Lit Thursday: The Last Girl

In a new memoir, Nadia Murad tells the story of how she escaped the ISIS slave trade.

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Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers and shepherds in northern Iraq. Her family was part of the Yazidi community, a minority religion with a long history in the region.

On August 15, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, this life ended. ISIS militants massacred the people of her village, executing men who refused to convert to Islam and women too old to become sex slaves. Six of Nadia's brothers were killed, and her mother soon after, their bodies swept into mass graves. Nadia was taken to Mosul and forced, along with thousands of other Yazidi girls, into the ISIS slave trade.

More than a week later, after being passed from captor to captor, forced to convert to Islam, raped on a daily basis, and deprived of basic human comforts like food and companionship, Nadia managed to escape. Left unsupervised in a new house, she tried the front door, found it unlocked, and walked out into the streets of occupied Mosul.

***

On the other side of the garden wall, I could see that the road leading straight from the house was in fact a dead end, and since it was time for evening prayer, it would be very risky to pass the large mosque to the left. The only option was to turn right, with no idea where that might lead me. I started walking.

I was still wearing the men's sandals I had been given that first night, and it was the first time wearing them that I'd walked a distance greater than from the door of a house to a car. They flopped against the soles of my feet—I worried it was too loud—and sand caught between the straps and my toes. They're too big! I thought. I had forgotten, and for a moment I delighted in that observation because it meant that I was moving.

I didn't walk a straight line. Instead I wove between parked cars, turned corners at random, and crossed and recrossed the same streets over and over, hoping that a casual observer would think I knew where I was going. My heart beat so hard in my chest that I worried the people I passed would hear it and know what I was.

Some of the houses I passed were lit by generators and ringed by wide gardens full of purple-flowered bushes and tall trees. It was a nice neighborhood, built for large, well-off families. Since it was dusk, most people were in their homes, eating dinner and putting their kids to bed, but as it grew darker, they came outside to sit in the breeze and chat with their neighbors. I tried not to look at any of them, hoping that no one would notice me.

Without streetlights and with only some of the houses lit, the Mosul neighborhood would soon be pitch-black. Families would begin going to sleep, and the streets would be empty of everyone, I thought, except for me and the men who were looking for me.

My abaya helped me blend in, but I didn't feel invisible, as I'd hoped I would. All I could think about as I walked was the moment they would catch me, what their weapons and their voices would sound like, and then what their hands would feel like dragging me back to the house I had fled from.

As I passed each house, I imagined walking up to the door and knocking. Would the family that answered turn me in right away? Islamic State flags hung from the lampposts and over gates, reminding me that I was in a dangerous place. Even the sound of children laughing in their yards frightened me.

For a moment, I wondered if it would be better to go back. I could climb back over the garden wall and push back through the heavy front door and be sitting in the kitchen right where they left me. Maybe it would be better to go to Syria than to be caught trying to escape again. But then I thought, No, God has given me this chance.

At first, I jumped at every noise and every movement. A car drove down the street, its only working headlight shining at me like a policeman's flashlight, and I pressed myself against a garden wall until it passed. When I saw two young men in tracksuits walking toward me, I crossed the street to avoid them. Hearing the creak of a rusty gate opening in front of a house, I quickly turned a corner, walking as fast as I could without running, and when a dog barked, I turned another corner. These fearful moments were all that was guiding me, but I still couldn't imagine where I was going.

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As I walked, the houses shrank from the multistory concrete homes into more modest dwellings, most of them one or two stories of gray cement. Fewer lights were on, and the neighborhoods grew quieter. Grassy yards became small plots for vegetables, and family sedans became farmers' pickup trucks. Streams of sewage and dishwater ran into gutters alongside the road: I was in a poor neighborhood.

Suddenly I felt that this was what I had been looking for. If any Sunni in Mosul was going to help me, it was most likely to be a poor Sunni, maybe a family who'd stayed only because they didn't have the money to leave.

I didn't know which door to knock on. I had spent so many hours inside Islamic State centers, screaming as loud as I could with the other girls, knowing that the noise reached the people outside and yet none of them had helped. I'd been transported between cities in buses and cars, passing cars packed with families who didn't even glance at us. There was no reason for me to think that behind any of these doors lived a single sympathetic person.

Still, I had no choice. It was impossible for me to leave Mosul alone. Even if I made it past the checkpoint, which I almost certainly wouldn't, I would be caught walking along the road or would die of dehydration long before I made it to Kurdistan. My only hope of getting out of Mosul alive was in one of these houses.

Soon it was dark enough that it became hard to see in front of me. I'd been walking for a little under two hours, and my feet ached in my sandals. At one corner I paused beside a large metal door, as wide as it was tall, and raised my hand, about to knock. But then at the last moment, I lowered my hand back down to my side and started walking again. I don't know why.

