On August 3, 2014, Islamic State militants launched an attack on the Yazidi people in Sinjar, northern Iraq, the homeland of approximately 500,000 Yazidis. ISIS killed and captured thousands of people in the small religious community because the militants consider them to be infidels and their religion to be devil worshipping. Many Yazidis fled to nearby Mount Sinjar, a sacred place in their community for over a thousand years.
Nadia Murad was twenty-one years old in 2014 when her peaceful life on the family farm in Kocho was forever changed. ISIS militants killed her mother and six of her brothers. She was captured, along with many other women, and forced into sexual slavery for several months. Murad has detailed her harrowing experiences in her memoir, The Last Girl, as well as in her 2015 statement to the UN Security Council. She received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her activism in advocating for victims of sexual violence and working to rebuild communities in crisis.
The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, together with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, invited Nadia Murad to Harvard University to deliver the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture on April 3, 2019, in Memorial Church. Murad spoke to WCFIA Faculty Associate Jennifer Leaning, an expert in public health and rights-based responses to humanitarian crises, through the help of Yazidi translator Shahnaz Osso. Their conversation, rather than discussing details of Murad’s captivity, focused on Murad’s upbringing and trajectory of her life and work since the attack. What follows is an excerpt of their discussion, lightly edited for clarity. For the full conversation, including video and transcript, visit our website.
JENNIFER LEANING: So give us, if you could, just a three-or-four-sentence outline of what happened on that day, August 3rd, August 4th, 2014. How did you hear of what was happening? How did you try to protect yourself? And then it's over, and you are caught.
NADIA MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): On August 3rd, when they attacked, it was one of the hottest times of the year in Sinjar. And they had heard that ISIS was attacking Mosul, and Tal Afar, and other villages around them. But they didn't think that something this big would happen around them. But they knew it was kind of inevitable.
Her brothers were sleeping on the roof on August 3rd. And she, and her sisters, and sisters-in-law were sleeping in the yard, because her brothers on the roof kept calling people on the phone to try and figure out what was happening. They spent the entire night on their phones. So she, and her sisters, and sisters-in-law slept in the yard so they can actually get some sleep.
So first thing in the morning, the next day, they had heard that people were being attacked and that they were escaping to the mountains to try and get to safety. And they were calling them on the phone to try and get a hold of them and figure out what was going on. She and her family wanted to escape, as well. But like you said, there was just that mountain. It was their only place to go.
So they had heard that ISIS was attacking. And they were too far from the mountain. And so they didn't think that they'd be able to make it to escape to the mountain. They didn't have very many options, either. And they kept hearing people say so-and-so got caught, so-and-so escaped and is on the mountain. And Kocho, which is her village, is right on the edge of the Yazidi territory. So they were very quick to be surrounded by ISIS. And they had run out of options, at that point.
LEANING: So let's go after that. Go to the last week of your captivity. What were you thinking? And how did you begin to imagine your escape?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): When her family was finally caught by ISIS, there was about forty-eight of them that were all captured together. And she and her nieces were separated from the rest of the family. And then her nieces were separated from her, also. And the whole time, she was thinking, when something like this happens, you have to think about yourself. Like will I survive? Won't I survive? And how will I do it?
She began losing hope and thinking that there's no way that the Yazidis will survive this. And she kept seeing that there was ISIS even going on TV. And everybody was hearing about what was happening. But nobody was coming to help. So as she was beginning to lose hope in the international community doing something, she started to have more hope in herself to survive, and hoping that God will take over and help her survive this.
LEANING: Were you able to move around a bit? I'm thinking just physically. Now, you're speaking of yourself as a survivor, already. You have to save yourself. Nobody's coming. You can't count on the family. Was there a wall you're going to have to get over? Was there a door you were going to have to get out of?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): It was actually very easy to escape. It was just difficult to survive past that. Many of her friends that she knew had escaped just simply through a door or a window. But once they would go and try to find a family to either take them in, or help them, or contact somebody, they would return them back to ISIS. So it was difficult once you got out to stay out and find somebody to help you and take you in.
LEANING: So let's create this scene for people here. Was it night or day that you chose to leave?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): It was closer to night.
LEANING: And were you in an unfamiliar part of your territory? Or did you understand where you were?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): She was in Mosul. And that was the first time she'd ever been there. And so she did not recognize anything there.
