News Middle East

Monday 15 September 2014

Survivors fight for water amid panic on mountainside

John Krohn


Published 11/08/2014 | 02:30

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops watch as smoke billows from the town of Makhmur during clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants. Reuters
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops watch as smoke billows from the town of Makhmur during clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants. Reuters
US Army Soldier parachute riggers from the 11th Quartermaster Co., 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade, palletize water for a humanitarian air drop at an undisclosed location. Reuters
US Army Soldier parachute riggers from the 11th Quartermaster Co., 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade, palletize water for a humanitarian air drop at an undisclosed location. Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in a village on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh near the border province of Dohuk.  Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in a village on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh near the border province of Dohuk. Reuters

On the dry mountain, they fight with the goats for the remaining water. In the distance, the lights of Islamic State checkpoints loom menacingly.

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Yesterday, those stuck behind Islamic State lines began reporting the group's latest slaughter: hundreds of members of their arcane but colourful sect massacred for refusing to convert to Islam.

On the mountain, the rumours from their relatives only added to the sense of panic and despair. One man told this reporter, the only Western news correspondent on Mount Sinjar, that jihadists had stormed through his village, killing every adult, healthy male. Others talked of hundreds of women being abducted. Reports came in elsewhere of women and children being buried alive.

Meanwhile, the survivors on the mountain were fighting off thirst and disease.

The thousands of people left on this mountainside are covered in goat droppings, and have no water to drink, let alone to wash it off.

The children all have diarrhoea. Those who have wounds - common, everyday wounds, of feet injured by broken glass, or less common ones such as old shrapnel injuries - see their infections grow without respite. There was no medical care until the arrival of the Iraqi army medical team, and the result is a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions.

There are two ways off the mountain. The Iraqi army helicopter that brought in the medical team can take out a dozen people at a time, too small to make a dent in the numbers, but enough to inspire desperation in those near enough to try and board.

"A helicopter came but there was a scramble. We were able to get our two children on board but there was no room for us. I am worried we will never see them again," said one Yazidi couple.

A younger man spoke of how he had struggled to get up on the mountain last week, carrying his elderly mother on his back. She was growing weaker by the day. "I'm not sure how we will be able get down," he said.

There is one road down the mountain, which thousands have now taken, guarded by the one efficient force in the area, the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which is escorting people across that border and then through the territory it controls back into Iraqi Kurdistan.

But to make that journey, you need access to a car. One man managed to cram half his 27-strong extended family into a vehicle to make the trip. But the rest were stuck behind, with him.

There is a downside to the presence of the YPG, an offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdish guerrilla group the PKK, who are fearsome and efficient fighters. They have begun to recruit the young men on the mountain into their ranks. Every opportunity to extend the region's multiple and complex wars is taken.

It was estimated over the weekend that up to 150,000 people were stranded on the mountain. It is impossible to say how many have died cowering on the mountain's slopes.

Back down the mountainside, the refugees' relatives were facing a deadline set by the jihadists to convert or die - sufficient reason not to simply return home.

The Iraqi human rights minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, said that more than 500 Yazidis had been killed, some buried alive in a mass grave. He said the government had photographic evidence. He also referred to repeated claims that hundreds of women had been seized and taken to Mosul.

Families report their women have gone missing, though there are competing claims as to what has happened to them.

There has so far been no independent confirmation of the government's claims.

Islamic State has managed to carve out a self-declared caliphate across Syria and Iraq following a series of military victories which have been aided by the group's self-declared willingness to behead captives and conduct mass executions.

The US, Britain and France have all responded by sending aid supplies, some via air drops to Mount Sinar, while President Barack Obama has authorised air strikes to help the Kurdish forces drive the jihadists back.

It was welcomed by Kurdish forces who were able to push forward under American air cover yesterday.

There is little sign that that advance will reach Yazidi areas any time soon, even if it is successful. The Yazidis' MP in the Iraqi parliament, Vian Dakhil, said on Saturday: "We have one or two days left to help these people. After that they will start dying en masse." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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