TO RECRUIT young men to join its ranks, Islamic State (IS) offered unique inducements. Not only would they have a chance to kill God’s enemies; they would also have sex slaves.

Rape is common during war. But with the “caliphate”, which ruled large parts of Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2017, it was not a symptom of indiscipline. Islamic State theologians gave it religious sanction, and even wrote a how-to guide. Infidel women, defined as any who disagreed with their harsh interpretation of the Koran, could be enslaved, sold and used as temporary “wives”. For some young men, the chance to feel self-righteous while committing sex crimes proved irresistible.

Sabaya” is a documentary about the victims of this ghoulish sophistry. It was filmed after the caliphate was crushed and its fighters were driven out of the cities they briefly occupied. It records the work of the Yazidi Home Centre, an organisation of volunteers who try to rescue women still held captive by IS, whom the jihadists refer to as “sabaya”.

Much of the action takes place in or near Al-Hol, a refugee camp in Syria, not far from the borders with Iraq and Turkey. Most of the refugees are IS supporters. Hidden among them are several Yazidi women, members of a religious minority whom the jihadists particularly despise.

The Yazidi women were captured when IS over-ran their villages. Typically, the holy warriors would murder all the men, and also the women they deemed too old to rape. Then they would load the young women into trucks and ferry them to a slave market. Even after the jihadists were defeated on the battlefield, they kept as many slaves as they could. In the Al-Hol refugee camp, Yazidi girls and women are concealed under niqabs, beaten with broom handles and moved from tent to tent to make it harder to find them.

The documentary follows a small team of rescuers. Bravest of all are the “infiltrators”. These are women, mostly former sabaya, who don once more the hated black head-to-toe covering and go back into the camp. Once there, they try to locate other Yazidi women and summon an armed snatch team to get them out.

The film-maker, Hogir Hirori, disguises himself as a woman and films through a slit in his niqab. He also rides with the snatch team as they venture into the camp in the dead of night. The men stand guard with assault rifles while female volunteers, also armed, burst into a tent and check the inmates’ faces to see if they match photos of the missing. Often they find no one, and the IS-supporting women they question deny that any sabaya were ever there.

So dangerous was the filming that Mr Hirori, an Iraqi refugee who now lives in Sweden, directed and shot it all himself. (He also edited it, during a long, lonely covid-19 lockdown.) In one scene, the snatch team are racing away from Al-Hol in a car with a rescued sabaya, chased by a vehicle full of jihadists who are shooting at them. The villages around the camp are full of IS supporters. Jihadists are constantly threatening the Yazidi Home Centre. At one point they set fire to the local village’s crops. At another point, a gun battle rages outside while the next team of infiltrators are preparing for their mission.

Some of the most powerful scenes are the most humdrum. Mahmud, the leader of the snatch team, struggles to find a mobile-phone signal. His mother, who cooks and cares for the sabaya when they are first rescued, picks eggs from a breeze-block hen coop for breakfast. Mahmud’s young son plays and giggles in the dusty yard.

All this seems to help the rescued women readjust to normality, at least a little. Unsurprisingly, they find it hard to describe what they have endured. One was sold to 15 different men. Another was kidnapped at the age of one. Now, at seven, she no longer speaks her mother tongue, Kurdish. All were told by their captors that their families would never welcome them back, since they have been dishonoured. Some have babies, sired by their slave-masters.

This reviewer knows from personal experience how hard it is to interview former sabaya. Mr Hirori must have shown extraordinary patience and empathy to obtain such heart-breaking footage. In a month when another nation, Afghanistan, has been seized by men who treat women like chattels, this film is essential viewing. The cruelty it depicts almost makes one despair of human nature. But the heroism of the rescuers offers hope.

Image credit: Dogwoof