They make an unusual team. Amal Clooney is an Oxford-educated human-rights lawyer married to a film star. Nadia Murad was born in a poor Iraqi village and once aspired to become a teacher. Clooney is tall, dazzling and so recognisable that people walk up to her in the street and tell her they love her. Murad is small, shy and avoids eye contact. Yet among her people, the Yazidis, Murad is better known and more admired than any other woman on Earth. Murad is a symbol of survival for a minority threatened with extermination. She was once a slave of Islamic State (IS). And, almost alone among former prisoners of IS, she is willing to testify publicly and repeatedly about the terrible things the jihadists did to her.
Clooney is Murad’s lawyer, and the two women are working to bring the leaders of IS before an international court for inflicting genocide on the Yazidis. The story of their campaign is an extraordinary one: a tale of pious savagery pitted against truth, law and the soft power of celebrity.
It begins in August 2014, when Murad was a 21-year-old student. That month, IS fighters arrived in her village, Kocho, on the Nineveh plain. They were a terrifying mob, all of them heavily armed and many speaking languages that no one in Kocho understood.
The jihadists saw Nadia and her neighbours as the worst sort of infidels. The Yazidi faith has no holy book, but draws on a mix of Mesopotamian traditions. Yazidis revere a peacock angel that temporarily fell from God’s grace; many Muslims regard this as devil-worship.
Estimates of how many Yazidis there are range widely, from 70,000 to 500,000, mostly in Iraq but also in Syria and Germany. IS set out to reduce that number to zero, by forced conversion or Kalashnikov.
On August 15th the IS fighters in Kocho summoned everyone to the village school and separated the men from the women and children. Nadia watched from a second-floor window as they marched the men away. They slaughtered 312 in an hour, including six of Nadia’s brothers and stepbrothers. They murdered the older women, too, including Nadia’s mother. They forced the young women and children onto buses and took them to Mosul, IS’s main stronghold in Iraq, which, as 1843 went to press, was under siege by Iraqi government forces.
Nadia was shut in a building with 1,000 other families. The women were sick with fear; they knew what was coming. The fighters were about to divide the spoils. A man came up to Nadia and said he wanted to take her. She looked up and saw that he was enormous, “like a monster”. “I cried out that I was too young and he was huge. He kicked and beat me. A few minutes later, another man came up to me…I saw that he was a little smaller. I begged for him to take me.”
The jihadist who took Nadia told her to convert to Islam. She refused. One day, he asked for her hand in “marriage”. She said she was ill. A few days later, he forced her to get dressed and put on make-up. “Then, on that terrible night, he did it.”
From then on, she was raped daily. When she tried to flee, a guard stopped her, forced her to strip and put her in a room with several guards, “who proceeded to commit their crime until I fainted”. She finally escaped when her captor left a door unlocked. She could not return home, because IS still controlled her village. Eventually, she found sanctuary in Germany, where she now lives.
I first heard about Nadia from Amal, whom I was interviewing for a different article. (It was about free speech; Clooney had just got another client, a graft-exposing journalist called Khadija Ismayilova, out of prison in Azerbaijan.) Over lunch at a club in Notting Hill, she outlined Nadia’s story, and explained how the two of them were planning to put IS leaders in the dock.
The evidence of genocide is exceptionally clear-cut, she pointed out. Not only are there mass graves and eyewitnesses, but IS has boasted about its intentions, filmed its massacres and posted videos of them online. In the case of the Yazidis, IS propaganda was chillingly specific. An article in Dabiq, an IS newsletter, says of this “pagan minority” that “their continual existence…is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day.”
Another leaflet explains that enslaving kuffar (infidel) women is in accordance with sharia (Islamic law). It also answers what one must assume are common questions, such as:
• “Is it permissible to beat a female slave?” [Answer: Yes];
• “Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?” Answer: “[Yes]; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without [that].”
• “Is it permissible to sell a female captive?” Answer: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property.”
Despite such overwhelming evidence, putting IS leaders on trial will be hard. For one thing, they are tricky to capture. For another, international law moves slowly and often faces geopolitical roadblocks.
Clooney’s first priority is to gather as much evidence as possible before it is lost. Some of this she does herself, painstakingly recording interviews with survivors (“the most harrowing witness statements I’ve ever taken,” she says). At the same time, she is pressing the UN Security Council to order a formal investigation on the ground, with a proper budget to excavate mass graves and collect DNA and documentary evidence (certificates of slave ownership, for example).
Ideally, she would like IS leaders to stand trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s permanent human-rights court in The Hague. “If the ICC can’t prosecute the world’s most evil terror group, what is it there for?” she asks. However, she is open to other options, such as a hybrid court backed by the UN and the government of Iraq, so long as it meets international standards of justice.
Getting governments to co-operate is tricky. Most agree in principle that IS should be brought to justice. But Russia and Iraq are doubtless nervous about what investigators might unearth, and others drag their feet. (Britain is an honourable exception). Clooney is trying to shame them all into action.
