With a web of safe houses and contacts throughout "Islamic State" territory, two Kurdish men claim to have rescued over 220 captives from the "caliphate." Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery report from Zakho, Iraq.
Izzadine Khalif looks out of place as he sits cross-legged on the floor of a partly constructed building in Zakho, surrounded by a family of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in tattered clothing. The sturdy-looking businessman wears a tailored gray suit over a striped sweater vest and tie. His leather shoes are covered in the mud that surrounds the skeleton of a building that's a makeshift home to an extended family of 30 who fled the "Islamic State" group in Sinjar in early August.
Khalif seems unconcerned that his nice slacks are becoming caked with dirt in this position. He's here on business. The family he's come to meet is missing their seven-year-old son, kidnapped during the chaos that followed IS's destruction of their hometown. Khalif has come to their aid.
"I'm free but my son is with the 'Islamic State,'" the boy's mother, Madina, laments, a purple scarf tightly wound around her tired, stress-ridden face. Her calloused hands clasp a small, slightly worn photo of her child, heavy eyes scan the photo, only letting go of the keepsake to pass it to Khalif, who studies the child's features intently. "He was always playing outside and was always smiling. He was a clever boy."
Khalif and his associate, Mahmoud Mardini - both Muslims from Sinjar - say they have rescued over 220 people, mostly young women, from IS territory in Iraq and Syria since their campaign started.
Khalif and Mardini have come to tell the family they've received information about the missing boy. He is alive - but being held in an IS prison in Mosul, they say.
$4,000 for freedom
When IS began its advance on Sinjar in August, Mardini hid 80 people in his extensive family home. He managed to get them out of the city safely after a week.
Since then Mardini and Khalif have built up a web of contacts throughout IS territory, from the caliphate's self-proclaimed capital in Raqqah, Syria, to Mosul, the largest IS stronghold in Iraq.
"We have a lot of people working in every 'Islamic State' area," Khalif explains. "When we have found someone, we take them to a safe house. My men make fake IDs and documentation to make the person look like they are part of the family. This is to make everything look normal."
It costs around $4,000 (3,400 euros) to get someone out of the clutches of IS, the men say. The money goes towards false identification and new clothes as well as to the contact they use inside IS territory. The contact's home is used as a safe house and their family as a smokescreen before the dangerous job begins of negotiating "Islamic State" checkpoints - and an active frontline - in order to reach Kurdish-controlled areas in Iraq.
Khalif avoids going into the details of money matters: The people they rescue are IS slaves and prisoners; their freedom has in some way been bought. But Khalif says no money goes directly to IS fighters, but to contacts inside IS territory. What happens with the money after that exchange is secret.
"We know the whereabouts of the boy," Khalif reiterates as he gets up to say goodbye to the child's mother, who dabs at her eyes, holding back tears. She's relieved to hear he's alive, but finds it hard to bear that he's being held in a prison.
Sold to an emir
In a Zakho refugee camp less than 10 kilometers away, Nawroz sits across from her husband, Fayez, in a UK Aid tent. Her dark black hair peeks out from a delicate black headscarf as she stares down at her hands, ripping at the scabbed cuticles of her nail-bitten fingers. Fayez, 20, whose similar dark features make the couple a striking pair, starts to recount her story. Eighteen-year-old Nawroz is one of the many Yazidis Khalif and Mardini claim to have rescued.
The young woman was captured by IS militants on the first day of the invasion of Sinjar. Bundled into the back of a truck and driven to the IS-controlled town of Tel Afar, Nawroz spent three days in a prison with dozens of other Yazidi women before they were paraded in front of IS fighters as slaves to be bought.
An emir - a local leader - bought Nawroz and took her to Mosul. She says she was forced to marry him on that first day and repeatedly beaten and raped for eight days before the emir sold her to his mother for $800.
"I tried to kill myself with a knife I found in the house," Nawroz told DW, digging her nails into her cuticles until blood begins to show. "I didn't want to live, I felt horrible. I still do. I relive everything everyday."
Weeks into her ordeal, Nawroz found herself alone - a rarity - and spotted the emir's phone on the kitchen table. Scared, but feeling she had nothing to loose, Nawroz grabbed the device and punched in her husband's number. He answered, and upon hearing his voice, Nawroz felt a sense of relief come over her, relief in knowing he had survived IS's assault on Sinjar, that he was alive. After one emotional minute she hung up the phone, telling Fayez to never call the number for fear of the potential ramifications.
Ten days later, 20-year-old Fayez, couldn't bring himself to stick to his wife's instructions. He called the number, and found himself in a conversation with the emir who had lost interest in Nawroz and agreed to release her for $10,000. He managed to gather the money with the help of family and friends. A family friend exchanged the money for Nawroz in Mosul one night and brought her to his home. However, smuggling Nawroz out of "Islamic State" territory seemed like an impossible task - until Khalif and Mardini got in touch.
The 'real way of Islam'
The majority of the people saved from IS have been enslaved women like Nawroz, Khalif told DW.
His contacts tipped him off to her case, and out of the blue, Khalif called Fayez to say he could help.
"We checked all the back history, all the numbers of the phones used," Khalif said, explaining the process that began directly after his phone call with Fayez and which included a stakeout of the family friend's home, where Nawroz had apparently been taken. "After seven days they [contacts in Mosul] vetted that the house was safe, it was not a trap."
Khalif's and Mardini's contacts picked up Nawroz and took her to a safe house. Meanwhile, the men secured fake documents in which Nawroz was identified as the daughter of one of the contacts.
The following morning Nawroz and her new "family" worked their way through 17 nerve-wracking IS checkpoints until they finally arrived at Maktab Khaled, a de-facto border crossing between IS territory and peshmerga-controlled Iraq. After two months of captivity, Nawroz was free.
"There are 73 more people we know we can definitely get out," Khalif told DW. "But we need the funds."
"Islam, my religion, is one of tolerance, one of peace," he added. "The 'Islamic State' is not Muslim - they are not close to being Muslim. What we are doing is the real way of Islam."