Awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad is a big step in the world’s recognition of the need to end the tactic of sexual violence as a weapon of war, writes Carol Yong.
Almost 20 years ago I worked together with Kurdish associations in the UK on issues of forced displacement and resettlement of people affected by dam construction.
I was part of a Malaysian coalition of non-government organisations concerned about the problems with large dams (eg the Bakun hydroelectric dam) and was exploring the parallels between dam-affected communities in Malaysia and in the Kurdish region of Turkey.
The Turkish government had planned a massive ‘development’ project called the Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP) or South East Anatolia Project with its intended 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including the Ilisu dam. (Balfour Beatty of the UK was among the big companies involved in Illisu; hence the link with Kurds in the UK.)
I had read about the town of Hasenkeyf, the ancient core of Kurdish identity dating back nine major civilisations with internationally important archaeological sites and renowned cave dwellings. In August 2000, after attending a gender conference in Istanbul, I took the opportunity, or rather the risk – due to the impending Ilisu dam, the Kurdish regions were under tight surveillance – and visited Diyarbakir and Hasenkeyf to see the realities on the ground.
There, I saw helpless resignation, fear and despair on many local faces, painfully aware that the proposed Ilisu dam would displace an estimated 78,000 Kurdish people from their homes and drown Hasankeyf. (Today the Ilisu dam project is underway and construction work is ongoing.) Several commentators had viewed the GAP and Ilisu in particular as part of a wider political agenda of the Ankara government to eradicate Kurdish culture.
For decades, the Kurdish region of South East Anatolia has been a war zone between the Turkish military and the Kurdish independence movement. For decades too, the Kurds have suffered political, socio-cultural, and other forms of repression and human rights violations. Yet, political repression is still ongoing in the region, despite the ceasefires by Kurdish forces.
IS invasion of Sinjar
Over the years I have continued my interest in learning about and understanding the Kurdish people. In 2014 I was suddenly alarmed by the plight of the Yezidis – a Kurdish-speaking ethnic minority group inhabiting areas in the northern and northwest region of Iraq, besides some places in Syria and Turkey – and that Isil (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group), commonly known as Islamic State (IS), jihadists had been attacking Sinjar.
For many centuries, the Yezidis have lived as semi-nomadic farmers and herders in areas surrounding the Sinjar mountains regarded as sacred by the Yezidis. Historically also, Mount Sinjar is a place of refuge and hideout during periods of conflicts. Yezidis expert Johannes Buechting wrote that the Yezidis, as other ethnically Kurdish minorities, have been subjected to centuries of injustices and brutality.
No strangers to conflicts and persecution – political, ethnic, religious, human or gender rights violations – the Yezidis, some sources suggest, have experienced over 70 ethnic cleansing episodes in their history.
As was evident in Sinjar, the Yezidis have courageously struggled on to defend their rights but often had to pay a high price, including loss of human lives, internal displacement and great torture – bodily, psychological and emotional.
Atrocities, sexual violence against religious minority Yezidis
The IS attacks in August 2014 on the villages of Sinjar forced thousands of Yezidi women, men and children to flee from IS military violence and massacre, trekking dangerously for many long hours, day and night, across the mountain range.
Those who managed to survive the perilous journeys were rescued via corridors carved out by mostly Kurdish defenders, and taken to safer shelter camps bordering Syria. Many innocent civilians including children were reportedly killed or wounded, while girls and women were victims of rapes and other abuses. There were telling cases of young Yezidi women who’d rather commit suicide than be forced into marriage or be sexually abused and raped – or, having been raped, felt too ashamed.
The Yezidis follow their own ancient religion related to the old Persian and Iranian beliefs, a long time ago. But by the IS interpretation of Islam, the Yezidis’ religion is impure and the Yezidis are infidels and devil-worshippers.
In the battle zone of Sinjar, many Yezidi women and girls, including the underage, in IS captivity became vulnerable to atrocities such as systematic torture, sexual abuse and rape. In 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820 stating that rape and sexual violence, when used as a tactic of war to deliberately target civilians, can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity.
