A Witness to Slavery: Edward Watts on Making “Escaping ISIS”

July 14, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Filmmaker Edward Watts had a disturbing realization while returning home from covering the plight of Yazidi women under ISIS rule. The group’s treatment of women is notoriously cruel, but conditions for Yazidis are particularly extreme. ISIS considers members of the religious minority as devil-worshipping pagans. Under their rule, Yazidi women are bought and sold as sex slaves, raped, and even stoned to death.

“On my way home I remember I watched ’12 Years A Slave,'” said Watts. “And I remember thinking as I watched it, ‘Wow, what I’m seeing in this film is what I’ve been covering in this situation,’ because women and girls are bought and sold at market, and they’re traded between fighters. They have no protection, no rights. They can be sexually abused to whatever extent their captor decides … They’re beaten if they resist in any way — fierce beatings directed against very young women. I mean, you just can’t really imagine anything more horrific.”

Watts spent two months in Iraq and Turkey this year filming the story of women who have fled captivity from the radical jihadi group for the new FRONTLINE documentary Escaping ISIS. While reporting for the film, he followed Khalil al-Dakhi, a former lawyer who now leads an underground railroad helping families to break free.

In the below interview, Watts discusses how individuals like al-Dakhi are helping rescue families from ISIS, the complications they face receiving support from Iraq’s government, and why the cruelty he witnessed “is just on a different scale” than any other story he has covered.

We spoke to Watts on July 8, 2015. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The man at the center of the film, Khalil al-Dakhi, helps people escape from ISIS. It’s dangerous work and not many people are doing it. How did you find him?

Almost by chance. There was a small NGO that we knew was going in and were trying to help them, so we sort of tagged along. And the NGO had mentioned that there were people who were trying to help the girls escape, but it was all pretty vague. When we arrived in Iraq — and it was really just one of those alignment of the planets moments, because we’d come through southern Turkey, and it was late at night, and there was a whole [group] of people come to meet the NGO representatives. And they all piled into the front of this convoy of vehicles and I ended up in the back. And in a car was me, the driver, my translator and Khalil. And just during the course of this 45-minute drive, I got chatting to Khalil, and he just started telling me about his work. And that was it. So purely by luck that I was in that car and had the chance to talk to him, and by the end of that journey I realized that these stories, the rumors that we’d heard of the rescues, it was A) — much bigger than we thought and B) — that we had this guy who was at the heart of it.

How did he get involved in this type of work?

They were quite big figures in their community, he and his wife. And it really just started because he was a lawyer, and he just started gathering the testimony of the girls. At the beginning, the first girls to come back escaped on their own. And he would meet them and sit down with them and very meticulously go through what their experience was, where they’d been, who they’d been held by as well.

“THE YAZIDI WOMEN, THEY HAD A PHRASE FOR IT. THEY FELT WHEN THEY WERE WITH ISIS, THEY FELT THAT THEY WERE DEAD.”

And gradually he began to realize — and this is the way he told me the story — gradually they began to realize that these girls had information that could actively be used to help other girls who were still inside. Because there is a sort of infrastructure to this enslavement of women — certain locations where women are concentrated and held, certain towns where there were more women than others. And essentially through that testimony, and through working it out and then through contacts that he had from I think even before the war in those kinds of areas, it sort of just, and in a very ad-hoc way, began. He himself described it as a DIY operation. They just kind of put it together themselves.

For anyone unfamiliar with what’s happened to the Yazidi population under ISIS — and women in particular — just how bad is the situation?

It couldn’t be more horrific. Even if you’re a Muslim woman who is in theory protected and part of the Islamic State, you have to live under these very, very tough prohibitions: that you’re not allowed to leave the house without a very close male relative, as in your father or your brother; that you have to wear this extreme dress code of two gowns, three veils, so that no part of your body is really identifiable or can be seen. And you’re walking around in the sweltering heat if you’re allowed out at all. Limitations on employment — women are not allowed to have jobs other than as wives and homemakers. And that’s as good as it gets. That’s for Muslim women.

Women were stoned to death, supposedly, for adultery, on no real evidence. Even by the rules of Islam, laid out in the Quran, these stonings didn’t apply to those rules, didn’t fulfill those criteria. And at the other enter of the spectrum, you have the Yazidis. Not only as non-Muslims, but perceived as pagans, essentially means that ISIS do whatever they like to them. They enslave them, in a way, as slavery as America knows from hundreds of years ago — it’s a very similar system … The Yazidi women, they had a phrase for it. They felt when they were with ISIS, they felt that they were dead. And I think that seems like quite a good way of summing it up.

With the situation this bad, why is the job of helping women escape being left to individuals like Khalil? What is the Iraqi government doing?

There is an office for the affairs of kidnapped people which was set up by the Kurdish authorities. I think all government in Iraq is replete with huge complications. You have certain people who are more allied to Baghdad, certain people more allied to the Kurdish authorities within the Kurdish region. You have this quite fierce political competition between the two major Kurdish political parties. So in a sense, the bureaucracy and the machinery of government works very slowly. And for whatever reason, it has just fallen to these individuals. I mean, this office which deals with the kidnapped people, sometimes it pays the expenses for the guides — it will give money for particular operations, fund them, and it helps the girls once they come back. But essentially, it still even to this day remains a number of individuals with a lot of initiative, with good contacts, with determination, who are the ones to be leading this work, trying to make it happen.

So if people are just taking it upon themselves to do this, what is it costing them? These rescue operations can’t be cheap.

There’s no one-size-fits-all, really. When it comes to the cost of the operations, some people are doing them for free, is what I was told. And I believe it, because there are humanitarians. There are people who are just like one guy I know who helped with one particular rescue. He was just a shepherd on the inside. So he was an incredibly poor person anyway, and I think he was just given a hundred dollars or a few hundred dollars for his time.

