Former Islamic State captive says Israel a beacon of hope for Yazidis
Mark Wilson (Getty/AFP/File)
Less than five years ago, Nadia Murad Basee Taha was a normal teenager living in the village of Kocho, in the Sinjar region of Iraq. But her life changed forever when in August 2014 she was taken captive by the Islamic State terrorist group and sold into sex slavery along with thousands of other Yazidi women and girls.
After a daring escape from the clutches of the jihadist group, Nadia emerged as the voice of the Yazidi people’s suffering when she testified before the United Nations Security Council on the atrocities committed by ISIS.
On Tuesday, Nadia wrapped up a five-day visit to Israel organized by the IsraAID humanitarian organization; the Combat Genocide Association; and the Israel office of the Society for International Development (SID), which comes as part of two years of global advocacy on Nadia’s part to see the crimes perpetrated by ISIS against the Yazidis formally recognized as a genocide.
Addressing a packed lecture hall at the Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University on her last day in Israel, Nadia drew strong parallels between the suffering of the Yazidi people and that of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
“[The Jewish people’s story] is a unique story, and yet so much of it echoes my own community’s experiences. Like the Jews, the Yazidis have an ancient history thousands of years old. Despite recurring persecution, both our people have survived,” Nadia said, in remarks delivered through a translator.
“For three years, ISIS has stolen the authorship of the Yazidi story. But we will not let them write our future. My time in Israel has shown me that in the wake of oppression and genocide, a community can emerge stronger,” she said.
- Nadia & the Yazidi Genocide -
The Yazidis are an ancient ethnoreligious minority whose beliefs incorporate elements of Christianity, Islam, and other traditions. In 2014, there were approximately one million Yazidis living around the world, with a 700,000 majority concentrated in the Mount Sinjar region of northwestern Iraq, close to the border with Syria.
As the Islamic State swept through Iraq and Syria, declaring swathes of the two countries as part of their so-called ‘Islamic caliphate’, the jihadists launched a targeted offensive on Sinjar on August 4, 2014 with the openly-stated goal of eliminating the Yazidis, whom they considered ‘kfir’ or ‘non-believers’, through killing, enslavement, and forced conversions.
“I remember hearing the rumors about cruel terrorists who hated my people and believed us to be devil worshipers,” Nadia recalls. “That day [August 4, 2014], and for several days after, ISIS killed our men and elderly women including six of my nine brothers and my mother.”
“[ISIS] trapped thousands who fled on Mount Sinjar without food or water. ISIS had planned in advance to enslave Yazidi women and children as part of strategy to destroy the Yazidi community. And so thousands of us were kidnapped and transported to warehouses and prisons,” she testifies. “But I escaped.”
Nadia was re-settled in Germany under a special government project for vulnerable women and children. She testified before the UN Security Council in December 2015, and soon after, represented by prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, began advocating to see ISIS militants brought to justice for crimes against the Yazidis.
In 2016, Nadia was appointed UNDOC Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. That same year, an independent commission officially declared that ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidis constituted genocide.
“When ISIS took over, the women were the first to suffer. Girls as young as nine years old were sold on slave markets and raped brutally,” Nadia says. “Now there are many girls in the refugee camps who are survivors of the genocide that are ready to give their evidence...To talk about what happened to them.”
But so far, little has been accomplished to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“For two years, I have been talking to politicians, religious leaders, and committees, calling for recognition and justice. But the international community has still not acted to protect Yazidis or to hold the perpetrators accountable under international law,” she said.
Some 3,000 Yazidis remain in ISIS captivity while thousands more live in squalorous refugee camps on the shores of Greece, reliant on organizations like IsraAID to provide their basic needs and psychosocial support to deal with their traumas.
- Israeli mentorship -
It was through IsraAID’s work with Yazidi refugees in the now-evacuated Petra camp in Greece that the organization’s Co-Chief Executive Officer Yotam Polizer came to realize that Israel could play an important role in the Yazidi cause.
“Unlike the Syrian refugees, who saw our logo with the Star of David and were maybe confused, the Yazidis greeted us with huge smiles. They said for them it was a natural connection,” Polizer says.
In the camps, he adds, it became clear the Yazidis wanted “not our financial support, but our mentorship.”
While in Israel, Nadia has visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum and the Museum of the History of the Jewish People, held meetings with Israeli lawmakers, and met with the President of Tel Aviv University together with Polizer in an effort to see Yazidi students brought to study in Israel.
“Like the Jews, the Yazidis have shown resilience in the face of oppression. Holding onto your identity can be a force of resistance. Every time we practice a traditional custom or stand up for one another we refuse to let our perpetrators be stronger than us,” Nadia says.
During a gathering at Israel’s Knesset on Monday evening, Nadia urged Israeli lawmakers to formally recognize the Yazidi genocide and pass a bill put forth by Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova who heads the Knesset Lobby for Strengthening Relations between the State of Israel and the Kurdish people.
“If the bill were passed, Israel would join a number of other countries that have now officially acknowledged that what we have endured is a crime. Indeed, the most heinous crime,” Nadia told the gathering of academics and activists in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Speaking at the same event, Svetlova said that she believes Israel can do a lot to further the Yazidi cause. “But the first thing we should start with is commemoration and recognition,” she said.
“Never again. This is the motto of our country that was built from the ashes of the Holocaust. For myself...It’s quite clear that ‘never again’ stands not only for Jews. It stands also for other nations and for other people,” Svetlova added.
With the Iraqi army slowly encroaching on ISIS’s last remaining strongholds in the country, Nadia hopes that she will one day be able to return to her village in Sinjar and pursue her lifelong dream of studying makeup artistry and opening her own salon.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not remember my family, our house, what happened to me. My whole life has become a memory. It follows me all the time,” she says.
And her parting message for Israel: “Thank you for giving the Yazidis an example for how we can remain linked to our history and heritage while shaping our future.”
Emily Gatt is a journalist and news editor for the i24NEWS web desk.
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