FISHKHABOUR, Iraq — They ran from the sound of the Sunni militants’ guns in the night last weekend. Carrying almost nothing, thousands of Yazidis fled to their holy sites on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq and then collapsed 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 on the mountainside have become more common. “We couldn’t count them; there were so many,” said Aslan.
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The Yazidis are a tiny religious minority following a faith that is neither Muslim nor Christian. That makes them apostates in the eyes of the militant group known as the Islamic State, which is sweeping through their villages in northern Iraq.
Some of those who ran to the mountain did not make it, and no one has counted how many were executed by Islamic State fighters in 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 girls were taken away as brides for Islamic State fighters 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.
For those still 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, with its many folds and crevasses, means refugees are scattered across miles of 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.”
The atmosphere on the mountain is one of desperation and exhaustion, said those who were coming off it, dehydrated and confused.
“I don’t remember anything,” said Ilyas Haku Namo, 64, who was wearing traditional Kurdish clothes, a turban and wide-legged pants that narrowed at the ankle. He arrived in the city of Dohuk in Kurdistan on Friday and was sitting under a highway bridge. He had lost most of his family members 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. “I just want to die.”
On Saturday, the trickle of those coming down the mountain became a flood. Refugees described how Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Syria, along with some Yazidi fighters, had cleared a new path down to the Syrian border, leading to a rush of thousands. The Yazidis reported running low on ammunition, even as Islamic State fighters were said to be advancing quickly up the other side of the mountain.
The Yazidis are caught up in a larger disaster occurring across Iraq, but one that is hitting Kurdistan, once the most stable part of Iraq, especially hard.
There, a mass migration is under way, precipitated by increasingly widespread fears that the Sunni militants are about to take one village after another across northern Iraq. Some 580,000 refugees have poured into the Kurdistan region, about 200,000 since Monday when the Islamic State took Sinjar and its surrounding villages, according to Swanson of the U.N.’s humanitarian assistance office. They are there on top of another 230,000 Syrian refugees.
As the Islamic State has moved through the disputed areas along the border of Iraqi Kurdistan that the Kurds are attempting to claim, civilians have fled into the region. In village after village, town after town, people were running ahead of rumors that the Islamic State 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, pickups and farm vehicles, carrying mattresses strapped on with old twine, hobbled along the bumpy roads trying to get away. The old road to Dohuk, which runs across Kurdistan, was filled with cars heading to larger cities.
Fleeing for their lives
This most recent exodus has involved primarily the minority Christians; Yazidis; Turkmen Shiites; and Shabaks, another Muslim sect, all of whom the Sunni militants view as heretics, as they do all Shiites.
The particular fear for the Yazidis is that the Islamic State appears not only to be displacing them and forcing conversions, but also killing 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. Late Saturday, thousands were reported to have come down with the help of the peshmerga, fleeing into Syria with the hope of making their way back into Iraq.
Others traveled down on their own. In some cases groups of women have come with 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; they managed to cross it with the help of relatives who met them when they came down. They then spent their last few dinars on a taxi back to Dohuk, testament to how the borders have melted away in this troubled region.
They had spent 24 hours living under a highway bridge, uncertain where they should go or what they should do. Local Kurds have brought them mattresses, bread and cookies; some are bringing cooked food, but the children want 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, using another term for the Islamic State and explaining that her village had been defended against the group’s fighters by peshmerga soldiers.
“But they used up all their bullets,” she said.