A few weeks after lunching with Clooney, I flew into Iraqi Kurdistan to find out more about Murad’s people. I could not visit her village: it would have been both suicidal (since IS controlled it) and pointless (since all its Yazidi inhabitants were either dead, or had run away, or were captives of IS). Instead, I headed for Mount Sinjar, the craggy stronghold of the Yazidis, near Iraq’s border with Syria. This is where thousands of Yazidis fled when IS first swept across the Nineveh plain. The jihadists were prevented from capturing it only through a combination of NATO air power and Kurdish boots on the ground. It is a sanctuary of sorts, though IS was still sporadically shelling it when I visited.
Getting to Mount Sinjar meant driving across the desert, past bombed-out ruins and sandbag-flanked machinegun nests. Goats and sheep wandered back and forth across the border. Tobacco sprouted in untended fields. The route led through a confusion of roadblocks manned by different Kurdish and Iraqi factions. Only the skill of Nick Pelham, The Economist’s Middle East correspondent, got us through – he speaks flawless Arabic and, more importantly, knew exactly which bigwigs to call to make the men with guns let us pass.
We stumbled on the funeral of a Yazidi militiaman who had died fighting IS. Women were clustered round the body, wailing. Men sat separately in a room decorated with photographs of martyrs. They insisted that we join them for lunch.
The younger ones laid a plastic sheet on the carpet and heaped it with huge bowls of rice and couscous topped with sheeps’ heads. The men put aside their AK-47s, grabbed the skulls and cracked them open. Then they scooped out the brains and ate them with relish. When they had eaten, they talked. All had stories of the day the jihadists came: of the panic, the headlong flight and the friends and relatives who did not escape. “My uncle’s wife was paralysed. We couldn’t get her out of [the village]. She was 80,” recalled Khader Jassim, a Yazidi man with a grey moustache.
These were traditional people, with a strong sense of honour and its ugly twin, shame. I wanted to know how they felt about Nadia. She stands up in public and describes how IS fighters gang-raped her. No topic could be more taboo. Did the stern and conservative men of her home region think she was bringing shame on their community, I wondered? Far from it. “Nadia Murad? I love her so much, I hope she becomes president of Iraq,” said Kharbo Khader Mardos, a man who fled from a village near Nadia’s.
Aziz Haji Khalaf, a Yazidi police chief, put it like this: “I think of her as a sister, an incredible person. I see her strength. With all that happened to her, she goes around the world and describes her suffering to get support for the Yazidis and to win freedom for the men and women who are still captives.” In dozens of interviews, I found only one old man willing to criticise her, and his complaint was speculative. He worried that she might one day go into politics and lose her ideals.
Most interviews were held in the camps for displaced people where 90% of Yazidis in Iraq live. These are grim places. The ones on Mount Sinjar (ie, on Yazidi territory) are ramshackle and poorly provisioned. The more formal ones, in the Kurdish areas, have neat rows of tents and plenty of food but simmer with tension, since Yazidis live side by side in them with Muslims who have also fled from IS. Many Muslims despise Yazidis; many Yazidis do not feel safe near Muslims. “Perhaps you are a Muslim, so forgive me, but I want to live in a place where there are no Muslims,” one Yazidi man told me. I talked to a number of people who, like Nadia, had been prisoners of IS. They were all young or middle-aged women. All the adult-male prisoners had been killed, along with all the women too old to rape.
Talking to survivors, it quickly became clear how exceptional Murad really is. None admitted to having been raped, though all said that most of the other captive women were. To respect their privacy, I’m not going to use their real names. Khatoon, a weary mother, said she suggested to her captor that she had AIDS. “I said, do what you want. But I’m sick. If you want to suffer in the same way, go ahead.” So he made her a house slave instead. Sabrin, another ex-slave, was ransomed along with three of her children. She said that while they were prisoners, she protected one of her teenage daughters by shaving her hair and pretending she was paralysed. “There were four bombing raids while we were in Raqqa, and she didn’t move at all or say a word. That’s how she [avoided being raped].”
The stories the survivors tell about what happened to fellow captives are sickening beyond belief. “Any woman found with a mobile phone, the punishment was to be raped by five different men,” recalled Khatoon. Some girls slashed their own wrists. “When [the jihadists] found them, they undressed the bodies and raped the dead girls in front of us.”
The effect on Yazidi families has been devastating. Two of Sabrin’s children are still in captivity. Her husband and one of her daughters are almost certainly dead. “I can’t afford to think about where my children or my husband are, because I have to look after the rest of my family. But I think about it all the time,” she said.
The Yazidis I met typically voiced three wishes. First, they want to return home. Second, they want the world to acknowledge that what happened to them – and is still happening – is genocide. Third, they want justice. The first of these wishes can only be fulfilled by military force. Yazidis can go home when IS is driven out of their villages, which will probably happen sooner in Iraq than in Syria. Fulfilling the second and third wishes requires grabbing the world’s attention, jolting its conscience and pressing governments to act. That is where Nadia and Amal come in.
