‘Basma’ in the tent she shares with her in-laws in a refugee camp in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, October 2015
‘Basma’ in the tent she shares with her in-laws in a refugee camp in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, October 2015 © Holly Pickett

The man counted out 45 hundred-dollar bills and handed them over as Basma watched, her fear mounting. This was the third time in a year that she had been bought and sold by Isis militants, but this man was the most terrifying. “He looked like a monster,” she recalled, describing her new captor. But as he loaded her into the car, he did something that surprised her: he asked her name. Then he promised to set her free.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid. I have lived what you are living. I’ve been imprisoned. I’ve felt hunger and thirst. Don’t worry, even if your mother was living underground, I would find her and get you back to her.’”

That moment twisted Basma’s conception of a world already turned upside down. Her captor was a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), whose jihadi forces had blitzed across her home country of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in a bid to create its so-called caliphate.

She is a Yazidi, a follower of an ancient monotheistic religion whose adherents Isis brands as infidels, and who captured the world’s attention when the jihadis stormed their heartland in Iraq’s Sinjar province in the summer of 2014. More than 200,000 Yazidis managed to flee, but some 5,000 like Basma were captured and forced into slavery. Many of the women taken prisoner were raped; hundreds if not thousands of men were slaughtered.

Yet as the story of Basma and other women shows, even under the unsparing rule of Isis a growing number of people have risked their lives over the past year to help Yazidis flee. Some 2,000 have managed to escape, either on their own or with the help of others, according to Yazidi advocacy groups. To protect those still in captivity and those who are working to free them, the names in this article have been changed and some locations cannot be identified.

Those who help are not part of a single organisation but individuals whose motives reflect the best and worst of human impulses. Some are Isis militants themselves, working with secret cells to free the captives. Most work on their own, sensing an opportunity for financial gain by ransoming captives back to their families for tens of thousands of dollars. A rare few are strangers who have the choice to help thrust upon them, and do it simply because they can.

Basma has been granted asylum in Germany: 'The idea of it scares me. But I am doing it anyway, for my children'
Basma has been granted asylum in Germany: 'The idea of it scares me. But I am doing it anyway, for my children' © Holly Pickett

Basma spoke to us for the first time last August in a sprawling refugee camp in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Cockroaches crawled up the crumbling walls behind her and she bribed her children into silence with chocolate bars as they jumped into her lap, seemingly unaware of the haunting ordeal they had survived.

“I wasn’t afraid to die as much as I was afraid of losing my children,” Basma said. “This was my destiny. The whole world knows that this is wrong, that God wouldn’t accept this injustice. But it was fated.”

She cannot shake off the memories of what she endured during her year of Isis captivity, and she cannot stop thinking about her siblings and her husband, who are still missing. Her eyes are ringed with dark circles from long, sleepless nights.

Before Isis invaded, Basma had never left the rolling plains of Sinjar. She was illiterate, the daughter and wife of impoverished farmers. In the first week of August 2014, militants moved in and stormed the villages, firing on houses and rounding up everyone they could find. The Yazidis living in nearby villages received warning phone calls and fled up the winding road towards Kurdistan along Mount Sinjar, a holy site for Yazidis that became a terrifying trap, as many were stranded there for months. For Basma it was the beginning of her nightmare as Isis sabaya — female “war loot”.

In a neighbouring village, Layan, another Yazidi woman, was also captured by Isis militants. At 24, she was unmarried and helped her mother at home tend to her four younger brothers. Her father and eldest brother worked as housekeepers for a Kurdish businessman in the city of Dohuk, further east in Iraqi Kurdistan. When Isis attacked, “The fighters put us in some kind of school building,” she said. “There was so many of us — men, women, children. They said, ‘Bring all the money you have, even your watches and cellphones and your cars.’ When they first took everything from us, they said, ‘Bring your things, you are going to Kurdistan.’”

'Layan’ outside the refugee camp in Iraq, October 2015, where she is waiting with her father for news of her mother and brothers
'Layan’ outside the refugee camp in Iraq, October 2015, where she is waiting with her father for news of her mother and brothers © Holly Pickett

The men and women were eventually separated, their valuables taken. Layan remembered watching from upstairs as men were put into cars and driven away. This is the moment she believes her brothers were taken to their deaths. “A 12-year-old boy came back in to his mother and said, ‘Isis took all the men and says they will kill them all. They told me to come back because I am too young.’”

Layan was moved with a group of other women by bus until they arrived in Syria. In those early days, Layan first realised what was happening when a militant dragged a teenage girl out of the room where they were being held and raped her. “She came back sobbing. She told us our lives were over.”

