Sinjar residents recount their ordeal

First-hand accounts of those who witnessed the siege on Mount Sinjar.

al-monitor Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge at Dahuk province, August 15, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ari Jalal.

Topics covered

peshmerga, massacre, islamic state, iraq

Aug 21, 2014

His clothes were torn, his face caked with dried mud and his bare feet nearly shredded to pieces from the hard ground. He was just dropped here by a rescue helicopter on this quiet green meadow, east of the Kurdish city of Dahuk. He opened his eyes, squinted at the faces and cars surrounding him, and asked: “Where is the Islamic State?”

Anwar Dumali, the young Yazidi man lucky enough to have escaped from Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, or Shinkal as Iraqi Kurds refer to it, said that he was unable to bring his mother with him because she had died [in the mountain] of hunger and disease. “I buried her and threw myself into an Iraqi helicopter to escape. … Thank God that she was not disrespected.” He then fell to the ground and wept.

Dumali was not the only person to reach safety in Dahuk. The city’s Kurdish governor, Farhad Atroshi, told Al-Hayat that the city had declared a state of emergency and was unable to accommodate more refugees. Atroshi also complained of difficulties preventing the delivery of international aid, owing to “United Nations’ bureaucratic hurdles,” as he put it.

But, when asked about humanitarian aid, Dumali, who was leaning against an aid worker as he tried to stand up for the first time since arriving to Dahuk, said, “One bottle of water and some canned food will not prevent IS from killing more people, or taking women to unknown destinations.”

Taking a short walk, Dumali discovered that he was on a large piece of land filled with people who had escaped IS, and not just Yazidis; there were large numbers of Christians and Shabak, whose ethnic groups also fell victim to IS’ cleansing campaigns.

Nights on the mountain

I asked Dumali, “What was the situation like when you were stranded?” He replied, “Some of us ate plants. We used dead animal hides to make shoes for the children. We were battered as we watched some of those around us draw their last breath for lack of water. Days would start with us searching for shaded gullies to escape the scorching sun. Women and children gathered in hard to reach places, as we cautiously moved between the mountain’s many peaks.”

The arrival of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters was a godsend. “Their numbers were small, but they were very well armed. Among them were women who quickly administered aid to the children. But, IS’ greater numbers would have made it easy to overtake us, had its fighters decided to scale the mountain and attack.”

In subsequent days, new batches of humanitarian aid arrived, some of which was delivered by PKK fighters and some by Iraqi or foreign aircraft.

Dumali continued, “Each Yazidi individual had to make one water bottle of water last for two whole days, so as not to die of thirst.”

A horror story

Wearily, Dumali asked, “How many bottles of water have I consumed so far?” A fellow Yazidi, who came to Dahuk on board the same helicopter, teasingly answered, “You drank my share, too.” Nearby, a Kurdish aid worker asked them to relocate to an adjacent camp.

The crowd approaching the temporary camp appeared as though sleepwalking, people’s heads jerked left and right in search of IS gunmen or black IS banners that may suddenly appear over the horizon.

Khidr Hussein, a young Yazidi man who from the onset managed to escape to Syria and then to Fish Khabur on his way to Iraqi Kurdistan, said that he participated in efforts to protect those besieged on the mountain. “We had few weapons and material. We set up lookout points along Mount Sinjar’s winding roads and on high ground from where we could observe the valley below, in case IS militants decided to move up the mountain.”

It appears that Mount Sinjar’s geography saved those who were atop of it, for reaching the summit requires crossing close to 200 winding roads.

The mountain splits Sinjar’s administrative border along a southerly and northerly axis. On the southern side, close to the Syrian border, lies the Siba Sheikh Khidir (formerly the al-Jazeera collective), followed by Kari Azir (Qahtaniya), Kerzerek (al-Adnaniyah), all the way up the mountain to the village of Ramboussi.

The center of Shinkal city is the closest point to the mountain from the southern side, located only a few hundred meters from its foothills, where the Tell Qassab (formerly the Baath) collective, Tell Banat (al-Walid), as well as al-Hatimiyah, Kucho and other small villages lie on the southeasterly side of the mountain.

On the northern side of the mountain, adjacent to the Syrian border, are located the Khansour, Sounouni, Dukri, Dahoula, Burk (Yermouk), Kohabel, Zoarafa and Hardan collectives.

Hussein explained, “We used to see them in all-terrain vehicles circling the mountain in search of an easier route up. Then, the massacre took place.”

At that time, Kurdish media relayed information about peshmerga forces advancing toward Sinjar, with some of them even claiming that the peshmerga had reached the town of Sinjar, the center of which is only 200 meters from one of the mountain’s buttes.

Hussein cupped his hands in his face, trying to hide the tears as he wept uncontrollably. “News reached us that Sinjar had been liberated. People rejoiced and dozens decided to go down to the town, where they found no trace of Kurdish forces.”

IS gunmen intercepted and took them to a large square in Sinjar, where they bound their hands and laid them face down on the ground before opening fire on them.

Dumali and Anwar relayed this story, told to them by a 90-year-old woman, who the gunmen made watch as they killed her children, before taking her back to the mountain.

Bloated corpses

Finally, a relief team reached the town, in one of the rare instances where such a team successfully reached its destination since the crisis began, its task perhaps made easier by the aerial bombardment that targeted gunmen positions around the mountain. It carried large quantities of aid collected from Iraqi families in Baghdad and the provinces.

Ahmed Agha, one of the organizers of the Ghouth (Relief) humanitarian campaign, described the situation as follows: “There were bloated corpses in the streets of Sinjar. … A gunman from a clan that helped IS occupy the town told us that they were killed because they refused to convert to Islam.”

Survivors of an attack on Kucho village in Sinjar also recounted to Agha how IS gunmen killed dozens of Yazidis because they refused to renounce their beliefs and convert to Islam.

Naif Jassem, the brother of Kucho’s administrator, said that IS militants encircled the village for 12 days and demanded that Yazidi inhabitants convert to Islam within a set period of time. He added, “When the residents refused, the killings began.”

One of the wounded survivors explained that the gunmen separated the men from the women and children younger than 12 years of age. They took the men in groups and shot them on the outskirts of the village.

He added, “They thought we were dead. But we escaped the site and hid in the village until nighttime, when we headed to the mountains.”

For his part, activist Agha conveyed horror stories from Sinjar. “I saw approximately 70 bloated corpses. There were also bodies of Iraqi soldiers. … There were bodies everywhere you looked. IS gunmen assembled the soldiers in al-Rahman Mosque of Sinjar town’s Yarmuk neighborhood. They asked people about their religion, and demanded that they prayed to prove that they were Sunni Muslims.”

According to Agha, after leaving the town he heard that planes had targeted the mosque, while residents reported that around 80 soldiers died in the bombing.

On the other hand, activists working for the Ghouth campaign claimed that they succeeded in delivering aid supplies to people trapped on the mountain, supplies that ran out within less than 15 minutes.

Agha added, “I saw young people hold cell phone batteries up to their tongues, believing that their bodies would supply those batteries with some power, and enable them to call out.”

A nightmarish end

At that moment, Anwar Dumali was given a mattress and a pillow, under which he stashed a bottle of cold water and a pack of cigarettes. He said, “Do you see that man wearing a Red Crescent jacket? He told me that cigarettes were bad for me. But I begged him for this pack, which he gave me … as if this was my first smoke.”

Before going to sleep Anwar added, “I saw a horde of barbarians who emerged from an era that preceded Islam perhaps. They had a fearsome appearance, like monsters. Their speed defied imagination, and their ability to kill in cold blood will give me nightmares for as long as I live.”

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