Tens of thousands of Yazidis, one of Iraq's oldest ethnic minorities, have been forced to flee their homes this weekend and take refuge in the Sinjar Mountains due to the advance of the Islamic State. Shiites and others deemed heretical by the Islamic State have also fled. Those who remained have fallen into the hands of the militants, who have killed the men and forced the women into sex slavery under so-called "jihad marriages."
Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians are trapped on Mount Sinjar having fled the surrounding villages after the collapse of Kurdish defense forces on Sunday. Mount Sinjar is a barren, exposed rock face completely surrounded by Islamic State forces. Those on the mountain have no food and no water. Because the Islamic State control all the roads, no aid can get in and the refugees cannot get out. Attempts to airlift water onto the mountain have so far been unsuccesful.
Many have already died of thirst. UNICEF says that at least 40 children and elderly people have died already, with many more at risk. Reports from the few Yazidis on the mountain who still have battery life on their mobile phones say that families are burying their loved ones in shallow graves covered in stones. The landscape is too harsh to dig deeper.
One Yazidi refugee, Karim, drove with his family over the mountains across a roundabout route to Kurdistan, where they were able to take shelter with a brother who lives in the town of Dohuk. He made the perilous journey with a convoy of 250 other cars, taking only personal items, a little food and water and their guns.
The convoy drove into Syria through the Kurdish-controlled areas, then back into Iraqi Kurdistan. Around 147,000 people escaped to refugee camps and towns in Kurdistan this way, but services are severely overstretched. Karim told the New Yorker that he was one of the lucky ones. "Some are in camps for refugees," he said. "It’s very hot and very hard. We are safe, but thousands of families are in the mountains. Thousands.”
Karim was dismissive of the reaction from the international community. "I don’t see any attention from the rest of the world,” he said. “In one day, they killed more than two thousand Yazidi in Sinjar, and the whole world says, ‘Save Gaza, save Gaza.’ "
The Yazidi faith is thousands of years old, some estimates suggest as old as 6,000 years. They believe that God created the universe and delegated his power to seven "angels" led by the Melek Taus (the Peacock Angel). The religion bears similarities to Sufism, Zoroastrianism and other ancient Middle Eastern faiths such as Mithraism and Assyrian religions. The Sunni extremists regard the Yazidis as "devil worshippers." Worldwide, there are around 700,000 Yazidis, of which 500,000 live in Iraq.
The Islamic State's forces captured the town of Sinjar over the weekend, defeating the Peshmerga, the Kurdish defense forces guarding the area. Sinjar is a district in Iraq's Ninevah province between Mosul and the Syrian border. The district is named after the mountain and the town.
The Peshmerga were outgunned by the Islamic State, which has captured heavy weaponry including rocket launchers and armored vehicles abandoned by the Iraqi army. The Peshmerga are equipped primarily with small arms. On Sunday, an estimated 200,000 people fled. At press time, Kurdish forces are reported to be planning a counterattack.
Yazidis are not the only group suffering from the Islamic State's advances. On Wednesday night the Islamic State captured Iraq's largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and several Shiite areas. Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk and Suleimaniyah told AFP, "I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants." Christians and Shabak Shiites have fled the arriving jihadi militants.
In Lebanon militants loyal to the Islamic State captured parts of the border town of Arsal, fighting alongside other jihadi militia factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Yet despite its advances, and the near universal loathing for the Islamic State's caliphate enterprise, no force has yet emerged to counter the group. According to Noah Bonsey, the Syria expert for the International Crisis Group, "With Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in a proxy war in Syria, Saudi Arabia competing with Qatar and Turkey for influence throughout the region, and Kurds — themselves hardly united — leaning ever further toward independence, it is not realistic to expect a coherent strategy for confronting ISIS to emerge from the region."
In the following video, Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament Fiyan Dakheel collapses in tears after calling on world to save the Yazidis: