Khalil al-Dakhi completed his latest rescue mission last week, saving 31 Yazidis – mostly women and children – from the clutches of Islamic State and escorting them to Iraqi Kurdistan.
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It wasn’t easy, he admits. “Daesh people have been suspicious recently,” he says, using the Arabic name of the Islamic State group. “Supervision on the border is tighter,” he adds, noting that because of this, many things can go wrong. The captives don’t always manage to reach the meeting place. Or sometimes they arrive late and everything gets delayed.
“If we agree to cross the border at 4 A.M. and they arrive at 5:30, there is already light and sometimes Daesh opens fire,” Dakhi states.
This rescue was carried out successfully, though, and two days later, Dakhi packed his bags and boarded a flight that took him to Israel.
There are about one million Yazidis – an ancient Kurdish minority, most of them living in northern Iraq. Prof. Saeed Khudeda Alo, a historian from the Kurdistan-based University of Duhok, estimates that about 300,000 of them lived in Mosul, Sinjar and their environs. Alo also came to Jerusalem last week as part of a small group, which included Kurdish Jews, to participate in a conference. In addition, they visited Yad Vashem and held discussions with Foreign Ministry officials about the connection between the Kurds and the Jewish people. Dakhi says the main objective was to “make the voice of the Yazidis heard.”
Dakhi, 39, lived and worked in Sinjar as an attorney. When ISIS conquered the city in August 2014, he fled with his family. About 5,000 people were captured, most of them women and children. Most of the men were probably killed. Some 2,000 Yazidis eventually escaped, but more than 3,000 from Sinjar remain missing. “Every day that passes reduces the chances of rescuing them,” Dakhi says, “and no one cares.”
Most of the Yazidis who fled from the battles live in refugee camps. Dakhi lives in Duhok (in Iraqi Kurdistan) and dedicates his time and resources to rescuing captives.
“I don’t do this alone,” he reiterates. “There are 10 of us who are involved.”
“At first,” he explains, “we thought about rescue. Then we tried to find out who was killed and who remains alive, and to obtain information on the captives.”
The first people to provide any information were those who had managed to escape from Sinjar. “Only then did we realize what Daesh is doing to our women and children, and we decided to do everything to get them out of there,” recounts Dakhi. “We, some friends, met and talked about the possibilities and dangers. We thought how we could enlist help.”
And so, in August 2014, they received permission from the Kurdish government to open an office. Dakhi says they rescued 284 people in the next six months, including children under the age of 10.
Some Kurds living in Islamic State-controlled regions aid them during the rescue operations: ISIS had tortured some of them, and they were seeking revenge. For others, the motives are more humanitarian. Of course, there are some – like drivers – who make money from the rescue missions. But everyone is taking a risk, regardless of their motivation. Dakhi relates that some of his friends were captured, tortured and executed by ISIS.
There were five cells in his network, each acting separately. They also tried to restrict contacts between the go-betweens in each cell. Three of the cells have been unearthed so far, according to Dakhi. The two that remain active are his cell and another one operating in Syria, rescuing female Yazidis who were sold to ISIS members in Raqqa.
A simple plan
From the start, they decided not to pay any ransom fees – even though the families of some captives have done. Dakhi has occasionally used this to his advantage. “My number is known. Once, someone called me to ask if I would buy her,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘Is Daesh next to you? Give him the phone.’ I spoke with the man holding her. I bargained a price with him and by doing so got her location out of him. Afterward, I sent her details to my go-between and we got her out of there. I did that a number of times, but now they are more careful.”
The modus operandi of rescue missions seems simple. Dakhi and his comrades receive information about the location of captives, and pass it on to their go-betweens. These people contact the captives and set up a place to meet, from where they are smuggled to the border in cars or on foot. Sometimes, the rumor spreads among captives and a larger-than-expected group reaches the border. These rumors have also torpedoed some rescue missions.
Many Yazidis have been recruited to help their people. Alo, for example, dedicates most of his time to documenting rescue stories. He says ISIS members are using social networks to contact families in order to sell their children back to them. His cellphone features a correspondence in which the picture of a young Yazidi girl was published, along with an offer to sell her for $10,000. Her family raised the amount and paid the ransom, but the girl says she was sold six times after her capture before finally being freed. “It’s just business for them,” Alo says.
Dakhi adds that old women who were captured have been used as walking blood banks. One of those rescued said her captors would stick needles into her and extract blood every two months.
He adds that he always tries to exhibit caution during his missions. “I don’t go deep into Daesh territory and don’t walk into cities,” he explains. However, he always goes to the border where the captives are being brought to. Dakhi and his comrades then enter the territory and help the captives traverse the final meters. He has been discovered and come under ISIS gunfire on more than one occasion.
The rescued women suffer from health problems and signs of PTSD. Many reveal only after their rescue that they have no families to return to. But even though they were raped many times, Yazidi society welcomes them back.
Alo explains that Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yazids, “ruled that those who survived are brave women who did nothing evil, and we have to treat them with respect.” Alo adds that the ruling is respected and many women have returned to their partners.
Dakhi has no relatives in captivity, but his neighbors and their relatives do; he has had limited success trying to locate them, he sighs. “Out of the 84 that I know of, I only know the location of one boy, 7, who is in one of Daesh’s Jihad schools,” he recounts. Dakhi received this information last week from a 10-year-old boy, one of those rescued.
The boy also revealed how ISIS teaches Islam in its Jihad schools and prepares the children for war.
“They teach the children how to use weapons,” says Dakhi. “They teach them to drive, so they can take a car with an explosive device, and also how to operate explosives. They also teach them how to decapitate and how to cut off a hand. Sometimes, they starve them and deny them water. The boy said this is being done to toughen them, but it is part of the brainwashing.”
Dakhi and his group have received financial assistance from the Springs of Hope foundation, which was founded during the second intifada to support victims of terror. Lisa Miara – the British-Israeli who founded the NGO – raises funds for rescue operations and the establishment of a rehabilitation center for victims of rape and children who were trained to be killers and suicide attackers. She says the second mission is sometimes harder.
On their last evening in Israel, Dakhi was not optimistic about the missing Yazidis’ prospects. “I talk about this as much as I can, but it looks like no one cares,” he says. “At first, everyone was being held close to us, and it was easy to rescue them. Now, they are selling the girls to faraway places. If something isn’t done, they will be lost to us. It’s hard for me to understand that people are going to join faraway wars, but when we appeal for help they tell us, ‘It’s too dangerous,’” he concludes.