- - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

DOHUK, Iraq — Sitting in a partially built house in an abandoned Christian village in Kurdistan, a 21-year-old Yazidi woman quietly recounted her ordeal at the hands of the Islamic State.

“ISIS separated me from my sisters,” the woman said as she sat on a worn mattress thrown onto the concrete floor. “They beat me, raped me, handcuffed me and left me in a room for days. I tried to kill myself by jumping from a tall building and by electrocuting myself.”

The woman asked to remain anonymous because she feared her three younger sisters who remain captives of the Islamic State might suffer if she were identified.

Just over a year ago, in a campaign that sparked outrage around the world, Islamic State militants charged into the area around Mount Sinjar, butchering hundreds of Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority whose Persian-influenced traditions predate Islam, and enslaving thousands of others who did not make it to the safety of the mountain. The perilous story of the Yazidi hostage and her family indicates that the suffering is far from over for one of Iraq’s most embattled populations.

Just a week before she told her story, the woman and her youngest sister escaped the Islamic State after eleven months of rape and abuse with the help of Khalil Dakhi, 38, a Yazidi lawyer who made it his mission to rescue enslaved Yazidis from the clutches of the militant group.

With a small group of accomplices, Mr. Dakhi by his own account has smuggled about 600 people to safety away from the Islamic State. Government officials in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Mr. Dakhi brings the rescued Yazidis, corroborate his figures.

“They are very effective, and their work involves taking great personal risks,” said Mirza Dinnayi, an adviser to the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, that helps fund Mr. Dakhi’s mission.

The desperate defense of Mount Sinjar prompted the Obama administration to launch its air campaign against the Islamic State. U.S. airstrikes stalled the militants’ advance until Kurdish forces from Syria managed to break through the encirclement of fighters and usher the terrified survivors to safety.

Of the roughly 7,000 Yazidis who went missing then, about 5,000 were enslaved, said Matthew Barber, a researcher at the University of Chicago. Nearly 2,000 — mostly women and children — have escaped. Mr. Dakhi said he rarely rescues men. Islamic State fighters often kill men if they refuse to convert to Islam.

Yazidis, estimated to number from 300,000 to 700,000, practice an ancient religion that mixes Zoroastrianism and faiths indigenous to the pre-Muslim Middle East. The Islamic State considers the Yazidis devil worshippers who must convert to Islam or face death or enslavement.

Islamic State fighters caught the 21-year-old and her four younger sisters when they became separated from the rest of their family during the flight to Mount Sinjar.

The sisters soon found themselves in Raqqa, the Syrian city that has become the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The 21-year-old became a “jihadi bride” — a sex slave to a Libyan jihadi fighter. (Press accounts last week reported that captured American aid worker Kayla Miller was forced to be a sex slave for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before her apparent death in an allied airstrike this year.)

After she tried to kill herself a second time, her captor passed her on to a German jihadi in Tel Afar in Iraq.

Catching a lifeline

In Tel Afar, fate threw the young woman a lifeline. A few months ago, she managed to get hold of a mobile phone and called her elder sister Hanifah, who had made it to the safety of Kurdistan. Hanifah, who agreed to share her first name, told her about Mr. Dakhi’s smuggling ring, gave her his number, and soon the woman was on the phone with him.

By the time she called him, Mr. Dakhi’s operation was in full swing. Forced to flee his native village of Khanasor in the northern Sinjar region of Iraq in August, he ended up in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, where he began gathering information from Yazidis who managed to escape captivity.

At first, he was working with two men he knew from home, including Osman Abu Shujaa, the only other member to step out of the shadows and reveal his identity. Mr. Shujaa, another Yazidi, had developed deep contacts throughout the region as a smuggler who would bring oil and agricultural produce across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

“I couldn’t continue my work when I was displaced [by the Islamic State onslaught]. Now I am serving my Yazidi people,” Mr. Shujaa said.

Two other men soon joined the group. They started to smuggle the first women and children out of the Islamic State in September and opened an office in Dohuk a month later.

The rescue operations are complicated and fraught with danger. In the case of the 21-year-old woman, Mr. Dakhi needed to overcome an additional obstacle. Hanifah urged her younger sister not to leave behind their youngest sibling, an 8-year-old girl who had been taken to a Shariah school in the Iraqi town of Tel Afar, where young Yazidis are indoctrinated into becoming future fighters or jihadi brides.

“I told her that I was being beaten, raped and not given enough food, but she insisted I stay until I could bring our little sister,” the woman recalled.

She postponed her escape for another month until Islamic State fighters allowed her to have her sister back for three days.

On the second day of that visit, Mr. Dakhi’s operatives picked them up and brought them to a safe house near Tel Afar. As soon as the smugglers judged it safe, they took the two sisters across the front lines under the cover of darkness, walking from 10 p.m. until they reached Kurdish-controlled territory at sunrise.

The sisters were quickly reunited with their mother and elder sister. They now live as refugees in an abandoned Christian village.

The missions don’t always go as planned.

The Islamic State has captured and killed three of Mr. Dakhi’s helpers in the past year.

One was caught on a rescue mission. Two were killed separately in an ambush when they attempted to pick up women acting as decoys. Mr. Dakhi noted that the Islamic State has forced women to pose as would-be escapees who call to arrange meetings. “Only the other day a girl called and begged to be rescued, said she would kill herself otherwise, but we knew it was a trap,” he said.

But the rescue operations continue. Mr. Dakhi said he and his colleagues know how to exploit the weak spots in the Islamic State’s human trafficking operations. “There is nothing they can do,” he said. “We have a lot of experience in dealing with them.”

Still, caution is paramount. “Our helpers in ISIS territory are Arab Muslims,” he said. “If they get caught, they will be killed immediately.”

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