People are seldom moved by statistics. When they hear that 5,000 Yazidis have been murdered by IS, or that 3,000 Yazidi women and children remain in slavery, they struggle to process the information. But when a little, mouse-like Yazidi woman describes how she was violated by gloating, self-righteous thugs who called her a “dirty unbeliever”, they are outraged. It is the details that provoke the most horror. For instance: Nadia’s nephew, who was captured as a child, has been brainwashed into joining IS and now rings her up to threaten her.
I met Nadia in New York, shortly before she addressed the UN in September. She seemed tired, stressed and nervous. But when she took the microphone, her gentle voice filled the cavernous hall. She spoke in a Kurdish dialect, which was simultaneously translated into the audience’s headsets. Every word rang with pain. By the time she had finished, hundreds of faces were tear-sodden. Ban Ki-moon embraced her. Diplomat after diplomat rose to applaud. In the end, a bulky UN official had to rescue her from the adoring crowd.
I asked her later about her new life, living in Germany and jetting around the world giving speeches and interviews. “Everything is different,” she said. She marvels at German trains, the damp climate, and the fact that she is respected as a human being. But she hates flying, and struggles with unfamiliar food. She yearns to return to her village, to see the family farm and the sheep and to enjoy Yazidi festivals, when people paint their houses white and follow fasting with feasts. “My life was easy and simple [there],” she recalled. But she keeps going. She has endured far, far worse.
While Nadia makes people weep, Amal does multiple jobs: framing a legal strategy, keeping the case in the headlines and lobbying governments to take it seriously. Because she is a celebrity, many people underestimate her. The most common question I was asked after interviewing her was: “What was she wearing?” (There’s a website entirely devoted to this topic, so it is obviously of great interest to many people, but don’t ask me. I can’t tell the difference between a Vera Wang dress and one from Walmart.)
Some people assume that, because Clooney wears nice clothes and walks on red carpets, she is just a figurehead. Some of the nastier tabloids go further. The Daily Mail totted up the price of all the outfits she wore while lobbying the UN in September, and insinuated that a woman who flaunts such luxury must be insincere in her professed concern for the downtrodden. This is plainly wrong. She was doing the same work before she was rich and famous. “I knew her when she was unknown,” says Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former chief prosecutor of the ICC. “She was hugely impressive.”
She was also intrepid. She speaks Arabic; her Lebanese parents moved to England when she was four. More than 20 years later she returned to Beirut to work for a UN tribunal investigating the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister in 2005. The day after she arrived, Israel bombed the airport. She lived in a fortified compound in a city plagued by car bombs. Suspects targeted by the tribunal included Hizbullah, a terrorist group, so investigators lived in fear of assassination. “There were times when I would look at parked cars with trepidation,” she recalls.
Today, her celebrity may sometimes be a distraction, but it has undoubtedly made her more effective as an advocate. She can guarantee media coverage of any case she takes on. And powerful people make time for her: the first time I met her, she had just had an audience with the pope.
Fame is a currency. When combined with a noble cause, it is sometimes irresistible. Suppose you are a politician, possibly male. Hundreds of people want to bend your ear every day about a plethora of subjects. You cannot meet them all. One of them, a lawyer promoting justice for the victims of terrorists, just happens to be one of the most beautiful women on the planet. It is completely appropriate for you to sit down with her to discuss human rights in the Middle East, a region of great strategic importance to your government. Plus, you might enjoy it. David Cameron, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and John McCain clearly did.
In person, Clooney is warm, charming and wonkish. She asks after my 13-year-old daughter, remembering that they have a fiercely academic Buckinghamshire girls’ school in common. She talks me through legal points with great precision and sends follow-up emails packed with notes.
In public, she is the kind of orator who writes her own lines and delivers them with force and fury. Her speech to the UN in September was a barnstormer. She spoke after Nadia, reminding the assembled dignitaries that the slave market where her friend was sold was still running, and that not a single member of IS had been prosecuted for crimes against the Yazidis.
“This is…the first time I have had a chance to address an audience in front of the UN secretary-general. I wish I could say that I was proud to be here. But I am not,” she said.
“I am ashamed, as a supporter of the UN, that states are failing to prevent or even punish genocide, because they find that their own interests get in the way. I am ashamed, as a lawyer, that there is no justice being done and barely a complaint being made about it. I am ashamed, as a woman, that girls like Nadia can have their bodies sold and used as battlefields. I am ashamed as a human being that we ignore their cries for help.”
The case could take years. But when investigators have dug up enough graves and collected enough slave certificates, Amal hopes that the pressure to prosecute will be overwhelming. Nadia vows not to give up. “Every single one of them must be brought to justice,” she says.