KHANKE, Iraq — The 15-year-old girl, crying and terrified, refused to release her grip on her sister’s hand. Days earlier, Islamic State fighters had torn the girls from their family, and now were trying to split them up and distribute them as spoils of war.
The jihadist who had selected the 15-year-old as his prize pressed a pistol to her head, promising to pull the trigger. But it was only when the man put a knife to her 19-year-old sister’s neck that she finally relented, taking her next step in a dark odyssey of abduction and abuse at the hands of the Islamic State.
The sisters were among several thousand girls and young women from the minority Yazidi religion who were seized by the Islamic State in northern Iraq in early August.
The 15-year-old is also among a small number of kidnapping victims who have managed to escape, bringing with them stories of a coldly systemized industry of slavery.
Their accounts tell of girls and young women separated from their families, divvied up or traded among the Islamic State’s men, ordered to convert to Islam, subjected to forced marriages and repeatedly raped.
While many of the victims are still living in areas of northern or western Iraq under the control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, many others have been sent to Syria or other countries, according to victims and their advocates.
Five girls and women who recently escaped agreed to be interviewed at the end of October. Four of them were in Khanke, a predominantly Yazidi town in the far north of Iraq, and a fifth in the nearby city of Dohuk. Tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees have sought refuge in this region, in vast tent camps and in relatives’ homes, after fleeing their villages around the Sinjar mountains.
The five victims consented to speak publicly only on the condition that their names not be revealed for fear that the Islamic State would punish their relatives.
At first, though, the 15-year-old felt differently. “I want my name used because when the Islamic State reads it, it will be like a revenge for me,” she declared at the outset of her interview, though she soon demurred on the advice of a Yazidi advocate with her, only permitting the use of her initials, D. A. The militants, she said, were still holding most of her immediate family.
The Islamic State itself has openly acknowledged its slavery industry. In an article last month in Dabiq, the group’s online English-language magazine, the Islamic State said it was reviving a custom justified under Shariah.
“One fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums,” a tax on war spoils, and the rest were divided among the fighters who participated in the Sinjar operation, the article said.
Yazidis follow a religion influenced by a medley of faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam. But the Islamic State regards them as devil-worshiping pagans deserving of enslavement or death. By forcing Yazidi women and girls to marry Islamic State members and become their “concubines,” the article said, the group is helping to protect its fighters against committing adultery.
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In a video posted last month on YouTube, men purported to be Islamic State fighters sit in a room and banter about buying and selling Yazidi girls on “slave market day.” One says he will check the girls’ teeth. Another says he will trade a girl for a Glock handgun. They discuss the relative value of girls with blue eyes.
“Today is the day of (female) slaves and we should have our share,” a fighter declares.
The Islamic State has kidnapped more than 5,000 Yazidis, and possibly as many as 7,000, most of them women and girls, according to Matthew Barber, a member of the Sinjar Crisis Management Team, an advocacy group that has conducted an extensive survey of displaced Yazidi families.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released last month, said the systematic abduction, abuse and killing of Yazidis might amount to crimes against humanity.
“We’ve all been living these cases,” said Amena Saeed, a former member of the Iraqi Parliament and a Yazidi who has been advocating on behalf of the kidnapped.
The Yazidis’ communal ordeal began on Aug. 3 when the Islamic State launched an attack on their villages in the Sinjar region, driving thousands to flee into the nearby mountains.
D. A. was part of that exodus, traveling in a car with her parents, five of her sisters and a niece. But their path was cut off by militant fighters who rounded them up, along with other families, and took them to a building in the town of Sinjar. There, the militants separated the female Yazidis and young children from the men and boys, then later in the day picked out the unmarried women and older girls, D. A. said.
“I was crying and grabbing my mother’s hand,” she said during an interview at a relative’s house in Khanke, a Yazidi village near Mosul Dam Lake. “One of the Islamic State members came and beat me and put a pistol to my head. My mother said I should go so I wouldn’t be killed.”
Along with dozens of other girls, D. A. and two of her sisters — one 19, the other 12 — were loaded onto a convoy of three buses and driven to the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.
D. A. and her two sisters were held in a house there for nine days along with women and girls from other villages in the region, then they were taken to a three-story building crowded with hundreds of captives.
The building functioned as a kind of clearinghouse. Islamic State fighters would stop by and take their pick of the girls and young women. Some, perhaps in a reflection of their lower rank, would take only one girl, while others took more, D. A. and other escapees said.
The man who chose D. A. “was wearing a beard, though not a long one, and not very long hair,” she recalled. She refused to go at first, holding on to her older sister. But the sight of a dagger at her older sister’s throat convinced her to submit. Her 12-year-old sister looked on in stunned silence.
“She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t cry,” D. A. said. “It’s like she had no feelings.”
That was the last time she saw her sisters.
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Over the next several weeks she was moved at least eight more times, among increasingly smaller groups of girls.
She was taken across the border into Syria. She remembers spending a day in a white house, next to a lake, near Raqqa, Syria, where Islamic State fighters engaged in another round of commerce involving the girls. She saw men haggling, money trading hands. “It was like an auction,” she recalled.
At that house, the girls were forced to shed their clothes, bathe and change into conservative Islamic garb. Some of the girls were as young as 11.
At one point, while she was being held in another house near Raqqa, D. A. tried to escape along with five other girls. But their attempt failed, and D. A., accused of being the ringleader, was severely beaten and imprisoned.
She was released into the custody of yet another jihadist who locked her in a house with several other girls.
The jihadist told them he was going to force them to marry him at the end of the week. They could hear another group of girls living in a different section of the house being taken away from time to time for sex.
None of the five escapees interviewed said they had been raped while in captivity. But one said she had fought off a sexual assault, and most said they had met other girls who had been raped, sometimes by several men.
Several advocates said that even if the girls had been sexually assaulted, they might never admit it, particularly not to a stranger. Some advocates said they were concerned that the shame surrounding rape might drive victims to suicide, though Ms. Saeed and other community leaders insisted that there had been no suicide attempts among the estimated 150 Yazidi escapees.
The threat of forced marriage led D. A. to consider killing herself, but instead she decided to try another escape. Late one night, she and another girl squeezed through a small window, and the two ran into the darkness, eventually coming to a house in a rural area. They took their chances, knocked on the door and a sympathetic-seeming young Arab man answered.
He took them to the house of a Kurdish family who then contacted D. A.’s brother, arranged a meeting in a Kurdish area of Syria and agreed that the girls’ families would pay $3,700 each to the Arab man for his help. (They withheld details of the transaction, including the route D. A. took out of territory controlled by the Islamic State, to protect the identities of those involved.)
Asked why the Arab took the extraordinary risk of helping the two girls, D. A. said, “I think he needed the money.”
That meshes with other accounts suggesting that a cottage industry of for-profit rescuers has sprung up in response to the Yazidi girls’ abductions. One 19-year-old woman, the daughter of a Yazidi police officer, said her family had paid a smuggler $15,000 to help her escape captors in Aleppo, Syria.
D. A.’s parents are still in captivity — if they are still alive — as are five sisters and her niece, relatives said.
Their absence, D. A. said, has left her feeling bereft. During the day, relatives, relief workers and television provide distractions. But at night, she said, when the house goes quiet and she is left alone with her thoughts, that is when it hurts the most.