A Survivor’s Struggle to Care for Her People and Herself

On the podcast: The filmmaker Alexandria Bombach followed the Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad for the film “On Her Shoulders.”

By , the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.
Nadia Murad sits in a UNODC office, preparing for an upcoming speech at the United Nations, in the film "On Her Shoulders."
Nadia Murad sits in a UNODC office, preparing for an upcoming speech at the United Nations, in the film "On Her Shoulders."
Nadia Murad sits in a UNODC office, preparing for an upcoming speech at the United Nations, in the film "On Her Shoulders." Oscilloscope Laboratories

On July 17, U.S. President Donald Trump met with victims of global humanitarian crises in the White House Oval Office. Crowded around his desk were survivors of genocides and ethnic cleansing including Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Uighur Muslims from China. Also in the room that day was the Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad of the Yazidi community.

Murad had just a few seconds to tell the U.S. president the story that she has told, relentlessly, for the last five years. When Murad said the Islamic State had “killed my mom, my six brothers,” the president responded, peculiarly: “Where are they now?” Murad said: “They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safe[ty]. Please do something.”

In 2014, the Islamic State invaded and took over Sinjar, a city in northern Iraq that has been home to Yazidis for centuries. Then the brutality began. Men were killed. Children were separated from their families. Thousands of women and girls were captured and forced into service as sex slaves. Murad’s brothers and her mother were killed. And Murad was forced into sexual slavery for months. The United Nations estimates that close to 5,000 Yazidis were killed.

On July 17, U.S. President Donald Trump met with victims of global humanitarian crises in the White House Oval Office. Crowded around his desk were survivors of genocides and ethnic cleansing including Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Uighur Muslims from China. Also in the room that day was the Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad of the Yazidi community.

Murad had just a few seconds to tell the U.S. president the story that she has told, relentlessly, for the last five years. When Murad said the Islamic State had “killed my mom, my six brothers,” the president responded, peculiarly: “Where are they now?” Murad said: “They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safe[ty]. Please do something.”

In 2014, the Islamic State invaded and took over Sinjar, a city in northern Iraq that has been home to Yazidis for centuries. Then the brutality began. Men were killed. Children were separated from their families. Thousands of women and girls were captured and forced into service as sex slaves. Murad’s brothers and her mother were killed. And Murad was forced into sexual slavery for months. The United Nations estimates that close to 5,000 Yazidis were killed.

But Murad escaped. Once free, she decided she had to keep the world’s attention on the survivors of the massacre—which has been called a genocide by the U.N.—and on the fate of those still in captivity. She began to give interview after interview, even though each retelling was traumatizing.

That’s when the filmmaker Alexandria Bombach met Murad. It was the summer of 2016, and Murad was campaigning to open the U.N. General Assembly. She was made a Goodwill Ambassador—and she relayed her story, in excruciating detail, again and again, for the press, for ambassadors, for presidents, and other state leaders.

Bombach’s film On Her Shoulders premiered this week on the PBS documentary series POV. In it, Bombach begins to question all the weight Murad is carrying. Her film is as much a story about the Yazidi genocide as it is about the impossibility of serving as the world’s spokesperson to that tragedy. Bombach is our guest this week on First Person.

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