After weeks of being bussed from town to town, Layan was taken to a large hall where a group of men were buying and selling Yazidi women. She was sold to an “emir”, or commander, from Kazakhstan and she worked as his house servant. He had no interest in her sexually, she says, but that didn’t stop his two wives from torturing her. They beat her to try to force her to read the Koran: “They kept beating me and I would say, ‘It’s useless, I’m illiterate!’ But they would say I was lying because I didn’t want to learn. Eventually they just gave up, because they actually couldn’t read the Koran that well either.”

The persecution continued in other ways. She was banned from bathing for months at a time. They withheld food. “I couldn’t even go to the bathroom, I had to get their permission for time off to go.

I couldn’t eat — they gave me food when they wanted to,” she says. “I would cry every night for my family, and they would beat me and say, ‘You can’t pray or read Koran right. You’re no good. Why do you cry over your infidel family?’”

Despite being a captive, Layan was allowed to leave the house to go to the market and occasionally to visit a beloved cousin, who had been purchased by a militant living nearby. But they were too afraid to even consider running away. The only subject that gave Layan courage was her family. She surprised even herself when she repeatedly confronted the emir about her suspicions that Isis had massacred Yazidi men. “I was afraid but, more importantly, I was hurt,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Why did you kill my brothers?’ He would say, ‘It’s God’s will.’ He never denied it.”

By late summer 2015, the US-led international coalition against Isis intensified in her area and the emir’s wives forced Layan to dig them an underground bomb shelter. After three days of hard labour she collapsed. “They kicked me out. They said, ‘If you don’t want to do anything, get out.’ Where could I go? I didn’t know anybody.” Even then, instead of trying to run away, her first move was to stay with her cousin. A day later, her captors came to inform her that both she and her cousin would be sold for being “difficult”. “I told [my cousin] we needed to escape. If we were sold, we didn’t know what would happen to us. The next afternoon, at 2pm, we went out as if we were going to the market but instead we kept on going, right out of the city. Finally, we came across some sheep and some dirty old houses and ran towards them.”

They had hesitated briefly, she said. They assumed, correctly, that the Syrian border village was home to Sunni Arabs, and feared they might be Isis sympathisers who would turn them over to their captors. (Isis portrays itself as a protector of the Sunnis and, with sectarian bloodshed in the region rising, has gained traction among some Sunni Arabs there.) It was a risk to ask the shepherds for help. But with few other options, they pressed on.

They were welcomed with tears and embraces: “They kissed our foreheads and said, ‘You are like our own daughters. Stay here, we won’t turn you over to Isis.’ We stayed for 35 days. It is because of these good people I was able to find my family.”

Basma’s path to freedom was more tortuous. Like Layan, she was bussed around and finally put into a large venue where she was told women had been purchased by a wali, or Isis governor, who appeared to have got into the business of buying and selling Yazidi captives for profit. With four children, she said, she was less desirable and spent months there before she was purchased by two young militants, along with several other young women.

“We were locked into a house and those two would come every 10 days and bring us food,” she said. “They had a lot of powders and pills. Sometimes they would force the girls to take it so they would marry them.” “Marriage” is a common euphemism among the captives for rape.

A few months later, Basma was sold back to the wali, though she never knew why. That was when the Iraqi militant she calls Abu Laith purchased her. She spent the last two months of her captivity with the man who became her captor, tormentor and liberator all at once. She did not want to discuss rape directly, saying only, “There was nothing that he wouldn’t do. Except he never beat me.”

Basma inside the camp: her identity papers no longer exist
Basma inside the camp: her identity papers no longer exist © Holly Pickett

Basma was kept in a house with a 14-year-old Yazidi boy who Abu Laith was also holding captive and training up in his own profession: bomb making. “They would make booby traps, suicide belts, roadside bombs, car bombs . . . Abu Laith liked to bring back pictures to show me. When he went to work, he’d say, ‘I’m going to be at this place.’ My door was never locked. He would leave us his wallet full of money in case we needed anything.”

These conflicting gestures of kindness and cruelty were perhaps a reflection of the events that had shaped his own life. Basma says he often spoke to her of his imprisonment as a young man by American forces during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, then later by Shia militias during the country’s brutal sectarian conflicts. “He would say, ‘I lived in a terrible, terrible place, at the hands of the Americans and the Shia. They beat me.’ I know everything he said was true. That’s why he took me to my family.”

If his past imprisonment made Abu Laith sympathise with Basma’s plight, perhaps it was the memories of his torture that had drawn him to Isis. “He would tell me Isis was his family now,” she says. He bought her a mobile phone and would drive her to areas with reception so she could call her family in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But after spending a few weeks with Basma, Abu Laith started to backpedal on his promise to set her free: “He seemed to like me too much, so he spoke to my family and said, ‘She is too good to go back to the apostates. I will send only her children . . . ’ I told him, ‘You will not keep me from my children. If you send them without me, I will kill you and myself.’ He always had a shotgun under his pillow while he slept. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I told him I would try if he separated me from my kids.”

