DOHUK, Iraq – A Yazidi family recently gathered near a peshmerga checkpoint on the road to Shingal in Iraq, anxiously awaiting a woman who had been rescued from the Islamic State in Syria.
As the sun set over northern Iraq, a truck approached and the sobs and cries from the family grew louder. Wahida, 35, stepped out of the truck with her young daughter, who looked frail and stricken in a little pink dress, showing no emotion. Some of her female relatives, overcome with mourning and relief, fell to the ground, while others crowded around Wahida to hug her, bless her and welcome her back to safety after more than two years under the brutal captivity of ISIS.
She is one of nearly 3,000 Yazidis who have been rescued from ISIS territory by a network of Kurdish smugglers, who are funded in part by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) — which has a “director of kidnapping affairs,” Hussein al-Qaidi. He reports directly to the Kurdish prime minister’s office.
Kurdish and Iraqi troops are closing in on ISIS strongholds in Mosul, and United States led coalition forces are targeting Raqqa, in Syria, the armed group’s makeshift capital.
But there are still some 3,500 Yazidi captives in ISIS hands — including, if they are still alive, Wahida’s husband and her two other daughters.
Wahida was captured in Shingal when ISIS besieged it in August 2014. Many Yazidis — an ethnic minority whose ancient religion, neither Muslim nor Christian, is considered a form of devil worship by ISIS — fled to the mountains outside the city, but Wahida was trapped and taken to Raqqa.
She didn’t speak to Yahoo News about her experiences as a captive, but accounts from inside ISIS territory describe what is being called genocide by the United Nations. The men and boys are killed or forced to convert to Islam and separated from the women, who are often tortured, raped and sold to ISIS fighters as sex slaves.
Another woman who escaped from ISIS control, Bahara, sat down with Yahoo News and described her experiences at a slave brothel in Raqqa:
Bahara is older, has a head full of white hair and wears the traditional Yazidi white headscarf. She was held in a house with groups of younger women who were brought in and then chosen, one by one, to be raped by ISIS fighters.
When she was first brought to the brothel house, many younger women began to scream and hold onto her clothes. She clung to a pole, but a guard beat her until she let go. The guard, who observed a curious point of Arab chivalry, then saved her: “I held onto his collar, as some Arabs do,” she said. “He is supposed to provide me protection, when you do that, they have to protect you. He left me alone then.”
Bahara said the guards kept her on the second floor of the house. As each new group of young women was brought in, she saw and heard the screams when ISIS fighters chose new girls to buy. “The girls would tell me their stories, they wanted to commit suicide, they wanted to die, but ISIS would not let them. They would try to cut their wrists.”
She was kept in the house for five months, tending to the young women, before being taken to the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, from which she escaped over a month ago.
The smuggler who arranged to rescue Wahida, the young mother who was reunited with her family in northern Iraq, was a businessman named Abdullah.
He had been a trader in tractor parts with a wide network of contacts in Syria. He said he has rescued as many as 300 people in the last three years. “I used my relationships as a trader [in Syria] so I have a lot of friends to help me save these women,” he told Yahoo News.
Abdullah, who is also Yazidi, said more than 50 of his own family members had been captured by ISIS, which motivated him to begin his rescue efforts. It’s a dangerous, complicated business; the operation to free Wahida and her daughter took 17 days.
The Kurdish government spends as much as $8,000 on each rescue, on expenses that might include the rent for a network of safe houses.
If some of it goes for bribes, no one involved will discuss it — and when asked about ransom payments, Qaidi denies any such thing happens. “We don’t have direct connection with the terrorists,” he insists. “It’s our people, and they’re human and we have to save them.”
Another smuggler, Khalil, also spoke with Yahoo News. He said he works through a network of contacts inside Mosul who help him move victims from house to house until they are able to get a safe house and leave ISIS territory.
One of his contacts, a Sunni Arab male, called Khalil while Yahoo News was with him. The man told Khalil about the latest security situation in Mosul and then asked Khalil if he would put in a good word for him with the Kurdish government to keep him from being arrested as an ISIS sympathizer.
“We’ve taken families of our network and put them in one of the houses. So people think a family lives there,” he said, “men from ISIS really don’t check the women, they don’t go to the women’s side of the house.”
This makes it easier to smuggle the women out — and so does the ISIS law requiring women to be covered in the niqab, an Islamic veil, which makes them difficult to identify. But Khalil said it gets harder when ISIS changes positions and forces people to move with them, using them as human shields during the fighting.
At least one burden has been lifted from the women who return. Traditionally, Yazidi religious practice called for excommunicating members who married or had sexual relations with outsiders, but that became untenable when thousands of women were captured and forced into sexual slavery. In September 2014, a month after ISIS seized Shingal, Yazidi clerics met in the small village of Lalish, in northern Iraq, the holiest place in the Yazidi religion, to reconsider this practice.
Yahoo News met with Luqman Suliman, a clerical spokesman, in the Yazidi temple at Lalish.
The temple courtyard was wet and cold. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes when walking through the area. There is a bathhouse for religious baptisms guarded by an elderly woman.
Sitting by a small space heater in front of the bathhouse, Suliman explained, “Because we didn’t accept [people] to come back to the religion, we lost everyone. It is one of our mistakes.”
But now, he said, “When they come here, we pray for them, they feel they are free, they don’t feel fear anymore.”
He believes all the women are their sisters and mothers and that it’s important to bring them back, especially after ISIS has tried to convince many of them they would never be accepted again as Yazidis. The clerics at the temple often baptize the women in a ceremony when they return.
A nongovernmental organization known as Yazda has been instrumental in helping Yazidi women return and works to be a voice for Yazidi communities. Amber Webb, Yazda’s director, told Yahoo News, “It’s important that these women be released, but at the same time their struggle doesn’t end there.”
Webb believes women need to know that their Yazidi community supports them. She said that going to Lalish for baptism is a major step for Yazidi women to regain their identity. “I’ve heard stories of women who come out of captivity, they no longer wear the white headscarf, and that’s very traditional in Yazidi culture, so these pilgrimages [to Lalish] — there’s an informal ceremony where they receive a white headscarf now. They feel encouraged, that is their second step to healing.”
However, Yazda’s future in the Kurdish region may be coming to a close. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Tuesday that KRG officials had shut down the organization. Yazda staff told HRW that they were given no warning by government officials and said that “officers provided no reason, no paperwork and no information on how long it was being closed. The officers put locks on the doors to prevent staff from coming back.”
Meanwhile, Wahida may not be ready to share her story, but her release was the first step. And in an effort to defeat ISIS’ enslavement of Yazidis, the smugglers are putting their lives on the line to bring the Yazidi women to freedom — and to their families.
Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.