Sexual violence in war. A victim turned women’s advocate speaks out.

29 November 2022 By Paul Martin


By Paul Martin, recently in Kocho, northern Iraq.

A thigh bone protrudes from the large pit, about half the length and breadth of a football field, just outside the small village of Kocho, not much more than a collection of single-storey small huts and a schoolroom in a remote part of Northern Iraq. 

“ISIS is gone from here,”  a local villager tells me.  “Yet  we have hardly started on the horrible job – digging up the bones of our 400 loved ones, who were shot and buried here four years ago.”

Since that massacre of a small often-persecuted sect called Yazidis, fewer than 100 people have returned to the village, on a flat dusty plain lying between the Sinjar mountain and the border with Turkey.  For most of that time, while ISIS controlled large swathes of northern Iraq, the village had remained completely empty.

I am watching a moving tribute, through dancers, speeches by young children whose parents are dead or missing, the laments sung to a traditional Yazidi melody, and the presence of heavily armed Iraqi and Yazidi fighters.  

The Yazidis walk in silence to the edge of the killing pit, and to the schoolroom where their women and girls were held prisoner – all on one fateful day in August 2014. 

I watch as the gun-toting Yazidis, in alliance with Kurdish anti-Turkish militia units, leave the ceremony. Within minutes, their armed convoy of vehicles is struck by Turkish airplanes, killing six including their leader.

ISIS has been driven out of the area — but the results of their barbarity continue.

Nadia Murad was one of 1300 local girls and women who heard the shots on August 3 2014. ISIS fighters were killing all the males – except for boys from 4 to 12 who were to be trained as boy soldiers to fight for ISIS.  This extremist group was carrying out the most brutal form of Islamic jihad in several centuries.

The females had been herded into the village schoolroom – the classrooms have remained empty ever since then.  After the killings, the females were pulled out screaming and taken in trucks to Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq. Known as Nineveh, it was made world-famous by the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. 

Nadia, then aged 20, still shivers as she re-tells her story. 

“We all started to scream and moan, like we were injured. We tried to vomit on the floor. We tried to make ourselves so unattractive they would not want us. But they did they took us all, one by one, claimed as a sex slave. They chose the most beautiful girls first and ran their fingers through our hair and touched our months and groped our breasts. The guard said: yes, they’re all virgins  — like he was selling some nice fruit.

“I screamed and I howled. I slapped away their groping hands. Some girls curled themselves on the floor. And some girls threw themselves on top of their sisters or close friends saying: take me first, not her.

“But it was no use. “You with the pink jacket,”one said. “Get up.”

“I was picked by a huge, fat guy called Salwan. He dumped another Yazidi girl who’d been captured earlier, and was shopping for a substitute as his sex slave: me.

“On a floor below us a soldier was registering all our names and the soldiers’ names in a book. I realised this fat guy would crush me as he would rape me, and he smelled like rotten eggs, though he’d also sprinkled cologne on himself.

“So when I looked down and saw some sandals with thin ankles, I flung myself on this guy and said: “I beg you, please choose me.” He said to the fat guy: She’s mine and as he was much higher ranked in ISIS, he got his way. The soldier with the book registered my captor and his ‘prize’.”

She tried to escape, but was immediately caught and the ‘punishment’ was a night-long gang rape and whipping from her slave-owner. She also had to make a false conversion to Islam in front of an ISIS Islamic court – but this seemed to make no difference to her slave-owner’s raping and beating.

She was sold on. Later she managed to bribe her new ‘owner’ to let her try to make a mobile phone-call to her nephew. He agreed — but only after first putting honey on his “toe”, i.e. his penis, and making her lick it off.

After her three-month ordeal in the ISIS heartland she made another effort to escape. On the run, she knocked on the door of a house in Mosul. The Muslim family there did not report her to the city’s ISIS rulers.  Instead, they took her in, gave her a body-and-head covering and, crucially, provided her with an ID card with a photo of a young woman who looked something like her. 

The ID card described her as a Muslim, so she managed to get through an ISIS checkpoint and reached safety.

She later discovered that her mother and six of her brothers were dead. And that her homeland was laid waste. Three brothers and her two sisters survived.

“One of my brothers was shot and thrown into the pit,” she says. “Though wounded, he hid under dead bodies until Isis left, then crawled out and made it to safety.”

Astonishingly, sixteen other Yazidis survived under the dead bodies. Most are now in refugee camps. More than 400 males died.

Ever since then she has shown astonishing bravery in pleading with the world to help her persecuted minority, the Yazidis. Even before the ISIS onslaught, there were only 500,000 in the world, mostly in northern Iraq, and they were despised by hardline Muslims as devil worshippers. 

Nadia says it was God who saved her, and she prayed to him for freedom every night. She always believed in God “because our religion teaches that whatever happens to us, good or bad, is in God’s hands,” Nadia says.

That is why, despite sometimes crying before making a speech, she feels a duty to become in effect the Yazidis’ most powerful spokesperson.

I jointly won the Nobel peace prize, but getting that great honour also came, I realised, with great responsibility. I have used all the half a million dollars to help make sure ISIS and other such terrorists can never rise again. But I can’t do it alone. Even this money is a drop in the ocean. 

The first thing I wanted to do was to find ways to buy back those girls and women who still remain held captive as sex slaves by ISIS. I knew at least a few were still alive. 

Their ‘husbands’ or slave-owners phoned us. They wanted to sell our girls and women back to us, for around 20,000 to 30,000 dollars each.  ISIS had claimed their men would fight to the death and go to Paradise. Yet as they were trapped and surrounded in a part of Syria, they wanted to bribe their way out, to save their skins.

I knew it was wrong to be helping these criminals escape, but the lives of our sisters and mothers and daughters came first.”

She is still advocating for an international campaign to take away the thousands of mines and explosives planted by ISIS and by Iraqi and US forces in the areas to which Yazidis want to return. (Many now still live in refugee camps.) And then for proper funding to rebuild their destroyed villages and their main town, Sinjar.

In our interview she appealed in diplomatic language for Muslim leaders to change their attitude to Yazidis and to stop labelling them as devil-worshippers who have no right to exist. 

“ We have been attacked many times over centuries because of our religion. 

ISIS targeted us for genocide specifically because of our religion.  

 “Our goal is to ask for peace and to build peace. Without peace – even if we rebuild our homeland – there is no life.”

Each time I speak I have to re-live these awful experiences. I’m taking myself back to this time of terror. But telling my story honestly is the best weapon I have.

I’ll keep on talking till as many ISIS terrorists as possible are put on trial and pay for their many crimes against girls and against our whole societies. I want countries to take in our traumatised refugees. Germany has taken over a thousand, but hardly a handful have been accepted by Britain. 

It’s scandalous. Some notorious ISIS killers have managed to mix into the local population not far from the areas they once ruled so cruelly. Why has no-one arrested them? No-one seems to care.

“I want world leaders to promise to come and then to actually come. 

They should see the conditions our people are suffering in refugee camps, especially as the cold winter has arrived.

A single person cannot achieve anything like all that’s needed. We need an international effort, including the participation of victims themselves, to bring back regions destroyed by war.  The world should bear its moral and legal responsibility to victims of sexual violence and to stop it happening again and again.  

I want to help victims of rape – not just by ISIS against Yazidis, but in wars worldwide.

And above all else, I want to be the last woman in the world with a story like mine.”