Abu Laith then began insisting on a $60,000 ransom, finally accepting $20,000 when her relatives said it was all they could gather. They had already borrowed $20,000 to buy back Basma’s mother from another militant.

With or without the money, the stakes for Abu Laith were high, Basma said. “Isis didn’t know, not even the other [Yazidi] girls in the area knew. If Isis found out he was sending me to my family, they would behead him.”

One night in June 2015, Abu Laith shook Basma awake and told her to put her children in the car. “He told me, ‘Come. Your family says it is time.’ I couldn’t believe it. I asked him ‘Is this really happening?’ He said, ‘Yes.’” Abu Laith drove through the night to a Syrian city a few hours away. He dropped her off at a crossroads near the highway. “He told me to stand there, someone would come to get me. I kept wondering, what if nobody comes?”

Layan’s father, Samir, still has the audio messages sent from the shepherd who housed her and her cousin. It was July 2015 when he received an audio message from an unknown number, asking him if he was missing anyone. “I said, ‘Yes, I am.’” He was told to name all his family members. “I did. He said, ‘That’s right.’ Then he sent me a message of Layan’s voice telling me she missed me and that she’s well,” Samir says, replaying her first message for me to hear. The two laughed as they replayed it with tears in their eyes.

Because his village had no phone reception or internet, the shepherd would drive to a nearby city to send Layan’s messages to Samir, then drive back the next day to download his audio replies. A few weeks later, he drove into town to find “wanted” posters with Layan and her cousin’s face on them. He told Samir it was time to risk moving them.

Samir borrowed $12,000 from his employer to get the girls out. “I had to pay a smuggler to move Layan and her cousin over the border from Syria and into Turkey. All the money just for that. Thievery.” He shakes his head.

The shepherd who housed the girls and drove them across Syria to reach their rendezvous never asked for compensation. He used his daughters’ identification cards to get them past Isis checkpoints. “The fighters would point their flashlights at our faces and look at us and at the IDs. One time, one of them said, ‘These are not your daughters, they can’t speak Arabic.’” But Layan managed to speak up and say, “‘No I am his daughter, I am sorry, I was just sick and sleeping.’ He let us through.” It was a small miracle: Layan speaks poor Arabic — like all Yazidis, her native tongue is a Kurdish dialect.

Layan now has the name of one of her missing brothers tattooed on her left hand
Layan now has the name of one of her missing brothers tattooed on her left hand © Holly Pickett

Samir sent a relative to pay the smugglers who picked Layan and her cousin up at the Syrian border, got them into Turkey and helped them on to Iraqi Kurdistan. He sent a gift to the shepherd. “I sent him a Galaxy 4 mobile phone,” Samir smiles. “I don’t know him but he still messages us and calls sometimes. I feel he is a good man.”

Basma feels differently about Abu Laith. She became convinced that money was the main motive. But that didn’t diminish her gratitude to the group of Isis militants who swooped in to pick her and her children up from the side of the road the night he left her. “They hid me until the smugglers came to take me to Turkey and from there to Kurdistan,” she says. “I don’t know if they do it for money. Abu Laith paid $5,000 of the money to smugglers along the way . . . But I don’t know if these men got some of this.” The smugglers duly moved her to Turkey, where a relative picked her up and drove her to Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the weeks after her escape, Basma first felt conflicted about Abu Laith and what he meant to her until, to her surprise, she got a call from an unknown number. It was Abu Laith, who had called her relatives and obtained her Iraqi mobile number. “He said, ‘Basma! I miss your voice and your children, and I want to see how you are doing, if you are happy.’ I said, ‘There’s no need, brother, to ask me. You can’t ask how I am after you profited $15,000,’” she recalls. “When I see people here with their siblings and their husbands and their family, I know what happened to me. All my wounds bleed.” If he really cared for her, she said, he could help her find her siblings and husband. Abu Laith promised to do so if he lived through the next battle — Kurdish forces backed by the US-led international coalition were launching fresh offensives in Syria and Iraq.

Abu Laith never called again. Basma does not know if he survived the coalition offensives against Isis. But now she says her feelings about him are clear. “If he called me now and said, ‘Your siblings are here, come take them home,’ I couldn’t go. He’s not a man — he is a monster.”

Last November, Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces recaptured the Sinjar region. Overturned vehicles and old clothing lie scattered along Mount Sinjar like an accidental monument to those who were displaced or killed and the estimated 3,000 women and children still in Isis hands. But even though Isis has been forced out of Sinjar, neither Basma nor Layan want to return.

Layan and her father now live with the businessman her father works for in a small concrete room inside his four-car garage, from where a lift leads up to the gilded living room of a massive villa. Samir needs years to repay the loan, but he pays back what he can each month, little by little.

