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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 19 December, 2014

Opinion: ‘I ate leaves and grass to stay alive’ – Iraqi families pushed from their homes by ISIS

Religious minorities who have been forcefully displaced by Islamic State extremists face an uncertain future.

Donatella Rovera

AFTER A HARROWING escape, first from their hometown of Qahtanya and then from Sinjar Mountain – where they were stuck for eight days with very little food or water – Suleiman Shaibo Sido, his wife and their eight children, all members of the Yezidi (also ‘Yazidi’) minority, are now sheltering under a bridge in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, along with more than 20 other families.

The place is dusty, noisy and dangerous. Vehicles race by day and night on the main road under the bridge. “We have to be on alert every minute, to stop the children running to the road”, he tells me. “The cars and lorries drive by very fast”, he says. There is no electricity, water or sanitation. “We go get water from the nearby mosque and people bring us food. We are very grateful to the people of Dohuk, they are real brothers”, says Suleiman. “We arrived with nothing other than the clothes we were wearing. People, and also an organisation, brought us some blankets and other things. This is enough for now. The most important thing is that we are safe.”

Having managed to flee an Islamic State assault on their hometown in the Sinjar region on 3 August, Suleiman and his family found themselves stranded on Sinjar Mountain with tens of thousands of other civilians. Trapped by militants who had surrounded them and cut off all access roads to the mountain, they spent a gruelling eight days in the scorching heat. “I ate leaves and grass”, says Suleiman. “When we fled we carried as much water as we could. The little children carried one litre of water, I carried 15 litres and my oldest son carried 20 litres. We rationed it very strictly during our time on the mountain and that saved us.”

‘My son isn’t even a year old’

When the mountain siege was eventually broken, mostly by Syrian Kurdish fighters who opened a safe passage from the north of the mountain, thousands of desperate people began to stream out. “There wasn’t enough space for everyone on the vehicles sent to rescue us. Me and my family walked for 13 hours”, recalls Suleiman. “My youngest son got sick. When we reached the refugee camp in Syria he spent two days in hospital there. He is not even one year old – his first birthday will be on 1 September”. The little boy has been unwell again in recent days and the dangerous and unsanitary living conditions under the bridge are making matters worse.

What is being done? Yesterday the UN refugee agency announced an imminent large-scale aid operation for half a million people displaced by the conflict in northern Iraq, and last week the UN designated the humanitarian crisis in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” (the highest alert), recognising that there had already been crucial delays in responding and promising additional resources.

These additional resources can’t come soon enough. They’re needed for tens of thousands of displaced people who, like Suleiman and his family, are living in dire conditions and have no hope of being able to return home in the foreseeable future.

Suleiman, like many others from minority communities, says he now doesn’t want to stay in Iraq. “We from the Yezidi community have endured years of persecution. My daughter still bears the scars of the injury she sustained in the bombings of our hometown on 14 August. Now we’ve lost our homes, everything we had worked our whole life for. There is nothing for us to go back to.”

‘It will never be possible for me to go home’

Christians displaced from Sinjar and Mosul have spoken to me in very similar terms. Fadi Khachik, a Christian resident of Sinjar now sheltering in a village near Dohuk with his wife and family, said:

“I left my home in Sinjar on 2 August to get married in nearby Bartallah, my wife’s home town. Islamic State attacked Sinjar the following day and Bartallah a few days later. Now we and our families are living as refugees. Our homes and properties have been looted. I cannot see that it will ever be possible for me to go back home. It is best for us to go to another country, where we can be safe.”

Meanwhile, Dr Houda, a medical doctor at Mosul hospital who fled the city following an ultimatum from Islamic State on 18 July, told me Islamic State militants stole money and jewellery from her and other Christians as they left Mosul. She said she could not imagine going back to Mosul after what had happened.

Conditions for minorities in northern Iraq had already deteriorated significantly in recent years, prompting many to leave the country. The situation has now become a major crisis, with Islamic State gunmen systematically targeting non-Sunni Muslims communities and forcing them out of areas under their control. Their first targets were the Shi’a Turkmen and Shabak communities. Then came the turn of the Christian residents of Mosul, given an 18 July deadline to convert to Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, pay a minority tax, leave, or be killed. Most recently, since the beginning of this month, Islamic State has turned on the Yezidi minority, whom they consider “devil worshippers”, demanding they “convert” or face death.

For many people in northern Iraq their entire future now hangs by a thread.

Iraq’s minority communities and other displaced people in their thousands are in desperate need of safe shelter and humanitarian assistance. The international community must spare no efforts to provide this without further delay.

Donatella Rovera is Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International. This article was originally published on Live Wire, Amnesty’s human rights blog. 

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