KHANKE, Iraq // The advertisement on the Telegram app is as chilling as it is incongruous: a girl for sale is “Virgin. Beautiful. 12 years old ... Her price has reached $12,500 and she will be sold soon.”
The posting in Arabic appeared on an encrypted conversation along with ads for kittens, weapons and tactical gear. It was shared by an activist with the minority Yazidi community, whose women and children are being held as sex slaves by ISIL.
While the extremist group is losing territory in its self-styled caliphate, it is tightening its grip on an estimated 3,000 women and girls held as sex slaves. In a fusion of ancient barbaric practices and modern technology, ISIL sells the women like chattel on smartphone apps and shares databases that contain their photographs and the names of their “owners” to prevent their escape through ISIL checkpoints.
Yazidi women and children were taken prisoner in August 2014, when ISIL fighters overran their villages in northern Iraq with the aim to eliminate the Kurdish-speaking minority because of its ancient faith. Since then, Arab and Kurdish smugglers have managed to free an average of 134 people a month. But by May, an ISIL crackdown reduced those numbers to just 39 in the past six weeks, according to figures provided by the Kurdistan regional government.
Mirza Danai, founder of the German-Iraqi aid organisation Luftbrucke Irak, said escape had become more difficult and dangerous in the last two or three months.
“They register every slave, every person under their owner, and therefore if she escapes, every Daesh control or checkpoint, or security force – they know that this girl ... has escaped from this owner,” he said.
Lamiya Aji Bashar tried to flee four times before finally escaping in March, racing to government-controlled territory with ISIL fighters in pursuit. A landmine exploded, killing her companions, 8-year-old Almas and Katherine, 20. She never learned their last names.
The explosion left Lamiya blind in her right eye and her face scarred. Saved by the man who smuggled her out, she spoke from her uncle’s home in the northern Iraqi town of Baadre. She counts herself among the lucky.
“I managed in the end, thanks to God, I managed to get away from those infidels,” she said. “Even if I had lost both eyes, it would have been worth it, because I have survived them.”
The Sunni extremist group views the Yazidis as barely human. The Yazidi faith combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Their pre-war population in Iraq was estimated around 500,000. Their number today is unknown.
Nadia Mourad, an escapee, has appeared before the US congress and the European parliament to appeal for international help.
“Daesh is proud of what it’s done to the Yazidis,” she told the parliament. “They are being used has human shields. They are not allowed to escape or flee. Probably they will be assassinated. Where is the world in all this? Where is humanity?”
The fighters are assassinating smugglers who rescue the captives, just as funds to buy the women out of slavery are drying up.
ISIL relies on encrypted apps to sell the women and girls, according to an activist who is documenting the transactions and asked not to be named for fear of his safety.
The activist showed the negotiations for the captives in encrypted conversations as they were occurring in real time.
The postings appear primarily on Telegram and on Facebook and WhatsApp to a lesser degree, he said.
Both Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Telegram use end-to-end encryption to protect users’ privacy. Both have said they consider protecting private conversations and data paramount, and that they themselves cannot access users’ content.
For the Yazidi women and children still held by ISIL, the odds of rescue grow slimmer by the day. The smuggling networks that have freed captives so far are being targeted by ISIL leaders, who are fighting to keep the Yazidis at nearly any cost, said Andrew Slater of the non-profit group Yazda, which helps document crimes against the community and organises refuge for those who have fled.
Kurdistan’s regional government had been reimbursing impoverished Yazidi families who paid up to $15,000 in fees to smugglers to rescue their relatives, or the ransoms demanded by individual fighters to give up the captives. But the Kurdish regional government no longer has the funds. For the past year, Kurdistan has been mired in an economic crisis brought on by the collapse of oil prices, a dispute with Iraq’s central government over revenues, and the fallout from the war against ISIL.
Even when the extremists retreat from towns like Ramadi or Fallujah, the missing girls are nowhere to be found.
“Rescues are slowing. They’re going to stop. People are running out of money, I have dozens of families who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” Mr Slater said. “There are still thousands of women and kids in captivity but it’s getting harder and harder to get them out.”
Lamiya was abducted from the village of Kocho, near the town of Sinjar, in the summer of 2014. Her parents are presumed dead. Somewhere, she said, her 9-year-old sister Mayada remains captive. One photo she managed to send to the family shows the little girl standing in front of an ISIL flag.
Five other sisters all managed to escape and were relocated to Germany. A younger brother, kept for months in an ISIL training camp in Mosul, also slipped away and is now staying with other relatives in Dohuk, a city in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Sitting very still and speaking in a monotone, Lamiya recounted her captivity, describing how she was passed from one ISIL follower to another, all of whom beat and violated her. She was determined to escape.
She said her first “owner” was an Iraqi ISIL commander who went by the name Abu Mansour in the city of Raqqa, the de facto ISIL capital deep in Syria. He brutalised her, often keeping her handcuffed.
She tried to run away twice but was caught, beaten and raped repeatedly. After a month, she said, she was sold to another ISIL extremist in Mosul, Iraq’s second city in the northern province of Nineveh. After two months with him, she was sold again, this time to an ISIL bomb-maker who Lamiya said forced her to help him make suicide vests and car bombs.
“I tried to escape from him,” she said. “And he captured me, too, and he beat me.”
When the bomb-maker grew bored with her, she was handed over to an ISIL doctor in Hawija, a small ISIL-controlled Iraqi town. She said the doctor, who was the ISIL head of the town hospital, also abused her.
From there, after more than a year, she managed to contact her relatives in secret.
Her uncle said the family paid local smugglers $800 to arrange Lamiya’s escape. She will be reunited with her siblings in Germany, but despite everything, her heart remains in Iraq.
“We had a nice house with a big farm ... I was going to school,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
* Associated Press