Layan and Basma both described feeling lost in the process of reapplying for lost identification cards and passports, which are needed to get asylum in Europe. “It should have felt like heaven to be free, but instead we were faced with all these government offices to visit, all this paperwork to fill out, and it all cost money we didn’t have,” Basma said, when we spoke last November. She needed national identity documents so she could apply for a passport. “Our papers are issued based on the nationality of the husband or parents. But in my case, they don’t exist anymore.”

After months of shuttling back and forth, borrowing money from relatives to take a bus from the refugee camp to government offices in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, she finally got help from a Yazidi businessman, who gave her money and the names of officials in Baghdad to bribe for new papers. She then made the hours-long bus journey down to the Iraqi capital.

“I drove right past Isis territory. I was scared but I’ve already lived through Isis, so what else is there? The important thing is to get out of this country because I don’t feel safe,” she said.

Initially, Layan hadn’t wanted to leave Iraq. When she went to an Iraqi Kurdish office set up to document Yazidi victims of Isis, she asked for advice on how to get psychological treatment. “At first they didn’t do anything, they just took my blood because they’re trying to match our DNA with the bodies they are finding in the mass graves,” she says. “I kept saying, ‘I need therapy.’ They told me there are a lot of organisations, someone would help.” Layan was finally offered psychotherapy by US humanitarian workers last winter. “It was useless, I hated it. They just took us away for 10 days and had us draw pictures about our feelings and asked lots of questions. I didn’t like it.”

She and her father decided last month they too would try to migrate to Europe. But they will wait first to find out the fate of her brothers and her mother. So far they have heard nothing.

Some day, Layan hopes to return to Syria to visit the shepherd who saved her life. “There’s a link between us now . . . I love this person,” she says. “One day, when Isis is gone, I will go back.”

For her part, Basma never wants to see Syria or Iraq again. She was recently approved for asylum, and on January 25 she told us that she was departing with her children for Germany. She will leave behind her mother at the refugee camp in Kurdistan and a sister still trapped in Isis-held Mosul, as Iraqi and international coalition forces discuss plans to attack the city. “It is too dangerous right now to try to get her out, and we haven’t been able to get the money to buy her back. The fighter holding her said he would wait to sell her until we can.”

Basma hopes that, one day, her sister and mother will follow her to Germany. She is not excited at all about the prospect of finding a new life in Europe, and she knows many hurdles in learning new languages and customs lie ahead. “The idea of it scares me. But I’m doing it anyway, for my children.”

All that remains for her in Sinjar, she says, is a half-torched village and memories of people she fears will never come home. “I have no house, no husband, no sister, no friends. What good is this world, being free of Isis, if you have no one left to share it with?”

The risks for rescuers

Amid the ongoing tragedy of the Yazidis’ enslavement, some popular heroes have emerged. Khalil al-Dakhi was just a small-time lawyer in his hometown of Sinjar before Isis took over. Now he is a local celebrity, one of several men who say they run underground networks to free Yazidis.

Dakhi developed his cell with the help of Sunni Muslim friends he made during his nine years working in Baghdad and Iraq’s second city of Mosul, now under Isis rule.

“One of these friends telephoned for me and found people for me to talk to. Most said they couldn’t help but they found people for me who would — and they did,” he said. “They formed networks, so we grew from 10 to 100 people and more. Some of them monitor, others gather information about what’s happening. Some are [Isis] fighters and they are really putting their lives at risk.”

So far, no one from his network has been caught, he said, but men operating in other cells have been captured. “One of them was stoned to death. The others would not confess, so they were kept in jail until they were finally killed. They spent two months in prison.”

Dakhi said his venture was not for profit, nor are the other networks he co-operates with. But there are basic costs to be met: “It costs about $2,500 per person, this is the highest. That includes renting cars, communication and bribes,” he said. “Our smugglers usually bribe their way through Isis checkpoints.”

By last autumn he had rescued more than 100 people, he told us. A partner who heads a separate network, nicknamed Abu Shujaa (“father of bravery”), is said to have freed between 200 and 300 people.

It is impossible to verify these numbers but even if they are accurate, it shows the majority of Yazidis still find other escape routes.

Most Yazidis we spoke to said that they were not reunited with their loved ones with the help of benevolent rescue cells but with cold, hard cash. Some women run away and meet up with smugglers, who charge their families tens of thousands of dollars. Many Isis captors will call families directly, demanding a ransom at similar rates.

At first, Yazidis told us, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which Dakhi co-operates with, was paying families about $3,000 per victim to help — a sum officials privately confirmed. But this was ultimately halted as funds ran low and criticism grew over indirectly financing Isis. It has left many impoverished Yazidi families scrounging for loans and donations to meet impossible sums.

All names have been changed to protect identities. Erika Solomon is the FT’s correspondent in Beirut

Photographs: Holly Pickett

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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