Apparently the IS jihadists thought it their ‘religious duty’ to wash away the sins of the Yezidis and convert them, often against their will, or face the risk of torture or death (various sources online).
One woman offers message of hope
Many Yezidi survivors are understandably too traumatised or wounded to talk of the bombing, air strikes, mortar attacks. This trauma is felt even more by the victims of rapes and other abuse by the IS army.
Women and girls who suffered from sexual violence doubly suffered from the deep scars of shame, guilt, fear and mistrust that continue to affect their future. They need extraordinary strength to overcome the post-ordeal of armed conflicts and war crimes, and they especially need proper medical care provided by well-trained trauma specialists and the chance to be resettled in a country that takes refugees in order to readjust their lives.
One Yezidi woman who survived sexual slavery by the IS and is determined to speak about what she had suffered is Nadia Murad. She was 19 when she was captured by IS fighters who invaded Sinjar in August 2014. Along with thousands of Yezidi girls and women, she was held as a sex slave and repeatedly subjected to rape and other abuse. Her captors threatened to execute her if she did not convert (Nadia Murad_Wikipedia; The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 Announcement). After three months in captivity, she managed to escape and was secretly smuggled out of the IS-controlled area to a refugee camp in Duhok in northern Iraq.
Today Nadia feels safe enough in her new home in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany – in 2015 she was granted refugee asylum by the regional government. She wants the world to know about the ordeal of the Yezidis, especially the vast numbers of Yezidi women and girls still assumed to be in Isil captivity and highly vulnerable to rape, sexual abuse and other forms of torture by their captors.
In 2016 Nadia was appointed by the UN as its first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. In 2017 she published a memoir of her ordeal.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate
On 5 October 2018, Nadia Murad was announced as the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, along with Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist specialising in the treatment of women victimised by sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
Undoubtedly, many who have read or heard about the heart-wrenching stories of the Yezidi women, men and children were shocked by these criminal acts. Others called for intervention and concrete actions at the highest level to stop the systematic gender-based violence and the use of female slavery and rape as a political and religious weapon of war, in modern times.
It sadly does not surprise me that Sinjar was not the only ‘killing field’. Others included Aleppo, Mosul, Kobane, and most recently, in Syria´s Afrin-region, where amongst others, thousands of Yezidi refugees are currently stuck between the Turkish army, radical Islamist militias and Syrian government forces.
The plight of the Yezidi women and girls aroused the attention of an array of human rights groups, humanitarian agencies, medical and church charities, providing support in their own ways and capacities.
But many questions have still to be asked. Many more politically significant responses and actions need to be taken. The answer is not just sending humanitarian aid, personnel and donations for rebuilding war-torn regions in Iraq and Syria or elsewhere in Asia, Africa and South America, where armed groups invade, brutally attack or illegally occupy areas.
The conflict in Syria is ongoing; so where is the commitment of the national, regional and international community, and the UN in taking a stand to resolve the crisis there? The situation of ethnic and religious minorities is not resolved in many countries, despite being signatories to international laws relating to human rights including the rights of minorities, indigenous peoples, children, peace, and the environment.
The international community and governments must be on guard as to who is controlling the borders and deciding who is getting illegal weapons and which refugees are indiscriminately allowed in or not allowed in.
Questions also have to be raised as to whether conflicts and wars are deliberately prolonged because it inevitably links to the crucial question of powerful internal and external forces – with money, arms, and other agendas in exploiting the often rich resources in indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities’ areas, competing for these resources and vying for disputed areas or lands.
There must be political will to act in resolving the real issues on the ground. A most daunting issue is military and state-sanctioned violence, and discriminatory cultural and religious interpretations which subjugate girls, women and ethnic minority groups to violence and abuse in various forms.
Awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad is a big step in the world’s recognition of the need “to highlight sexual abuse with the goal that every level of governance takes responsibility to end such crimes and impunities.”
Carol Yong is a long-time supporter and friend of Aliran and fellow feminist and activist.