Yazidis flood into Iraq following US strikes
Burned by the sun, blistered with thirst and weak from exhaustion, thousands of Yazidis have fled the mountain on which they had been trapped for a week, streaming into Iraq's northern Kurdistan region after a harrowing escape from extremist fighters that some said was aided by US airstrikes.
Hungry, thirsty and tired, they limped across a narrow bridge spanning the Tigris river on the Iraqi-Syrian border hauling their few belongings, some of them barefoot, others in sleeping clothes because they ran for their lives at night.
It was the last leg of a nightmarish journey that some have not survived — and many more may not.
Thousands are still stranded on the mountain, either because they are surrounded in their villages by militants with the Islamic State or are simply too weak to walk, according to those arriving in the remote Iraqi border post of Fishkhabour. Others have died trying to reach safety, falling by the wayside on the barren, rocky mountain for lack of food and water.
"We passed dead people on the way," said Barakat Ghanem Hassan, 75, who walked for two days with his wife and their 3-year-old grandson, Ayman.
The boy, who became sick on the journey and lay limply on the ground, his lips cracked from dehydration, was separated from his parents in the scramble to flee the advancing militants. Hassan does not know whether they survived.
The exodus was touched off by an assault last Sunday by the Islamic State against the northeastern Iraqi town of Sinjar, where tens of thousands of members of the long-persecuted Yazidi faith live. They ran for their lives to Mount Sinjar, creating a humanitarian catastrophe that has captured the attention of the world and prompted President Barack Obama to intervene.
Airdrops of food and water — which apparently went awry — were followed by airstrikes, including four on Friday that targeted Islamic State positions around the mountain.
The attacks helped at least some of the Yazidis escape, said Zaim Hassan Harmouch, 66, who said the bombings destroyed the militant positions that had blocked their route out. He led his wife, six sons and seven grandchildren down from the mountain overnight, crossing the border into a Kurdish-held region of Syria and then back into northern Iraq.
"It was because of the planes that we could leave," he said. "They opened the way."
Harmouch was among an estimated 50,000 Yazidis who fled the Islamic State assault on Sinjar last Sunday, after the militants surged into town threatening to kill any of those who did not convert to Islam. He carried his wife on his back all the way, because her knees gave way.
The family took refuge on a barren patch of land, and for the last three days of their ordeal they survived by sharing bottle-cap amounts of water from the last of their meager supplies. Food dropped by US warplanes landed between their sanctuary and the Islamic State positions and could not be reached. For three days, they did not eat.
After the strikes on Friday dispersed Islamic State fighters, Syrian Kurdish fighters with the PYD — an affiliate of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK — arrived to secure a passageway into Syria, then back into Iraq, he said.
But not everyone was strong enough to make the journey. "Some of the people we had to leave behind. The old, the sick — they cannot walk, and they are going to die," he said. A family friend, an elderly woman, told him to bring help, "but I don't know who is going to help," he said.
Haji Qassem Ahmed, 29, left without his elderly parents, his wife and his baby daughter, who was born on the mountain three days ago because they were too weak to leave. "Tell America to help them," he begged, an appeal repeated over and over by those with relatives still on the mountain.
The PKK began escorting Yazidis to safety three days ago, but the trickle of refugees turned to a flood after the airstrikes enabled those farther south along the mountain to leave.
Kurdish border officials said that by Sunday afternoon, more than 30,000 had crossed in the previous 24 hours, although how they knew was difficult to say given the crush of people swarming into the barren landscape.
How many are left behind also is difficult to say. The United Nations estimated that 50,000 Yazidis had fled Sinjar. But there also were villages in the mountains, an arid, 100-mile-long stretch of peaks spanning the Iraqi-Syrian border. Thousands of those living on the southern edge remain trapped by the extremists, some of them still under threat of death, said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International.
"It's becoming more and more urgent for those who are there," she said.
At least two of the villages have been surrounded by Islamic State fighters for the past week, and were given a deadline of Monday to convert or die, she said.
Shelling by Islamic militants compounded the trouble for those making the journey out. Some of those who perished on the route died of untreated injuries sustained in the shelling.
The Kurdish fighters, who also are confronting the Islamic State in Syria, provided food and water along the way and in some cases transportation for the refugees. But most walked, and they straggled rather than surged across the bridge into Iraq, slumping on the stony ground in tired groups.
Several women collapsed from exhaustion. Sick children lay gasping under the sun, scorching even as the day drew to a close.
And still the Yazidis were streaming over the bridge.
"Who knows if we will ever go home?" asked Murad Shukri, 30, as he arrived with more than a dozen of his relatives. "This is a disaster."