Asked to tell what ISIS did, a small child runs her finger across her throat. “They were beheading them,” says Aeida, a young woman who, along with the girl, escaped from their captors. “I dream of ISIS attacking us and I run away,” Aeida adds. “Sometimes I see them arresting me.” Her dreams are shaped by her experience, which included repeated rapes and also, her efforts to stop assaults on children. “It’s okay in our religion to take a nine-year-old girl,” Aeida recalls one man saying. Still, she opposed him, she says: “Don’t tell me this. I don’t want your religion.”
Religion — that is, a brutal interpretation of a “pure” Islam — undergirds ISIS’ campaign to kidnap women and children, whom the group means to assimilate into the new Islamic Caliphate. As Frontline: Escaping ISIS reveals in images that are at once effectively impressionistic and grim, ISIS is embarked on a genocidal, “forced conversion” crusade against the Yazidi, members of a religious minority in Iraq. The program opens on Khalil al-Dakhi, a lawyer before ISIS invaded his village in Northern Iraq, now an activist and founder of an underground railroad for Yazidi captives of ISIS.
He’s returned to his village after eight months, and as the camera offers brief glimpses of empty streets and stray dogs, al-Dakhi laments the losses begot by ISIS. “There’s no life,” he says, “This used to be the main market. I can’t even bear to look at it.” Existence is much worse for those women and children who’ve been taken. Aeida recalls long nights of terror and some captives’ suicides. “I wish I could forget that building,” she says.
Determined to change the fates of an estimated 25000 Yazidis who remain prisoners, al-Kadhi spends most of his time these days on the road, responding to requests for help and also “spreading the word about his network,” plainly defying ISIS’ edicts and threats. “It can take us a whole month to rescue one family or sometimes one person,” he observes. His group doesn’t pay ransoms, he explains, but they “do give money to their contacts” who help to locate prisoners. It’s not unusual to be able to speak to captives by phone, and so listen to their descriptions of horrors and warnings (“Please get us out of this Syrian house, it’s better to die than to go through this”). The team has also lost members, to ambushes or other violent ISIS tactics.
Still, al-Dakhi, says, chain-smoking, he and his team persist. Frontline suggests why, showing a couple of operations that turn out well. When a group of children is returned to their family, a couple of young girls wail with relief, embraced by their aunts and uncles, unable even to speak. Al-Dakhi credits them with surviving. “I don’t say I rescue the women,” he says, “Their safety comes down to their cleverness,” as they escape when a guard goes to sleep, or finds a small opening to crawl through, sometimes bringing along other prisoners, whom they didn’t know before their ordeal began.
As frightening as their stories are, Frontline includes another perspective, chilling in another way, when Umm Abaid describes her participation in an all-female police force ISIS established in Raqqa. “We were responsible for enforcing women’s clothing rules,” she says, a close-up revealing her lack of emotion as she speaks. “The first thing we’d do is take her and whip her. Then we’d take her clothes and replace them with clothes required by Sharia law. Then we’d take her husband’s money to pay for the clothes.” She believed in what she was doing, Abaid says, “I felt women were doing the wrong thing.”
Such is the battle — of education — waged by al-Dakhi and another activist, Abu Mohammed, who smuggles footage out of Iraq and Syria. Mohammed and his fellows disguise themselves, growing their hair or wearing clothes like ISIS members in order to cross borders with their hidden cameras. Their footage is handheld, unnerving, shots of menacing men with guns or children doing their best not to be seen. “Of course it’s frightening,” Mohammed says. “You could be killed at any moment.” But he and al-Dakhi are determined to make visible what’s going on, to show outsiders the extent of ISIS’ cruelty, the elaborate and ongoing effects of the would-be Caliphate. Frontline: Escaping ISIS provides images of horror and resilience, certainly distressing and perhaps galvanizing, efforts to raise awareness and, perhaps, empathy as well.