What peace means to a survivor of genocide

Adiba Qasim

To mark yesterday’s International Day of Peace, Geneva Solutions spoke to Adiba Qasim – a Yazidi human rights activist now based in Geneva – about what peace means to her.

Adiba Qasim was 19 when the so-called Islamic State (IS) attacked her village in Sinjar, Northern Iraq, in 2014. Her family joined the thousands of other Yazidis who fled their homes to escape mass murder, forced conversions, and the enslavement of thousands of women and girls. “More than 70 people from my family were kidnapped,” she says, “and most of them are still kidnapped.” She escaped with her siblings and parents just 15 minutes before IS reached their village.

The family fled to Turkey, where Qasim taught herself English and began working as a translator and facilitator in a refugee camp. She helped find support for Yazidi women and children who had lost their families in the genocide. An estimated 6,417 Yazidis were kidnapped, with boys forced into combat and women and girls recruited as sexual slaves, and around 360,000 people were displaced from Sinjar.

Soon after they arrived in Turkey, she decided to send her siblings to Europe in the hope that they would find safety. “I thought I would never see my siblings again,” she explains. “It was hard for me, but I couldn't find any other solution, so for them to find peace I put them in that boat.”

Rather than follow her family to Europe, she returned to Iraq in 2015, out of a sense of responsibility to help survivors: “Sometimes I felt guilty for being alive, for being free and doing nothing, so that's why I went back to Iraq. It was not an easy decision. ”

Back in Iraq. Back home, Qasim worked in a rehabilitation centre as a translator between the psychologists and psychiatrists and the Yazidi women and child soldiers who had escaped IS. “I was also documenting their stories – the stories of the Yazidi women and children – so one day [they could] find justice,” she says.

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Qasim documented the liberation of Mosul and Sinjar. Credit: Adiba Qasim.
She also worked with  journalists covering the military actions leading to the liberation of Mosul and Sinjar. She wanted to be sure that the atrocities against Yazidis were documented, to show the world what had happened in her community and others. “I had to go back home to document the mass graves,” she explains. “It was very hard...The bones of my family were in those mass graves, but I had to do it because I found myself in that position of responsibility to do something for the fact that I was free. I am alive, so I have to do something.”

Speaking up put her in a dangerous position, with daily threats against her life, she says.  Eventually, she was forced to seek refuge a second time. “The only choice I had was to leave,” she explains. “To fight for my people, for other communities, for girls and boys, I chose freedom. People needed me alive to continue their path. So this is how I ended up in Switzerland.”

Refuge In Geneva. After being granted a Swiss visa in 2017, Adiba settled in Geneva. It hasn’t been easy. She struggled to feel accepted and is still waiting for formal refugee status three years after she first arrived. But things started to take a turn for the better when she joined the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) as a Young Leader in Foreign and Security Policy, and was able to continue her work advocating for Yazidi women and children who had survived the genocide.

“At the beginning it was hard and took me so much time, but I found that I met amazing people here in Geneva,” she told GS. “I was hosted by the GCSP at the beginning of 2018, and they welcomed me into the centre. I really felt that I had found home.”

And, in a peaceful country for the first time in her life, she was finally able to pursue her education. Growing up in a country rocked by conflict and war, she had to homeschool herself; when she traveled to Mosul for formal exams she saw shootings and narrowly escaped bombs.  She is now studying international relations at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) with a focus on law, hoping that she can one day bring about change for marginalised people and communities such as the Yazidis.

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Qasim continues to work with Yazidi women and child soldiers. Credit: Adiba Qasim.

“[After] fighting over 19 years for that, finally now I can just walk to the university,” she added. “I won’t be kidnapped, I won’t be killed, I don’t have to cover myself. I am without fear. It’s just freedom – I’m enjoying every single moment of it. It’s not just about learning and knowledge, it’s in everything, even in that little walk to the university. It’s full of peace.”

Now that Adiba has found peace for the first time, her goal is to help others find the same. She is working to advocate for the rehabilitation of Yazidi child soldiers and women, and to ensure their voices are heard – both those who have returned and those who have not yet been found. It’s estimated that around 3,000 women and girls who were kidnapped are still missing.

“It’s our responsibility to work and to be strong so the generations behind us will not go through what I and my family faced, and to make sure that this community will stand up,” says Adiba. “It’s suffering still – the genocide is not over for us. IS [so-called Islamic State] is not there, but where are my people? Where are all those women who are kidnapped? I’m not sure I can make a big change, but at least I am doing my part.”

On International Day of Peace, we asked what peace means to her:

“Peace for me is freedom. When I’m not free I cannot feel peace and I cannot find peace. I am free to speak and free to go to school and free to walk on the street.” she says. “We will achieve peace completely when no one will be left behind. When every voice will be heard. When everyone gets their basic rights and dignity. This is very important – human dignity.”

An interview with Adiba Qasim during Geneva Peace Talks 2020 is available here.