Yazidi exodus 'a crisis on top of crisis'

In the scorching heat, Yazidis cross the bridge from Syria into northern Iraqi Kurdistan after spending more than a week on Mt. Sinjar surrounded by ISIS, without water and food for days. More than 100,000 have crossed over here in the past seven days.
In the scorching heat, Yazidis cross the bridge from Syria into northern Iraqi Kurdistan after spending more than a week on Mt. Sinjar surrounded by ISIS, without water and food for days. More than 100,000 have crossed over here in the past seven days.
Photo by Arshed Haibat | For Trib Total Media
| Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, 7:36 a.m.

FISHKHABOUR, Iraq – On foot or crammed into pickup trucks, minibuses and cars, traumatized Yazidis with sunburned faces crossed a small pontoon bridge here on Wednesday in scorching heat.

They came from Syria back to Kurdish Iraq after fleeing days earlier from the latest onslaught by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists.

As they trudged or crept past, volunteers handed them water, bread, diapers, powdered milk and flip-flops.

Kurdish soldiers in black uniforms, faces covered by black balaclavas, kept them moving away from the overwhelmed crossing.

“ISIS doesn't have any religion, they just kill everyone. They are beasts,” said Khurmish Ali, 66, traveling with 11 relatives, the youngest just 2 years old.

More than 100,000 Yazidi Kurds — an ancient sect that mixes aspects of several religions — have crossed here in the last seven days, according to International Red Cross worker Stacy Ragan. Surveying the crossing, she called it “a crisis on top of a crisis.”

Between 5,000 and more than 30,000 remain stranded on Mt. Sinjar, surrounded by ISIS, according to U.S., Iraqi and other officials.

American and Iraqi planes have dropped humanitarian aid to them, but refugees say the aid is not enough. The Iraqi army is trying to ferry people off the mountaintop; one rescue helicopter crashed, killing the pilot.

Crossing the bridge in 110-degree heat, the refugees carried horror stories with them, the desperation and shock of recent days etched into their eyes and faces.

Haji Khither and his family of seven slumped momentarily in the shade of some trees, surrounded by empty water bottles and garbage dropped by the thousands who passed earlier.

Like others, they fled when ISIS attacked the city of Sinjar, took a day to scale the mountain and huddled there for 10 days.

“We didn't have anything. We drank water in holes left by the rain,” said Khither, 43, a school security guard.

“This is how much water we had for the children, even when they were going to die.” He held up a small blue water-bottle cap.

“My niece, she is 12 years old, she died from lack of water and food. We couldn't even bury her” on the rocky mountaintop, he said.

“This little one,” he added, pointing to a 6-year-old girl, “she walked with us for 12 hours.”

Other refugees told him that women from Sinjar “were calling by phones and said, ‘We are in ISIS' jail.' When ISIS took the women, they killed their husbands.”

Haider Khither, 42, hid atop the mountain with his family for eight days: “There was a lot of death from thirst and hunger. The children got diarrhea and other illnesses, and they still do.”

His clan of about 50 escaped when Kurdish fighters from Turkey secured a route down; they crossed into Syria, then back into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now, refugees are spreading throughout northern Iraq's Dohuk province. Syrian refugees are in a camp there, and tents are being raised beside them for the next flood of people.

Near the latest encampment, Yazidi protesters chanted “We can't stay here!” and waved banners and signs condemning ISIS as genocidal, thanking their Kurdish rescuers, or calling on Europe to open its doors to the dispossessed.

“We want to immigrate to a place without ISIS,” explained Sirwan Burgess, 40, a teacher. “We don't have any place to stay in Iraq.”

Nearly all 40,000 residents of the Kurdish town of Shekhan fled after learning ISIS fighters were just 18 miles away, said Jahwar Sulaiman, a Kurdish housing official.

Nearby, Yazidi leaders sat and mourned the state of Iraq's beleaguered minorities.

Sinjar's municipal manager, Saleh Ahmed, said ISIS attacked the city at 3 a.m., causing about 25,000 frightened people to swarm the city's single gate.

“ISIS took a gun, a .50-caliber gun, that was high up on a building, and they were shooting at us,” he said. “More than 300 were killed there at the gate.

“Several thousand fled back into the city. ISIS captured them, and all the men were slaughtered. They took around 500 women from this group; I don't know what happened to them.”

“We are all afraid of these Islamic extremists,” said Hussein Hassan Nerman, a former Iraqi parliamentarian. “The international community must set up a security zone for the minorities – the Yazidis, Christians, Shabak and others. Or they should open the door to mass immigration.”

“Otherwise,” he said, those frightened, desperate people “will go anyway, even illegally.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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