In this intimate memoir of survival, a former captive of the Islamic State tells her harrowing and ultimately inspiring story.
Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers and shepherds in northern Iraq. A member of the Yazidi community, she and her brothers and sisters lived a quiet life. Nadia had dreams of becoming a history teacher or opening her own beauty salon.
On August 15th, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, this life ended. Islamic State 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.
Nadia would be held captive by several militants and repeatedly raped and beaten. Finally, she managed a narrow escape through the streets of Mosul, finding shelter in the home of a Sunni Muslim family whose eldest son risked his life to smuggle her to safety.
Today, Nadia's story—as a witness to the Islamic State's brutality, a survivor of rape, a refugee, a Yazidi—has forced the world to pay attention to an ongoing genocide. It is a call to action, a testament to the human will to survive, and a love letter to a lost country, a fragile community, and a family torn apart by war.
About the Author
Amal Clooney is a barrister practicing at Doughty Street Chambers in London who specializes in international law and human rights. She is also a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School. Clooney is currently legal counsel to Nadia Murad and other Yazidi women who have been sexually enslaved by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and is working to secure accountability for the crimes committed by ISIS in national and international courts.
Read an Excerpt
Early in the summer of 2014, while I was busy preparing for my last year of high school, two farmers disappeared from their fields just outside Kocho, the small Yazidi village in northern Iraq where I was born and where, until recently, I thought I would live for the rest of my life. One moment the men were lounging peacefully in the shade of scratchy homemade tarps, and the next they were captive in a small room in a nearby village, home mostly to Sunni Arabs. Along with the farmers, the kidnappers took a hen and a handful of her chicks, which confused us. “Maybe they were just hungry,” we said to one another, although that did nothing to calm us down.
Kocho, for as long as I have been alive, has been a Yazidi village, settled by the nomadic farmers and shepherds who first arrived in the middle of nowhere and decided to build homes to protect their wives from the desert-like heat while they walked their sheep to better grass. They chose land that would be good for farming, but it was a risky location, on the southern edge of Iraq’s Sinjar region, where most of the country’s Yazidis live, and very close to non-Yazidi Iraq. When the first Yazidi families arrived in the mid-1950s, Kocho was inhabited by Sunni Arab farmers working for landlords in Mosul. But those Yazidi families had hired a lawyer to buy the land—the lawyer, himself a Muslim, is still considered a hero—and by the time I was born, Kocho had grown to about two hundred families, all of them Yazidi and as close as if we were one big family, which we nearly were.
The land that made us special also made us vulnerable. Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries because of our religious beliefs, and, compared to most Yazidi towns and villages, Kocho is far from Mount Sinjar, the high, narrow mountain that has sheltered us for generations. For a long time we had been pulled between the competing forces of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, asked to deny our Yazidi heritage and conform to Kurdish or Arab identities. Until 2013, when the road between Kocho and the mountain was finally paved, it would take us almost an hour to drive our white Datsun pickup across the dusty roads through Sinjar City to the base of the mountain. I grew up closer to Syria than to our holiest temples, closer to strangers than to safety.
A drive in the direction of the mountain was joyful. In Sinjar City we could find candy and a particular kind of lamb sandwich we didn’t have in Kocho, and my father almost always stopped to let us buy what we wanted. Our truck kicked up clouds of dust as we moved, but I still preferred to ride in the open air, lying flat in the truck bed until we were outside the village and away from our curious neighbors, then popping up to feel the wind whip through my hair and watch the blur of livestock feeding along the road. I easily got carried away, standing more and more upright in the back of the truck until my father or my eldest brother, Elias, shouted at me that if I wasn’t careful, I would go flying over the side.
