Starving and Surrounded, Kurds and Yezidis Refuse to Abandon Mount Sinjar

Under siege on northern Iraq’s historic mountain

Starving and Surrounded, Kurds and Yezidis Refuse to Abandon Mount Sinjar Starving and Surrounded, Kurds and Yezidis Refuse to Abandon Mount Sinjar

Uncategorized December 18, 2014 0

Haji Alias Haider, an elderly Yezidi man, has been trapped on the top of Mount Sinjar ever since Islamic State swept into northern Iraq... Starving and Surrounded, Kurds and Yezidis Refuse to Abandon Mount Sinjar

Haji Alias Haider, an elderly Yezidi man, has been trapped on the top of Mount Sinjar ever since Islamic State swept into northern Iraq four months ago.

Haider is a member of the Sinjar Protection Force, a loose confederation of 2,000 Peshmerga fighters, PKK guerillas and Yezidi volunteers who defend the mountain and its sacred Yezidi religious sites.

It’s Dec. 11 and Sinjar is under attack. Haider says Islamic State attacked the area around Sharfadin temple an hour ago using cars packed with explosives. We’d seen a cloud of smoke as we were flying in—probably the result of the car-bombs’ blasts.

The temple is one of the holiest sites in the Yezidi religion. The Sinjar Protection Force has deployed around the northern base of the mountain to defend it.

At left—Haji Alias Haider. At right—a Yezidi fighter hitches a ride on the back of an aid truck. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Hitching a ride on a passing truck, we make our way to a Peshmerga and PKK base farther along the mountain. We pass several clusters of tents—gifts of the U.N., others improvised from whatever materials the mountains’ residents could find.

People stare at me and my fellow journalists as we pass—we’re the first visitors in several days.

Previously, the only route to the mountain was a roughly 60-kilometer corridor to Syria guarded by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units—the YPG.

The YPG kept the corridor open for two months, allowing many Yezidis to flee to Syria. Militants overran the corridor this fall.

Refugees on Mount Sinjar. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

But some Yezidis stayed voluntarily. Many wanted to remain in their homeland. Others stayed to protect religious sites. Some just wanted to fight Islamic State. Wherever. Whenever.

But with the corridor to Syria gone, now the mountain’s defenders rely entirely on Iraqi air force helicopters to bring them food, ammunition and other supplies. The helicopters only fly in good weather. And if Baghdad frequently reassigns the copters to other operations.

A KDP flag flies over a refugee tent at a Peshmerga base on Mount Sinjar. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Life on the mountain

We arrive at our destination, a base for Kuridstan Democratic Party Peshmerga fighter next to a cell phone tower. Yezidi fighters wander around. Almost everyone is armed. The PKK flag flies from another tower nearby, where the PKK have its own base.

We meet Ahmed Shingali, the leader of the local branch of the KDP. He says he first arrived on the mountain on Aug. 13. He’s been on and off the mountain since then—he’d returned today on the same flight we were on. He says his last stint on the mountain lasted 24 days.

One of his jobs is to keep a record of all of the refugees on Sinjar—all 8,000 of them. But his main responsibility is food.

Ahmed Shingali. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

“There is not enough food,” Shingali says. “There is mostly dry food. They can last for about a week if they have no helicopters.”

He says that the KDP Peshmerga and the PKK are working together to protect the mountain. “The fighting with ISIS is taking place on every side.”

He acknowledges that there have been setbacks for the protective forces, but he insists the Yezidis and their allies are winning. “Now things are better. The situation is being controlled.”

At left—PKK flag on Mount Sinjar. At right—Haji. Matt Cetti Roberts photos

Another Yezidi—Haji, a student before the Islamic State invasion—takes us aside.

He says that after months on the mountain, he’s frustrated and bitter. He can’t shake the feeling of abandonment. “The Peshmerga ran away. They left us,” he says, referring to the Pesh’s pullback over the summer that exposed Sinjar and the Christian district of Hamdaniya to Islamic State’s advance. “ISIS took our villages, they took our women. They took everything.”

Haji says the Yezidi volunteers must fight under the cover of darkness. Their weapons are inadequate. And with the route from Syria closed, supplies are critically low.

“The PKK gave us food, but now we get food from no one,” he says. “We have things like rice and tomato paste that were from before ISIS came. Some of the food is stored in a nearby village.”

Haji says he’s been trying to get a ride off the mountain in one of the helicopters, but it’s almost impossible to get a spot on the thrice-daily flights.

A single round of ammunition attached to a Yezidi fighter’s AK-47, in case its owner needs to end his own life to avoid capture by Islamic State. Matt Cetti-Roberts

Fortress Sinjar

We meet with Ashti Kocher, the commander of the KDP Peshmerga troops on the mountain. He tells a different story than Haji did.

“Since August we have re-arranged the Peshmerga forces and brought heavy weapons,” Kocher says. His men now have heavy machine guns, 120-millimeter mortars and sniper rifles.

“Everyone here belongs to their own parties, but when the fighting begins they work together,” Kocher says. With one exception. Only the Yezidi fighters are defending the Sherafadin shrine.

But Kocher says the Kurds and Iraqis support them. “The Yezidi are also Peshmerga — there is no difference between the two. We gave weapons to the Yezidi and are supporting and organizing them.”

Ashti Kocher. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Kocher motions to three villages behind him, in the distance below the mountain. He says all of them are under Islamic State’s control. We can hear the sounds of battle below.

“Two to three times a day they attack, but we fight back and take their weapons,” he says of the militants. “Many of the [Islamic State] fighters are Chechen—they are good at fighting in the mountains.”

Kocher says he would like to get the rest of the refugees off the mountain, but can’t do so under the circumstances. There aren’t enough helicopters.

Members of the Sinjar Protection Force. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

For months, there was talk of a counteroffensive to retake Sinjar from Islamic State. That attack finally got underway in mid-December.

“The main obstacles to the plan are that Islamic State has laid IEDs everywhere—in the houses, on the roads, everywhere,” Kocher says. “They are doing this in Sinjar [city, near the mountain] now.”

The last flight of the day is scheduled to arrive in half an hour. Knowing that there may not be flights tomorrow, I make my way to the landing zone.

I’m leaving. Sinjar’s defenders stay.