'Every Part of Me Changed in Their Hands': A Former ISIS Sex Slave Speaks Out
When ISIS forces swept into Nadia Murad's village in Sinjar, it marked the beginning of several torturous months of rape, abuse, and captivity. Now the freed Yazidi campaigner is furiously lobbying for the survival of her people.
All photos by Christopher Bethell
Nadia Murad was only 19 when her village in Sinjar, northern Iraq was captured by Islamic State forces. "They arrived on August 3 and the ISIS emir [leader] told us if we convert we could live, but nobody converted," she begins.
"On August 15 at 11 AM, people in our area were asked to go to the school, which had two floors. They took women, girls, and children to the first floor, and the men had to stay on the ground floor. My nephews—we were trying to bring them up with us. They made the boys hold up their arms—if he had [armpit] hair they had to stay downstairs, if they had no hair they could go upstairs."
Murad and her mother and sisters watched out of the window, along with hundreds of other women and children from the Yazidi village of Kocho, as ISIS slaughtered their men and boys. "We could see outside—they were shooting the men and they were beheading them as well. They were also taking them away in buses.
"My six brothers were killed in this way."
When interviewing Murad, you become quickly aware you are recording testimony of gruesome war crimes. Translators are often overcome by emotion and find it difficult to continue. Those who speak Kurmanji, her native Kurdish dialect, are usually from the same Yazidi community that has been decimated at the hands of ISIS.
On August 3, 2014, Kurdish troops left Sinjar and, in the words of Yazidi princess Oroub Bayazid Ismail, "left us to our fate." Over the past two years, that fate has involved the enslavement of approximately 6,000 people, mass executions of thousands of men, and a vicious campaign of rape and sex trafficking. A UN human rights report in March 2015 stated that these acts may constitute genocide against the Yazidi people.
Murad was among the thousands of women held captive as sex slaves for jihadi fighters. Today, she lives in Germany and has spoken at the United Nations Security Council about the torture and abuse she suffered as a prisoner of ISIS. In January, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in raising awareness of Yazidi suffering.
Before ISIS invaded Kocho, Murad lived in a large house in the village with her mother and 12 siblings. Her father passed away in 2003. "When I was very young, we were a very poor, but then my brothers started to work and so we had a better life. We had a big yard out the back—half of the yard was for us, and half was for our animals," she recalls.
Murad missed a year or so between junior school and high school, as her mother did not want her travelling unaccompanied to the nearby town where the nearest high school was. When a secondary school opened in Kocho, she attended until she was 17 and made it to ninth grade. "History was my favourite subject—I was very good at memorizing what I was reading. But now my memory is not the same, I mix things up in my brain."
Her last memory of her mother is from inside her old school building. "We haven't heard from her, or from the other 80 older women taken together since they separated us, after they killed all the men." The screensaver on the phone—which is almost always glued to her hand—is a picture of her mother, dressed for a Yazidi festival celebration.
"When Sinjar was liberated they found a mass grave with 80 women in it, but this mass grave has not been looked at yet—there has been no investigation, so we don't know for sure is she is there." So far, investigators from Yazda, an advocacy group made up of members of the Yazidi diaspora and their supporters, have verified 19 mass graves in Sinjar out of a suspected 35. They estimate that just 1,500 of the 6,000 remains found have been identified, or are being properly preserved.
I first met Murad in July last year, four months after she managed to escape from her captors in Mosul. She visited the UK with two other former captives and former Iraqi MP Ameena Hasan Saeed, who helped to smuggle her out of the Islamic State. Speaking anonymously, she described in blistering detail how she was abused, raped, and sold through the ranks of ISIS troops, enduring several weeks in captivity and 13 owners who kept her locked up, starved and disorientated.
At the time, she showed me scars from cigarette butts burnt into her skin by the fighters who worked for her first owner, a commander called Salman. He had his men gang rape her after her first disastrous attempt at escaping. "I found a small window so I climbed out and jumped from the second story, but one of Salman's guards found me and brought be back to him. I could have died jumping, and after that I wished I had."
Murad eventually made her escape when her final owner, an ISIS bus driver, went to buy her an abaya so they could travel to his home outside Mosul. Seizing her chance, she made a run for it and began knocking on doors, finally finding a family who let her in. She sheltered with them for a fortnight, before being smuggled out using their daughter's ID to get past the initial checkpoints. She was then ferried past ISIS front lines and met her brother in Tel Afar in northwestern Iraq.
