Escape from ISIS Difficult but Possible

Kurdish fighters on the western front along Highway 47, on the outskirts of Sinjar. Image by Moises Saman/Magnum Photos. Iraq, 2015.

Over the past year, a number of imprisoned Yazidis in Syria and Northern Iraq have succeeded in escaping ISIS captivity and arriving safely to Iraqi Kurdistan. A web of safe houses in ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq function as a kind of underground railroad for Yazidi runaways. The families who live in these houses are Sunni. This November, when I met with one of the chief coordinators of the network, a Yazidi professor from the city of Dohuk, I asked him how he made contact with Yazidis who wanted to escape, and what happened next.

"It depends," he said. "This week, for example, I received a call from a man whose wife and three children are in Raqqa. He gave me their information. I gave it to a friend in Syria. That friend gave it to other friends. One of those friends went and checked. Now, they are working. They will take them out today or tomorrow."

A lucrative for-profit smuggling industry has also evolved. Payments are made via the hawala system, a cash-transfer method that relies on relationships between brokers rather than electronic wires. The smugglers themselves are all ISIS members. One Yazidi man I met this April, whose daughter was also in Raqqa, serving as a sex slave for an ISIS fighter, told me that he knew a smuggler in the city who could easily get her out. The problem was the price. The smuggler wanted $7,000, which far exceeded what the man could afford. When I asked how he knew the smuggler, the man said he was a friend.

"A friend?" I asked.

"If I opened his chest and drank all his blood, it wouldn't quench my hatred for him," the man clarified. "But I have to deal with him, if I want to save my daughter."