By: Alissa J Rubin
Like sleepwalkers moving under a blazing sun, family after family from the Yazidi minority made their way across the narrow bridge that spans the river between Syria and Iraq, hardly seeming to see where they were going until they reached the Iraqi side.
Then many stopped and looked back, scanning the stream of people walking across the bridge, looking for lost relatives. “We are waiting for my brother’s family,” said Sabri Caro, 48. “People told us they walked down from the mountain, but they were behind us.”
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As a stream of Yazidis made their way down from the Sinjar mountains, where they had been stranded for a week after fleeing the advance of the Islamic State, the depth of their plight became increasingly clear. Many families have been separated, some in their flight to the mountains, some when they made the decision to come down. Many have nowhere to go, and because they fled with nothing, are completely dependent on the generosity of locals and relatives. And many, still dehydrated and hungry from the lack of food and water on the mountain, appeared confused about what to do next.
The Sinjar mountains lie near the Syrian border, and because the way into Kurdistan from inside Iraq is blocked by Sunni militants, the Yazidis hoped to cross the mountains and make their way to Kurdistan through an alternative route.
“We received people until 11 pm last night,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, the manager of the Bajid Kandal camp, which is run by the UN refugee agency and is the closest to the Fishkhabour border crossing between Iraq and Syria. There are now about 24,000 people in the camp and bulldozers are breaking ground for a second camp across the road, but it will take a week to set it up, Mohammed said.
“The people are upset. Many families have been separated, some family members are still on the mountain, others are still in the Sinjar villages which are controlled by ISIS and sometimes families are ending up in different camps,” he said.
At least several thousand people crossed the bridge on Sunday. Estimates of how many have crossed since Saturday, when the trickle of those who could make it down from the mountains became a flood, ranges from 20,000 to 30,000. By nightfall on Sunday, the numbers had slowed considerably from the night before.
As people crossed and collapsed near the border, searching for a patch of shade in the blazing sun, they seemed even more exhausted than those who arrived on Saturday, testament to the longer time they spent on the mountain. A woman poured water on her 4-year-old son’s red and swollen feet, while two elderly women were unable to walk without holding on to younger relatives.
While many families fled from their villages at night after hearing gunfire and receiving calls from neighbours saying that Islamic State fighters were on their way, some fled during the day and ran into checkpoints run by the militants. The Caro family, who fled their village of Zurava on Monday, said they were trying to find a way to drive to Syria, but soon discovered that Islamic State fighters had blocked the roads.
When fighters, who were masked, approached the car, everyone fell silent, Caro said, fearing that they would be shot. “But they were polite, they didn’t shout or say bad words. They just asked us to become Muslims,” he said. “I told them ‘We are a peaceful people and we don’t want to change our faith.’”
The fighters did not respond, but told the Caro family to turn back. Afraid that they would face death if they tried to pass again and still refused to convert, they went to the mountain.
Demands for conversion are a core demand of Islamic State fighters when dealing with non-Muslim minorities. Christians also have been asked to convert or face death, and recently, residents of two Yazidi villages that are held by Islamic State fighters, Koocho and Hakeemi, were told they had three days to choose whether to convert or die. The deadline was Sunday. At least 500 Yazidis have been killed by Islamic State fighters since they seized Sinjar this month, according to Iraq’s human rights minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. The inhabitants of Hakeemi managed to escape to the mountains on Saturday night, but the people of Koocho could not. However, when an Islamic State official came to Koocho on Sunday, he extended the deadline, said Ahmad Abu Shahab, the community’s mukhtar, a position somewhat like that of a mayor.
For those on the mountain, their best hope is to link up with Yazidi fighters who can guide them to a protected route off the mountain to the north near the Syrian border. The fighters are led by Qassim Sheshu, who has become a hero to Yazidis.
Many of the Yazidis fled with cellphones and while there is no electricity on the mountain, in some areas they were able to drive their cars up the slopes and charge their phones. US officials are also in touch with Yazidis on the mountains who have cellphones, said an administration official.
Several refugees interviewed Sunday described encountering Sheshu’s fighters as they wandered on the mountain, and the encounters appear to have given them hope they had not been forgotten.
Ali Rashu, 55, who crossed the bridge into Iraq with 50 of his relatives, said they had fled up the mountain above their village, Gubel. From the heights above, he was able to look into the village with some borrowed binoculars and see what Islamic State fighters had done to their homes.
“They had blown them up,” he said. “We could see three houses of Yazidi people, the smoke was rising from them. They didn’t do that to the Kurdish or the Arab houses.”