In the opposite direction, away from those lamb sandwiches and the comfort of the mountain, was the rest of Iraq. In peacetime, and if he wasn’t in a hurry, it might take a Yazidi merchant fifteen minutes to drive from Kocho to the nearest Sunni village to sell his grain or milk. We had friends in those villages—girls I met at weddings, teachers who spent the term sleeping in Kocho’s school, men who were invited to hold our baby boys during their ritual circumcision—and from then on bonded to that Yazidi family as a kiriv, something like a god-parent. Muslim doctors traveled to Kocho or to Sinjar City to treat us when we were sick, and Muslim merchants drove through town selling dresses and candies, things you couldn’t find in Kocho’s few shops, which carried mostly necessities. Growing up, my brothers often traveled to non-Yazidi villages to make a little money doing odd jobs. The relationships were burdened by centuries of distrust—it was hard not to feel bad when a Muslim wedding guest refused to eat our food, no matter how politely—but still, there was genuine friendship. These connections went back generations, lasting through Ottoman control, British colonization, Saddam Hussein, and the American occupation. In Kocho, we were particularly known for our close relationships with Sunni villages.
But when there was fighting in Iraq, and there always seemed to be fighting in Iraq, those villages loomed over us, their smaller Yazidi neighbor, and old prejudice hardened easily into hatred. Often, from that hatred, came violence. For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that began in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full-fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous. Neighboring villages began to shelter extremists who denounced Christians and non-Sunni Muslims and, even worse, who considered Yazidis to be kuffar, unbelievers worthy of killing. In 2007 a few of those extremists drove a fuel tanker and three cars into the busy centers of two Yazidi towns about ten miles northwest of Kocho, then blew up the vehicles, killing the hundreds of people who had rushed to them, many thinking they were bringing goods to sell at the market.
Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, spread orally by holy men entrusted with our stories. Although it has elements in common with the many religions of the Middle East, from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism to Islam and Judaism, it is truly unique and can be difficult even for the holy men who memorize our stories to explain. I think of my religion as being an ancient tree with thousands of rings, each telling a story in the long history of Yazidis. Many of those stories, sadly, are tragedies.
Today there are only about one million Yazidis in the world. For as long as I have been alive—and, I know, for a long time before I was born—our religion has been what defined us and held us together as a community. But it also made us targets of persecution by larger groups, from the Ottomans to Saddam’s Baathists, who attacked us or tried to coerce us into pledging our loyalty to them. They degraded our religion, saying that we worshipped the devil or that we were dirty, and demanded that we renounce our faith. Yazidis survived generations of attacks that were intended to wipe us out, whether by killing us, forcing us to convert, or simply pushing us from our land and taking everything we owned. Before 2014, outside powers had tried to destroy us seventy-three times. We used to call the attacks against Yazidis firman, an Ottoman word, before we learned the word genocide.
When we heard about the ransom demands for the two farmers, the whole village went into a panic. “Forty thousand dollars,” the kidnappers told the farmers’ wives over the phone. “Or come here with your children so you can convert to Islam as families.” Otherwise, they said, the men would be killed. It wasn’t the money that made their wives collapse in tears in front of our mukhtar, or village leader, Ahmed Jasso; forty thousand dollars was an otherworldly sum, but it was just money. We all knew that the farmers would sooner die than convert, so the villagers wept in relief when, late one night, the men escaped through a broken window, ran through the barley fields, and showed up at home, alive, dust up to their knees and panting with fear. But the kidnappings didn’t stop.
Soon afterward Dishan, a man employed by my family, the Tahas, was abducted from a field near Mount Sinjar where he watched our sheep. It had taken my mother and brothers years to buy and breed our sheep, and each one was a victory. We were proud of our animals, keeping them in our courtyard when they weren’t roaming outside the village, treating them almost like pets. The annual shearing was a celebration in itself. I loved the ritual of it, the way the soft wool fell to the ground in cloudlike piles, the musky smell that took over our house, how the sheep bleated quietly, passively. I loved sleeping beneath the thick comforters my mother, Shami, would make from the wool, stuffing it between colorful pieces of fabric. Sometimes I got so attached to a lamb that I had to leave the house when it came time to slaughter it. By the time Dishan was kidnapped, we had over a hundred sheep—for us, a small fortune.
Remembering the hen and chicks that had been taken along with the farmers, my brother Saeed raced in our family’s pickup truck to the base of Mount Sinjar, about twenty minutes away now that the road was paved, to check on our sheep. “Surely, they took them,” we groaned. “Those sheep are all we have.”
