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Meet Iraq's human rights advocate who lived through two genocides

Dr. Widad Akreyi, who lived through the 1980s Anfal genocide and the 2014 Yazidi genocide, has become one of the major defenders of human rights in Iraq and beyond.

Childhood memories are indelible in Dr. Widad Akreyi’s mind. They still mark her life and her battles around the world. The iconic Kurdish defender of human rights was born in Akre, not too far from Erbil in Iraq's southern Kurdistan. She was just 10 years old when Saddam Hussein's Baath Regime took power in Iraq in 1979. Akreyi had already survived the Iraqi government offensive against the Kurds in the mid-1970s. She also lived through the Anfal genocidal campaign, when atrocities were committed against Kurdish civilians by the Iraqi government between 1986 and 1989 — the campaign was commissioned by Hussein to crush Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq in the last phase of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War. Today, she is an award-winning peace activist, but those distinctive memories of her early age become clearer with each passing day.

She vividly remembers the Baath Party youth organization, which spied on pupils. “The model was the Hitlerjugend and Jungmadel of 1930s Germany,” Akreyi told Al-Monitor. She added, “The girls were mostly the daughters and relatives of Arab settlers; they usually questioned pupils who did not understand what was going on. If the girls who spied had the slightest suspicion of ‘wrong’ opinions, the questioned pupils and their families would face serious consequences. We learned at ages 6 and 7 that the world was not as safe as we had previously thought.”

When a male member of the Baath Party entered her class to force pupils to join the youth organization, she stood up and declared that she would not do as ordered. “I could see that my head only reached that man's knees. The contrast was striking,” she recalled. “The man intimidated me, castigated me and my parents, and turned to physical violence against me in front of the class as a means to make me change my mind, but in vain,” Akreyi added.

Her passion and involvement for justice and freedom as a young girl soon became a direct call into action. In 1987, she secretly documented the immediate and long-term impacts of torture and other violations of human rights on victims in the Kurdistan Region and throughout Iraq. After the Gulf War, at the beginning of the 1990s, she fled to Turkey. “Many emotions crowded my heart on my last night in Kurdland (as she calls Kurdistan, which she says is based on Sumerian records) after I had decided to leave. My mind was in turmoil,” she confessed to Al-Monitor. “I was connected to the soil and history of my country. At about 3 a.m., I had to bid my family and closest friends farewell. I wanted fate to hand us a future in which I could be with my parents when the time came for them to bid farewell to this world. That was all I could think about, unaware that my wish would not be granted,” Akreyi said.

After leaving Iraq, she continued to campaign for human rights with international organizations like Amnesty International. She also campaigned against the illicit arms trade industry. She founded her own independent and voluntary nongovernmental organization called Defend International, which she established in 2007 in Norway.

The ongoing conflict in Iraq — even after the fall of Hussein and the Baath Party — brought her back to her country of origin. In 2014, she was one of the very few to speak about not only the Yazidi genocide but also about the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Islamic State (IS). She prepared a global campaign, and Defend International launched a multifaceted strategy to galvanize international opinion and raise awareness about the atrocities committed. “I called on world leaders to urgently intervene,” Akreyi said, adding, “We did our best to make sure that the victims were not forgotten, were protected legally and were fully assisted. Our work resulted in freeing thousands of slaves and reducing the scale of the 2014 genocide against the Yazidis.”

Today, some IS slavery survivors are internationally known for being human rights activists fighting for justice and peace, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, and Lamiya Aji Bashar, who shares with Murad the Sakharov Prize.

The world's youngest winner of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2017, Akreyi shares this prize along with past winners such as John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. “We share our concern for the victims and survivors and how to meet their needs,” she said on the Pacem in Terris website. Akreyi added, “We have taken action, well aware that we were risking our lives.” When Reverend Bishop Thomas Zinkula presented her award, he said, “Her commitment to the causes she espouses is contagious. I thanked her for accepting this award as well as for the inspiration she provided to us.” The Kurdish community congratulated Akreyi as well. “We Kurds owe you so much because we have your highness among the international communities to be proud of,” commented Mamosta Muhamad, an educator from Iraq.

Author of the memoir "The Daughter of Kurdland," Akreyi's daily efforts to save human lives has its roots in Iraq, but her voice for peace continues to travel around the world through her narrative autobiography. Her memoir was published in April 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the Anfal genocide and the fifth anniversary of the 2014 Yazidi genocide.

She still has contacts with several survivors of the Anfal campaign, as well as with associations of their families such as the Halabja Chemical Attacks Victims Association. “The vivid images from that horrible reality are part of the record of my personal journey through life,” she said, adding, “They compose a narrative of tragic devastation that led to the 2014 genocide and stretches to the present day.” But Akreyi’s message is one of hope. “It is a fact that wars still shadow our lives. But please don't act out of fear. Instead, act out of hope, because with hope everything good becomes possible and the involvement of everyone is necessary for the attainment of global peace and international security,” she concluded.

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