The heroes who risk their lives every day to rescue kidnapped women from Islamic State
Thanks to their work, hundreds of women and girls have been saved. But three men who helped the women of Sinjar have been captured and killed by Isil.
During the siege of Mount Sinjar last August, thousands of men were brutally murdered over a matter of weeks. But amid the slaughter, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) terrorists chose a different fate for the women of the town. Women from every house were taken hostage, with Isil fighters grabbing thousands of young girls and elderly grandmothers in the largest single kidnapping of women this century.
After the attack, those who survived faced the seemingly impossible task of trying to rescue their women from Isil territory. No government has offered to infiltrate Isil and help free the women, and so it’s left to the Sinjar citizens to get their sisters, daughters, and mothers back.
One man, a lawyer named Khaleel al-Dakhi, is at the forefront of this improvised rescue mission. So far, his network has saved 530 women and children from the hands of Isil.
Today, Khaleel says that Isil is no longer the impenetrable force it once was, and a myriad informants from inside the terrorists’ territory leak information on the power structure and its daily operations. But after the Sinjar siege, there was no information on where the girls might be imprisoned or even whether they were still alive.
Plotting an escape route
Khaleel’s work began in September last year, when he started compiling details of all the women and children who had been kidnapped by Isil. After talking to every family from Sinjar, he had a list of more than 3,000 names. But the next stage – a rescue attempt – was far more difficult.
Isil has claimed the Syrian city Raqqa as their capital, but the terrorists’ territory is larger than Great Britain, spreading throughout Iraq and dividing Sinjar, which is home to the minority Yazidi community. The Isil border runs through Sinjar City, and the terrorist group controls 70 per cent of the city, the land to the south of the mountain and large areas to the west and east. The Sinjar women could have been taken anywhere within the Isil-controlled land.
“At the beginning, it was so difficult to rescue them,” says Khaleel. In fact, the very first girls who escaped Isil territory managed to do so without any outside help. “At the time, Isil was more focused on their weapons and weren't paying as much attention to the girls, which is why they managed to escape without anyone helping them,” says Khaleel. “Also, the borders between Isil and Sinjar were not as strong as they are now.”
The girls who escaped without assistance were able to describe the Isil territory to Khaleel, which helped him carry out his first rescue mission of five young girls. Women kidnapped by Isil are often sold as slaves and live in the houses of their captors, and so Khaleel needs the details of their living situation before he can plan an escape.
Khaleel does not work alone. Instead, he constantly talks to a network of men who are trying to gather information, including allies living inside the Isil area. They smuggle phones inside Isil, so Khaleel can talk to the girls about where they're living and how many guards are present. Khaleel has more than 100 contacts inside Isil territory, and these men face incredible risks as they smuggle the women away from their captors and to a safe house inside Isil territory. They make false Isil ID cards and hide for up to 10 days, until the frontline fighting has died down and the coast is clear. Then Khaleel's contacts guide the women on foot across the Isil territory and towards Sinjar, sometimes walking for two days and nights without a break. Thanks to their work, hundreds of women and girls have been saved. But three men who helped the women of Sinjar have been captured and killed by Isil.
If Khaleel were captured by Isil, he would undoubtedly meet the same fate. “Of course my life is in danger, but I have to rescue our girls and our women," he says. "I am never afraid, because I’m not better than all my people who were killed by Isil. But I try to protect myself because there many of my people in Isil jails waiting for me to rescue them. When I rescue one person from Isil, I feel that I've had one victory against the terrorists.”
Where nine-year-old girls are sold as 'wives'
The vast majority of women, including young children, are raped by Isil terrorists. Official Isil documents claim that it’s acceptable to marry nine-year-old girls, and so children are sold as wives to strangers. Khaleel interviews every woman who is successfully rescued, and is documenting the horrors of life under Isil.
"They beat the women, they gang rape them, they make them have forced marriage with many men. Some women have their infant babies taken away by force,” says Khaleel. “They take them to a slave market and give women to each other like a gift.”
If the women try to resist, then they are put in a single jail cell or out in the sun for long periods of time, or else they are simply killed. Khaleel knows one nine-year-old girl who was brutally raped by a middle-aged Isil fighter, who tore her vagina. She was then made to have Genital Mutilation surgery, after which the terrorist tried to rape her again.
Isil claim to be devoutly religious, but believes there's no sin in raping children - especially Yazidi children, who Isil sees as "unbelievers". Khaleel stays in touch with the women after they escape from the terrorists, making sure they get gynaecological and psychological treatment. He visits each woman several times a month and tries to help them live a normal life.
"Any British women who plan to leave the UK and voluntarily join Isil should talk to the escaped women of Sinjar about life under the terrorists’ rule," says Khaleel. “Maybe they don’t believe me, they don’t believe you, they don’t believe the government,” says Khaleel. “But if they come into our area and talk to our girls, then they will believe.”
The women suffer tremendous psychological distress, and the trauma does not fade easily. Isil is one of the world’s most brutal regimes for women, and even those who live there by choice face constant oppression. Women can’t leave their house without a close male relative and must wear three veils over their face. They will be lashed if their eyeballs are visible, and stoned to death if they’re accused of adultery.
But Khaleel says he’s started to see cracks in the Isil regime. “There are many spies inside the Isil area who are giving us information and many friends over there helping to bring the women and girls over to us,” says Khaleel. “Isil aren’t becoming more dangerous, they’re becoming weak.”
Khaleel thinks that Isil will be driven from Iraq within a year, though his work is dependent on such hope. There are still 2,500 Sinjar women held captive in Isil territory, each praying for a guide who will help them escape. If Isil aren’t defeated, then Khaleel will need to carry out hundreds more rescue missions before the women of Sinjar are home again.
Channel 4's powerful documentary 'Escape from Isis' told the extraordinary story of how Khaleel and his network are saving women and children, and the Twitter reaction last night was dumbfounded.
Christ, that was an incredible piece of television #EscapeFromISIS— Dermot O'Leary (@radioleary) July 15, 2015
The Dispatches episode 'Escape from Isis' aired last night on Channel 4. It is available on Channel 4's website.