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A survivor of sexual genocide seeks Nuremberg-level justice

Nadia Murad wants the world to bring wartime rapists to trial

We now know that there were two Holocausts, one for men and another for women. Women suffered everything men did, with the addition of sexual violence.

“Almost every Jewish woman who went through the Holocaust was to some degree at least sexually humiliated, going all the way to rape,” said Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute.

Even as they liberated the concentration camps at the end of World War II, Soviet soldiers sexually assaulted Jewish women survivors they found. In one instance, two young Jewish girls locked themselves into a lavatory to escape the soldiers, and the Soviet troops shot through the doors and killed them.

No Soviet soldier ever stood trial for sexual assault of Jewish women.

“The Soviet army was never held to account for the rape of Jewish survivors or of German women, which is far better documented,” said Professor Daina S. Eglitis, during in an online seminar hosted by the Museum of the Ghetto Fighters in Israel.

That these experiences have not come to light until relatively recently speaks directly to the shame and silence that surrounds the sexual abuse of women during war. That the international community has only recently begun taking steps to do something about it, to help victims heal and hold perpetrators accountable, has a lot to do with Nadia Murad.

In 2014, ISIS forces in Iraq attacked villages where Murad and other members of Iraq’s non-Muslim Yazidi minority lived. ISIS fighters massacred at least 600 people in Murad’s village alone, including her six brothers and her mother.

They captured Murad, then 19 years old, and thousands of other Yazidi women and girls, and used them as sex slaves.

“We would be raped and humiliated,” Murad recounted in her 2017 memoir The Last Girl. “Then we would be sold or given as a gift again, and again raped and beaten, then sold or given to another militant, and raped and beaten by him, and sold or given, and raped and beaten, and it went this way for as long as we were no longer desirable, or dead.”

Murad escaped her captivity and made her way as a refugee to Germany. After ISIS was defeated in 2017, she launched a global campaign to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, work for which she won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. She convinced the United Nations to recognize sexual violence as a war crime and founded Nadia’s Initiative, an organization that works on helping its victims heal.

Now Murad wants the international community to prosecute the men who raped her and other Yazidi women. And she is also looking, for precedent and parallels, to how those who perpetrated the Holocaust faced justice.

“We have to hold ISIS accountable to send a clear message that impunity is not an option, that sexual violence is not acceptable, and if you do it, you will be held accountable,” Murad said in a March 14 campus lecture at Chapman University in Orange County, California, where she is a Presidential Fellow.

It’s a goal she first raised in her memoir, writing, “They should all be put on trial before the entire world, like the Nazi leaders after World War II, and not given the chance to hide.”

But in making those trials a reality she’s facing some of the same obstacles Jews faced when bringing Holocaust perpetrators to justice: The world moves on, evidence and memories fade, the victims themselves may be hesitant to talk.

To overcome that, Murad, who is now 30, has been relentless. Together with her lawyer Amal Clooney, she helped establish the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL. Its investigators exhumed over 40 mass graves, identified 30,000 ISIS fighters from dozens of countries who committed crimes against Yazidis including genocide and sexual violence, collected thousands of victim testimonies, documents and physical evidence. 

But the group can only investigate, not prosecute.

“What we need right now is the political will to use this evidence and to bring ISIS to justice,” Murad said in her lecture. “We know that otherwise, many of the crimes committed will get brushed under the rug.”

That’s exactly what happened to the Jewish women who suffered sexual violence as far back as the pre-World War I pogroms.  In her book Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, Elissa Bemporad estimates that a third of all Jewish women in the region were raped. During the Holocaust, German soldiers regularly raped and gang-raped Jewish women and girls. Officers took Jewish women and girls as sex slaves — something Murad wants to put an end to for all women, in all conflicts.

With enough pressure, it can happen. The International Criminal Tribunal prosecuted perpetrators of rape in the Yugoslavia conflict and 1994 Rwandan genocide, and in both cases they were convicted.  “There’s definitely precedent for these ad hoc tribunals,” said Michael Bayzler, a professor of law at Chapman University who hosted Murad in his class. “They are the  successors to Nuremberg.” In 2008, UN Resolution 1820 finally recognized rape as a “weapon of war.”

To push prosecution forward, Murad and Clooney developed a set of voluntary guidelines, now called “The Murad Code,” for how to interview survivors of sexual violence in a way that minimizes the trauma and shame. 

One source of trauma was the fact that as Murad and the other Yazidi women were led away by ISIS, most of their Muslim neighbors did nothing.

In an email exchange with Murad, I noted that her stories echoed those of Holocaust survivors whose neighbors were indifferent to their fate.

She said some Muslims, like the people that rescued her, risked their lives for the Yazidis. But most turned away.

Like the Jewish community, we grew up with these individuals, and they abandoned us in our time of need,” she wrote. “I find it hard to believe that they had no knowledge of what was going on at all.”

You might think that, given the similarities between the Yazidi genocide and the Holocaust, Murad would have found natural allies in her fight for justice in the Jewish community. But so far, that hasn’t been the case.

Her organization has not received funding or other support from Jewish or Israeli organizations. One way they could be helpful, she said, is to pressure political leaders to bring about international trials.

“We need individuals and governments to step in and say, ‘Never again,’” wrote Murad. “We can always use more help. It’s an ongoing fight to have the world remember.”

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