Just a day after Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a counteroffensive against militant Sunni fighters in northern Iraq, the insurgents captured the town of Sinjar. The fall of the town to fighters linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, forced the town’s residents to a barren mountain top outside the city. They are now stranded and face a choice between starvation or execution should they come down from their mountain refuge.
The 40,000 refugees are mostly members of an Iraqi minority known as Yazidis. They practice a religion that blends parts of Christianity and Islam with the ancient religion Zoroastrianism. ISIS members regard Yazidis as devil worshippers and apostates.
They fear they will be executed if they come down off the mountain that is now surrounded by ISIS militants.
BBC News conducted an interview with one of the refugees.
“We've been under siege for four days. We eat once a day - either in the morning or at night,” the unnamed Yazidi said. “We're hiding inside caves. We have nothing - no food and no water.”
As the siege against the Yazidis continues, the situation grows more dire. Recent reports indicate that at least 40 children and elderly people have died since being forced from their homes Monday.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” said Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by (ISIS). It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have traditionally defended the region, have pledged to rescue the refugees, but it is unclear when they will be able to secure safe passage for them to come off the mountain.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani told Rudaw Monday that the Kurds “will not relinquish an inch of Kurdistan and we will defend our dear Yazidi brothers and sisters.”
UNICEF’s Babille told The Washington Post that the United Nations had offered the Iraqi government assistance in conducting air drops of food and water. He said at least 15 or 20 drops would be needed to provide enough supplies for the refugees to survive for a week. The Iraqi government has not yet accepted that offer.
“We need to get them out,” Babille said. “If we don’t, it would be catastrophic.”