The world allowed this genocide to take place. Thousands of yazidis still held as slaves.
When the young Yazidi saw his sister for sale online, he barely recognised her. It had been 28 months since Dakhil last saw Hala and, though she was only 20, the face staring back at him from his phone had been robbed of its youth.
“She was wearing black jeans and a blue T-shirt, but she looked so different, so old,” he recalled, scrolling through a list of young women featured in a secure members group on a social app used by fighters in Islamic State — also known as Daesh and ISIS — to trade Yazidi slave girls.
Some seemed barely teenagers, facing the camera with tense, frightened smiles, wearing garish make-up and short skirts. Many were accompanied by an audio message in which a male voice gave their profile: age, figure, abilities — and a price tag.
“It was January. Her Daesh owner had just been killed and she was up for sale again,” he said. “By the time I realised it was my sister, it was too late. She had been sold to a new owner for $US14,000 ($18,159).”
Dakhil had been searching for Hala, and for his wife and another sister, since they were captured by Islamic State in August 2014. “So this is how I know Hala’s fate,” he told me as we sat in a cafe in Dohuk, northern Iraq, discussing his enslaved family — even as the battles to liberate Mosul, Hawija and Tal Afar from Islamic State raged on. “She’s not the only one I am trying to get back.”
He looked out of the window as he recounted the fate of his other family members, among more than 3000 missing Yazidis enslaved by Islamic State. He said he had organised the rescue of one, an older sister named Seve, but only after she had spent more than 18 months in an underground prison.
Dakhil’s father and two of his brothers are also missing and have not been heard of since they were abducted from the family’s village at the base of Sinjar mountain. Two other brothers are, it is believed, being held as forced labourers near Tal Afar, although nothing has been heard of them for months. Hala is being held in the town of Hawija.
He last heard her voice when she sent him a brief message last year. “Send someone to rescue us soon or these airstrikes and this fighting will kill us all,” she begged.
Secure members’ groups on sites such as “Souk al-Sobaya” are the favoured means of auctioning slave women.
The fate of Dakhil’s wife, Bushra, whom he married barely two months before she was captured by Islamic State, gave him even greater pain: she had been sold off and married to an elderly Islamic State emir, a Turkman from Tal Afar — who now phones Dakhil regularly to taunt him.
“He calls to humiliate me and tell me my wife is now his own, and that he wouldn’t sell her freedom for any price,” said Dakhil. “But I still believe that one day I can get her back, that we can go together to the holy waters of the Zamzam spring, wash our faces, be purified together and be husband and wife as once before.”
The plight of Iraq’s Yazidis was brought to the world’s attention on August 3, 2014, when Islamic State overran their settlements around Sinjar mountain. The Yazidis, whose faith is an amalgamation of Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic beliefs, were denounced as “devil worshippers” and a “pagan minority” by Islamic State. Up to 3400 Yazidi women and children are still being held as Islamic State prisoners, it is believed.
Despite the scale of the Islamic State purge, the UN security council has yet to authorise a formal genocide investigation.
Gelawesh Jaffar Mohammed, a psychotherapist treating several traumatised former sex slaves in the general hospital in Dohuk, said her youngest patient was nine years old. Another aid worker told of a 15-year-old Yazidi girl who had been gang-raped and shared among 15 Islamic State fighters.
Despite the vast amounts of money being ploughed into the military mission against Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria, the efforts to rescue Yazidi slaves are being funded by the hopelessly under-resourced Kurdish authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its Office of Affairs for the Kidnapped, based in Dohuk, finances missions to rescue the captives, liaising with local operators who try to track them down using smugglers or by paying ransoms.
Dakhil’s one success in attempting to rescue his enslaved family came five months ago, when Seve, 36, was released from captivity in Raqqa after the payment of $US5000 to an Islamic State broker. She had spent more than 18 months in an underground prison with 53 Yazidi females and 150 children, and had survived largely due to her own wits and the chance offer of marriage by a virtual stranger. In the confused early days of her captivity, before Islamic State began separating Yazidi families, a young man named Khidir, an impoverished fruit seller seven years her junior whom she barely knew, offered to become her husband in the hope she would not be sold as a sex slave.
“I was 34 years old, so I was not among the first to be sold to ISIS fighters,” Seve said. “Khidir and I converted to Islam to stay alive, said we were married, and were held together for months as labourers in a village outside Tal Afar.”
Seve became pregnant and by the time the couple was finally separated and she was sold on to a Syrian emir in Raqqa, the pregnancy was too advanced for her to be sold as a sex slave. Instead, she was put in a subterranean prison with scores of other captives, kettled as cargo for ransom.
Over the next year she saw sunlight twice: on the day in July 2015 when she went into labour, and was taken out for three hours to give birth to her son, Jan Khidir, in the main hospital in Raqqa; and again when an airstrike destroyed the installation on December 6, 2015, forcing their captors to move them to another underground detention centre in the city.
Dakhil, working with a rescue group based in Dohuk, tracked Seve down using an Islamic State ransom forum on a secure messaging app. The rescue group paid $US5000 a head for the release of 47 Yazidi women and children last October. They were driven to a point in no-man’s land in Syria, where they were collected by Kurdish YPG fighters and driven to safety in Iraq.
“Until that day my baby boy had only seen sunlight on the day he was born and the day that airstrike broke the prison roof,” Seve said. “I didn’t even know we were being rescued until we stopped, the Daesh disappeared, and a fighter got into the bus smoking a cigarette. I said ‘That’s forbidden’ and he replied: ‘You can forget about all that now — you have been rescued.’ ”
Seve’s rescue brought a slither of joy to the broken family, but too many members remain missing for their happiness to find foundation. As she sat in the cafe with her brother, cradling her infant son in her arms, the siblings pondered how to get the rest of their enslaved family back. Among the disappeared is Khidir, the young fruit seller whose plan for a marriage of survival ensured Seve’s eventual release.
“I never heard of him from the moment we were separated in April 2015,” she said quietly. “I can’t say that I ever knew him well, only that he was a good man with a sudden plan we took through desperation. If I hadn’t taken that chance and become a pregnant wife, my fate would have been as terrible as that of our missing sister and Dakhil’s wife. For that I shall be forever grateful.”