Nobel Prize-winner and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad has warned that wildfires raging in northern Iraq could destroy crucial evidence of genocide committed by ISIS extremist groups.
Murad, a survivor of sexual slavery, said the fires had burned some of the 79 mass graves in the Sinjar region where victims of ISIS atrocities - possibly including members of her own family - are buried.
The militant group rampaged through Sinjar in 2014, slaughtering and kidnapping thousands of people from the Yazidi minority, in what the United Nations has called a genocide.
Murad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that five years on the genocide was continuing because most Yazidis were stuck in camps, unable to return to their homeland, and about 3,000 kidnapped women and girls were still in captivity.
UN investigators have begun exhuming the mass graves to gather evidence but Murad said they were not properly protected and were now at risk from the fires.
“There have been wildfires, including in my hometown Kocho, and some of the mass graves were burned. We don’t know how many,” she said late on Tuesday.
“All these innocent people were killed, and for the past five years, we’ve failed to bring justice for them. Now that the mass graves are burned, our fear is that the evidence will disappear.
Murad is working with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to bring ISIS leaders to trial for crimes committed against the Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions.
ISIS, which considers them heretics, killed more than 3,000 Yazidis and kidnapped nearly 7,000, selling many into sexual slavery, as it seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Murad, who was captured with her sisters, several nieces, and friends, was held in Mosul, where she was tortured and raped before managing to escape.
The militants also killed many family members including her mother and six brothers.
Murad and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege were joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The Yazidi activist is donating her $500,000 share of the prize money to build a hospital in Sinjar. Murad said she hoped to work with Mukwege on setting up a unit at the hospital to help sexual violence survivors.
Mukwege runs a hospital in Bukavu in eastern Congo which has treated tens of thousands of victims of conflict-related rape.
Murad said the hospital in Sinjar, which is being built with support from the French government, would treat everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
She anticipated its construction would provide vital jobs in the region - once home to 400,000 people -where economic opportunities are limited.
Although ISIS were driven out of Iraq in 2017, Murad said few Yazidis had been able to return home because everything from farms to infrastructure had been destroyed.
Her non-profit, Nadia’s Initiative, is helping Yazidis to start businesses such as farms, bakeries and tailors’ shops.
“My goal is to make sure (our) community does not disappear from Iraq. My goal is to help (displaced Yazidis) rebuild their ancestral homeland. They do not have any future in these camps,” she said through an interpreter.
Murad was speaking ahead of a London event in support of Vietnamese women raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam war, and their children born of rape.
She later told the audience it was hard for survivors of sexual violence to speak out but crucial to breaking the silence.
“What happened to us in 2014 is a reminder that we too often fail to protect women from sexual violence. Sexual violence was used as a weapon of war against Yazidis,” she said.
“We have about 4,000 Yazidi survivors ready to testify, some have already testified. But to date, we have not seen one single perpetrator in court for crimes of sexual violence against women.”