Stranded Yazidis say ‘there is no water, nothing’
Minority members says funeral processions into mountain scrubland becoming ever more common
Refugees from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority rest on a roadside in Dohuk province, a Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. While some Yazidis fleeing from Isil fighters wound up here, many fled up the slopes of Mount Sinjar and are now in danger of starving. Photograph: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times.
They ran from the sound of the Sunni militants’ guns in the night last weekend, thousands of Yazidis fleeing miles on foot, carrying almost nothing, to their holy sites on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, then collapsing amid the rocks and low scrub. Now they face a different danger.
“There is no water, nothing to eat, there is nowhere to sit, there is not even a shadow,” said one refugee, Jalal Shoraf Din.
Suleiman Ilyas Aslan, who fled with his wife and their three children, said makeshift funeral processions into the scrub wasteland on the mountainside have become ever more common.
“We couldn’t count them there were so many,” said Aslan, who said he looked away when the grieving families walked by.
The Yazidis are a tiny religious minority, following a faith that is neither Muslim nor Christian, and that makes them apostates in the eyes of the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which is sweeping through their villages in northern Iraq.
Some of those who ran to the mountain did not make it, and no one yet has numbered how many were executed by Islamic State fighters over the past week. But interviews with a half-dozen Yazidi families who had made their way down from Mount Sinjar found that almost everyone had lost someone in their extended family.
Some were killed; others were abducted and faced an unknown fate. Hundreds of women and young girls were taken away as brides for jihadis and given the choice of conversion or death, according to the refugees, several of whom said they had received phone calls from their daughters or sisters, before their cellphone batteries and credit ran out. The women said they were in a place near Mosul, the new center for Isil.
For those who have stayed on the mountain, things are dire in a different way. Airdrops by the Iraqi government and by the Americans have reached a number of the refugees, but the scale of the mountain, its many folds and crevasses, means that those who fled are scattered across its scrabble wastes.
The Aslan family was one of four interviewed who never received water or food from the airdrops although its members sometimes heard about the packages from other families who were passing by and had managed to receive some of the aid.
“These people urgently need lifesaving assistance,” said David Swanson, a spokesman for the United Nations’ Office of Coordination and Humanitarian Aid in Iraq. “If we don’t get it up to them, the more people will die; the more we wait, the more they die,” he said.
The atmosphere now on the mountain is one desperation and exhaustion, said those who were coming off it, dehydrated and confused. Many of those who have made it down have bloodied and blistered feet and can barely speak, not least because of all they have lost.
“I don’t remember anything,” said Ilyas Haku Namo (64), who was wearing traditional Kurdish clothes, a turban and wide-legged pants that narrow at the ankle. He arrived in Dohuk yesterday morning and was sitting under a highway bridge. He had lost most of his family and feared they were abducted by the Islamic State or dead.
“At first we were running together, me and my first wife and my second wife and my three children, two boys and a girl,” he said. “But then when we got higher on the mountain, my three children and my first wife were gone. “I did nothing in my life except work and have this family,” he added, despairing. “I just want to die.”
In the past 48 hours, the situation has become worse. Some refugees reached by cellphone said they had heard gunshots and feared that Islamic State fighters might be moving onto the mountain - not necessarily to hunt the Yazidis, but to fight the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga fighters who have managed to make their way from Syria to the mountain, trying to assist in bringing people down.
The Yazidis are caught up in a larger disaster occurring across Iraq, but one that is hitting Kurdistan, once the most stable part of the country, especially hard. There, a mass migration precipitated by increasingly widespread fears that the Sunni militants are about to take one village after another across northern Iraq, is underway, pouring some 580,00 refugees into the Kurdistan region, about 200,000 since Monday when Isil took Sinjar and its surrounding villages, according to Swanson. They are there on top of another 230,000 Syrian refugees.
As Isil has moved steadily through the disputed areas along the border of Iraqi Kurdistan that the Kurds are attempting to claim as part of their region, civilians have fled into the Kurdistan region. In village after village, town after town, people were running ahead of rumors that Isil was coming.
The Kurdish forces offered to help people leave, piling them into huge open trucks and handing out water before they set out for the east or west with their tottering loads. Individuals in cars, pickup trucks and farm vehicles with mattresses strapped on with old twine hobbled along the bumpy roads just trying to get away. The old road to Dohuk, which runs across Kurdistan, was filled with cars, heading to larger cities.
This most recent exodus has involved primarily the minority Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, another Muslim sect, and Turkmen Shiites, all of whom the Sunni militants view as heretics as they do all Shiites. The particular fear for the Yazidis is that Isil appears not only to be displacing them and forcing conversions, but also killing a number of them, much as they have Shiites in other parts of Iraq.
At Mount Sinjar, some people are getting down with the help of the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga who have been trying to lead people to safety. Some 350 people from the mountain arrived in Kurdistan this morning after being rescued, brought into Syria and then traveling back into Iraq.
Others made their way down on their own, relying on their sense of the mountain from years of worshiping on its slopes or in some cases herding sheep and goats there. In some cases groups of women have come alone, bringing their children while their men stayed on the mountain.
Aslan and his family debated with several other families whether to risk going down the mountain. They were not sure how far they would have to walk or whether, when they reached the foot of the mountain, the gunmen they were fleeing would be there, waiting to kill them. After four days without food and with only a few sips of water from shallow springs - parents were spitting into their children’s mouths to try to get them some liquid - Aslan’s wife, Gerus Khalaf Aslan, said they felt death would soon come to them.
“We decided to risk our children’s lives and try to escape,” she said. The mountain lies near the Syrian border and they managed to cross it with the help of relatives who met them when they came off the mountain and they then spent their last few dinars on a taxi back to the Kurdish city of Dohuk - testament to how the borders have melted away in this troubled region.
They have spent the last 24 hours living under a highway bridge here, uncertain where they should go or what they should do. Local Kurds have brought them mattresses, bread and cookies and some are bringing cooked food, but their children want desperately to go home.
“We thought ISIS would only stay a short time in our village and we thought the Kurdish fighters would succeed in beating back ISIS,” said Gerus Aslan, explaining that their village had been defended against Islamic State fighters by peshmerga soldiers.
“But they used up all their bullets,” she said, looking down. Her husband nodded and said: “We will never go back to our village or we will die.”
New York Times