LEANING: And did you know enough to know that you were going to have to get to Kurdish areas for help? And how far away was that? Or did you have a sense of a town or a village to go to? What made the difference between your not getting turned in and all your other friends who did?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): She had hope in herself and had hoped that because she came from a very peaceful and well-known family that there was other people that were like her family and had a good heart, like her family. And so there was some very old homes there [in Mosul] that she thought that maybe those would be a good idea.
And so she thought if there's people that are similar to my family in morals and values, that they'll recognize somebody that comes from a background like them and maybe take her in.
LEANING: So you knock on a door of an old house in the evening? Or is it, by then, morning? And what do you say to people when they answer the door?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): It was still evening. And she just knocked on the door. And everybody at that point in Mosul and in Iraq, altogether, knew what had happened to the Yazidis and what was going on. So she just knocked and said, "I'm a Yazidi. I've escaped. Will you help me?"
LEANING: Wonderful. So who answered the door?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): It was the father.
LEANING: And what did he say? Give us a little sense of what the next five minutes was like. You knocked. He opens. You say you're Yazidi. "Can you help me?" What does he say? And how does it unfold?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): So he invited her in and started asking her more questions about who she was, where she was from. And the man showed some concern. Because if ISIS found out that he was helping her, then his family might be in danger, too. And she could tell, just from looking around, his whole family was home. And she could tell that they weren't affiliated with ISIS at all. And that made her feel more safe around them.
LEANING: And what do you think persuaded him? Or did the wife or other family members chime in? What do you think persuaded him to say, "Yes, I'm going to help you"?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): He said that regardless of religion, they were all still Iraqis. They didn't agree with what ISIS was doing. And they didn't have any affiliation with them either, and that they need to take compassion. Because regardless of what her beliefs are and what their beliefs are, they're all still one Iraqi community.
LEANING: You're lucky in that regard, aren't you? That you found a good family.
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): Yes. Not everybody was as lucky as her. Her sister-in-law did the same thing and escaped, knocked on somebody's door. And the person who answered the door did the same thing and invited her in, asked her some questions like which ISIS members she escaped from and things like that. And eventually, called those ISIS members and got her taken back.
LEANING: In some settings where people flee, there is a person who really helps early on. And it's critical. That can be somewhat life-affirming after your experience has deadened your feelings about humanity. And I'm going to just ask, but I think you get a sense that this is really important. Really important, initially, in helping you get out and start another life. Is that correct?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): She believes that if she hadn't found a family like this that had helped her, she likely would have either been returned or wouldn't have made it. So it is very important that they were willing to help her. And because of that, she was able to get out and have this safe and happy life—or somewhat happy life that she has now.
LEANING: Do they know what has happened to you? Does that family understand who you've become?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): Yes. She was able to tell them a little bit of her story while she was with them, as well. And so they know what was going on with her before.
LEANING: But now? Have you called them and said, "I got the Nobel Peace Prize," for instance?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): She hasn't spoke to them directly. But when Mosul was freed, basically, her brother was able to tell them, and speak to them, and tell them what's been happening with Nadia and what's been going on. And Iraq is a very tight-knit community, anyway. Anything that happens, everybody knows about it. So she's sure that they had heard about it anyway and know what's going on.
LEANING: That's great. Thank you. I'm going to move now to another set of questions, which is: When did you shift from finding a way to survive to finding a way to make a difference?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): This was never part of her plan. Her plan or her hope was just to get out and live somewhere safe with her family. But then people would come and start talking about what was going on and asking questions. And she felt that she needed to inform them that this is what was happening to us. So this is likely what's happening to girls still in captivity.
And something needs to be happening. And so it was never her plan to be a public speaker, or an advocate, or an activist. It just kind of happened. She felt that it needed to be done. But it was never part of a big plan for her.
She's not the only person to speak out on this or the only survivor to speak out on this. There's been plenty of girls before her and at the same time as her speaking about their experiences, as well, on a large scale and even writing their own books. But sometimes, one person's story just resonates with the world. And it's just what everybody else picks up on, and it just happens to become bigger.
