Students can lead the fight against hate – IS survivor

Students and the youth are the greatest weapon in the fight against terror and hate, was the message from a survivor who gave a powerful personal testament to the horror of genocide and of how hope can emerge from the darkest of places, at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom, last week.

Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was held captive by Islamic State, called on students – and young people beyond universities – to counter the ideologies of hate in the future.

She said: “Today the goal of terrorism is to end peace. It is a threat to the world. Terrorists who use religion to hide behind their acts pose a danger to all of us – and not just to a single community.

“The world has failed to put an end to terrorists or bring them to justice. But I think that the youth, students studying here, can do a lot. We need your help to stand with us – it will be the youth and not politicians who will end terrorism."

Speaking on “The struggle of Yazidis against IS”, Murad added: “We have taken our case to more than 20 countries and they have not done much about it – so I think the future is the young people. Everyone within their capacity, with the power of their voice can stand up for this cause. Many people did not know about this cause – but when we raised awareness of it, people supported it.”

Murad, 23, described how, historically, many countries had supported organisations that are now perpetrators of terror providing financial, arms and political support. Terror had now spread around the world.

A winner of the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, Murad is dedicated to helping women and children who have been victimised by genocide, mass atrocities and human trafficking to heal and rebuild their lives and communities.

She was at the University of Leicester to speak as part of the School of History, Politics and International Relations Public Lecture Series on the Kurds and the Middle East.

Fight for those we don’t know

Murad told students: “If we all do our small part, in every corner of the world, I believe we can end genocide and mass atrocities against women and children. If we have the courage to stand up and fight for those we don’t know – who live thousands of miles away – we can make a difference. The world is one community and we need to act as such.”

In her lecture, speaking via a translator, she described in stark and raw detail how Daesh terrorists attacked her community, raped women and children, massacred the men and enslaved people and drove survivors into the mountains where many perished through exhaustion or starved. She, along with others, only received safe passage out through the help of the Yazidi volunteers, YPG or Syrian Kurds, and United States air support.

In a serene voice that barely modulated in pitch, she recounted horror after horror in a matter of fact way to an audience that was visibly moved:
  • • People were forced to convert or face death.
  • • Even if they converted they would still be killed and mass graves are now being discovered.
  • • Girls as young as 8 or 9 were raped.
  • • Women were distributed amongst the Daesh as sex slaves. Many committed suicide.
  • • Women who were old were killed.
  • • Women who had just borne children would be kept for 40 days as they were seen as ‘kafirs’ and then raped.
“I saw hundreds of Yazidi women distributed to IS camps,” she said. “They were used and heinous crimes committed that do not relate to humanity in any way. We still receive reports and photos of Yazidi girls who are still being used by Daesh. Daesh has committed genocide against them.

“Women in their thousands have been widowed, there is no access to education for children. The most terrible crimes are being committed against those who are held captive. The conflict is ongoing – but unless IS is stopped and the ideology terminated, this will happen again. The perpetrators are committed to their cause.

“Yet there are no public hearings – no interrogation of the terrorists. As a victim, I would prefer death than to see those who committed these crimes to be allowed to go about their normal lives without justice. Minority communities must not be left under the tyranny of terrorists.”

Murad met President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester Professor Paul Boyle, as well as students and academics.

Professor Boyle said: “Nadia’s story as a survivor of genocide is one that must be heard. Having been founded in the wake of war to build hope for future generations, the university has a centre dedicated to genocide studies, and a deep commitment to securing rights for the victims of violence through our education and research.

“We are particularly pleased to welcome Nadia as the university is a champion of HeForShe – a global solidarity movement [set up by UN Women] for gender equality, with the aim of engaging and encouraging men and boys to take action against gender inequality and to spread awareness and inspire action to eliminate discrimination against women and girls.”

The University of Leicester was invited by the United Nations to be one of 10 universities in the HeForShe IMPACT Champions programme.

Fight impunity

Dr Marianna Charountaki, lecturer in Kurdish politics and international relations at the University of Leicester, said a fundamental goal for Nadia’s Initiative is to fight impunity for crimes committed against all communities in zones of conflict devastated by global terrorism.

“Hers is a universal message and it strikes at the very core of the lecture series organised by the University of Leicester to highlight the plight of communities in conflict zones.”

Speakers at the event also included Dr Alexander Korb, director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and associate professor in modern European history at the University of Leicester, and Professor Jill Marshall, professor of law in the Law School, specialising in human rights and political and legal theory, particularly feminist jurisprudence.

Dr Korb described the horrors inflicted upon the Yazidis and other minorities targeted by IS. He told of how 18 members of Murad’s family were murdered – including her mother and six brothers and how Murad herself was held captive for three months before she escaped.

Speaking of the work of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester, Dr Korb said the centre worked to raise awareness for cases of genocide, to become active in genocide prevention and to apply lessons learnt from the Holocaust and other areas of mass atrocities.

“The lesson learnt from the Holocaust was ‘Never Again’. It sounds so shallow if you think of all the string of mass murders and genocides over the last 25 years – whether it is Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia or present day Iraq. That is why it’s even more important that we raise awareness of cases of genocide, working and cooperating on supporting the voices of survivors.”

Girls and women targeted

Professor Marshall said: “Girls and women continue to be particularly at risk in times of conflict. Sexual violence in conflict has existed throughout time but was most prominently drawn to the media and popular opinion’s attention during the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda where rapes and kidnappings by militia and armed forces, including forced impregnations and unwanted births occurred frequently and on a systematic basis.

“I was about Nadia’s age when I watched these atrocities on TV, through the work of excellent investigative reporters, and I couldn’t believe my eyes these things were happening in my lifetime. And I’m horrified they are still happening in my lifetime.

“We have laws for a reason – to regulate human conduct so we can somehow live together in at least peace so we can survive, and at best, to help us live in harmony together, tolerant of each other’s different plans and ways of life with some notion of a common good and humanity. Law is supposed to have some connection to justice and to protection especially of those less powerful and to punish aggressors.

“I sometimes think students see the things we talk about as in the past, history, and we now live in much better times, things have improved so much. But the buying and selling of humans is not confined to the history books but is happening around us in the world today and we need to do something about it.

“We need to act now. If you are sitting there thinking ‘I can’t make a difference’, don’t believe it – you can make a difference.”

Ather Mirza is director of the News Centre at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom.