No Escape From Sinjar Mountain
The world’s attention may have moved on, but there are thousands of beleaguered Yazidis still stuck in the wilderness, surrounded by the Islamic State.
DOHUK, Iraq — Dohuk Hospital’s emergency ward is packed. Men fill the entry area, clutching their cell phones, eyes fixed on the doors where the wounded are wheeled in and out. Inside, the hallway smells like iodine and sweat. Relatives fill each room, sitting on beds and floors around the patients: wounded soldiers, malnourished children, and people sick from living in tents pierced by rain and cold.
Abdulhalif Asaf arrived to the hospital by helicopter, the only way to leave the Sinjar Mountains, where he was shot in his stomach and thigh while fighting the Islamic State. The grey-bearded 64-year-old lies on a hospital bed, arms limp and eyebrows furrowed. His Yazidi sheikh and relatives, all displaced since August, crowd around for news of Sinjar.
"We are living off of figs from the mountain and leftovers from abandoned villages," Asaf tells them. "We need weapons, food, vehicles — we need a road. There’s no way out."
Asaf was one of 2,000 fighters defending Mount Sinjar from the Islamic State — a mix of Yazidi volunteers, along with forces from the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syria-based Kurdish militia. More than 200,000 Yazidis fled Sinjar in August, catching the world’s attention as they hid in the mountains without food or water. They became a brief cause célèbre in America, galvanizing a U.S.-led air campaign that helped most of the Yazidis evacuate through Syria to Iraq’s Kurdistan region. But while international attention has flitted away, several thousand civilians are still stranded on the mountain. Most were living in areas too remote or were physically incapable of leaving, while a few hundred are Yazidis who escaped and then came back to combat Islamic State.
Asaf, for example, fled Sinjar in August. He walked his flock of sheep from the mountain through Syria, loaded them onto two trucks at the Iraqi border, and sent them to be sold in Iraqi Kurdistan. The money went to his wife, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, who sought refuge from the Islamic state in Shariya, a small town close to Dohuk, as Asaf returned with his sons and neighbors to fight.
But the Yazidi fighters find themselves badly outgunned, and Sinjar once again finds itself under urgent threat. The town of Sinjar is at the foot of the Sinjar Mountains. When the Islamic State took the town in August, the Yazidis fled up into the mountains, which are now a haphazard front line of scattered villages and camps defended by multiple militias. The jihadist group’s incursions have continued since August, with clashes occurring every few days.
The Islamic State escalated its offensive as soon as winter storms began. On Oct. 20, it attacked the mountains with armored vehicles, mortars, and rockets, seizing two towns and forcing the Yazidis to retreat toward the mountaintop. As heavy rains blocked any chance of air support, Yazidi ammunition supplies ran dangerously low. The jihadist group cut off all ground supply routes, cutting off civilians and fighters alike from military or humanitarian aid.
"Daesh came to the top of the mountain. They were climbing from all sides, from every direction," said Ahmad Shammo Eido, a 25-year-old fighter with Yazidi militia leader Qasim Shesho, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. While Peshmerga and YPG forces defended another side of the mountain, Shesho’s troops were pushed back to Sharfadin shrine, a holy site on the mountains.
"Daesh was on foot then, but their weapons were much better," Eido said. "They had rockets, missiles, and mortars. We had only light rifles."
Clashes continued in the following days as the weather cleared, allowing a few Kurdish helicopters to bring Iraqi military relief and transport injured fighters to Dohuk. On Oct. 22, Yazidi militia leader Sheikh Khairy Khedr was killed.
"He lived for five hours after his wound," said 38-year-old Essa Abbas Hamo, an injured Yazidi who’d fought alongside Khairy. Hamo said shrapnel from the same mortar hit them — Hamo in his elbow, Khairy in his chest. But the commander pretended not to be injured, telling the fighters to take care of Hamo first. The only medics were a team of three volunteers, working from a tent at the top of the mountain. Khairy bled to death before reaching them.
