Islamic State Threatened This Family—Convert or Die
The terror group freed 196 Yezidis after months in captivity
On Jan. 18, Islamic State freed 196 Yezidi captives, mostly children and the elderly. They spent months as prisoners in jihadi-controlled territory in Iraq.
The terror group released the captives at the Maktab Khalid gate—an unofficial checkpoint connecting the Islamic State-controlled town of Hawija to the Peshmerga-controlled city of Kirkuk.
Seventy-year-old Murad Ali and his wife, Gole Rasol, their son Saeed Ali and his wife, Najat, were among the released Yezidis. They are now recovering at the Yezidi Temple in Lalish.
During an interview with the family, we learned about what they experienced during nearly six months in captivity.
Their ordeal began on Aug. 3 as Islamic State militants swept into the predominantly Yezidi town of Sinjar. Thousands of civilians fled from the town in northwest Iraq to a nearby mountain.
Murad, Gole, Saeed and Najat fled as well. But Gole’s poor health—she is nearly paralyzed—slowed their escape. As they tried to care for her in the nearby village of Hamaden, Islamic State fighters discovered and kidnapped the family.
The militants placed them and other captive Yezidis in rows, according to Murad. The fighters held up rifles and blades. They threatened, convert to Islam or die.
“We said that we will be Muslims to save our lives,” Murad said.
One Islamist fighter called his commander, and said the detainees agreed to convert to Islam—and then asked whether he should kill the Yezidis. The militant’s boss ordered him to spare the families’ lives, but film their conversion.
After a few days, Islamic State gunmen took the prisoners to the nearby town of Tal Afar, although the Yezidis resisted and asked to stay. The fighters refused, and held them in a hall with 3,000 other captives.
During my interview with the family, Murad’s sister called from Germany. We could hear her speaking through the phone—she was crying and happy to hear her brother’s voice. While Murad talked, Gole was overcome with emotion, and tried to take the phone from her husband’s hands.
After their time in Tal Afar, Islamic State moved the family to Mosul—the largest city under the group’s control. When they arrived, fighters took women and girls—some as young as eight years old—to sell them as slaves to other jihadists, according to Saeed.
He also said that Islamic State prohibited mobile phones, and that whenever the fighters saw anyone holding a phone, they killed them. But in some ways, Mosul was an improvement.
“When we were in Mosul, the food was very good, but in Tal Afar it was bad,” Murad said. “Sometimes they would give us one egg after two days, but we always received our medicines.”
“They didn’t use violence with us, but they forced us to pray,” he added. “We had to follow their orders, although we didn’t know how to pray or what to say, but we were doing what they did in their prayers.”
In a Friday sermon in a Mosul mosque, Islamic State leaders preached about jihad, and said that people from Tunisia, Algeria and Europe were all coming there to become martyrs in order to go to the heaven.
“They were telling us that we will go to the heaven because we converted to Islam, and our wishes will come true if we pray,” Saeed said. “We were not feeling comfortable and couldn’t sleep enough.”
After a month in the city, the militants once again took the family back to Tal Afar.
As I spoke to the family, another woman inside the Temple talked loudly to herself. Saeed remembered this woman from Tal Afar, when the militants first transferred them after their capture.
The woman did not have any psychological issues at that time, he said, but was now suffering from madness.
“To us as Yezidi, those who have been abused and forced to convert from their religion, they have our respect,” said Babe Chawish, a Yezidi clergymen at the Lalish Temple. “We appreciate them because they had been forced, and violence had been used against them.”
Chawish said the returnees came to the Temple after their release to clean their souls, and for a safe place to stay. But their experiences during the last six months have left them psychologically scarred.
He said that about four of the freed Yezidis suffer from extreme trauma and hysteria. Twenty others have post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We ask the international organizations, especially those who work on psychology, to come and help us so they can start over their normal lives again,” Chawish said.
Two men came to talk to the family during the interview. One of the men described his sister, and asked if anyone had seen her.
Ali Joqi, a Yezidi activist, said that around 100 people came that day to find their missing relatives. The day before, twice as many people came looking.
In November 2014, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government said they paid a $1.5-million ransom to Islamic State in exchange for 234 Yezidi hostages. But this latest release has puzzled officials.
“For the last 196 [detainees] we hadn’t coordinated that through any channels, and we don’t know why ISIS released them,” Nuri Shingali, the KRG’s special coordinator for Yezidi refugees told War Is Boring.
Khidher Domle, a Yezidi refugee coordinator, has a theory. “ISIS released them by themselves without contribution from anyone, maybe because they were all elderly and couldn’t afford to pay the cost of their food and medicine,” he said.
“On Jan. 16, 2015, one of [the] ISIS leaders entered the hall, the other fighters ran to kiss his clothes as appreciation and respect,” Saeed said. “This leader told us that [Islamic State leader] Khalifa Abu Bakr Baghdadi had decided to release us and will let you go tomorrow.”
The next day, the fighters drove the Yezidis by truck, and dropped them off at the Peshmerga checkpoint.
“At the ISIS checkpoint,” Saeed recalled, “One ISIS fighter said to us ‘we will see your faces in the media, and you will talk about us badly.’”