. Then he gestured back to where the older women were being held. “If you convert, you can stay.” I shook my head again.
The bus was eerily quiet as we drove. All I could hear were the footsteps of another militant pacing the aisles. He seemed to enjoy his job, stopping to taunt girls, groping their breasts, and laughing as though amused by their panic. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I closed my eyes, praying the militant would go away, but his hand moved down the front of my dress and stopped on my breast. It felt like fire.
I screamed, “You brought us on this bus. You made us come, and this man won’t leave us alone!”
A commander sneered, “You are here to be sabaya, and you will do what we say.”
This was the first time I heard the word sabaya—or sex slave—applied to me. That moment was the moment I started dying. Every second with ISIS was a slow, painful death.
The buses took the women to Mosul, where Nadia was beaten, spit on, and burned with cigarettes. She was held in different houses for several days, then sold in a slave auction and forced to convert. Her captor immediately began to physically and emotionally abuse her, pausing only to take a call from his wife. That was when Nadia realized the most chilling fact of her captivity: The women were in on it.
I thought about the families living on the streets around me. Were they sitting down to dinner? putting their children to bed? There was no way they couldn’t hear what was going on.
In Iraq every woman has had to struggle for everything, no matter her religion. Seats in parliament, reproductive rights, positions at universities.
In the kitchen of the house, the guard, Morteja, and an older woman greeted us. She introduced herself as Morteja’s mother. When she found out I’d converted, she said, “It’s not your fault you were born a Yazidi. You will be happy now.”
I stared at this woman, searching for a glimmer of sympathy. She was close to my mother’s age, and her body was soft like my mother’s. I thought being a mother might mean more than her being Sunni and my being Yazidi. Did she know how my captor had pawed at me all night long, only stopping short of rape because I had my period? Did she know how much I missed my mother?
In Iraq every woman has had to struggle for everything, no matter her religion. Seats in parliament, reproductive rights, positions at universities—these were all the result of long battles. Men were content to stay in power, so power had to be taken from them by strong women. Even my sister’s insistence on driving our tractor at home had been a challenge to the men in our lives.
And yet, when ISIS came to Mosul, women welcomed them, celebrating vicious policies that exploited women like me. They stood by while terrorists killed or pushed out the city’s Christians and Shiites, people the Sunnis had lived with for over a thousand years. They chose to stay and watch, to live under ISIS.
There is no way I would have stood by and watched if Yazidis had attacked Muslims the way ISIS attacked us. No one in my family would have. People think Yazidi women are weak because we’re poor and live outside cities. I’ve heard people say female fighters with ISIS are, in their own way, proving their strength among men. But none of them—not Morteja’s mother, not even a suicide bomber—was a fraction as strong as my mother. She never would have allowed a woman to be sold into slavery, no matter her religion.
I have heard the rare story of an Islamic State woman helping a Yazidi woman. For instance, one girl from my town was given a phone by the wife of her captor, so she was able to coordinate an escape for all the Yazidi girls in her house. But more often I hear stories of women who were even more cruel than men. They beat and starved their husbands’ sabaya, out of jealousy or anger or maybe just because we’re easy targets. Or maybe these women think of themselves as revolutionaries—even feminists—and have told themselves, as people have throughout history, that violence toward a greater good is acceptable. Still, I don’t understand how anyone could stand by while thousands of Yazidis are sold into sexual slavery and raped until their bodies break. There is no justification for that kind of cruelty, and no greater good that can come of it.
I don’t understand how anyone could stand by while thousands of Yazidis are sold into sexual slavery and raped until their bodies break. There is no justification for that kind of cruelty, and no greater good that can come of it.
If Morteja’s mother had acknowledged what was happening that day in the kitchen, I would have forgiven her. If she’d said, “I know they brought you here by force,” or if she’d whispered, “I will help you. I’m a mother. I feel for you”—those words would have been like a piece of bread after I hadn’t eaten for weeks. But she said nothing. She left, and I was alone. I will never forget that feeling.
Days later, after being passed from captor to captor, raped on a daily basis, and deprived of basic human comforts like food and companionship, Nadia managed to escape. She jumped over a wall, walked through the night, and knocked on the door of strangers who risked their lives hiding her until it was safe to get her to a refugee camp. From there, Nadia went to Germany.
I now live in a small apartment where I sleep beneath large photos of my mother and my niece, who are both gone. I wear necklaces that spell out the names of the dead, and I pray every day for the safe return of the missing. I still dream about Kocho, and every morning I wake up and remember that it no longer exists as I knew it. It’s a strange, hollow feeling; longing for a lost place makes you feel like you, too, have disappeared.
In the beginning, after we were “free” again, we went to the hospital to make sure we were healthy. Some of us tried therapy, which was almost impossible to endure. We went to German classes and cooked our food and did the chores we had grown up doing—cleaning and baking bread—but without the time-consuming tasks like milking sheep or farming, or the social life that comes with living in a tight-knit village. We had too many empty hours, and the mourning never stopped, but very slowly our lives started to feel significant again.
When I think back to my own escape—the unlocked door, the quiet yard, the door I knocked on in a neighborhood that turned out to be full of Islamic State sympathizers—I shiver at how easily it all could have gone wrong. I think there was a reason God helped me escape, and I don’t take my freedom for granted. The terrorists didn’t think that Yazidi girls would be able to escape or that we would have the courage to tell the world every detail of what they did to us.
Every time I tell my story, I feel that I am taking some power away from those men—and the women who supported them. My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism, and I plan on using it until those terrorists are put on trial. There is still so much that needs to be done.
Adapted from Nadia Murad’s new book, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State (Tim Duggan Books)