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Yazidi man: I walked out of an ISIS prison - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, march in a demonstration at the Iraqi–Turkish border crossing in Zakho district of the Dahuk Governorate of the Iraqi Kurdistan province, on August 17, 2014. (Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, march in a demonstration at the Iraqi–Turkish border crossing in Zakho district of the Dahuk Governorate of the Iraqi Kurdistan province, on August 17, 2014. (Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)

Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—The last few weeks have seen a wave of murders and kidnappings of Yazidis by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents in Sinjar and the plains of Iraq’s Nineveh province, after the militants took control of the area at the start of this month following fierce battles with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Jalil Ilyas, a 70-year-old Yazidi, was among many men detained by ISIS militias, who took control of his village southwest of Sinjar. Incredibly, he managed to escape captivity following nine days in an ISIS prison, after telling his captors that he would agree to return to ISIS territory with his family.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat about his detention, Ilyas said: “Once ISIS took control of my village Zarafik, southwest of Sinjar, all my family fled in the direction of Mount Sinjar. I took my car and headed towards Sinjar town thinking it had not fallen yet. However, while on my way there I heard about the fall of Sinjar, and instead turned to one of the Arab tribes to seek refuge until I got the opportunity to escape to Kurdistan.”

After handing himself over to the tribesmen, he received a nasty surprise. “I was staggered to discover that members of this tribe wanted to kill me and take my car, money and my documents,” he said. “They took my mobile phone and beat me up, then tied up my hands and handed me over to ISIS insurgents.”

He added: “The insurgents initially took me and many other Yazidi detainees in trucks towards the town of Al-Ba’aj where we stayed for four days. They then transferred us to the Tel Banat complex southwest of Sinjar. They used to come to us daily asking us to convert to Islam; every day we told them we would convert the next day.”

Unsurprisingly, the conditions of his captivity were harsh. “There was very little food and water. We had one meal a day given to us by one of the guards. There were 86 of us on top of each other in one cell; there was no electricity and it was very hot,” Ilyas said.

During his nine days in Tel Banat, he saw Yazidi women and girls also imprisoned in the complex taken away to an uncertain fate.

“One day, they came and took all the women, girls and children and said they were taking them to private homes in Al-Ba’aj, but they lied to us because we later heard them say they took the women and girls to Mosul,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“Older women were separated from young women, girls and children, each group according to their ages. They then told us they had killed all the older women and taken the younger ones to Mosul and Tal Afar,” he added.

Ilyas also described an extraordinary meeting between the prisoners and a senior ISIS leader, described as the organization’s “wali” (a word for governor used during the Caliphate and Ottoman Empire) for the Mosul region.

“They took us out into the yard one day and asked us to stand in line. I thought they were going to kill us, but they told us that the wali of Mosul was visiting the prison. After hours of waiting the wali arrived, a bearded, average-built man, accompanied by masked gunmen,” Ilyas said.

Despite the risk of attracting attention to himself, the elderly Yazidi man told Asharq Al-Awsat said he sought to question the wali about the fate of the women and children he saw being taken away.

“He asked us to convert to Islam and to ask our families to return from Sinjar. I approached the wali to speak to him but I was pushed back by one his aides who told me to move away or the wali would kill me,” he remembered. “However, I approached him and said: ‘What religion is it that separates women from their families?’ A gunman replied in a Mosul accent: ‘We will bring them all back to the Tel Banat complex tomorrow.’ But that did not happen.”

Despite ISIS’s fearsome reputation for cruelty, and the presence of foreign fighters among its ranks, Ilyas is convinced that many of his jailers were local men.

He said: “[They] were all Iraqi Arabs whom we knew because they were Arabs who lived in the villages near Sinjar. Some of them used to buy fruit and vegetables from my field in Zarafik; I know them all very well. I spoke to them many times and asked them, ‘Are you not such a person, the brother of such a person?’ But they denied that they knew me.”

Finally, he claims, ISIS simply let him and some of the fellow prisoners go, perhaps recognizing that holding them served no purpose.

“In my last day in prison, the prison official asked us to bring our families back from the mountain and promised us that if we brought them back to Sinjar, they would give each family a house in Tel Banat, from the houses of Shi’ites who had fled the area,” he said.

“I asked the official to let me go to bring back my family. Initially, he did not respond, but soon after, he said, ‘Go, bring back your family.’ I, and eight others, boarded one of their vehicles. They dropped us off in the Qaraj region southeast of Mosul and drove off.”

He remains puzzled as to how he survived his ordeal, and why ISIS eventually simply chose to let him go.

“We went to Erbil and from there to Dahuk, and God saved us from them,” he said. “I cannot believe I got out of the prison; I don’t know why they released us. Perhaps our old age saved us, I don’t know.”