Later, when Saeed called my mother, he sounded confused. “Only two were taken,” he reported—an old, slow-moving ram and a young female lamb. The rest were grazing contentedly on the brownish-green grass and would follow my brother home. We laughed, we were so relieved. But Elias, my eldest brother, was worried. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Those villagers aren’t rich. Why did they leave the sheep behind?” He thought it had to mean something.
The day after Dishan was taken, Kocho was in chaos. Villagers huddled in front of their doors, and along with men who took turns manning a new checkpoint just beyond our village walls, they watched for any unfamiliar cars coming through Kocho. Hezni, one of my brothers, came home from his job as a policeman in Sinjar City and joined the other village men who loudly argued about what to do. Dishan’s uncle wanted to get revenge and decided to lead a mission to a village east of Kocho that was headed by a conservative Sunni tribe. “We’ll take two of their shepherds,” he declared, in a rage. “Then they’ll have to give Dishan back!”
It was a risky plan, and not everyone supported Dishan’s uncle. Even my brothers, who had all inherited bravery and a quickness to fight from our father, were split on what to do. Saeed, who was only a couple of years older than me, spent a lot of his time fantasizing about the day he would finally prove his heroism. He was in favor of revenge, while Hezni, who was over a decade older and the most empathetic of us all, thought it was too dangerous. Still, Dishan’s uncle took what allies he could find and snatched two Sunni Arab shepherds, then drove them back to Kocho, where he locked them in his house and waited.
Most village disputes were solved by Ahmed Jasso, our practical and diplomatic mukhtar, and he sided with Hezni. “Our relationship with our Sunni neighbors is already strained,” he said. “Who knows what they will do if we try to fight with them.” Besides, he warned, the situation outside Kocho was far worse and more complicated than we imagined. A group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, which had largely been born here in Iraq, then grown in Syria over the past few years, had taken over villages so close to us, we could count the black-clad figures in their trucks when they drove by. They were holding our shepherd, our mukhtar told us. “You’ll only make things worse,” Ahmed Jasso said to Dishan’s uncle, and barely half a day after the Sunni shepherds had been kidnapped, they were set free. Dishan, however, remained a captive.
Ahmed Jasso was a smart man, and the Jasso family had decades of experience negotiating with the Sunni Arab tribes. Everyone in the village turned to him with their problems, and outside Kocho they were known for being skilled diplomats. Still, some of us wondered if this time he was being too cooperative, sending the message to the terrorists that Yazidis would not protect themselves. As it was, all that stood between us and ISIS were Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, who had been sent from the Kurdish autonomous region to guard Kocho when Mosul fell almost two months earlier. We treated the peshmerga like honored guests. They slept on pallets in our school, and each week a different family slaughtered a lamb to feed them, a huge sacrifice for the poor villagers. I also looked up to the fighters. I had heard about female Kurds from Syria and Turkey who fought against terrorists and carried weapons, and the thought made me feel brave.
Some people, including a few of my brothers, thought we should be allowed to protect ourselves. They wanted to man the checkpoints, and Ahmed Jasso’s brother Naif tried to convince Kurdish authorities to let him form a Yazidi peshmerga unit, but he was ignored. No one offered to train the Yazidi men or encourage them to join the fight against the terrorists. The peshmerga assured us that as long as they were there, we had nothing to worry about, and that they were as determined to protect Yazidis as they were the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We will sooner let Erbil fall than Sinjar,” they said. We were told to trust them, and so we did.
Still, most families in Kocho kept weapons at home—clunky Kalashnikov rifles, a big knife or two usually used to slaughter animals on holidays. Many Yazidi men, including those of my brothers who were old enough, had taken jobs in the border patrol or police force after 2003, when those jobs became available, and we felt sure that as long as the professionals watched Kocho’s borders, our men could protect their families. After all, it was those men, not the peshmerga, who built a dirt barrier with their own hands around the village after the 2007 attacks, and it was Kocho’s men who patrolled that barrier day and night for a full year, stopping cars at makeshift checkpoints and watching for strangers, until we felt safe enough to go back to a normal life.
