TThis week, chilling stories emerged that rape and violence were used against Ukrainian women and children by the Russians during their invasion. Nadia Murad – Nobel Laureate and Justice Campaigner – was one of the speakers. The Murad Code is a global code that focuses on collecting information about sexual violence based in conflict.
Murad, the youngest of 11 kids, was brought up following the traditions and faith of the Yazidi People. Murad enjoyed history class and loved to play with make-up. She hoped one day to open a salon. In 2014, the Islamic State took her home. Fourteen members of Murad’s family, including her beloved mother, were among the hundreds of citizens who were massacred. Her brothers, two of whom were seriously injured, managed to escape from the mass graves ISIS had dug for them. Murad, along with the rest of Kocho’s women and girls were taken and made into sex slaves. Before she was freed, Murad spent months in captivity. She has been working tirelessly to secure justice for Yazidi citizens, rebuild what ISIS destroyed and protect other children from rape as war weapon.
She told me during our conversation that there must be an international plan for addressing the problem of sexual violence in Ukraine. Also, the victims deserve justice. “I know when I tell my story and start talking about these issues, this will not bring back my mother,” she said. “But I and other survivors do this because we want to prevent this from happening to others, and we want accountability. That’s the number one concern of many survivors, when their stories are being told: they are hoping that their message will be used for justice.”
It began with me asking her about her main goals and focus.
NM:My belief, as a survivor is that there can be no separation between prevention and accountability. It will be impossible to prevent other women from being harmed if we don’t hold the perpetrators accountable.
AJ:I couldn’t agree more. I think that the lack of accountability has encouraged people to be more aggressive and consider this a crime against war.
NM:Germany used its universal jurisdiction for the first time to pursue ISIS leaders. This is why I don’t understand the reasons other EU member states, as well as the U.S., are not following this lead. The evidence is there, the testimony can be cited, and we can hold them responsible. We just need to keep following that path.
AJ: It’s so clear how important it is to take all we now know, and to start to implement it as a new standard of practice. What can you see governments doing to help Ukraine with accountability?
NM:ISIS had an organized plan for sexual violence, rape, and other violations of women when they attacked the Yazidis in their war against them. The mistake they made was not recognizing that violence against women was the main component of the war when an international coalition was created to fight ISIS. The violence against women, and especially sexual violence within conflict zones, is seen as a secondary effect or collateral damage to these conflicts. This is what the world leaders in Ukraine are trying to do. World leaders need to understand that whether it’s in Yemen or Ukraine or any other place, violence against women will occur and we should make sure that we have that in mind when planning to deal with these conflicts.
AJ: I think many people don’t fully understand when they hear about this violence. Somehow they still associate rape with a sexual act, or they don’t completely understand the horrors. They don’t often know that it’s rape in front of a child, or rape of a child, or rape until the woman is dead. It is possible to prove that the rape is intended to cause harm to the individual, their family and the entire community. If it’s not too much to ask, and not insensitive, could you help those who don’t understand what it really is and why it is a weapon?
NM:My sisters-in law and eleven of their children were taken by ISIS to be sold into slavery. They were all my age. Others were much older. Some experienced the violence before their children. Their children were also taken captive by ISIS. This was done to ruin the family, the women and the community. It wasn’t done in secret, it was done publicly.
My advocacy has been about trying to communicate to Iraqis, with whom I am in touch. [that]ISIS and other terrorist groups specifically attack women because women are an integral part of communities.
Because rape can be used to harm women, terrorist groups often use it as an attack on them. Women who have been sexually sex slaved or raped will often be stigmatized and shamed in their communities. ISIS accomplished exactly that. This was no accident. It was part of a planned strategy. ISIS wanted to encourage women to have raped children when they sold them sexual slavery. They knew that it was difficult to rebuild a community such as the Yazidis.
When I go to see my sisters in law, it is like nothing has ever happened. We have nothing to share as a family. We look at each other, I know they don’t want to talk about their stories of course, some of them never have. But I know when I look into their eyes there is so much they want to talk about but they don’t.
AJ:Are there any people who work with victims in your community or in the locality to help them?
NM:There are groups and initiatives out there that can help. There is not a coordinated effort to find the best solution. The focus should be on the children and women, and not the other issues.
AJ:This is all about the rights of a man or woman. It is difficult to request that the victim move on if they are not held accountable for their crime. It’s grossly unfair, it’s impossible. I have so much admiration for all the women like you who have somehow—with so much grace—held together and continued to do this work, in the absence of justice. It must have been so difficult for you, your sister-in-laws and all of your family to come together and accept the truth.
NM:It is just what you need. Many times when my sisters and sisters-in-law talk to me they say, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ They know after what happened to them and to me and to our family, and they see that it comes with so many difficulties to speak up about what happened to you, especially coming from that region. This can lead to shame, stigmatization and even attacks. However, someone must tell the truth about what has happened to them. I know it’s the right thing to do because I know I will not be the last one to face this type of violence. So that’s why I have to. I know it’s going to take a long time but I know it’s the right thing to do.
AJ: I think you’re very brave, and your work is so significant, and you will continue to save other women and children. You have amazing brothers, I am sure. Many amazing boys and men around the globe are standing up against men like your husband, who have committed these crimes.
NM: I’m going to say a few things about my husband and my brothers because I feel I need to. The brothers who survived the concentration camps’ mass graves were among the things I shared with them. 60 minutesThe guy wanted to interview me together. He said to me that everyone would be able to see your interview and hear your story. I tried to convince my brothers and they were like ‘You know we love you. We don’t want you to face stigma and shame.’ But they supported me in the end and they came with me all the way from the camps to Irbil and they did the interview and they were proud.
When I finished this work, it became clear to me that I needed to be supported. I wanted someone who was not only able to work alongside me as a survivor. Someone who loved me and respected me. If someone asks where ISIS raped you when I was young, I will tell them to not question me. She is not a victim, but a survivor. This was what I discovered in Abid my husband. He was patient with me. I don’t think I could have done it without him. Abid, who is an Iraqi man of faith and support, can see me. We need more men, and the good guys in this world can help us.
When I founded Nadia’s Initiative, I just wanted to focus on documenting what happened to us and especially survivors’ stories and what ISIS did. I didn’t want to be the one to rebuild the region because it was not my responsibility as a survivor. However, after living and surviving in the camp, I gained a lot of knowledge. Although I understood that being raped is one thing, the experience of living in a displacement camp was another. Everything I am doing for Nadia’s Initiative came from my experience, from witnessing everything in the displacement camp, in captivity back home and even before ISIS came. Although it is time-consuming to create the documentation, there are many ways to use these challenges to stop others from experiencing what we did.
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