Around the corner from that house, I stopped by a green metal door, smaller than the first. There were no lights on in the house, which was two stories and concrete, similar to some of the new houses built in Kocho. There was nothing special about the house, nothing to tell me what the family inside was like. But I had walked enough. This time when I raised my hand, I banged my palm twice against the door. It made a loud, hollow thumping sound, and while it vibrated through the metal, I stood on the street waiting to see whether I would be saved.

***

A second later the door swung open, and a man who looked to be in his fifties stood on the other side. "Who are you?" he asked, but I pushed past him without saying anything. In the small garden I saw a family sitting in a circle very close to the door, lit only by the moon. They stood up, startled, but didn't say anything. When I heard the garden gate close, I lifted my niqab over my face.

"I beg you," I said. "Help me." They were silent, and so I kept talking. "My name is Nadia," I said. "I am a Yazidi from Sinjar. Daesh [ISIS] came to my village, and I was taken to Mosul to be a sabiyya [female slave]. I lost my family."

Two young men in their twenties sat in the garden, along with an older couple who I thought must be the parents and a boy who looked to be around eleven years old. A young woman, also in her twenties, sat rocking a baby to sleep. She was pregnant and I thought I saw fear register on her face before anyone else's. The power was out in their small house and they had brought mattresses to the garden where the air was cooler.

For a moment my heart stopped. They could be Islamic State members—the men had beards and were wearing baggy black pants, and the women were dressed conservatively, though their faces were uncovered because they were at home. I froze and stopped talking.

One of the men grabbed my arm and pulled me from the garden into their house. "It's safer in here," the older man explained. "You shouldn't talk about those kinds of things outside."

"Where are you from?" the older woman, who I assumed was his wife, asked me once we were inside. "What happened to you?" Her voice was anxious but not angry, and I felt my heart slow down a little bit.

"I'm from Kocho," I told them. "I was taken here as a sabiyya, and I just ran from the last house where Daesh had me. They were going to try to take me to Syria." I told them what happened to me, even the rape and abuse. I thought that the more they knew, the more likely they were to help me.

"What do you want from us?" the woman asked.

"Imagine that you have a young daughter who was taken away from her family and subjected to all this rape and suffering," I said. "Just, please, think of that when you consider what to do with me now."

As soon as I finished, the father spoke up. "Have peace in your heart," he said. "We will try to help you."

The family introduced themselves. They were indeed Sunnis who had stayed in Mosul when ISIS came, because they had nowhere else to go, they said. "We don't know anyone in Kurdistan to help us get through the checkpoints," they told me. "And besides, we are poor. All we have is in this house."

Hisham, the older man, was heavyset and wore a long black and white beard. His wife, Maha, had a plump, beautiful face. Their sons Nasser and Hussein were skinny, still growing into men, and they both, especially Nasser, peppered me with curious questions: How did I get here? Where was my family?

"Have you met other Yazidi girls?" I asked.

"I have seen some before in the court," Hisham said. Hussein, his son, confessed that he had watched buses drive by that he thought were full of slaves like me. "There are signs in Mosul saying that if you turn in a sabiyya, Daesh will give you five thousand dollars," he said. "But we've heard it's a lie."

"Do you have anyone in Kurdistan that we can call to tell them you are with us?" Hisham asked.

"I have brothers there," I told him, and recited Hezni's number, which was etched in my brain.

It was getting late, and the women laid out a mattress for me in one of the rooms and asked me if I was hungry. "No," I said. I couldn't imagine eating anything. "But I'm very thirsty." Nasser brought me some water, and as I drank it, he warned me not to go outside, ever. "This neighborhood is full of Daesh members and sympathizers," he told me. "It's not safe for you."

In spite of the heat, I shivered, thinking back to the door I had first stopped at and decided not to knock on.

"Sleep now," Hisham said. "In the morning we will think of a way to get you out of here."

The room was stifling and I slept very little. All night I thought about the houses around me, full of families supporting ISIS. Would the promise of a five-thousand-dollar reward persuade Nasser and his family to hand me over? Had they been lying to me? It would be foolish for me to trust them just yet.

My sisters and nieces who had been separated from me—they could be anywhere. Would they be punished because I escaped? I thought about my beautiful mother, her white scarf falling from her hair as she tripped off the truck, and how she had laid her head on my lap and closed her eyes to block out the terror that surrounded us. Very soon I would find out what had happened to all of them. When I did sleep, it was without dreaming, in total blackness.

This excerpt is from Nadia Murad's memoir The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, on sale now from Tim Duggan Books.