Dishan’s kidnapping made us all panic. But the peshmerga didn’t do anything to help. Maybe they thought it was just a petty squabble between villages, not the reason Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, had sent them out of the safety of Kurdistan and into the unprotected areas of Iraq. Maybe they were frightened like we were. A few of the soldiers looked like they couldn’t be that much older than Saeed, my mother’s youngest son. But war changed people, especially men. It wasn’t that long ago that Saeed would play with me and our niece, Kathrine, in our courtyard, not yet old enough to know that boys were not supposed to like dolls. Lately, though, Saeed had become obsessed with the violence sweeping through Iraq and Syria. The other day I had caught him watching videos of Islamic State beheadings on his cell phone, the images shaking in his hand, and was surprised that he held up the phone so I could watch, too. When our older brother Massoud walked into the room, he was furious. “How could you let Nadia watch!” he yelled at Saeed, who cowered. He was sorry, but I understood. It was hard to turn away from the gruesome scenes unfolding so close to our home.
Reading Group Guide
Elias (oldest brother)
Massoud (brother and Saoud’s twin)
Saoud (brother and Massoud’s twin)
Shireen (Saoud’s wife)
Jenan (Jalo’s wife)
Hezni (brother) Policeman in Sinjar
Kathrine (niece and daughter of Elias)
Ahmed Jasso (The Mukhtar of Kocho)
Naif Jasso (Ahmed Jasso’s brother)
Masoud Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Regional Government)
Mukhtar-A village leader
Qawwals-Yazidi traveling religious teachers
Jevat-Meeting house used by the Mukhtar and other men to make decisions for the village
Kochek-A Yazidi mystic that confirms if a deceased person made it into the afterlife.
Lalish-A valley in northern Iraq where the Yazidi’s holiest temples are located.
PKK-(Kurdish Workers Party) Kurdish guerrilla army based in Turkey
KDP-President Barzani’s Kurdish Party
Sabaya-ISIS’ human spoils of war bought and sold as sex slaves
Discussion guide written by Keith Long
1. How would you describe Nadia’s life in Kocho before ISIS invades?
2. How would you characterize relations between Yazidis and their Sunni neighbors before ISIS invades?
3. What do the Yazidi people believe? What is the importance of religion to the community and how is it demonstrated throughout the book?
4. What was the nature of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policy and how did it effect Iraq’s Yazidi population?
5. What changes and challenges did modernization present to Nadia’s community? In your opinion, is it important for ethnic minorities and religious groups to maintain their unique identity or should they assimilate into more globalized notions of culture? Explain.
6. On page 31, Nadia states, “We had been taught about violence since our very first day of school.” What does Nadia mean by this and specifically how does it explain Iraq’s modern history?
7. How did economic sanctions impact Yazidis and other Iraqis during Saddam Hussein’s rule? To what extent do you believe economic sanctions are an effective tool for nations to use against other nations?
8. What changes occurred in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003?
· Yazidi reaction?
· Sunni Arabs?
9. Discuss the incident of Du’a Khalil Aswad and how it influenced Yazidi/Sunni relations.
10. On page 52 Nadia writes, “I still think that being forced to leave your home out of fear is one of the worst injustices a human being can face.” Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why or why not?
11. On August 3, 2014 ISIS arrived at the outskirts of Kocho. What was the response of Kocho’s Sunni Arab neighbors? What was the response of the Kurds?
12. How did ISIS treat other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq compared to Yazidis? Pay particular attention to how Iraqi Christians were treated. What similarities and differences do you see in the way ISIS treated these groups and what were the reasons?
13. Investigate a media outlet such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post and look for coverage about the situation on and around Mount Sinjar in August 2014. How did the U.S. media cover the events? How does U.S. media coverage compare to Nadia’s account of what happened?
14. Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer coined the phrase “choiceless choices” to advance the notion that Holocaust victims were faced with a reality that presented different dimensions of moral choice compared to normal circumstances. Holocaust victims were frequently forced into situations where any choice made would have undesirable outcomes. Locate examples of “choiceless choices” in The Last Girl and discuss the thought process involved in these decisions. Note, the object here is not to judge the choices that victims made but rather understand on a deeper level the circumstances that victims of mass atrocity are faced with.
