The Maker of Hope: Nagham Nawzat Hasan – Iraq
Physician of Survivors of ISIS Crimes
Medical Doctor Nagham Nawzat Hasan
Anxiety attacks, severe depression, and critical health conditions broadly describe the situation of women victims of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, as documented by M.D. Nagham Nawzat Hasan, dubbed the “Physician of Survivors of ISIS Crimes”, while carrying out her work.
The Dark Days.. and the Journey of Death
M.D. Nagham Nawzat Hasan is a Yazidi physician and human rights activist. She was born in Bashiqa on the 14th of July 1977. She relocated with her family to several places when she was a child. She was happy and had many aspirations, including having a career as a doctor.
“I had wanted to pursue this profession since childhood because to me it was the ultimate expression of humanitarianism, with the way a doctor saves lives and brings back hope and smiles to many people. I worked very hard to make my wish come true, and was able to attain my dream.”
Dr. Nagham studied at the Medical School at Al-Mosul University and graduated in 2002. She worked at many hospitals in Iraq, and volunteered with a number of local organizations working to support women and children, promote gender equality and provide psychological support to victims of gender-based violence.
Dr. Nagham never would have thought that there will come a day in the 21st Century when women are sold at a slave market, then get raped repeatedly. She never would have imagined that a Yazidi woman would be put on display before 30 or 40 ISIS members so that one of them would take his pick, abuse her for hours or maybe days, then send or lend her to a friend, or have her auctioned. It never crossed her mind that she will bear witness of the suffering of many women who she treated; women who had been subjected to imprisonment, torture and systematic rape, including girls who had not reached adolescence.
Dr. Nagham was in no way prepared for the dark days she experienced when the ISIS gangs occupied the Sinjar area, home to the majority of Yazidis, together with all the adjacent villages, on August 3, 2014. ISIS committed heinous crimes against Yazidis, as they proceeded to separate men from women and children, and executed more than 6,000 people for resisting forced conversion. They abducted and enslaved more than 6,500 women and children, after subjecting them to horrific torture and rape. 450,000 people fled to the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, where they suffered from hunger, thirst and extremely high temperature, in addition to facing the danger of ISIS militants who shot or slaughtered children and women who were deemed to be past childbearing age, while young women and girls remained held.
Like other Yazidi families, Dr. Nagham’s family fled across the border to the city of Duhok in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region. “I couldn’t believe what had happened on that fateful day. I roamed the streets and the demolished areas to provide some assistance and treatment to patients, especially children, and people suffering from dehydration or malnutrition, as well as first aid and referring some cases to the hospitals in Duhok. This work was very difficult.”
A Safe Space: I didn’t think I would continue with this work for years to come
These circumstances completely changed Dr. Nagham’s life. The gynecologist fought a peculiar battle against ISIS; and dedicated her work, family and social life to providing mental support, healing psychological wounds and providing medical care to girls and women who had fled the brutality of the extremist group.
She visited the displaced people’s camps to convince the terrified parents to let their daughters receive counselling and treatment. She used to go from one tent to another, then she moved to live near the camp. After she settled there, she was viewed as the provider of safety by each survivor.
“I worked on fostering their trust in me. Frankly speaking, the fact that I was a member of the Yazidi community myself did help enormously, as this enabled me to gain the survivors’ trust.”
It became obvious that the needs of the survivors go far beyond medical treatment. Although most of them suffered from sexually transmitted diseases as a result of repeated rape; their psychological health was in a very bad shape.
“I was hearing everyday about women and girls who managed to flee captivity, and I went looking for them amongst schools and remnants of destroyed buildings in Duhok, where displaced people would gather.”
Ever since, Dr. Nagham worked with several programmes to assist the survivors and provide them with medical care, in collaboration with the Duhok Health Department, and with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Regional Government. Dr. Nagham entirely devoted her time to supporting the survivors, and to this end, she founded a non-governmental organization by the name “Hope Makers for Women”, which aimed to provide medical and psychological support to the survivors living in the camps that were set up to provide shelter to displaced Yazidis.
In March 2015, the German government decided to transport 1,000 ISIS victims to Germany in order to receive psychotherapy. Nagham worked with this program as the designated physician, and visited some survivors in Germany to closely examine their respective cases and conditions.
Behind the Barrier of Fear.. Horror Stories
Dr. Nagham succeeded in gaining trust and breaking the barrier of fear. Behind that barrier, she listened to terrifying horror stories. The impacts of the ISIS crimes went beyond the wildest imagination. She heard stories that could make one’s heart bleed due to the unspeakable suffering of the victims. “The ugliness of the stories the survivors told and the enormity of their suffering dominated me as though I lived through every moment of those tragedies.”
There was a young girl who had been raped 22 times by ISIS militants. She was only eight years old at the time of her abduction.
Dr. Nagham examined 1,200 survivors, but she will always remember one story that troubled her. That was the story of an ordinary woman who was kidnapped three months following her wedding, and was sold more than 15 times by ISIS members. When she attempted to flee together with her friend, they got caught, and her friend was beheaded right before her eyes. She was later able to escape captivity. Women got sold at the price of a cigarette, and were subjected to beating, burning, torture and electrocution by ISIS fighters and their wives. Others were humiliated and insulted, and got stripped and photographed, and their photos were posted on social media, having labeled them as sex slaves and maids. The women were deprived of food for long hours.
Among the camp’s inhabitants was Leila, who was kidnapped by jihadists along with her 12 year old daughter (at the time). The girl is now 15, and her mother says, “She was unable to speak, and she used to cry the whole time”. However, after receiving support from Dr. Nagham, the girl was finally able to wipe away her tears and go back to school.
At the end of each day, Dr. Nagham would document the horrific stories she heard from Yazidi women who had been abducted from their homes by ISIS in northern Iraq, then managed to run away. “As I provided treatment to the survivors, I could see their courage and the determination they had to reintegrate into their communities. I drew patience, strength and courage from them.”
At the Forefront
Since 2014, her career has been dedicated to helping these women recover from their ordeal. She provided assistance to more than 1,200 survivors, offered medical treatment and documented countless testimonies on their behalf. “I have more than 200 written stories. I feel that it is my duty to record them so that this history is not forgotten.”
She received several international awards, including the 2016 International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department on March 29, 2016. This is an international award that goes to women who have demonstrated exceptional abilities from around the world. She also received the 2016 SOLIDAR Silver Rose Award in Belgium on June 14, 2016.
She was dubbed the “Human Rights Doctor”, and received recognition by Physicians for Human Rights for her contribution to strengthening the capabilities of medicine to expose crimes of abuse and turning the victims’ trauma into documented evidence. She was also awarded the 2020 Franco–German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman who fled from ISIS captivity and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote a special dedication to Dr. Nagham on the cover page of a copy of her book: “Each one of us fought ISIS the way one could, but you had the strongest weapon: healing us.”