Nuri Osman, special coordinator for Yezidi refugees in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), revealed that 234 Yezidis have freed from the clutches of the Islamic State (ISIS), 150 of them females, and many as young as 12. He said the KRG had helped either through facilitating the escape of victims or in some cases paying “a sort of” ransom. Osman added that once information was obtained about a victim, there was a “complicated mechanism” to secure release. He said various sums were paid – once $20,000 for five women, and that the total money paid was about $1.5 million. “In all cases, helping them get to safe places has been our primary objective,” Osman said. He added that all the victims were being returned to their communities, and welcomed without stigma, despite reports of sexual abuse of Yezidi girls in captivity. Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
Rudaw: Can you confirm media reports that nearly 200 abducted Yezidis were rescued, and explain how they were rescued?
Nuri Osman: According to our estimate, 234 people have been rescued, 150 females and 84 males. Obviously, by female we mean both adult women but also a number of young girls. And then we have both men and young boys.
Rudaw: How were they rescued, and who was behind the operations?
In some cases we have paid some sort of ransom, in other cases we just facilitated their escape.
Nuri Osman: There was a complicated mechanism that is hard to explain. This was done under direct order and supervision of the president and the prime minister (of the Kurdistan Region). Each rescue mission is a unique story.
Rudaw: Are the rescued Yezidis now all together or were they in different groups?
Nuri Osman: No, they have been rescued on different occasions and are separate from each other.
Rudaw: Have you paid any ransom?
Nuri Osman: In some cases we have paid some sort of ransom, in other cases we just facilitated their escape. In all cases, helping them get to safe places has been our primary objective.
Rudaw: Is the ransom paid directly to the ISIS gunmen or is there a middle man?
Nuri Osman: There are different middle men who help us. We pay the ransom through these people and get our abducted people back.
Rudaw: You have earlier said that you will rescue them with internal and external efforts. What did you mean by external effort?
Nuri Osman: Some of them are not held in Iraq. Some of them have been transferred to Syria. We have had efforts even there. We have rescued people from Syria, both men and women. So far, we have assisted 30 people to come back from Syria.
Rudaw: Is the Syrian government assisting you?
So far, we have assisted 30 people to come back from Syria.
Nuri Osman: No, in no way. We mostly use our own private connections.
Rudaw: Who helped you in Syria?
Nuri Osman: They are locals but not necessarily Arabs. There are some Kurds, too. But I really don’t want to get into details for security reasons.
Rudaw: Who pays the ransom? Is it the Kurdistan Regional Government?
Nuri Osman: Yes, it is. In many cases locals give us information and we do our best to help the abducted to safety.
Rudaw: If anyone has information, how can you be contacted?
Nuri Osman: We have special teams that consist of local Yezidis. We have also been in touch with the newspapers and the media in general. I’m from Shingal myself so people can directly contact me.
Rudaw: How big has the ransom been?
Nuri Osman: We have not paid ransom for all of them. Some have fled and some have needed our assistance to flee. But in all cases, we have facilitated their escape one way or the other. The amount of the ransom has not particularly been high. Just as an example, we paid $10,000 for the return of two men this week. We paid $20,000 to bring back five women. In total we have spent over $1.5 million. Then there has been transportation costs. In some cases the rescued Yezidis had to cross Islamic State territory again on their way back to Kurdistan and we had to pay more to safeguard their return.
Rudaw: What about reports that ISIS is selling people.
Just as an example, we paid $10,000 for the return of two men this week. We paid $20,000 to bring back five women.
Nuri Osman: Well, some manage to flee ISIS and then call their relatives, who inform us and we help through our local friends and connections to bring them safely to Kurdistan. But in some cases we have paid ransom specifically to those who have rescued people. What’s important is to bring the people back to Kurdistan.
Rudaw: Isn’t this some sort of moneymaking on the part of the middle men?
Nuri Osman: No, I don’t think so, because we have follow-ups. We study each case and then decide to pay the ransom.
Rudaw: Does this only involve the Mosul area or have you paid for the return of people in other areas as well?
Nuri Osman: We have paid people in central and southern Iraq, too.
Rudaw: Do you have any information about the systematic trafficking of women by the Islamic State?
Nuri Osman: As far as we know they sell and buy among themselves or give the women to each other as gifts, unfortunately.
Rudaw: Those that have been rescued -- and especially the women -- are they under any kind of medical or psychological help or treatment? Have any of these women been exposed to sexual assault of any kind?
Nuri Osman: There are a number of cases where women have been exposed to rape, but also of men who have been violently beaten. We have had a team of specialized doctors and psychologists who help the survivors from the day they arrive. But of course, it is up to the victims to let our teams help them recover, we cannot impose it on them. However, they encourage them to do so.
Rudaw: Have the victims confirmed stories of ISIS gunmen buying and selling women?
There are a number of cases where women have been exposed to rape, but also of men who have been violently beaten.
Nuri Osman: The survivors are not aware of any specific details, but our information confirms that this is happening.
Rudaw: What is the age range of the women you have rescued?
Nuri Osman: Nearly 40 of them are below 12 years old, and the rest are older.
Rudaw: Do you have any knowledge about the number of those still in captivity?
Nuri Osman: No, we don’t, and the problem is that we cannot confirm whether people are still alive or have indeed been killed or abducted. We regard them as abducted until it can be confirmed either way.
Rudaw: Can you check and verify how many people are in the camps and then establish how many are missing?
Nuri Osman: No we can’t, because not all of them are in the Kurdistan Region. Some have fled to Syria and Turkey.
Rudaw: How is the condition for those rescued and now in Kurdistan?
Nuri Osman: We have offered them our help in terms of medical care, paying the rent for temporary apartments and any other thing that they need. But with regard to the 1.5 million refugees in Kurdistan, I have to say we have done what we have been able to -- the Iraqi government hasn’t offered much. It seems to me it does not regard these refugees as citizens of Iraq. But I must say that people in general have been very kind and humane in helping and embracing the victims. The female victims, especially, are being treated affectionately by their communities. I am overwhelmed by the way fellow Yezidis have shown extraordinary respect for these brave women. They are respected and warmly accepted them back into their communities. They are not being stigmatized, and it’s a moment of pride and joy.
Rudaw: Has the Iraqi government helped in any way?
Nuri Osman: We have seen very limited efforts by Baghdad, nothing comprehensive. They have said they allocated nearly $100 million dollars. The KRG has not received any of this money, but what I can confirm is that we are going to build 26 camps in Kurdistan and nine of them will be in cooperation with Baghdad.
Rudaw: What about the children that you have rescued? How old are they?
Nuri Osman: There are 40 girls below 14. There are six-month-old babies, 2 year olds, 4 year olds and so on and so forth.
Rudaw: The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has rejected efforts by the KRG to recognize the ISIS atrocities against the Yezidis as genocide.
Nuri Osman: The main problem is that Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court so it is really difficult to ask the ICC to take action, but we have asked the UN to send a delegation specifically for this purpose, they have confirmed and asked us to collect as many evidence as possible. We have now a committee that deals with this issue.