Yazidis: Between the Islamic State and a hard place

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Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Ahmed al-Rubaye)

By: Daoud Ali

Published Monday, August 18, 2014

The Yazidis trapped in Mount Sinjar are having to cope with very harsh conditions, amid food shortages and a lack of many basic supplies, and a siege imposed by the radical jihadi group the Islamic State that has led dozens of Yazidis to perish.

Erbil – When the fighters of the Kurdish Peshmerga force left their positions in the town of Sinjar on August 3, and withdrew from the Nineveh Plain, the minority populations of Christians, Yazidis, and the Shabak were left without any protection from the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Hundreds of Yazidi families chose to flee to Syria via a safe corridor that passes through the area of ​​Faysh Khabur, while others chose to flee to the mountain, which is located south of Sinjar, in the direction of Mosul. However, this mountain is far from the borders of the Kurdistan region, something that Peshmerga officials have argued had made it difficult for them to reach the people trapped there.

In the meantime, IS militants have since occupied around 50 villages in the Nineveh plain inhabited by the Shabak. On the night of August 8, around 117 people from this minority were ruthlessly executed. Christians were more fortunate, and many managed to escape to the Erbil region, to the predominantly Christian town of Ankawa, though they found no shelter there but the churches and sidewalks.

Waiting for death to come to the mountain

The exact number of Yazidi families trapped in Mount Sinjar is unknown. Individuals who were able to escape recently have mentioned contradicting figures, and some have even spoken about hundreds of families.

Khairy Jaddo, a Yazidi from Sinjar, said that the people trapped fell victim to a ruse three days after IS overran their town. As a result, he said, dozens of young men were killed.

Jaddo explained, “A number of young Yazidi men who were guarding the road leading to the summit of the mountain climbed up and said that there were credible reports saying the Peshmerga had returned. Some trapped people decided to return to the city, with dozens setting off in nine vehicles. However, they did not find the Peshmerga, but IS militants, who then captured them and took them to a remote location.”

He continued, “Only a 95-year-old woman survived the subsequent collective massacre. She said: They forced them to lie on the ground face down… then rained down bullets on their heads.”

The elderly Yazidi woman, who bore witness to the massacre of her coreligionists, was a “message” sent by the IS militants to those trapped in the mountain. The message was sufficient to convince everyone to stay put, and bear the hardship, thirst, and hunger. Jaddo said, “We sat waiting for people to die of thirst, so we could bury them.”

Mohsen Khadr, a young Yazidi who had just returned from Sinjar to Erbil with the help of an Iraqi army plane, said, “Dozens of women and children have died of starvation and thirst.” He added, “We would look for trenches in the mountain to shelter from the sun and stop whatever water we had from evaporating.”

Khadr said that the militants were about 100 meters from the mountain, in the center of the town, but could not climb the mountain because they don’t know the roads leading to it, pointing out that they don’t seem to have any locals in their ranks. The man continued, “The mountainous terrain protected us from them, but thirst killed many of us in the mountain.”

Why did the Peshmerga leave?

This is the most controversial question in Kurdish and Iraqi political circles. On the night in question, the Kurdish forces left their positions and retreated to the so-called 36th line, which demarcated the borders of the Kurdistan region before 2003.

The president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, has since punished military and political leaders in the disputed areas in Mosul that are adjacent to Erbil, including Sinjar. Barzani ordered an investigation into the circumstances of the Kurdish withdrawal, but the results of the inquiry are yet to be disclosed.

Political sources speak about Kurdish political disputes that have made the Kurdistan region appear as though it had abandoned the minorities. However, a high-ranking officer who spoke to Al-Akhbar denied this hypothesis, saying, “The Peshmerga do not have the same assets as IS. We are in an uneven fight, and we need armaments that are completely different from those used in conventional battles.”

In the same vein, Shawan Taha, leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, asked, “How can IS not have superiority when it had seized Abrams tanks, artillery, equipment, ammunition, armored vehicles, and troop carriers, from three army battalions that were present in Mosul before its fall?”

Yet this would not have changed much in terms of the humanitarian catastrophe in Mount Sinjar, with many reports suggesting the siege would last for a long time. Jaddo said, “When the Peshmerga left, we asked them to give us weapons and equipment, so we can protect our families.”

For his part, Anwar Hussain, one of the young Yazidis who was able to escape from the mountain to the city of Dohuk, said, “We saw IS patrols going around the mountain looking for a way up, but in the end, they decided to stay at the bottom, because they knew we would eventually die of hunger or thirst.”

Aid and misfortune

There has been a flurry of aid airlifted to Mount Sinjar, while Kurdish fighters worked to secure corridors to transport trapped people to safer areas.

Jaddo said, “After nearly 10 days, we started getting reports about U.S. airstrikes on IS positions. Later on, the rate of evacuation increased.” He added, “The bulk of trapped people were able to reach safe areas, but for those trapped in Sinjar, the situation remains dangerous.”

A helicopter carrying Kurdish-Yazidi MP Fayan Dakhil was able to bring in urgent aid to the besieged people. The helicopter tried to evacuate a number of them, but it seems there were too many passengers, and the helicopter lost its balance and crash-landed, according to a source in the Iraqi Air Force. Dakhil suffered multiple fractures.

The US cancels planned evacuation

Meanwhile, Iraqi sources told Al-Akhbar that the US Department of Defense had cancelled a planned operation to evacuate the remaining individuals trapped in Mount Sinjar, because their number was “small and less than expected.”

In reality, however, there is no accurate figure for the number of people who had fled to the mountain. While press sources say United Nations reports had exaggerated by putting the number at 200,000, “old” data suggests the total population of the district was 250,000, most of them Yazidis.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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