In 'Escaping ISIS,' An Underground Railroad Forms To Save Yazidi Women A new Frontline documentary explores what life is like for the girls and women who have been enslaved by Islamic State militants, and also tells the story of those fighting to free them.

In 'Escaping ISIS,' An Underground Railroad Forms To Save Yazidi Women

In 'Escaping ISIS,' An Underground Railroad Forms To Save Yazidi Women

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A new Frontline documentary explores what life is like for the girls and women who have been enslaved by Islamic State militants, and also tells the story of those fighting to free them.


Until a year ago, few had heard of the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. But with the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the plight of this isolated ethnic group has become headline news. The Yazidi practice their own ancient form of religion rather than Islam, and that's made them a prime target of ISIS militants. Yazidi men have been slaughtered, and thousands of women and children have been carried away from mountain towns as slaves of war. That's the subject of a new PBS "Frontline" documentary. Directed by Edward Watts, the film uncovers the existence of what was long believed to be only a rumor - an underground railroad for Yazidi slaves.

Welcome to the program.

EDWARD WATTS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Your story is the story, really, in a sense, of one man on a mission. He's a Yazidi man who's taken it upon himself to free these Yazidi women and girls. Tell us about him.

WATTS: So Khalil al-Dakhi is one of a very small group of activists. There are about six or seven of these guys who are trying to rescue the captured Yazidi women and children. Prior to the war, he'd just been a small-town lawyer dealing with marriages, divorces, deaths - those kind of things. But in the aftermath of this cataclysm that hit their community, he began to gather testimony, firstly of people who had suffered from the simple military attack. And then as some of the women and children managed to escape from the clutches of ISIS, he began to gather the testimony of what they'd been through in the hope, I think, that there would eventually be possibly even a war crimes trial. And what he realized looking at this testimony was that the women were coming back with extraordinarily detailed information about the disposition of the Islamic State - so where there were checkpoints, where there were sort of fortified headquarters and, most importantly for him, where the Yazidi hostages were being held. That, in a sense, could provide a blueprint for a way in which he could rescue people from inside.

MONTAGNE: Well, one of the elements of this system is, kind of amazingly, some of these women managed to hide cell phones and call out. Let's play a clip of the film where you hear one of those voicemails that he would've been hearing.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MONTAGNE: What is that? What's going on there?

WATTS: This was a rather unusual case in that an ISIS fighter himself had called up the rescue team and said, well, you can buy these women and children off me, if you'd like. And in order to put the pressure on, in this case, he played a clip of this woman who is in his grasp to essentially - you know, you can hear the desperation in her voice. She was just desperately trying to appeal to the people to do whatever it would take to save her from that situation.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get to that a little bit, briefly - ransom. Now, right off, Khalil claims he does not pay ransoms, but clearly some money is flowing in these situations.

WATTS: Yeah, I mean the majority of the money is going to the people who are actually involved in doing the rescues. So some people, I was told, they're doing it for free because of simple humanitarian reasons. Others are doing it because of poverty. There was one case they told me about a shepherd who was instrumental in guiding certain families through remote areas. And he literally just needed a few hundred dollars to feed his family, and that's why he was doing it. So there is money flowing around, but they are really adamant that they don't pay ISIS directly because they hate ISIS. And whenever I ask them this question, as I did repeatedly - I mean, ISIS set traps for them. There was actually just a case just a few weeks ago of two of Khalil's guys. ISIS set an ambush for them. And what they did was a similar phone call to the one you just heard. They got a girl to call the rescue network saying her captor was away at the frontline and therefore, she was, in a sense, in a position to be rescued. They sent two of their guys in. ISIS were waiting for them, captured them and executed them.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is much in this about what is happening, even as we speak, to women who have not been rescued. But amazingly, one of the harder things to watch is a little video that Khalil shows you...

WATTS: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...About the ISIS fighters making crude jokes and laughing about buying and selling what they call sabia. That is slaves captured in war, sex slaves.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WATTS: Yeah - no, I mean this - that is an extraordinary clip. And actually a girl who had escaped had stolen the phone, and so the world was able to see this quite intimate scene amongst ISIS fighters. Unlike most of their output, this was not intended for public consumption. I think it just really gives you an idea of the callous brutality with which they were treating these very young and fragile and vulnerable women and girls because for them, they were slaves, and slaves could be bought and sold and treated entirely as they pleased.

MONTAGNE: Well, some of it is actually too sensitive for us to even talk about this morning on the air.

WATTS: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But let's play just a few moments of Amal just to hear her voice. She's 18 and sadly telling a story that seems to be universal.


AMAL: (Foreign language spoken).

WATTS: Yeah. I mean, what you're hearing there is the beginning of this most horrendous tale of sexual violence that I've ever heard.

She was initially placed under custody of a single ISIS commander who had six bodyguards. And not wanting to get into too much graphic detail for your listeners, but gradually through the course of her captivity with him, she was subjected to attacks by all of those men at different times and sometimes simultaneously, and then she was passed on to other fighters. And another little girl was bought and sold, and I'd asked her whether this was the case with her. And she said, no, I was just rented. The Yazidi culture is highly, highly conservative - no discussion of sex or anything of that nature. And these women - girls have been ripped out of that environment and subjected to this sexual violence.

MONTAGNE: And, though, you show the ends of rescues. It's pretty extraordinary footage. Families obviously want them back.

WATTS: This is a big thing, I mean, because in Yazidi society, it used to be so conservative. And we're only talking about a few years ago. If a single Yazidi woman ran off with a Muslim man, you know, she could be liable to an honor killing. But now so many of their community have been abducted and subjected to this sexual violence that, as a society really, they're having to massively sea change their whole conservative nature. And their religious leaders have actually been at the forefront of this from very early on in the process saying we have to welcome our girls back. We need to do whatever it takes to reintegrate them and make them feel at home once again in our community. And I think that certainly that what I saw was that the community were very much responding to those calls.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

WATTS: Good to talk to you, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Edward Watts directed the documentary "Escaping ISIS". It premieres tonight on PBS's "Frontline."

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