Abdullah spends his nights facilitating the escape of Yazidis captured when Islamic State militants overran their villages.
A former merchant and honey-making enthusiast from the village of Tal Qasab, he says he became a “smuggler” out of necessity: Islamic State (IS) jihadists captured 56 of his Yazidi relatives in the bloody summer of 2014.
Since last October, he has helped rescue 117 members of the religious minority, including 11 family members.
“Today, my only hobby is IS,” jokes Abdullah, who declined to give his last name. He fields late night phone calls from a frightened smuggler who ran into trouble with IS and from anxious Yazidi families hoping to organize the escape of a loved one.
It is a dangerous line of work.
IS has increasingly targeted and killed smugglers involved in saving Yazidis, a secretive religious minority with pre-Islamic roots whom the militants regard as devil-worshippers. It was their genocidal campaign against the Yazidis’ homeland of Mount Sinjar last August that shocked the world into action. President Obama cited their plight in announcing the launch of US airstrikes against IS.
The fate of hundreds of men taken captive last year by IS remains largely unknown – batches were taken aside and killed days after their capture. Others who had been held along with their families for months were suddenly taken away in May, survivors say.
Today most of the rescue operations focus on women and children living in the IS-held territories of Syria and Iraq. It is a complex task requiring individuals willing to perform a range of functions, from providing an escape vehicle to arranging safe houses and facilitating illegal border crossings.
“Sometimes it takes six smugglers to get someone out of IS territory, sometimes just one,” Abdullah says. “The more dangerous the mission, the higher the price. If I have exact information, then I can bring them out from anywhere.”
Before the IS attack on Sinjar, he used to transport agricultural machinery across Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. That experience gave him a broad range of contacts – including merchants, truckers, and small-time smugglers – whom he first called on to rescue his niece Marwa and nephew Farhad.
Deadly IS ambushes
Abdullah is now part of a network of five Yazidi rescue facilitators based out of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Most people here call them “smugglers” – and the men don't object – but the women whom they have rescued simply call them “saviors.”
Four members of the network focus on bringing women out of Syria, where Yazidi women are scattered far and wide. The fifth focuses on rescues in Iraq.
“So many people call asking for help,” says Abdullah, a middle-aged man with a crown of silver hair and golden glasses. “If there were 50 Europeans held by IS, the world would mobilize every intelligence network to save them. We are just five people yet we are able to pull this off without any help.”
IS has caught onto some of the smugglers' tactics and have begun staging ambushes, using Yazidi women and children as bait.
Nine out of 21 members in the Syrian network, a mix of Kurds and Arabs, have lost their lives on the job. Two others pulled out. Yet another went into hiding in late September when IS militants discovered his name after torturing and killing his associate, a driver that helped shuttle Yazidi women from the Syrian town of Al-Bab to the border with Turkey.
Raqqa out of reach
Escapes are fraught with risk. The militants confiscate captives' phones and generally limit their movements. Women often have to physically break out of the homes were they are held, seizing the moment when their IS captors are deployed to the front or are at a mosque for prayers.
It has become next to impossible to rescue women from Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, ever since IS decided to kick Kurds out of the area and restrict Internet access to a small number of well-monitored hubs.
Complicating matters further, Turkey has tightened border crossings in a bid to restrict the flow of foreign jihadists and Kurdish fighters into Syria.
“We are forced to smuggle families out of IS areas to Turkey because that is the easiest, but many have been turned back at the Turkish border,” explains Abdullah. He cites the case of a Yazidi woman who couldn’t cross into Turkey from the border area of Al-Raee.
“There wasn’t a single time that it went smoothly. It takes a minimum of three attempts, and for some people up to 10 attempts."
Smuggling requires daring, and cash
Khalil Haji, a Yazidi lawyer who now focuses on saving IS captives held in Iraqi territory, has lost five of his friends on the job. “The hardest thing is when an operation fails,” he says, sitting in a café with Hassan and Yar, two Yazidi boys that he helped rescue and now treats to ice cream. “But when you rescue a family and they reunite with their loved ones, anyone who witnesses that moment will want to do this job.”
Those who want to become a smuggler in what has become a vast network involving more than 100 individuals – among them Kurds and Arabs who hate IS and are willing to take enormous risks to make a profit – must prove their mettle by helping a Yazidi flee without any leads or help from the coordinating core in Dohuk.
The average cost of a rescue operation within Iraq, Khalil says, is $500. That money covers transportation, fuel, safe houses, Islamic garments and fake identity cards for the women.
But in Syria, the costs can ran far higher depending on the complexity of the job. Both Khalil and Abdullah say they don’t make a profit from the rescues, insisting that they pay their only cost – phone and Internet bills – out of pocket. They work informally with a regional government office in Duhok that helps families pay for the rescues. Iraqi Kurdish officials say they have financed the rescues of more than 2100 Yazidis and that another 3,000 still need to be saved.
The voice of liberation
Not everyone gets financial help. Anifa, a Yazidi woman who fled IS and subsequently helped organize the escape of two of her sisters, says she spent $10,500 to cover their rescue operations. They are trying to raise another $30,000 to save the last captive sister who is “deep inside Syria."
Maiko, a Yazidi woman in her twenties from the town of Tel Azer, will never forget the first time she heard Abdullah’s voice. A Syrian smuggler bought her from an IS militant in July. Once they reached a safe house in northern Syria, he revealed his identity, playing an audio message from Abdullah. “To all my Yazidi mothers and sisters, if you meet a man carrying this voice message, he will save you,” the recording said.
Hearing the Yazidi dialect made her cry from joy. At that moment, after months suffering as the sex-slave of a Saudi jihadist known as Abu Sulieman, she knew everything was going to be OK.
“I thought I was going to die in Syria,” she recalls, sitting in a dusty tent at a camp for displaced Yazidis on the outskirts of Dohuk. “I never thought I would make it back alive. These men are not smugglers, they are saviors.”