Explainer: Why thousands of Yazidi people are trapped on an Iraq mountain

We look at what’s happening in Northern Iraq as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) continues its attacks, causing thousands to flee.

Updated 8am, 12 August

Channel 4 News / YouTube

THE SCENES IN the video above are harrowing.

A US helicopter sent on a mission to pick up people from Sinjar Mountain in Iraq and bring them to safety.

As it makes its return journey, the helicopter – which is crammed with people including children and older adults – is fired on by the Islamic State.

Mideast Syria Iraq Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community settle at a camp at Derike, Syria Khalid Mohammed Khalid Mohammed

Why are these people on the mountain, why are they starving, and why is the Islamic State firing on them?

Where it began

The story first came to global attention when an Iraqi Kurdish MP made an emotional appeal in Parliament about the Yazidis of Iraq:

Eretz Zen / YouTube

She said that the Yazidis are being killed, with women being taken as slaves and sold, men being murdered and all by ISIS (the Islamic State or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/the Levant).

“My people are being slaughtered just as all Iraqis were slaughtered,” she said, demanding that the Iraqi parliament intervene in the situation.

Pictures then emerged on the Internet posted by members of the Yazidi community that showed little clusters of people gathering on the cave-dotted flanks of a canyon, says AFP.

Others posted by pro-jihadists purportedly show a jihadist holding the severed head of a Yazidi man from Sinjar.

But who are the Yazidi, why have thousands of them – and other people – fled to the Sinjar Mountains in Northern Iraq, and what is being done about it?

What’s going on with Iraq and the Islamic State?

Let’s start with this element first.

This latest violence is part of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and the offensive being undertaken by a group of Sunni militants.

This group are called Islamic State or ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (or also Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, ISIL).

Here’s more from our explainer: What’s happening in Iraq?:

isis explainer

ISIS are web-savvy, posting photos and videos that purportedly show them killing and injuring people, and waging terror on the areas they visit.

They posted these bloody and graphic photos online that allegedly show their “conquests” in Sinjar. Caution advised with these photographs as they show injured and dead bodies.

Who are the Yazidi?

CAEIPDS0 Yezidis Yezidis

The Yazidi are a Kurdish ethno-religious community who primarily live in the Nineveh Province, which is in the north of Iraq.

The Yazidi have been referred to by jihadists as “devil worshippers”.

There were 700,000 Yazidis at last count, of which 500,000 were in Iraq (with members in Germany, Syria, Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Sweden also).

They practice an ancient monotheistic (one God) religion that uses the Yazidi Book of Revelation and the Yazidi Black Book.

Here’s more on their religion.

What has been happening to them?

Iraq Yazidis File: An elderly Yazidi man smokes a traditional pipe in Karse village on Mount Sinjar AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

In 2007, suicide bombers drove trucks into a Yazidi village in northwestern Iraq. Around 800 people died in this attack.

Last week has seen a fresh wave of attacks on the group.

Loveday Morris, a writer with the Washington Post, reported last week that between 10,000 – 40,000 civilians are trapped on Mount Sinjar since they were driven out on 3 August.

This is due to attacks on the town of Sinjar and a town called Zumar, which were being protected by Kurdish forces (known as ‘peshmerga’) from the Islamic State.

When they entered Sinjar, ISIS blew up a Shiite shrine.

The Iraqi military were effectively kicked out of the region by ISIS in June.

According to AFP:

Jihadists who already controlled large swathes on the other side of the border with Syria swept into the main northern city of Mosul on June 10 and went on to overrun much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. The attack on Sinjar and the town of Zumar a day earlier gave IS control over Mosul’s hinterland and further abolished the border between the Iraqi and Syrian halves of the “caliphate” the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed in June.

Sinjar is not only home to the Yazidi, but is also a temporary home for thousands of displaced people from other minorities, such as Shiite Turkmen who fled the nearby city of Tal Afar when the jihadists launched their offensive on June 9.