15. Often victims of mass atrocity are depicted as going passively to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. How would you define resistance? Consider actions that go beyond armed resistance in your response. In what ways did Nadia and other Yazidis resist ISIS atrocities throughout the book?
16. How did ISIS members use the Quran and Islamic Law to designate women Sabaya and how did they justify their immoral actions and sexual abuse of Yazidi women?
17. On page 143, Nadia writes a brief meditation about justice. How would you define justice and what would it look like in the context of mass atrocities? Read pages 143–148 carefully and make a list of all of the people that you believe are guilty on a scale of 1–4 with 4 being the highest degree of guilt.
18. On page 148 Nadia writes that ISIS is “a terrorist group run on greed.” Why does she say this and what evidence is presented in the book up to and including this point? What other motivations for joining and supporting ISIS are given? Which one do you believe is the most compelling and why?
19. How did ISIS destroy Yazidi women without killing them?
20. What is the role of women in the ISIS organization? Pay particular attention to Morteja’s mother. Why is Nadia so conflicted over the issue of women perpetrators and justice?
21. In what way is rape considered a weapon of war?
22. Why do you believe Nasser’s family stayed in Mosul under ISIS, and how could their lives and values have changed by their experiences with Nadia?
23. In addition to ISIS perpetrators, who does Nadia seem most angry with and why? What are the implications about the choices these people make?
24. On page 239 Nadia describes crossing a bridge over the Tigris River and the reeds below. Interpret what she means about the reeds. What do the reeds symbolize? Explain.
25. After Nadia’s escape she lives in a half built house with her brothers and other survivors. Why does she refer to the house as “a house of misery”? Are you surprised that she is not more jubilant given her escape from ISIS?
26. What is the nature of the disagreement about the genocide between Nadia and the Kurdish farmer she works for?
27. On page 301 Nadia writes, “Longing for a lost place makes you feel like you have also disappeared.” What does she mean by this statement?
28. Why was it important for Nadia to tell her story?
29. If you could ask the author one question what would it be?
30. Why do genocides and mass atrocities occur?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nadia tells of how ISIS emptied out her village, dividing the men from the women, the older people from the younger. They killed all the mature women, the older mothers, and made their daughters sex slaves. They killed the men , keeping the boys to indoctrinate. Nadia describes her life before ISIS as full of family love. The books shows the unbelievable stripping away of multilayered families and the fierce resolve the writer forms to tell her story and help end cycles of violence. The title means she envisions being The Last Girl who has to suffer such violations.
"I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine." The LEAST we can do is bear witness to genocide. But when we read and listen and attempt to absorb what is happening around us, we take one step closer to bringing the darkness into the light. This book is hard to read, frightening to imagine and it is a wake up call for all of us. In spite of having the unspeakable happen to her, Nadia has been brave enough to use her voice in the hope that the world will be a better place for it. Will you have enough courage to read her story?
This book is a powerful and compelling account of a young Yazidi woman’s horrific experience after her village in Iraq is invaded by ISIS insurgents. Ms. Nadia Murad shares her story of captivity, abuse, and torture at the hands of ISIS. Her story is emotional and heartbreaking, but this reality of genocide and sex slavery of the Yazidi people at the hands of ISIS must be told. Ms. Murad is a brave, resilient, and courageous woman. Her commitment to advocate for the thousands of Yazidi people who have been targeted and to fight for her tormentors to be held accountable is remarkable. The documentary made in conjunction with this writing is equally intense. This book is a “must read” and the film is a “must see.”
This is a must read. The terrible things done in the name of eliminating people who may be different for any reason is mind boggling. Thankfully as the book shares there are still good people left who will stand up to make a difference.
Very repetitive in describing surroundings, traditions etc. Almost boring.
very young women's story to survive. Her resolve to find justice for her people is so inspiring. I really don't understand how the US can allow this to happen to the Yazidi people! They stood with the US when we invaded Iraq. Thousands of their young men worked side by side with us as translators. The US has treated them awful. The translators get a special immigration visa, but thousands of Yazidi family members a still starving in refugee camps since this most recent ISIS genocide started 8/2014. Their families & community have been destroyed & the Trump administration is not allowing refugees from Iraq. The ugly America raises again.