After her escape, she lived in one of the dozens of overcrowded refugee camps outside Duhok, Kurdistan. Under a special quota project run by the federal government of Baden-Wurtemberg, Germany, she was granted a German resident visa in September last year. Today she lives in comfortable accommodation in a secret location near Stuttgart, along with one of her sisters. The program includes voluntary trauma counselling for former captives, but Murad stopped after two sessions.
"Talking alone in a room will not help me or my family," she says. "My other sister with my three remaining brothers are still living in the camp. Conditions are still as bad—rotting dried food, no water, no electricity. Four of my brothers' wives remain with ISIS, along with their children. Talking to one person in private will not help this."
Travelling with Murad Ismael, the co-founder and director of Yazda, she has spent the past three months touring the Middle East, the US, and Europe to tell her story to political leaders and lobby their support. In doing so she has become the spokesperson for the Yazidi genocide, and a figurehead of a movement to free the estimated 3,500 women and children still living as slaves under the black flag of ISIS.
Last week I accompanied her as she told her story to a group of stunned and tearful MPs in Westminster. "I decided to speak publicly about this because I want to tell my story and I want to tell about what happened to me and what is still happening to all us women in ISIS' hands," she tells me afterwards. "This happened to me. I was subject to these atrocities and everywhere I go people have sympathy with me, but still there has been no rescues or progress."
"She has become very famous, really, and people support her everywhere," says Maher Nawaf, a UK-based Yazda activist, "as she has went through so many things that us Yazidis have had to cope with this year. I don't know how she is so strong, but she is in all our hearts and we are so proud of her."
Murad has even become something of a folk hero, with fan art of her appearing online and graffitied in odd locations across Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched viral clips of her speech to the United Nations Security Council. In the Yazidi community, there is a sense that she has experienced multiple facets of the trauma faced by the religious minority.
"Her nephew—she showed me a picture of him—he is eight years old," Nawaf says. "And they [ISIS] have brainwashed him at the ISIS 'cub' camps where they brainwash our children. He was threatening to kill his own father. So she has been through every thing that has happened to us—her mother and brothers killed, her sister-in-laws still in captivity, and the boys in her family have been stolen by ISIS to train as killers."
Despite Yazidi activists providing detailed information on the location of many hostages, who still maintain sporadic contact through their mobile phones, there have been no rescue attempts by international forces and Iraqi or Peshmerga troops.
In this vacuum, activists have been running their own smuggling networks working with undercover taxi drivers, who take huge personal risks to ferry women and children out of ISIS territory and whose services do not come cheap. Rescuing Murad's brainwashed nephew is unlikely, but there are many within her wide family circle and across the community that could be freed, she insists.
Torturous proof-of-life pictures of those in captivity—provided by ISIS soldiers to family members—keep her going. "I was shown a picture of a 13-year-old just yesterday", she told MPs in Parliament, "and they had dressed her in a way that presented her sexually."
"I am taking one day at a time," she tells me over kebabs the next day in central London, as she scrolls through pictures of her loved ones in captivity on her phone. Relaxing together with the Yazda team, she says she enjoys writing the speeches, but still struggles to find the words to describe what she has went through. We giggle at the wild array of fan paintings dedicated to her.
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"I feel very old now. I am 21—yes, I know it is young. But I feel like every part of me changed in their hands: Every strand of hair on my head, every part of my body got old. I got worn out by what they did to me, and now I am a totally different in every way. I never imagined that these things could happen, and I can't really describe them in a way to make you understand. "
She is up against Pope Francis, the Afghan women's cycling team, and sustainable development economist Herman Daly for the Nobel Prize. She is not quite at the stage where she can imagine winning, but is gracious about the nomination, and beams shyly when I congratulate her on her achievement.
"I have a lot of support from all over the world. And I know for a lot of people being nominated for a Nobel Prize would be a very good thing. And of course it is helpful to my cause to achieve the freedom of those in captivity. But even if I receive the Nobel, I will receive it with a broken heart."
Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nadia Murad spent eight months as an ISIS captive. She, in fact, spent several weeks in captivity.