The attack on Sinjar sent thousands of people running from their homes in panic, some of them going into the mountains with no supplies.

Associated Press / YouTube

It is said that the Yazidi were given an ultimatum by ISIS. Put simply: convert to Islam, pay a tax, or die.

Some people have chosen to stay in Sinjar and not flee to the mountains.

According to the New Yorker, ISIS was “going house to house, with information provided by locals, looking for Iraqi soldiers and police, for people with money, for Kurds” in Sinjar.

Does this photo show people fleeing from Sinjar?

[image alt="sinjar fake pic tweet" src="" width="423" height="500" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

No, it actually shows Syrian refugees on the Syria-Iraq border in August 2013.

Have there been many deaths?

Mideast Iraq Khalid Mohammed Khalid Mohammed

UNICEF reports that at least 56 children displaced by the violence at Sinjar have died as a direct consequence of what occurred.

Iraq reports that that 500 Yazidi people have been killed by the Islamic State militants since they took over Sinjar, with some victims buried alive.

Yazidis have been chronically persecuted and there are fears this latest violence threatens the existence of the multi-millennial community on its ancestral land.

What are reports from the area saying?

Loveday Morris said that the mountain is no longer looking like a refuge, but “is becoming a graveyard for their [...] children”.

He said that families have had to bury their young and elderly people and that people are suffering without water or food.

Morris also said that Iraqi Kurdish forces are “attempting to secure a road from the mountain to the nearby city of Rabia”, but this involves clearing villages where locals are sympathetic to the militants.

Jonathan King, writing in the Telegraph, said that the survivors are “fighting off thirst and disease” on the mountain, all the while recounting how family members were killed by ISIS.

“There is no other way to put this: 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. ” – Jonathan King

The only ways off the mountain is by helicopter or by road. But to go by road, you need a car, said King.

What has the UN said?

Mideast Iraq Khalid Mohammed Khalid Mohammed

The UN Security Council said ISIS militants posed a threat not only to Iraq and Syria, but to “regional peace, security and stability.”

It condemned attacks by jihadists in northern Iraq, warning those responsible could face trial for crimes against humanity.

A Security Council statement read by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said:

Widespread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, religion or belief may constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible must be held accountable.

UNICEF said that families who fled the area are in immediate need of urgent assistance, including up to 25,000 children who are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian aid, including drinking water and sanitation services.

Has aid been sent to them?

Mideast Iraq File: Displaced Iraqis wait for relief aid at a mosque on the outskirts of Irbil, northern Iraq AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Initially, Iraqi helicopters dropped supplies to thousands of people hiding in the Sinjar mountains from ISIS fighters.

Iraq’s ministry for women’s affairs called for a coordinated Iraqi and foreign intervention to rescue the stranded civilians.

A Kurdish human rights official told reporters that Iraqi army helicopters had been air-dropping food and water to civilians cowering in the mountains.

UNICEF has continue to keep people informed:

What has been happening since?

centcom / YouTube

America withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 and although it spent billions on training and equipping the country’s new security forces, they have not withstood the threats from ISIS.

In the last week, here’s what has happened:

“We feel confident we can prevent ISIL from going up the mountain and slaughtering the people who are there” – Obama
“We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven,” – Obama.

Women and girls have been kidnapped by ISIS militants in Sinjar. They have told their parents they are to be sold as slaves, the Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a massive security deployment is said to have begun.

The new Iraqi prime minister has been named as Haider al-Abadi, forcing the existing PM, Nouri al-Maliki, out.

Abadi has been asked to form a new inclusive government, being urged by US Secretary of State to form cabinet “as swiftly as possible”.

Still, people remain on the mountain, with little food, water, or shelter, until they are rescued. And as the video at the beginning of this post shows, even in rescue, things are not easy.

With additional reporting by AFP

Read: Over 620 people have died in Iraq in July, its deadliest month in 2013>

Explainer: What’s happening in Iraq?>

Read: US “urgently” shipping weapons to arm Iraqi Kurds against jihadists>

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