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Offline mayya

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Iraq's Yazidis Recount Harrowing Flight
« on: August 11, 2014, 11:15:56 AM »
Iraq's Yazidis Recount Harrowing Flight

Minority Religious Sect in Northern Iraq Flees Approach of Militants Known as the Islamic State

Updated Aug. 8, 2014 8:31 p.m. ET

Salwah Khalaf and her family fled Sinjar in Iraq last week when they heard insurgents from the Islamic State were about to attack.
SHARIA, Iraq—"Daesh hatin, daesh hatin," rippled from village to village across the Sinjar plains until all who could flee did, purging the northern Iraqi land of its ancient population.

Through the dayslong trek to safety that followed, the Yazidis of Sinjar took that catch phrase—a mixed Arabic-Kurdish warning of the advance of Islamic militants—with them. Even in the relative safety of Sharia, a hamlet straddling the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, neighbors spread the warning through a school courtyard housing the displaced, and children woke up at night in fright.
"My children can't sleep," said Saleh al-Yas Khalaf, his six children scattered in a half-circle around him. "They just see the men with the beards all night long."

Mr. Khalaf, his two brothers and their families fled the Sinjar plains on the night of Aug. 2, when an exodus of Iraq's Yazidi minority—Kurdish-speaking followers of a pre-Islamic faith—set off a humanitarian catastrophe in which tens of thousands were stranded on a mountainside.

Barack Obama has authorized airstrikes in Iraq to allow aid to reach the Yazidis, a religious minority that has fled to the mountains to escape Islamic militants. But who are the Yazidis, and what are their beliefs? (Photo: Getty Images)

Families were separated by the advance of militants calling themselves the Islamic State and also known by an earlier name, ISIS, and the Arabic acronym "Daesh." Men lost track of their wives and children as they tried to secure a path for them to Syrian Kurdish land on the other side of the mountain.
The trek seared the jihadists' invasion of Yazidi towns—"hatin" means "entered" in Kurdish—into the collective consciousness of the community, as some of the infants and elderly died from dehydration and heat.
"We've had 72 attacks in history. This is the 73rd," said Zuhair Lazgeen, a Yazidi activist and resident of Sharia, which is in Dohuk province, part of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.

During just a few days this week, Mr. Lazgeen, 24 years old, helped take 35,000 of his religious kin from Sinjar into Sharia. He then watched much of that expanded population empty out again on Thursday as a new Islamic State advance north of Mosul sent panic through the town of 13,000.
Linked to Zoroastrianism and rooted in beliefs in the oneness of good and evil, the Yazidi faith is sometimes regarded as unusual or heretical, leading to a history of repeated persecutions, Mr. Lazheen said. Yazidis are so used to having to pick up and flee, he said, that they don't record their religion or sacred texts in writing but spread them through song and chant.

Mr. Khalaf's wife said she tried to recite some of these to her children, the youngest age 5, as they packed into a white pickup last Saturday night. They later had to abandon the truck when it broke down as they reached a bridge over a small river, and went by foot to Sharia.

The children kept crying, she said. "Daesh came to our town, and we were terribly afraid, and so we came here and now they say Daesh is coming. And now where do we go?"

The Islamic State considers Yazidis to be devil worshippers. As with Christians across northern Iraq, the Islamist militants swept into the Yazidis' towns and gave them stark ultimatums: Convert to Islam or be killed. Hundreds of Yazidi women across Sinjar were captured as "war booty" as they attempted to flee, displaced residents said. No one had information on those women's circumstances.

Salwa Khalaf, right, was forced to flee her home and school in Sinjar. Nour Malas/The Wall Street Journal

Murad al-Yas Khalaf, the eldest of the three Khalaf brothers, said it took him five tries to get out of Sinjar. The first time, about two dozen bearded militants surrounded a pickup that held 12 family members. The militants surprisingly waved for them to go, Mr. Khalaf said, recalling his relief. The family got away, but then it took him four more times—including a two-day jaunt over the border to Syria to hide with Kurdish fighters there—before he made it out to join his family in Sharia.

Here, the three families, 19 people in all, pack one room in a small home, an
offering from a sympathetic local. The Khalafs consider themselves lucky. Among them they count what they estimate to be 500 relatives or friends still stuck on the Sinjar mountainside.

In a small breakthrough, Kurdish officials said thousands of stranded Yazidis were rescued between Thursday and Friday in a complicated operation that included opening a path into Syrian territory and then bringing families back into Iraqi Kurdistan. According to relatives of those rescued, Syrian Kurdish fighters led the operation.

Saleh Shammo said he was one of those evacuated that way and had arrived at a warehouse in Dohuk an hour before. "We were there for five days," said Mr. Shammo, 40. "We were without food and water. We saw children dying there."

Yazidis who fled violence in Sinjar at a shelter in Dohuk on Tuesday Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Yazidis across Dohuk province awaited news of their stranded relatives. They traded accounts of what airdrop provided which supplies, and debate whether these stories are fact or fiction. Many heard of the U.S. humanitarian airdrop on Thursday, but no one said that any relatives had received supplies.
Adnan Qaskari, a former soldier from another tiny settlement in the Sinjar plains, got separated from his wife and three children on the trip to Dohuk. In the empty warehouse in the city where dozens of Yazidis were squatting for shelter, Mr. Qaskari, 24, recounted how he had been so busy looking after his elderly mother that he lost track of the rest of his family as the mountain road curved into a steep climb on Monday.

"It was so crowded, I couldn't see anything anymore," he said.
The young soldier also said he was distracted, and haunted, by a scene that had unfolded earlier as they left their town. A convoy of cars filled with what he said were Islamic militants opened fire on an orderly line of people marching out of the village on foot. "I saw them fall over," he said, "one by one."

Mr. Qaskari said his wife, Noura, was in touch by cellphone until Wednesday. In their brief calls, she described Syrian Kurdish fighters sneaking loaves of bread to families at night, which she fed to her daughters Kristina and Kristiana.

She told her husband they got access to drinking water once, and she was fast running out of the small batch of formula she had for Anas, six months old.
Two days ago, she called to say: "We're out of milk for Anas." And then, he said, the phone battery ran out.