LEANING: I think, of course, you're correct in what you're saying. Because it's your life. And you know what happened. But there are probably some factors in your thinking that made you get more organized about wanting to make a difference. And you may not identify them in you, yet. But as you said, the story of Yazidi came out. It was not that well known, but it came out. And there were many testimonies that the newspapers found, et cetera. And I'm sure the women who survived were talking to each other. But then out of that mix of testimony, and anger, and grief, somehow you took all of that feeling and began to say you wanted to campaign. How did that turn? When did you start using the word "campaign"?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): So the thing that pushed her is because she had always had this idea—if you do a crime such as murder, you need to be brought to justice. And so it wasn't just getting the story out. It was about bringing the members of ISIS that did these heinous crimes to justice, and bringing them in front of an international court, and making them pay for their crimes that they've done.
And everybody, at some point, is going to be judged in front of a court for their sins.
LEANING: So as a little child, as a kid, you had a strong sense of right or wrong? And if somebody did something wrong, they should get punished?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): Of course. She believes that there always has to be some sort of reconciliation for things. For example, if they had planted a bunch of wheat, and one of their neighbor's sheep got into their plants and ate all of it, the neighbor can't just say "whatever." They have to come, and apologize, and say, "We're sorry all your hard work went to waste. Let us pay for the plants. Or let us buy them off of you. Or here's a sheep to make up for it." So actions should have consequences.
As a kid, though, she thought that was the worst thing—was to have your hard work go to waste with the farm or the crops. She didn't know that there was something as horrible as a mother, like her own mother's hard work going to waste, raising eleven kids, and having them all be killed.
LEANING: So you're thinking about something that is overwhelmingly wrong. Now, I know that you have found some good friends and colleagues. And even that is a talent to reach out to people when you are feeling so overwhelmed with sadness. To reach out to people and have them come towards you, and you build something together. That, to me, is a really interesting aspect of your biography. That it's a short two years from August 2014 until when one can see you before the UN Security Council in December 2016. That is a long pathway to go. So I'm going to ask you about some of the friends, some of the people. Not everybody, but two or three that helped shape your agony, your pain, into the search for justice. During those two years, who did you encounter? Who did you talk to?
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): She says that one of the very important things was the fact that many women were speaking out about the things happening. So a lot of the women involved had a big influence on the progress that has been made. Because in the history of all the genocides, in the history of Iraq, women haven't spoken out about the things that have happened to them during these sorts of events. And all of the women that were giving their accounts of things that happened to them and giving their stories and their side of things made a very big impact, and was very important, and set the stage for it, and pushed the whole process more, to be able to have them speak out against what has happened. And it caused an international outcry, because the women were finally speaking out about it. And it made everybody want to get more involved.
LEANING: That's a point we should underscore, isn't it? That in many of these situations, women who have been through sexual violence are not talking about it. They get quiet. And their husbands, and fathers, and brothers don't want them to talk. It's considered shameful. And the fact that something in your community, and your friends in your survivor community, including you, wanted to speak out about it is a remarkable accelerant, a remarkable boost to getting action taken. If you talk, then people understand. And that, I think, has made a very big difference.
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): In the past, not just the Yazidis, but Iraqi women in general, they haven't spoken out about these things. And it's very important that they have been speaking out, now. Because in the past, it's even more of a stigma than it is here, in America. It's a very large stigma to talk about rape or things of that nature. And they oftentimes see it as bringing shame to themselves or even their village and their family.
But the women saw the roughest parts of what ISIS was doing. And they had to endure the hardest part of the genocide. And so being able to speak out against it was very important, because they are the ones that went through it.
LEANING: They are also the ones who survived with very deep scars. ISIS killed a lot of the men. Right? So if you're going to take charge of the cause for your community, the women, even injured, are going to be necessary.
MURAD (VIA TRANSLATOR): The men were often killed. And she forgot to mention, they have found seventy-one other grave sites where many of the men and women were found. But in almost every war, women endure the most. And especially with this last genocide, they made sure that women endured the most and saw the most heartache and suffering. And if you ask any Yazidi woman, she has been through the most and will often say that she wishes that she were just killed like one of the men, rather than having to endure that.
The conversation between Nadia Murad and Jennifer Leaning moved into a discussion about genocide—including how it applies to the dire situation facing the Yazidi people. Murad concluded by offering the audience a powerful message: to never take their safety and freedom for granted—and to use their privilege to educate others, and become a force for good. To read the entire transcript of their conversation, please visit our website. You can watch the video here: