The voice messages sent by Abbas Hussein’s teenage son are heartbreaking in their matter-of-factness. The boy, a member of Iraq’s Yazidi minority who was kidnapped by Islamic State fighters seven years ago, asks about his mother and wonders why his father has not been in touch.
In the messages sent last summer to his father, an unemployed laborer, the son says his captor will not let him send any more because his parents have not delivered payments as demanded.
“Father, if you don’t have money, that’s OK. Just let me know,” says the teenager, who still has the voice of a child. “I will work and save money and give it to him to let me talk to you.”
Mr. Hussein has known for more than a year that his son and five other relatives are being held in Turkish-controlled northern Syria by a former ISIS fighter who joined the Syrian National Army — a Turkish-backed coalition of armed opposition groups that includes mercenaries and Syrian rebels.
But they are agonizingly beyond his reach — just a few of roughly 3,000 Yazidis still missing after being captured by ISIS during its takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria.
While most of the missing are presumed dead, hundreds more are thought to be alive and held captive in Syria or Turkey. In some cases, their families know where they are and have even been in contact with them or their captors. But financial support from governments and private donors, as well as interest from them in finding the missing Yazidis, has dried up.
ISIS captured a third of Iraq and large parts of neighboring Syria in 2014, establishing a self-declared caliphate, or Islamic empire. The group took over the Yazidi homeland in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq and embarked on a campaign of genocide against the ancient religious minority. It killed more than 3,000 and captured 6,000, sexually enslaving many of the women and girls.
While about half of the captured Yazidis either escaped or were rescued, almost 3,000 more are still missing, according to Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government. Many of the survivors are believed to still be living with the families of deceased ISIS fighters, either in hiding or in detention camps. Others are thought to be held by different extremist groups in Syria or Turkey.
Some of the children have forgotten that they are Yazidi.
Mr. Hussein knows from his son, who is not being identified for his own safety, that he is being forced to work in construction for about $1 a day.
But without the $9,000 the captors are demanding for each of his six relatives, Mr. Hussein does not know how to bring his loved ones home.
Since he first made re-established contact with the child in the summer of 2020, Mr. Hussein said he scraped together $600 for one payment to the captor and $1,200 for another. But that was not enough to free the boy, and it was not even enough to enable his son to keep sending him messages.
Recently, Mr. Hussein said, the kidnapper contacted him again.
“A week ago, I was talking through Facebook to the guy holding them, and he told me, ‘If you want to talk to the kids, you need to pay me $300 for each time,’” Mr. Hussein said. “I told him I can’t afford that, but let’s stay in touch.”
Mr. Hussein now relies on aid organizations to survive in a camp on Sinjar Mountain, where he moved his family after a fire raced through the larger camp where they lived in the Kurdistan region.
“I did not want what remained of my family to burn,” he said.
He said three of his sons were captured by ISIS in 2014. A year later, he managed to borrow money to buy the freedom of his youngest son, captured when he was a toddler along with five other relatives who had been taken to Syria and then to neighboring Turkey. Mr. Hussein said his family paid $30,000 for all six of them and picked up their loved ones at the Iraqi-Turkish border.
From 2015 until 2020, he did not know the fate of his other two sons. In the summer of 2020, he learned it from other relatives still held captive.
They told him that his eldest son had been killed in 2017 by an airstrike on a religious school in Raqqa, the city that became the de facto ISIS capital in Syria. The boy was 13.
Abdullah Shrim, a Yazidi rescuer who brought back almost 400 captive Yazidis from 2014 to 2019, said he has also been in touch with the fighter holding Mr. Hussein’s son.
Mr. Shrim, the subject of a book called “The Beekeeper of Sinjar,” was a honey trader in Syria before 2014. He used his connections there to build a rescue network after 56 of his relatives were captured.
Since 2014, an office connected to the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Nechervan Barzani, reimbursed Yazidi families for the cost of bringing back captive relatives. But now, most of the families living in desperate poverty in camps or the ruins of their homes in Sinjar can no longer raise the money to free their family members.
Although Yazidis are Iraqi citizens, the Iraqi government in Baghdad has never participated in their rescue, claiming it has neither the funds nor the ability.
Until about two years ago, Mr. Shrim, the rescuer, had both.
In the village of Khanke in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Mr. Shrim unrolls maps and diagrams onto his living room floor — each one a key to a past rescue of an enslaved Yazidi woman or child in Syria. The diagrams, drawn by his engineer son, show landmarks near homes where the captives were believed to have been held.
An American aid organization gave him the detailed maps of Syrian cities to help his search for Yazidi survivors. In five years of running a smuggling network, Mr. Shrim used funds from the Kurdistan regional government, private donations and money that impoverished relatives of the missing Yazidis borrowed from anywhere they could to rescue their loved ones.
One of the border crossings is only an hour’s drive from Mr. Shrim’s village, but Iraqi Yazidis are generally barred by Kurdish and Iraqi authorities from crossing into Syria.
There has been no systematic effort by the Iraqi government to try to find enslaved Yazidis within camps in Iraq where the wives and children of ISIS fighters are held and access to them is strictly controlled.
“The most important thing is not even money,” Mr. Shrim said. “The Iraqi government should allow us to go to Syria to look in the camps and other places. They should give us access to the Iraqi camps to search there.”
Of those missing and still alive, Mr. Shrim said he believed that the children taken as infants were mostly in Turkey while young women and girls were largely in northern Syria, held by mercenaries or ISIS-affiliated fighters in Turkish-controlled cities.
Although many of the leads have dried up, Mr. Shrim occasionally gets information about Yazidi survivors still being held captive. But without wider support, he and other rescuers have little ability to act on those tips.
Two years after ISIS lost the last territories it controlled, most Yazidi families from Sinjar are still missing family members.
“Some of the survivors go to Australia or Canada or other countries, and one part of the family is there and the other part is still missing,” Mr. Shrim said. “So they don’t know what to do.”