In the summer of 2014, ISIS invaded the town of Sinjar in Northern Iraq, where members of the Yazidi minority ethnic group live, and began to carry out a genocide.
Nadia Murad was 19 at the time. She saw six of her nine brothers and her mother slaughtered by ISIS fighters before becoming enslaved and tortured for three months.
She had wanted to be a history teacher or make-up artist before her world was tragically ruptured, but after she fled and found safety, she became singularly focused on achieving justice for her people.
This was no easy feat for someone with zero experience in international politics, a refugee who spoke an obscure dialect, but over the past few years, Murad has met with various heads of state and spoke on some of the world’s biggest stages to call for action, and even spurred the United Nations to investigate war crimes against ISIS.
She’s received lots of solidarity, but little in the way of tangible support, Murad has said.
So while ISIS has been mostly expelled from the region, the Yazidi people are unable to return to their homes because of extensive damage to infrastructure, a lack of basic services from the Iraqi government, abundant mines in the area, and more.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced in often dismal conditions and Murad is trying to change that with a new campaign she’s launched — the Sinjar Action Fund.
Murad recently sat down with Global Citizen. Speaking through a translator, she described the daunting work ahead of her, what she hopes can be achieved, and how ordinary people can help out.
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The Yazidi people have always been marginalized in Iraq, according to Murad, and this lack of political representation is making their situation worse.
“Our areas were already neglected before ISIS,” she said. “We had less infrastructure.”
“For Yazidis to go back, they would have to be respected by the government, not treated as second or third class citizens again,” she added.
When ISIS invaded, fighters largely destroyed the electrical system by cutting up wires and damaging power poles, Murad said. They destroyed the only hospital in the area, so if people return, they have to travel hundreds of miles for medicine or surgeries. Homes have been stripped of everything including doors and windows. And ISIS fighters planted mines everywhere.
“When they controlled the area, they put more explosives in the Sinjar area because it was abandoned, and this has been a big issue for Yazidis who have gone back,” Murad said. “Many have died trying to enter their homes because the area has not been de-mined.”
The federal government has failed to deal with many of the issues facing the Yazidi people, Murad said. That’s partly because the country is still recovering from the invasion of ISIS, tension in the region between the Iraqi government and Kurdistan, and longstanding neglect of the Yazidis, according to Al Jazeera.
“They’ve cleared certain neighborhoods [of mines] in Mosul and taken people to temporary homes, but nobody is doing that for Yazidis,” Murad said.
“They haven’t put staff in the hospitals, or put teachers in schools,” she added. “If you’re a Yazidi who returns, and you want to get your ID card, because you want to renew it or you had a child, you have to go all the way to Mosul or another Muslim town because there is no government.”
The Road Ahead
Many communities throughout the Sinjar region need to be almost built from scratch, according to Murad.
Hospitals, schools, bridges, the electricity system, sewage systems, and water infrastructure all need to be repaired or rebuilt.
Nearly 70% of the buildings have been destroyed in the region, according to the Sinjar mayor Mahma Khalil who spoke with Voice of America.
A functioning government has to be established in the area, and Yazidi fighters have to be incorporated into the national security forces so that they can protect themselves from potential future attacks, Murad said.
And then the Yazidi people need help working through the trauma of the past several years.
“The physical, mental, and emotional injuries inflicted by ISIL are almost beyond comprehension. If victims are to rebuild their lives, and indeed those of their children, they need justice and they need redress,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in a press release.
But first, the area has to be stripped of mines so people can safely travel.
The Sinjar Action Fund is trying to mobilize international support to address all of these issues.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has already pledged his government’s support to demining the area, and the action fund is calling for additional support to make sure homes are secure.
Primarily, Murad is hoping that the fund can spur the Iraqi government to recognize and support her efforts.
“Even with the action fund, we would need Iraqi support because it’s their country, their land, their territory,” she said. “But countries that are working with us, can work with Iraq and put a little bit of pressure on them to facilitate the reconstruction.”