DUHOK, Iraq — The smuggler scrolled through text messages on his phone that showed photos of people for sale.
There was a 15-year-old girl with a $10,000 price tag. A mother and her two daughters priced at $20,500. There was also a picture of a small, smiling boy among the many photos which, the smuggler said, came from ISIS militants or people inside ISIS territory, willing to get the captives out — for a price.
"They keep raising their prices," the smuggler said. "They know that people would do anything, pay anything, to get their family back."
When the radicals made their big push into Iraq last summer, they targeted Yazidis with particular cruelty. ISIS views the ancient religious minority as infidels — fair game for forced conversion, slavery and execution. During the ISIS onslaught, thousands were killed or carted off to ISIS-territory where they were sold off as slaves.
Officials in Iraq’s Kurdish region, where most survivors wound up, believe as many as 1,200 were killed, 840 are still missing and 4,500 were taken as slaves. Other local activists also tracking the crisis have come up with similar numbers.
The United Nations, which has conducted a separate investigation, meanwhile notes that it is difficult to come up with precise figures since many of those who are listed as missing may actually have been killed.
What is undisputed, however, is the brutality that Yazidis have faced while in ISIS captivity — particularly women who have been treated as spoils of war. Those who have managed to escape describe systematic sexual brutality against women of all ages and even little girls.
With limited help from local military forces who are stretched thin fighting the expansionist forces of ISIS, rescue missions have largely fallen to the Yazidi community itself, with financial and logistical backing from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
The Office of Yazidi Affairs has been tasked by the KRG to help tally and rescue the thousands of men, women and children still held in slavery. Its director, Hussein Koro, says that some 1,700 Yazidis had been rescued or managed to escape but that ISIS is still holding as many as 3,000 people captive.
To rescue those in captivity, Koro's office relies on people with contacts inside ISIS-held territory. Officials admit they pay smugglers to get the women out but insist they don't pay money directly to the radicals.
However, two people involved in rescue operations said everything goes when it comes to getting people out.
“We do it every way we can,” said one man who claims to have rescued some 400 people since August. "If it was your daughter, you’d do anything." The Yazidi man, whose identity is being withheld to protect him, said that sometimes he is able to rescue women by pretending to be a member of ISIS interested in buying new slaves.
His ISIS contacts test him on his knowledge of Islam and only when he passes this test does the market open, he said. Unlike Western hostages who have been kidnapped for ransom, the smuggler says ISIS wants to keep the Yazidis. "The women are only for ISIS fighters. A non-ISIS member cannot buy one," he said.
Rescue operations, however, are a dangerous business that puts everyone's lives at risk.
The smuggler says he, his wife and their four children have moved every two months since he got into the business of getting people out, and that he's sure there's a target on his back.
"I’m very worried about safety," he said. He recently went to the U.S. Consulate in Erbil in the hopes of making a case for asylum in person. But the line for Yazidis trying to leave Iraq is long and he returned to Duhok feeling dejected.
Meanwhile, he has become known as the go-to person to call for help. He was the first person Said Ali called when he got access to a phone in captivity. The 45-year-old builder from Kocho, a village in the Sinjar region of Iraq, was kidnapped with his wife, eight children and his brother’s family in August. When ISIS confiscated the captives’ phones, Ali slipped his SIM cards out and hid them.
For months, he and his relatives were forced to tend sheep. It wasn’t until his wife became ill and he requested permission to bring her to a hospital in Mosul that he first got an opportunity to use a phone. An ISIS fighter guarded them as they went to the hospital but, to Ali's surprise, allowed him to buy a cheap phone. As soon as he returned home, Ali dug up one of the hidden SIM cards and called up the smuggler, whom he had known since childhood.
He laid out everything: his location, what security was like, and his friend noted everything down, promising to do what he could to free them. Later, he called back with instructions: when and where the family should go and who would escort them through the hostile territory.
Trekking for days by foot and sleeping in fields, he and his family were finally able to escape the clutches of ISIS and reach safe haven in the Kurdish-held area of northern Iraq. In addition to Ali and his brother’s family, the smugglers had also been able to spirit 16 girls to safety.
The smugglers inside ISIS-held territory demanded $2,000 per person to help get them to safety, and those in the KRG said they were working to gather the funds.
Koro from the Office of Yazidi Affairs said that the government does not always have enough money to cover the costs of rescue operations, leaving individual families to come up with the money even for rescues arranged by officials.
That was the case for Berhim Haji, a laborer from a village near Sinjar, who says he and his 25-member family were asked to pay $40,000 for their rescue. The family managed to escape from ISIS three months ago with the help of another high-profile smuggler on the government's payroll.
Enslaved since August, the older members of the family were forced to do farm work while the teenage boys were indoctrinated, trained to fight and often beaten. Two women from the family were separated from the rest and brought to Syria. They remain in ISIS captivity.
Shortly after the Haji family made it to safety, someone appeared one day, asking for the money to pay the smugglers. Haji was devastated. He had already lost his home, his sister was still being held, his family was traumatized and now living in tents on the side of a road. And then this.
Officials involved with the rescue would not discuss the cost of the operation or could not be reached.
"We're doing our best to rescue as many as we can, but we can’t do it by ourselves," said Koro, from his office in Dohuk. "We need other countries to help [but] the international community is just watching, sleeping. We are begging them to help. We know how much our women and girls are suffering under ISIS."