Nearly a year has passed since Islamic State fighters pushed their way through northern Iraq, massacring thousands of the local Yazidis, and forcing tens of thousands more to flee into the mountains.
A rescue operation led by Kurdish troops eventually cleared a path for many to escape, but not before some 3,000 women and girls had been kidnapped by IS fighters, and spirited away to the Islamic extremists’ heartlands. There, according to the UN, they have been sold into slavery and forced to marry militants, with girls as young as 11 subjected to brutal sexual assaults.
But one man – a modern- day Oscar Schindler – has been leading a covert campaign to rescue the women, sending emissaries to extract them from Islamic State-controlled areas under cover of darkness, many from the militants’ stronghold of Raqqa. Khaleel al-Dakhi, a Yazidi lawyer who himself fled the IS advance, says he and his small group have so far managed to free 522 women and girls.
The Yazidi are regarded as infidels and devil-worshippers by the Islamists, as their esoteric religion involves worshipping a Peacock Angel, whose banishment to hell and subsequent reinstatement has echoes of the biblical tale of Lucifer. As a result IS has designated the captured women as “spoils of war”, and human rights organisations have documented their “systematic rape”.
“The conditions over there are appalling,” says Al-Dakhi (above), speaking to RT via Skype from Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “They treat our women and girls as goods that can be traded. They give them to each other as gifts, and they can be raped by as many as nine or ten fighters. They are not allowed to treat Muslim girls like this, but their clerics tell them they can treat Yazidi women like slaves.”
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Women in the area of northern Iraq and Syria under the control of IS face a brutal daily life, in which they are required to have their faces hidden by double veils, and don black gloves and figure-obscuring robes. While there is often nothing physically restraining the captured women from escape, they are held miles into IS territory, and face brutal punishment if caught.
Al-Dakhi says he arranges rescue missions after being alerted by family members still in covert contact with the missing girls. He says: “If the women manage to call their families, they will bring their phone number to me. I will keep in contact with them, and work out where they are. I have some Arab friends who are living in the IS areas, and we arrange for them to meet the girls at a particular time and location. They usually wait until the IS fighters are asleep, and then try to escape.
“We give our contacts a secret password, like the girl’s mother’s name, and when they give that word to the girl, they know they can trust them. After we get them, we have a number of safe houses within the IS areas. We move the women from house to house. If there is no fighting going on, we transport them to a safe area, but if there is a battle on, they hide in the safe houses until it subsides.”
Members of Al-Dakhi’s group face incredible risks when trying to extract the women, and he says one friend was killed four days before we speak, in a botched rescue attempt. But despite the danger, Al-Dakhi says nothing will deter him. “I will keep doing this for ever,” he says. “Until I release all the Yazidi women and girls.”
Escape from Isis is on Channel 4 tonight (Wednesday 15th July) at 10.00pm