ON HER SHOULDERS – The genocide of Yazidis


Before 5 October 2018 not many people had heard about Nadia Murad. A face and a voice more known to those involved in the affairs of the Middle East, or to those who have seen ON HER SHOULDERS, the documentary by Alexandria Bombach which won the prize for the Best Director at the last Sundance Festival.

On 5 October 2018, in Oslo, Nadia Murad was awarded, together with Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their commitment to the fight against sexual violence during war. Both know very well the destructive power of rape, a very effective weapon to annihilate an ethnic group, as witnessed in their cases in the Congo and in Iraq. Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who “repairs women” and Nadia Murad, the young Yazidi woman who was a sex slave of ISIS.

«We want to send a message to make people aware of how women are used as weapons in war, of their need to be protected […] and of how those responsible must be judged for their actions […]», declared Berit Reiss Andersen, President of the Nobel Commission.

ON HER SHOULDERS revolves around the story of this young woman, Nadia Murad, touching on the most chilling particulars of her experience and the complicated web involving the local and regional conflicts and the many different international positions. Becoming an activist purely by chance, Nadia Murad just wanted to be a normal young woman, to open a beauty salon for women, for the women of the Yazidi community of whom she has now become the face and the voice. There are about 500,000 Yazidi in the world, guilty of being ethnic Kurds and, even worse, of “worshipping the devil” – The Peacock Angel – the most important figure in their religion, a mix of Islam and Christianity with Zoroastrian elements.

Neither Arabs nor Muslims, in the heart of the great Sunnite Umma. Invaded and destroyed by the Islamic State which, in June 2014, after the conquest of Mosul and the advance towards Mount Sinjar (in the north-western part of Iraq on the border with Syria), the Yazidis were the victims of an organized and systematic repression, a genocide campaign against the infidels.

On 3 August 2014, the day on which the Islamic State militia invaded the Sinjar region, Nadia Murad had been 23 years old, living in Kocho, a village of about 2,000 people in the most southern part of Mount Sinjar. She was then subjected to rape, brutalized and sold as a sex slave by ISIS.

There are many, more than 3,000, of the young Yazidi women who have met the same horrifying fate, used as payment for the fighters – the “spoils of war” of the new Caliphate state, with the legalized trade of women sold in the great Jihadist slave market.

In the publication, Dabiq (The revival of slavery before the hour), ISIS recognized the legitimacy of slavery, justifying sexual violence with the Sharia which authorizes sexual practices with non-Muslim slaves. About 300 Yazidi men were killed in Kocho by ISIS militiamen before the eyes of their wives, mothers and children. In the entire region, more than 5,000.

«[…] they were made to lie down on the ground and then slaughtered, six of my brothers were among them», recounts Nadia «My mother, together with the other older women were all killed.»

Nadia later managed to escape, arriving in Kurdistan and from there to Germany as a refugee of the recovery program for female victims of ISIS violence. In 2015, Nadia had no possibility of returning to her people, to her village still under ISIS control. She can only provide a voice and a face for all the Yazidi women still in captivity, for those who have not been able to escape, for those who continue to be subjected to the hell of violence and abuse, for those who have not been able to resist and have preferred to take their own lives.

Nadia Murad has made her personal story the story of all the Yazidi women, taking it around the world to all the main European capital cities, to the United States, Canada. She has shouldered the burden of telling the story of the Yazidi community after that tragic 3 August 2014, doing her utmost and being able to draw, through her many encounters and interviews (17 countries in little more than one year), the attention of international world opinion, and especially that of the halls of power. Parliamentarians, ambassadors, politicians of every persuasion.

Nadia Murad has repeated tens, hundreds of times her story, making sure that she directly enters the conscience of her interlocutors. A constant appeal to the world, a cry of pain, quiet but strong in her powerful ability to tell all – brief, calm but effective.

She was not alone in this mission. Murad Ismael, director of Yazda, an NGO committed to defending the Yazidi cause, and Luis Moreno Ocampo, former head prosecutor for the International Criminal Courts, were her helmsmen, along with Amal Alamuddin Clooney, the well-known human rights lawyer. In September 2017, the UN Security Council approved a resolution (2379) aimed at investigating the war crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidi population. An unclear number of Yazidi women have been scattered across the globe and hundreds of thousands are still in the refugee camps.

Before the UN Commission for Human Rights, Nadia gave a very concise speech, direct, dignified and touching. Above all for Murad. Her plea is one of the most emotional and significant scenes of ON HER SHOULDERS. Every word of Nadia’s was weighed up by Murad, fully aware that only a few minutes can determine the future of a people. Nadia also knew this, she learned her part like an actor who is preparing for an audition. Nadia Murad had before her the extremely difficult challenge of transforming the emotions aroused by her stories into concrete actions, at a moment when there are too many dramas being played out in the world, all “contending for the first page”.

Nadia has been able to become the convincing media symbol of a massacre crushed between the war in Syria and the birth of the Caliphate. Nadia had been raped many times, however, this like other cruel episodes, are only slightly touched upon in On Her Shoulders. Instead, Alexandria Bombach’s documentary reconstructs the creation of the “character of  Nadia Murad”, her uneasiness in becoming this character, the need to accept it, her ability to play the game. Nadia learns to control her emotions, to maintain her composure, her voice clear and firm even when the tears are running down her cheeks.

Podiums, microphones and tele-cameras become the voice that the Yazidi have been waiting for and which they want to hold onto so they can find themselves once again together, full of pain and suffering, in gatherings, demonstrations, refugee camps in Greece and also in the squares of Berlin. Pain explodes around the figure of Nadia, but also the emotion of a destroyed community, desperately in search of a glimmer of hope. “On her shoulders”, there is an even greater weight than the world’s condemnation of the Yazidi genocide, on Nadia’s shoulders lies the burden to keep her community alive, her people scattered across the various refugee camps between Kurdistan and Europe.

«It will take a long time», says Ocampo, «at least ten years, but in the meantime the community must not be dispersed, it must remain united even if divided». And in no uncertain terms, he accuses Europe of all, « […] the genocide of the Yazidi begun by ISIS is coming to an end».

A community without any men, a community of widows and orphans.

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