"All the men cried for Sheikh Khairy. They said, ‘If we lose Sheikh Khairy, we will become 1,000 Sheikh Khairy’s. We will resist.’ Still, they cried,’" said 28-year-old Saad Babir, one of the three medics on the mountain at the time. They stayed on Sinjar for 10 days as part of several rotating volunteer teams sent by the Dohuk governorate’s Directorate of Health, treating 150 to 200 people each day.
There are 1,300 families trapped across the wide swathe of the Sinjar mountain range, Babir said, with no humanitarian aid. Many of those he treated suffered from diarrheal and food-borne diseases, as well as malnutrition and cold. Dozens of people begged him for baby formula every day. When it rained, he saw a 7-year-old child crawl under a car for shelter, face pressed to the mud all night as the families prayed that the Islamic State would not reach the Sharfadin shrine. They ate nothing, unable to start fires in their drenched tents.
As rains continued on the mountain, some civilians protested against the Peshmerga and doctors, who had come on helicopters that brought reinforcements for the fighters — but no humanitarian aid for the civilians. "They were throwing rocks and breaking car windows," Babir said. "They were angry from desperation. There is no help."
Some assistance has since come: Coalition warplanes struck around Sinjar on Oct. 29 and 30, destroying 10 Islamic State vehicles and killing 60 jihadist fighters in support of a Kurdish effort to retake the area. Peshmerga fighters established positions on four sides of the mountain while Yazidi forces kept fighting in the villages. But there remains no open path for civilians to get out, or for aid to get in.
Humanitarian agencies are ready to aid Sinjar as soon as military action opens a way. Around Zumar, for example, a town north of Mosul just recaptured from the Islamic State on Oct. 25, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) are already hard at work. "People in these risky areas are much more in need," said ICRC spokesperson Dabbakeh Saleh. "They have been totally cut off from the rest of the world."
A Peshmerga-led effort to liberate Sinjar would represent a reversal from the situation in August, when their retreat left the Yazidis exposed to the assault by the Islamic State. "There is no doubt that the Peshmerga not only did not fight in Sinjar, but they also did not evacuate people or tell the towns that IS had arrived in the south of the mountain," said Iraq-based researcher Christine van den Toorn. "It was total abandonment."
The abandonment left many Yazidis despondent about the prospect of any outside help. "Our Arab neighbors betrayed us, and then the Peshmerga withdrew," said one of Asaf’s relatives, who had also been displaced from Sinjar, in the hospital room. "If America and Europe don’t care, we will all be exterminated."
Helgurd Hikmet, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Peshmerga, says that Sinjar is a priority for the Kurdish forces — but it’s not so easy to take. The mountains are far in western Iraq, bordering Syria and large stretches of desert, with jihadist strongholds like Tal Afar and Mosul in between the town and Iraqi Kurdistan. "One cannot save Sinjar unless he saves Rabia and Zumar. Now we have taken them and sent forces to Kobani. God willing, we can focus on other areas now, Sinjar included."
The question is not whether Kurdish fighters can retake Sinjar immediately — they likely cannot — but if the anti-Islamic State coalition will launch sufficient airstrikes to open a passage off the mountain. "Everyone feels their own security situation is urgent and everyone is right," said Michael Knights, a former security advisor to the Iraqi government and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There just isn’t enough U.S. air support to go around. The Obama guys might explain it by saying, ‘If we do too much for them, they’ll never do it for themselves.’"
Back at the hospital, Asaf clenched his fists, unable to sit up from the bed. He vowed that he would return to Sinjar if he could — winter is upon Kurdistan, and he feared that those stranded on the mountaintop would freeze and starve without help. It was a common sentiment in the Dohuk emergency ward: "Open a corridor," said Eido, whose parents, wife, and children are all on the mountain. "If we don’t reach them, they will die."