Other times, especially in Syria where the risks are probably much bigger because it’s much more of the heartland of ISIS, it can cost a few thousand dollars for people to use phones, and drive their cars — and naturally costs of everything in that part of the world, like fuel, are much more expensive because it’s in such limited supply.

“IT’S LIKE THE STORIES YOU READ ABOUT FROM OCCUPIED FRANCE IN WORLD WAR II. BECAUSE ISIS IS AWARE OF THESE GUYS OPERATING, AND THEY TRY TO CATCH THEM AND THEY’RE ALWAYS TRYING TO SET AMBUSHES FOR THEM.”

So you have the full range of costs — from naught, to a couple of thousands. And in terms of where the money comes from, in some cases the guides have put their own money in, and in other cases, the families have raised the money from their savings, or from relatives.

Sometimes the government gives them a bit of money. But it’s all very ad hoc. I was there for two months. During one two-week or three-week period of that, the government funding had just stopped, and no one quite knew why — whether it was because they were saying, you know, Baghdad hadn’t paid the Kurdish government enough money, and with the whole scale of the crisis that they’re dealing with in terms of the massive need just in the displaced people population, and the medical needs, and the psychological needs, there just isn’t enough money to go around. And I think for these rescue operations, they’re not necessarily the top priority for the funders in the government. It’s an incredibly complicated picture, basically.

Needless to say, this must be incredibly dangerous for them as well.

When we made the film, at least three had died. And I mean the stories — it is really very dramatic. It’s like the stories you read about from occupied France in World War II. Because ISIS is aware of these guys operating, and they try to catch them. And they’re always trying to set ambushes for them.

There was one amazing story that ISIS had forced a girl to call the rescuers and say that she was going to meet them — or they had found out that she was planning to meet them — and they’d arranged to meet in a crowd. And ISIS was watching her. And essentially she saw the rescuers and just walked past them, because if she’d stopped and talked to them, ISIS would have pounced and killed the guys. And so that girl condemned herself to staying with ISIS, with all the things we know that they do, in order to protect the people who were trying to rescue her. That’s just one amazing story of bravery.

Khalil told me just two weeks ago, a similar situation – ISIS had forced a girl to call up one of his guys, a rescuer, and forced her to say, “My captor is away, he’s at the front line, I’m at the house on my own, you can come and get me.” They turned up to the house and it was a trap. The two guys had been caught and as Khalil had heard it, they’d been stoned to death. It’s a really extremely dangerous game that they’re playing.

How successful are these sorts of rescue attempts typically?

That’s really hard to say. There are so many of these rescue operations, or kind of hints of rescue operations happening at any one time. There were essentially three successes that I saw. Or rather, four successes. I was aware of others that were happening, other successes that had happened. But often it’s the case that it’s one woman, or one woman and her child — and I mean they’re literally trying to get them out one at a time if need be. So you might have a series of successes like that, and then you have 10 people to show for it. Whereas, there are still so many thousands that are still in there. And so I think it’s hard to say percentage-wise what the success rate/failure rate is. But the bottom line is they’ve still only managed to reduce a fraction of the people who are still held hostage.

Given the risks inherent in reporting a story like this, what were your safety preparations like?

You obviously have these quite detailed security protocols that we have to go through. And so before I even leave, there’s very careful planning done. Everyone I’m going to work with thoroughly checked out, double-referenced. We very tightly think about every detail — from what hotel you’re going to stay in, to what vehicle you’re going to drive. What routes are you going to take, how are you going to vary your routes? But I have to say that the town where I spent most of my time, Dohuk, it is under a very tight level of security by the Kurdish regional government forces. So inside the town, I felt quite relaxed.

“I’VE COVERED A LOT OF BAD AND TERRIBLE STORIES, AND THIS IS JUST ON A DIFFERENT SCALE BECAUSE OF THE CRUELTY THAT THESE VERY YOUNG WOMEN HAVE ENDURED.”

I had an amazing fixer as well, and every foreign correspondent will tell you, you live or die by your fixer. And I had a guy who really knew the territory, very experienced, very brave guy, but also not foolish in any way.

In terms of actual danger, the main moment of risk was really being right at the front. That particular time when we were waiting for the huge family to come out — and again, you take all the precautions you can, tons of protective gear, you have everything you can worked out. And you also just have to hope that it’s going to be a quiet day. And it was a quiet morning on that particular morning when we waited for that family to arrive.

But what goes through your mind in a moment like that, when you’re probably just a few hundred yards from ISIS territory?

Personally, I get into quite a Zen space, and I just really work as hard as I can. I think that’s how I distract myself from it really. When you’re in those kind of positions, you just don’t know how long you’re going to be able to stay there. You might only be able to be there for five minutes. And so when I’m in that kind of environment, I’m just filming everything. And that, in a sense, the focus on the work and what you need and trying to make the most of that little opportunity you have to be in that place, is a kind of distraction from the fear. It’s only maybe later, as in two or three days later, you’re in your hotel and you think, “Wow. I’m glad that all went well.” That’s kind of how it works for me.

But I mean, this film, this experience, has been very tough for me, because it’s so harrowing, this material. I’ve covered a lot of bad and terrible stories, and this is just on a different scale, because of the cruelty that these very young women have endured. It’s just incredibly shocking. Just the damage that they’ve sustained, and yet their courage too. The courage that they have to keep to have survived, to have resisted, to have stayed alive and not given up. And it’s really striking. It somehow, as a story, has that power to affect people in a way that not a lot of stories do.

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