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The Fight To Save Yazidis Captured By ISIS


When ISIS took over parts of Iraq three years ago, the group killed or captured some 6,000 Yazidis, members of an ancient religious minority. Saving them from genocide was part of the reason the U.S. entered the war there. ISIS holds very little territory now, but almost 3,000 Yazidis are still missing. NPR's Jane Arraf spoke to a man who's trying to find and rescue them.


ABDULLAH SHRIM: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Abdullah Shrim's phone rings a lot. Most of the calls and messages are from other Yazidis asking for help to find their relatives. Some are from people threatening to kill him. At his home in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Shrim tells us how he went from being a businessman and a beekeeper to rescuing people held captive by ISIS. Three years ago, ISIS kidnapped 56 of his own relatives. One of the young women managed to call him from Syria to ask for help. Shrim knew Syria. He lived and worked there. But he didn't know how he was going to save his relatives.

SHRIM: (Through interpreter) I did not think for a moment that I could become involved in a rescue to save anyone. I called my friends in Aleppo and asked them what should I do to rescue them.

ARRAF: His friends advised him to get the help of cigarette smugglers. Cigarettes were banned in ISIS territory, and smugglers risked their lives to sell them. He started a network working with Syrian Kurds until the border was closed. Now that ISIS has been driven out of most of Syria and Iraq, he says he can talk about how they managed to rescue 300 people from Syria, a lot of them women being held as sex slaves and their children.

SHRIM: (Through interpreter) We had informers and people inside who helped with the rescue mission using a bakery as a cover. They were distributing bread to houses and at the same time seeing if they had women and children inside.

ARRAF: They sent women door to door selling chocolate or clothing so they could get inside the houses and see the captive women and children. After that, they would come up with a plan to lead the women to safety. Those released would draw maps and give them details of other captives. Shrim says six men and a woman working with his network were killed in Syria when they were caught by ISIS.

SHRIM: (Through interpreter) I felt the saddest about the woman. She was fearless, the toughest fighter I had. She was killed after we sent her to rescue a girl we were talking to on the phone, but the girl was being watched by ISIS.

ARRAF: Shrim says three times ISIS sent him threatening messages with photos showing they'd been tracking him. "My life isn't worth as much as the tear of a 12-year-old girl who's been raped," he tells me.

SHRIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Shrim shows me a video using sign language that was used to communicate with sisters who were deaf and mute to let them know they could trust the person contacting them. The money for the rescue operations comes mostly from Kurdistan, Europe and the United States. Shrim says less than 2 percent might go to ISIS as bribes or to buy women's freedom. The rest is used for running the network.

While we talk, Shrim takes calls about a woman and children believed held in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. ISIS is nearly gone, but there are still pockets where it operates, and almost every Yazidi family still has relatives missing.

Aydan Saleh, who has four daughters missing, comes in to talk to Shrim. Shrim managed to rescue his friend's wife and two young sons from Raqqa, but the trail of his daughters has gone cold.

AYDAN SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "We haven't heard anything about them for more than a year," Saleh says.

Near the village, a group of Yazidi women sit near a conical tomb on a hilltop as the sun sets, the older ones with white scarves, the younger ones with their hair uncovered. They cling to messages smuggled out or personal effects that prove their loved ones hadn't died.

JUNI NAIF: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Juni Naif says her niece, Salwa, is still missing. Last year one of her brothers managed to escape from ISIS. They know Salwa was alive then because he brought out her watch.

Shrim estimates that of the 3,000 people still missing, perhaps only about 1,000 are still alive. He says as long as there are leads, he'll keep following them. Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Dohuk in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.