About an hour before sunrise on August 3, 2014, Vian Dakhil was awoken by her ringing cell phone. As one of two parliament members representing Iraq’s Yazidi minority, she was used to fielding calls from constituents. They complained about electricity shortages, joblessness, and a lack of social services. But they usually called during normal hours. This felt different.
The man on the line was frantic. Militants with the Islamic State (known variously as IS, ISIS, and ISIL) had overrun his town near Sinjar, and everyone was fleeing. Yazidis, who practice a pre-Islamic religion, are considered nonbelievers by ISIS and therefore worthy of kidnapping, enslavement, and execution. They had lived in fear for months, but the sudden and vicious invasion had surprised even them. “It was unbelievable,” Dakhil told me through a translator when we met at her home more than six months after the attacks began. “I asked them for details. ‘How are you fleeing? Where are you going?’ Every minute I was hearing about another tragic story.”
Two days later, Dakhil addressed the Iraqi parliament, pleading for help. The speech was unrehearsed and visceral. “An entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth!” Dakhil screamed before collapsing in tears, limp with exhaustion.
The speech was viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and transformed Dakhil from a parliamentarian into a crusader, informing Iraqis of the massacre and, as word spread across borders and oceans, alerting many more to the very existence of Yazidis. Her words eventually reached President Barack Obama, who referred to them in his decision to authorize U.S. military air strikes. Dakhil began traveling the world, appealing for support. A helicopter she was riding in crashed on August 12, on its way to deliver aid to Sinjar, and she still walks with a limp. This has become her life, one she could never have envisioned and certainly didn’t plan.
Dakhil had set out to be a doctor, like her father (and six of her eight siblings). Her family was affluent, but as Yazidis in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, they stood out. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, and although Kurdish society is relatively secular, Islam still dominates the religious conversation. Dakhil was the only Yazidi student in school, and one of a few at the University of Mosul, where she studied microbiology. Her career in politics, she says, began as an accident.
In 2007, extremists attacked Christian and Yazidi students at the University of Mosul, and the speaker of the Kurdish parliament asked Dakhil, who was already a prominent Yazidi and a graduate of the university, for help. She became an adviser on minority issues and realized just how much work needed to be done within her community. Three years later, she was appointed to the Iraqi parliament.
There, she stood out again. “To be a woman, Yazidi, and unveiled is hard,” she says. “But believing in democracy in Iraq is a big challenge by itself.” Yazidis have always suffered greatly in the country, and ISIS is seen as only the most recent threat. Most Yazidis, including Dakhil, will cite 72 past attempts at their annihilation. The most reliable estimates put the number of Yazidis in Iraq between 500,000 and 700,000, but the community remains insular and they still have limited access to jobs and education. They have few advocates at all, let alone ones with Dakhil’s reach and influence.
When I met Dakhil, she had just returned from the U.K., where she had received the Anna Politkovskaya Award, given out by the human rights group Reach All Women in War to “a woman human rights defender from a conflict zone.” (The 2013 recipient was Malala Yousafzai.) Dakhil was meticulously put together in pressed jeans and a green sweater, but she had the drawn, distracted appearance of someone charged with constantly monitoring a tragedy.
“They tell me lots of stories,” she says of the constituents who still call her at all hours. “Sometimes I can’t bear them.” Women abducted by ISIS are raped, sold as slaves, or forced to marry their captors, a reality that many in the conservative Yazidi community are reluctant to acknowledge. “One [abducted] girl called me and said, ‘I am dying 1,000 times a day. I want to flee.’ ” She asked Dakhil, should she? “I told her that, yes, it’s better to flee than to stay in this life,” Dakhil says. “I was on the phone with her when she broke the lock on the door and ran away. I spoke with the taxi driver and told him I will give him money to take her wherever she wants.”
Victories like this are hard won. Of the few hundred Yazidi girls and women who have managed to escape ISIS, there are an unknown number who have tried and failed. Dakhil knows that if the Yazidis have a future in Iraq, it will require a coordinated effort at the highest levels of Iraqi government, along with international assistance. But, so far, her job is a lonely one.
Dakhil divides her time between Baghdad, Erbil, and the towns and camps where Yazidis wait, desperate for the war to end. Keeping the displaced and kidnapped on the radar of politicians and journalists is a challenge. ISIS has left Iraq fractured along many lines, and the Yazidis are not the primary concern of most Iraqi parliamentarians. One colleague, Dakhil remembers, criticized her during her August speech. “He was shouting, ‘Why are you only talking about the Yazidis?’ ” she told me. “ ‘Why are you not talking about Sunnis? The same thing happened to us.’ ”
One of Dakhil’s goals is to get the massacre formally recognized as genocide by governments around the world. Earlier this year, she met with scholars at University of Leicester in the U.K. “We discussed the legal aspects of genocide and minority rights in Iraq,” she says. In the end, they agreed that, yes, ISIS’s attack of the Yazidis in Iraq did in fact qualify as genocide. If she can broaden that recognition, it could bring more attention to the ongoing struggle.
One Friday afternoon in March, I accompanied Dakhil on a visit to the Shariya refugee camp, about 100 miles northwest of Erbil. She was greeted by a dazzling burst of adoration. When she left, refugees chanted her name and followed her car out of the gate, walking faster and then running as her SUV picked up speed, some sprinting for as long as they could.
Halfway down the main road, away from the crowd, Dakhil asked her driver to stop. A gray-haired man in a workman’s jacket had been standing on the grassy shoulder. He approached the car slowly, his cell phone displaying a series of texts in Arabic. They were sent from his daughter’s captor, who was offering to return her for what the man considered an inconceivable sum of money. “It’s daesh,” he said softly—the Arabic word for ISIS.
From the backseat, Dakhil’s eyes softened with tears. She advised the man to press the militant for details like landmarks, which might help a government official pinpoint the girl’s location. For a long time, he stood outside the open door, explaining his situation and growing noticeably less distraught. Before leaving, Dakhil typed her contact information into his cell phone. She made him promise to call her with news.
After the man left, the driver started the car again, and Dakhil sat quietly as it started to roll away. A weariness seemed to take over her, the way a runner’s labored breathing sets in only after the race ends, and I remembered something I’d asked her back at her home. Since her speech in parliament, ISIS has issued death threats against Dakhil. She travels with an armed Peshmerga escort, and her house is outfitted with security cameras. But when I wondered whether she worried for her own safety, she gave a tight-lipped smile and a shrug. She said only, “It’s not my priority to be afraid of ISIS.”