Before the extremist group known as the Islamic State started the security crisis that’s causing Iraq so many problems, Abdullah al-Sharim was trading cattle, sheep and leather goods, working between Iraq and Syria. The 50-year-old Yazidi man was a helpless observer as 39 of his close and distant relatives fell into the Islamic State, or IS, group’s hands when they took control of Yazidi-occupied cities and towns in northern Iraq.
But al-Sharim was not helpless. “I called my friends and using my business contacts in both countries, I formed a kind of a network,” he explains. “This network has helped save the lives of 253 abductees, mostly women and children.”
Most of the kidnapped are held in difficult to reach areas, like the IS group strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul and, formerly, Ramadi. “You need a lot of money, a lot of men and a lot of mediators,” al-Sharim says.
According to the Directorate of Yazidi Abductees’ Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, an estimated 6,000 Yazidis were kidnapped by the IS group, most of them women. Around 2,500 of these have been freed since August 2014 when the IS group took control of Yazidi areas in northern Iraq, according to Hussein Kuro, Head of the Directorate in Dohuk.
Many of the abductees were bought back from their extremist “owners” with cash. Some of the older women were freed without any payments. The Yazidis were then moved out of the IS group’s areas using the people-smuggling networks developed by individuals like al-Sharim. Rescue operations are also mounted inside IS-controlled territory but those organising these will not discuss them in any way.
Recently five of our members were killed by the Islamic State. Because they decided to punish anybody who deals with our networks.
“I couldn’t live with the pain of seeing members of my religion sold daily in the markets, like some kind of goods,” says Abu Shuja al-Danaei, another Yazidi behind a similar rescue network, mostly based in Syria.
“We prepared a map of houses where the abducted people are being held and then we pick them up and smuggle them to safe areas, in Turkey or places under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military,” al-Danaei told NIQASH. “We know that the kidnapped are present in most Syrian cities under the IS group’s control, especially in Raqqa and around Aleppo. But they are also in Mosul and Tal Afar and Fallujah.”
It is not only Yazidis who are saving their own people, Iraqi Muslims are also helping. Faez Kamal (not his real name) remains in the city of Mosul, which is controlled by the IS group. In a telephone interview he told NIQASH that he has been part of rescue operations that have saved dozens of kidnapped Yazidis.
“I feel like this is my humanitarian duty,” Kamal says. “To save these people from the suffering caused by the extremists.”
Khalil al-Dakhi was working as a lawyer in Sinjar before it fell to the IS group. Afterwards he quit his job ad began to try and help ease the plight of Yazidis who had managed to get away from the IS group and come to Dohuk.
“We used to simply collect information about the missing and the kidnapped,” al-Dakhi says. “And we asked a lot of people for help with this information. When I realized that nobody seemed to be willing to really help these people, I decided that we, as activists, had to do something to save our own people.”
Since then al-Dakhi and his friends have developed a number of secret networks in Mosul, and rescued hundreds of people from the IS-controlled city.
“The majority of the Yazidi women are in Raqqa in Syria though,” he adds. “And some of the IS group leaders take the women with them everywhere they go.”
Al-Dakhi regularly calls the kidnapped women, if he can and if they can use a phone. He says that some of them are refusing to leave because they are too frightened. Others don’t want to leave because they are pregnant and feel as though they might not be physically able to make the trip.
The rescue operations, which involve a lot of planning about how to get the women out of their residences and away from their captors and then out of IS-controlled territory, are extremely dangerous. Often the rescuers must bring the abductees near to front lines or on routes that could be targeted by either side.
“We also need to coordinate with the Iraqi Kurdish military or with the Syrian Kurdish militias, if the women are coming from Syria,” al-Dakhi says. “In some cases we even need to check with the international coalition [conducting air strikes on the IS group] and find appropriate roads where there are no land mines or air strikes.”
Al-Danaei reports that they have lost members of their networks. “Recently five of them were killed by the IS group,” he says. “Because they decided to punish anybody who deals with our networks.”
All of the men involved in trying to rescue the kidnapped Yazidis say they would really like more international assistance, particularly from any intelligence networks. “We lack that knowledge and it has led to deaths among the rescue networks,” al-Dakhi notes.