ERBIL, Iraq – Out of the around 6,000 members of the Yazidi minority who were kidnapped a year ago from their homes in the Sinjar region, only about a quarter have escaped the clutches of their murderous captors, the Islamic State, or ISIS. The situation of the women captives is particularly dire since a majority have since been sold into slavery, raped repeatedly and forced to become sex slaves serving ISIS. Their only hope is to escape – or to be purchased, usually for exorbitant sums.
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Yazidis are a small, persecuted religious minority, who speak Kurdish and are seen as the original Kurds. ISIS considers them as unbelievers and devil-worshippers, for which reason it is enslaving and killing them. During its invasion of the Yazidi region of Sinjar on August 3 last year, ISIS killed thousands of men – numbers are vague as only part of the region has been freed since and few mass graves uncovered.
Figures gathered by local authorities and aid workers in the Kurdistan region of Iraq show that in the first five months after the kidnapping, only some 400 women had managed to escape by themselves, often with help from locals. The latter are usually neighbors of their captors and others living in the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS in parts of Iraq and Syria, who ask to be paid for their highly secret role – often including hiding the escapees and driving them to one of the country’s borders.
Apart from these efforts, there have been few local initiatives to rescue the Yazidi women. A secret campaign by civilians in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to collect money in order to buy the freedom of the Yazidi women and help them escape is reported to have met with only partial success.
The fact that in the past seven months around 1,100 Yazidis were able to escape their violent captors – bringing the estimated total of escapees in the past year to 1,500, is thanks mainly to rescue missions by family members, like taxi driver Jamal (not his real name). Because of his persistence, Jamal was able to track down and liberate about half of his 26 relatives who were kidnapped by fighters from the violent Islamist organization.
Jamal joins some of these family members in a tent, in one of the camps set up in the Kurdistan region for the hundreds of thousands of Yazidis who fled when ISIS entered their province last summer. They recount how they hid in fields of high grass for hours after ISIS forces arrived.
“But when the fighters started shooting into the field, most had to get out,” one of the older women sighs. “They were put into four cars and taken away.”
Jamal escaped the onslaught because he was working. “I was on a trip to Kurdistan,” he explains.
They hand around pictures: of newlyweds who are still missing and a group of young female relatives, one of whom is with ISIS in Syria and the other in Mosul. Jamal displays a list of 18 names of family members whom witnesses saw being killed, and of the 26 who went missing.
Some of the girls kidnapped that day were able to secretly phone Jamal and keep him informed of their location. Sometimes other Yazidi women who had escaped told him they had seen some of his missing relatives. Ultimately, such information helped him to locate and buy back 13 of them: five women with three children, and five other young women.
“As a taxi driver I know many people,” he explains. “I phoned my contacts with the Arabic tribes near Sinjar, who then contacted people inside Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS].”
Jamal paid Arab middlemen amounts totaling as much as $25,000 to buy the abducted women and children, and then drive them to a place where they could be handed over safely. In order not to jeopardize future operations of this nature, Jamal refuses to give more details.
Recently, one of his nieces, who is still a prisoner of ISIS, turned up in a digital photo that made its way to Jamal anonymously, via a Kurdish aid organization that displayed it in order to help identify the captives. In the picture, the 15-year-old poses with two other Yazidi girls, covered in the long black dresses and scarves that are rule inside the caliphate, with a niqab [a veil that normally covers the mouth and nose] pulled up over their heads, uncovering their faces. They smile into the camera holding a bouquet of plastic flowers, and look totally relaxed.
“They are being offered for sale,” Jamal says, staring at the picture on his phone. Unfortunately, the picture reveals no other information. It was probably intended for the consumption of ISIS fighters, he thinks. But as it did not reach him though his Arab middlemen, he has not been able to find out who exactly is offering his niece for sale. Also, the family could not identify either of the other girls in the photo.
If he could find his niece, he would gladly pay for her, Jamal says. He would ask Kurdish aid organizations and businessmen for help, both of which have in the past donated money to him and others for this cause. In other cases he has had to borrow money, he says. The total sum he owes is too large for him to ever repay, he adds, especially now that the mission to rescue his family has become a full-time job.
The alternative to buying the abducted women is to assist them in escaping, claims Khider Domle, a well-known Yazidi journalist and activist in the Kurdistan region, who recently wrote a book entitled “The Black Death” about the kidnapping of the Yazidis.
Domle is one of the few journalists who, since last September, has been able to maintain secret contact with kidnapped women in ISIS-held areas of Iraq. He frequently gets calls at night from women who have somehow got hold of a phone and want to share their stories and tears.
Sometimes they have given him information about their whereabouts, which he has shared with Yazidi activists. The latter have a number of contacts inside the caliphate that work with them in secret, he explains. “They make the contact with these locals, and when the women find an opportunity to get out, they make sure someone picks them up and brings them to the peshmerga [military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan].”
For a year, the peshmerga have been fighting ISIS on a number of fronts, and at these de-facto borders the rescued and escaped Yazidis are permitted to enter the safety of the Kurdistan region. Domle says that the rescuers occasionally infiltrate enemy territory, “but it is mostly their local contacts that transport the woman to the peshmerga lines. They have to be very careful, of course.”
The purchasing of captives still continues, and Domle says he is not happy that the extremist Islamic organization has thus far received, in his estimate, millions of dollars. “We should not support ISIS. Money should only be used for volunteers who get the people out,” he says.
At present, he is calling for a more professional rescue campaign to free the women. “This would involve building relations with local people, and trying to find a way to go inside the ISIS-held areas and follow up these contacts once we know the locations of the women to be rescued. It should be organized well, but I am sure that if there is money available we can free many of these women.”
For such a campaign to succeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government should support it, he says. The authorities have refused to pay ISIS directly, Domle notes, but now their support is essential, especially as those involved in the rescue attempts will likely be taking more risks.
“The KRG should protect these people,” he says, “for instance, by offering them safety inside the Kurdish areas.”