Late Thursday, President Obama said he authorized air strikes in Iraq if ISIS moves on the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Obama also announced the U.S. military had conducted a humanitarian mission to airdrop food and water to Kurds that have been isolated.
They represent the vast majority of a religion that rose alongside the world’s most popular faiths. Now, members of the Yazidi are cut off from the rest of the world, forced to choose between death at the hands of the militants threatening their families and the elements that have already ended the lives of dozens of children.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for UNICEF, told the Washington Post. The situation that drove the Yazidi to the protection of Mount Sinjar is one that most analysts had hoped would not come to pass. Over the weekend, members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) managed to take the town of Sinjar from the Kurdish forces who held it. “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State,” Babille continued. “It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
There are fewer than 700,000 members of the Yazidi faith in all of Iraq, who practitioners are ethnically Kurdish, with the majority of them located in Nineveh Province in northern Iraq. Rather than being an off-shoot of Islam or Christianity, Yazidism is a monotheistic faith that believes that the world was created and placed under the protection of seven angels. Their beliefs clash with ISIS’ in this regard, particularly due to their reverence for one angel whose closest analogue in the Judaic faiths later becomes Satan himself. While Nineveh was the site of one of ISIS’s first major offenses this year, the territory under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been seen as a bulwark against ISIS’ expansion. Until recently, the Kurdish security forces — called peshmerga — were the only group in Iraq that ISIS had yet to defeat on the battlefield.
When ISIS managed to defeat the peshmerga on Sunday and force their retreat from Sinjar, up to 200,000 people fled for the surrounding mountains, according to the United Nations. Among them were around 50,000 Yazidis, said Jawhar Ali Begg, a spokesperson for the group, who warned that those hiding from ISIS risk starvation if not rescued soon. The conditions on the remote mountain are extremely inhospitable, though, and humanitarian aid has yet to reach those who fled. Reports indicate that these conditions have already lead to the death of 40 Yazidi children, UNICEF said on Tuesday, who “died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days.”
ISIS wasted no time in attempting to stamp out the practitioners of what they believe to be a religion that worships the devil. Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi politician in Iraq’s parliament, reportedly broke down in tears as she described the situation during a session/ “We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity,” she said, claiming that 500 Yazidi men had been killed and women enslaved as “war booty.”
The Yazidi who didn’t escape into the mountains face a choice from ISIS: convert to their extreme version of Islam or perish. “Where are you going to go? I swear [to] God I will cut you into pieces… We are coming for you, you pig, you enemy of God,” read a text message that Khalaf Qassim, a member of the Yazidi faith who left Sinjar after ISIS’ advance, showed Al Jazeera, saying the message came from a member of ISIS on Friday. “Didn’t I tell you yesterday to come and repent,” it continued.
The situation for those stranded on Mount Sinjar remains bleak, even if they remain outside of ISIS’ reach. “Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones,” the Post reported. “Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.”
The leader of the Yazidi faith, Prince Tahseen Said, issued a distress call on Monday, asking world leaders for urgent assistance. “I ask for aid and to lend a hand and help the people of Sinjar areas and its affiliates and villages and complexes which are home to the people of the Yazidi religion,” he wrote in a statement. “I invite them to assume their humanitarian and nationalistic responsibilities towards them and help them in their plight and the difficult conditions in which they live today. Citizens of this religion are peaceful people who acknowledge all principles and humanitarian values and respect all religions, and never had enmity against any of their countrymen, and in the near past they even had a major humanitarian stand with their fellow residence of Mosul and Tal Afar, and today they desperately need their brethren’s help.”
Making matters worse, the assault on Sinjar and other Kurdish-controlled areas appears to be part of a move from ISIS to gain control of Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, located just north of Mosul. Mosul was the second major city to fall under ISIS control, after Fallujah came under their power last year. In that instance, the militants opened the gates to the nearby dam, flooding the area to cause the Iraqi army to lift their siege on the city. In the event that Mosul Dam is captured and a similar tactic used, the devastation and chaos could stretch as far as Baghdad.
According to the New Yorker’s George Packer, the Obama administration may be “contemplating an airlift, coördinated with the United Nations, of humanitarian supplies by C-130 transport planes” to aid the Yazidis. While horrifying, the plight of the Yazidis makes up just part of the massive refugee crisis playing out in both Iraq and Syria as a result of the conflicts on both sides of the ever evaporating border. According to the United Nations, at least 1.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced as a result of the current fighting.