Halfway through a tour of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum on Monday, the former Islamic State sex slave slumped.
Two years after the first mass graves were found in Sinjar, the northern Iraqi region where her mother and six of her nine brothers were killed by the Islamic State in 2014, 24-year-old Nadia Murad was staring at photographs of Nazi firing squads peering over piles of Jewish corpses in freshly dug ditches.
Downcast but composed — and dressed entirely in black — the Yazidi woman placed her hand over her mouth.
A UN goodwill ambassador and Nobel Peace Prize nominee now residing in Germany, Murad was in the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem with a group to learn from Israel’s ill-gotten expertise: how to record, commemorate, and educate about a genocide.
“If only we were able to go back to the ancestral homeland, where we were driven out… we would do the same thing,” she said after the tour, speaking through an interpreter.
The Yazidi community “would be able to create a sort of similar type of museum where we would keep… the houses that were blown up, the piles of bones, the skeletons that were left, we could make something out of it,” she said.
“And all the things that happened to us — we would remind the future generation so they can… defend themselves and make sure this doesn’t happen to them [or us] in the future,” she added.
Standing before a photograph of a Nazi soldier shooting a woman and her child at close range, Haider Elias looked on as the Yad Vashem guide drew on the research of Christopher Browning of “Ordinary Men,” arguing that humans are inherently capable of evil in certain social frameworks.
That resonated with the Sinjar-born Elias, who said the observation was “very relevant” to the Yazidi killings at the hands of the Islamic State.
“Last night, a Muslim woman was asking me, ‘These ISIS members, were they on drugs? Were they alcoholic[s]? Were they normal people?’” he said. “Their understanding, they said, was that they were always drugged before they committed a crime. I said, ‘No, they were ordinary men. They were just typical men who would get up and kill people.’”
‘The memory fades… and they forget the details’
In the summer of 1942 — as the vast majority of European Jewry was being systematically murdered by the Nazis — an Israeli named Mordechai Shenhavi was gripped by an idea. Israel must build a center memorializing the victims of the Holocaust, wrote Shenhavi, who would go on to become the first director of Yad Vashem.
In the summer of 2017 — with the conflict in Iraq and Syria raging, thousands displaced, and 3,000 women still in IS captivity — the two Yazidi activists walked the halls of Shenhavi’s Yad Vashem, initiating meetings with its staff during a trip to Israel organized by the IsraAID humanitarian aid nonprofit and a Knesset lobby on Kurdish affairs.
They were not the first Yazidi visitors to the site, according to a Yad Vashem spokesperson. But they were the first who came to learn about its methods.
Elias was in Texas during the August 3, 2014, massacres that saw his brother, nephew and 50 of his friends killed by the Islamic State. By the end of that month, he had co-founded an organization, Yazda, that began gathering oral testimonies and evidence against jihadis in the hopes of future prosecution of the terror group in international tribunals.
His personal testimony, recalling life in Sinjar before the Islamic State and the attempted annihilation of his people, is 13.5 hours long, he said.
The project is a race against time, Elias said, because “the memory fades and they forget the details of what happened exactly.”
“In the first year, people were very focused and they could tell us exactly what happened to them,” he said, adding that some victims were able to name their IS perpetrators. “They tend to forget about the details and that’s why it’s critical for Yazda and supporters of this project… to create this archive.”
Touring the museum, the Yad Vashem guide emphasized the incorporation of video testimonials juxtaposed among the artifacts as the bread and butter of Yad Vashem’s methods.
You must highlight your religious and cultural traditions in Sinjar, the guide said, gesturing at Judaica and other artifacts from lost European Jewish communities.
“One day you will have a museum of your own,” he told the Yazidi activists, and you will need to get people to sit down before cameras and get them to talk.
‘You cannot compare atrocities’
In August 2014, two months after sweeping across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, IS jihadis made a second push into an area that had been under Kurdish security control. Thousands of Yazidi men were massacred when the jihadis attacked the town of Sinjar and thousands of women and girls were kidnapped and enslaved. Some 45 mass graves have since been unearthed in the region.
Yazidi community leaders say up to 3,000 Yazidi women may still be in the hands of the jihadis, across the “caliphate” they proclaimed more than two years ago over parts of Iraq and Syria. Yazidi boys were forcibly taken by the IS to join its ranks and toddlers were sold into slavery, according to the activists. Five different militias are currently battling over the region and hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are displaced across Iraq and Turkey, the activists said. Several thousand have emigrated to Germany, Canada and Australia.
The United Nations designated the atrocities a genocide. The legislature of the US, UK, Canada, France, Scotland have also approved formal recognition; Murad was in the Knesset on Monday to lobby Israel’s parliament to follow suit.
“ISIS has sought to erase the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm; the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death; the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community,” the UN said in a June 2016 report.
Dr. Eyal Kaminka, the director of the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, declined to comment on whether the Holocaust memorial views the atrocities against the Yazidis as a genocide.
“If one wants a country to recognize… it has all sorts of legal ramifications, but that’s not Yad Vashem’s role. Yad Vashem does not declare,” he told The Times of Israel after the meeting.
Yad Vashem “has no processes of recognition, genocide or not genocide,” he said. “But there is no doubt that there is a great tragedy there and we can help them with methods — in the way of thinking, in the ways of documenting. We will do what we can.”
“You can never compare atrocities,” he had earlier told the Yazidi activists. “Every atrocity is 100 percent your own.”
Murad, who fled IS captivity, however, saw strong parallels with her own experiences after the tour.
“[The Yad Vashem guide] was talking about anger, starvation, a piece of bread — over 100,000 Yazidis were in the mountain and they were starving, and it happened to hundreds of them, if not thousands. People starved in the same way he was narrating,” she said.
Addressing the Yad Vashem staff, Murad said she “always wanted to hear from the people who have been through the same things my people have been through.”
And echoing some modern Israeli post-Holocaust affirmations, Murad said the Yazidis have learned they must “protect themselves by themselves,” with a regional security apparatus. If they had their own security before the Islamic State came for them, “this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
‘There will be no homeland’
Though they don’t harbor hopes for statehood, the Yazidis hope to one day return to their district in northern Iraq and rebuild their communities.
“It will largely depend on the international community’s support, because the Yazidis are tiny and they don’t have a diaspora to be lobbyists; only a few people like me,” said Elias. He paused and reevaluated. “Maybe we have — there are 100,000 people — but we are not strong yet,” he said.
If the international community doesn’t step in to help Yazidis go back to Sinjar, “of course everyone is going to go to different countries and there will be no homeland,” he said.
Stepping out into the light at the end of Yad Vashem, the guide pointed out the architectural trajectory of the museum, where the spike-like building ends with a vista over the Jerusalem mountains, a pathway from the dark history to the modern State of Israel.
The “positive” design, where at “the end of the museum when you see the light is continuous,” was raised by Elias as one of the stronger personal takeaways.
“It’s not the end. You don’t see dark[ness]… People are growing and multiplying and they’re advancing,” he said. “That’s a very important thing for the Yazidis.”