On the seventh anniversary of Islamic State’s genocide of the Yazidi people, about 2,800 women and girls enslaved by the terror group are still missing.
It is thought that many of those who survived may be trapped in the increasingly dangerous Al-Hawl detention camp in northeast Syria, imprisoned with their captors.
Rights groups say that, without international efforts to identify and free them, these women and girls, originally from the Sinjar area in Iraq, are at risk of being smuggled outside the Kurdish-run camp and sent to Islamic State – or Isis – cells in Syria and third countries like Turkey – after which, it may become impossible to find them.
Shejk Ziyad is head of the Yazidi Home Centre, a tiny operation whose volunteers have risked their lives to rescue 265 Yazidis from Al-Hawl. He believes that time is now running out, as Isis sympathisers within its perimeter have cottoned on to the presence of the centre’s infiltrators and are co-ordinating with the terror group’s networks on the outside to move them out.
Faced with death threats, Ziyad has fled to an undisclosed location outside Syria.
“Al-Hawl is like a giant spider’s web. Inside and outside, they have good and strong contacts with smuggling networks,” he told The Irish Times over the phone. “We are working all the time, but we are limited.”
The infiltrators, themselves former captives, voluntarily enter the camp disguised in burkas. These courageous Yazidi women, still grappling with the trauma of their own enslavement in places like Baghuz and Deir al-Zour, scour the camp of more than 60,000 detainees, many hardcore Isis supporters, for clues on remaining Yazidi captives, who are too terrified to reveal themselves.
Their work is the focus of a recent documentary called Sabaya (the term Isis uses to describe sex slaves). With all the camp’s detainees shrouded in black, missions require sustained periods of infiltration in the sprawling jungle of tents.
"Everyone is wearing these black clothes, everyone is hidden. Many times, men are still hiding behind the black clothes," says Hogir Hirori, the documentary's Kurdish director, speaking from Stockholm.
Jameel Chomer, director of the Iraq office of Yazda, a US-based Yazidi rights group, believes at least 200 of the community’s girls and women are trapped at Al-Hawl. His estimate is based on testimonies of survivors who have fled Isis.
“There are no serious efforts from the Iraqi and Syrian side or any other international body to look for those females,” he says.
The Yazidi Home Centre has done an incredible job with few resources, he says. But he believes international pressure is needed to conduct a large-scale assessment of the camp’s detainees under the protection of its Kurdish administrators, with safe passage across the border to Iraq guaranteed.
It would be a complex undertaking. Yazidis trapped inside Al-Hawl have endured “seven years of brainwashing”, says Chomer, with most afraid to identify themselves, especially if they have had children with Isis members.
“Even if they know you are Yazidi, they will not identify themselves,” he says. “The most important thing is to get them out of IS [Isis] territories and to rehabilitate and reintegrate them in normal life.”
Mishwan (32), from Tal Qasab, a village south of Sinjar, has been looking for his mother, sister and brother for seven years. He was in touch with his mother until May 2015, while she was being held in Tal Afar in Iraq. From reports given by friends who escaped after the fall of Baghuz in 2019, he is convinced that his mother and sister are in Al-Hawl – only 80km across the border, as the crow flies.
“The people in Al-Hawl, they are not in Iraq, so we can’t just go,” he says. “There should be a co-ordinated effort to get them out.”
The Yazidi people, whose faith has roots in Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam, have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries. Isis attacked their Mount Sinjar heartland in August 2014, murdering thousands and capturing more than 6,000, mainly women and children.
Figures vary, but Yazda estimates that about 2,800 are still unaccounted for. Many are still enslaved with Isis-affiliated families in Syria and Iraq or have been trafficked further afield.
Al-Hawl, which largely consists of women picked up after the fall of the caliphate at Baghuz in 2019, is a ticking time bomb. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 47 murders since the beginning of this year.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that single-handedly administer Al-Hawl, have conducted security operations to eliminate Isis sleeper cells thriving within its perimeter, netting a high-ranking Isis operative in April.
“Daesh [Islamic State] is still here,” says Ziyad. “I need to get these women and girls out. They are my people.”
Hogir Hirori gained intimate access to the work of the Yazidi Home Centre in his recently released documentary, Sabaya (sex slave). The centre’s work, led by Shejk Ziyad and his sidekick Mahmud, relies on intelligence gathered by former Yazidi captives, who voluntary spend extended periods inside Al-Hawl camp to identify Yazidi women and girls.
These brave women, who have experienced captivity elsewhere, will never have set foot in Al-Hawl before. We see them being driven to the camp. One speaks of how she was sold to 15 men. Her first captor, a Swede, hit her so hard, he left her with a hole in her head, she says. Another one, from Sweden, destroyed her teeth.
The documentary highlights the extreme danger of the centre’s work. In one terrifying scene, Hirori films the rescue of a Yazidi girl called Leila, which ends with a high-speed car chase in the pitch-black roads outside Al-Hawl, their pursuers honking furiously at them, firing at them when they don’t stop. He believes it may have been Isis members from the area, tipped off by the women in the camp.
Leila’s release is no celebration. Later, we see her crying in a field.
“I hate this world. Everything is black. Five years in captivity and now I’m here all alone. I had a mother, a father, brothers and sisters,” she says. “Soon you will hear I committed suicide.”
A sense of menace hangs over the entire documentary. Isis militants are setting fire to the crops near the centre. There’s a rumour they might blast the entrance to Al-Hawl. A female commander shows pictures of a man stabbed 16 times in the stomach and 14 times in the throat.
“The greatest danger is when things are calm,” she says.
* Sabaya is showing at the Irish Film Institute until August 26th.