Targeted By ISIS, These Yazidis Refused To Leave Their Beloved Mountain

Nov 23, 2015
Originally published on November 23, 2015 10:45 am

There's something regal about Abdi Ismail. The white-bearded paterfamilias sits cross-legged on a mattress, a scarf wrapped turban-like round his head, his children and chickens keeping a respectful distance.

Ismail's extended family lives in a tent stamped with U.N. logos. He's proud they're here.

"We didn't leave our mountain," he says. "We stayed here and we fought."

They've been eking out an existence on the rugged slopes of Iraq's Mount Sinjar since ISIS took their village of Tal Azer in summer last year.

"ISIS came and surrounded our village — they killed our men and took our women," he says. The family is from the Yazidi religious minority, non-Muslims who've been brutally targeted by ISIS, which considers them heretics. The extremists have killed, captured and raped thousands of Yazidis.

The Sinjar area is the Yazidi heartland, dotted with their shrines. Some believe the mountain is miraculous, that gravity works in reverse on part of it.

After the extremists took their villages and then the city of Sinjar, they tried to take the mountain, too.

"But our fighters were there," says Ismail. "They didn't let them come. They killed them all."

U.S. airstrikes began and Kurdish fighters opened up a corridor for people on the mountain to escape. Most did, on foot — an extraordinary exodus that produced heartbreaking images, waking the world up to the Yazidis' plight.

But hundreds of families, like Ismail's, refused to leave their mountain.

"It was a very hard time," he says.

The corridor out was closed off; they were surrounded again. Aid agencies airdropped tarpaulins for tents and a little food and water, but for two months, they were hungry. They survived on wild plants and fed the babies tomato paste. It was bitterly cold.

Still, Ismail insists no one ever wanted to leave. He says his family accepted the situation. There was nowhere else they wanted to go.

A few Kurdish peshmerga soldiers also stayed, as did a doctor named Khansa Shamdeen, a Syrian woman who decided to go to the mountain and provide medical aid.

She's wearing a military uniform, full makeup and several gold and diamond earrings in each ear as she tells me it got so cold she couldn't move her fingers. Once the displaced Yazidis stormed her tent and the peshmerga's cabin looking for food.

When medicine was airdropped to her, desperate Yazidis would get to it first, mobs tearing the package apart, looking for anything edible. And yet she admires these people who stayed.

"The people here are very strong," she says. "They just think they have to stay here. When someone makes the land his goal, he'll do everything to stay."

Last December, Kurdish forces pushed ISIS out of some nearby villages. Food, water and fuel could then get up to the mountain. The Yazidis looted livestock from the abandoned villages. Life got a little easier.

And last week, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar city.

By Ismail's tent, there's now a water tank where women are washing dishes as he talks. But one of them, Sevi Zendi, says she's not going back, even if ISIS is ever kicked out of her village, about 12 miles away.

"The enemy is all around," she says.

Many Yazidis blame local Muslims for collaborating with ISIS. She won't go back unless there's an international peacekeeping force.

In the evenings, she talks to the children about the village, about life there "and how we'll go back."

As she's talking, the sun sets behind the top of their beloved mountain. Abruptly, it's cold. Their second winter here is just beginning.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's meet some people who refused to retreat in the face of ISIS. They are Yazidis, members of a minority group targeted for massacres by ISIS. The extremist group swept into their territory in northern Iraq last year, but a few of them refused to flee and held out, even while encircled. Now that ISIS forces have been pushed back again, NPR's Alice Fordham was able to meet those holdouts on the slopes of Iraq's Mount Sinjar.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Foreign language spoken).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's something regal about Abdi Ismail. The white-haired paterfamilias sits cross-legged on a mattress, children and chickens keeping a respectful distance, a scarf wrapped turban-like around his head. Ismail's extended family lives in a tent stamped with U.N. logos, and he's proud they're here.

ABDI ISMAIL: (Through interpreter) We don't left our mountain and we stay here and we fight.

FORDHAM: They've been eking out an existence on the rugged slopes of Mount Sinjar since ISIS took their village in summer last year.

ISMAIL: (Through interpreter) Yeah, ISIS came, surrounded our village. They killed the men, take the women.

FORDHAM: The family's from the Yazidi religious minority, brutally targeted by ISIS, which considers them heretics. Sinjar is their homeland, dotted with their shrines. Some people believe the mountain's magic. After the extremists took their villages, then the city of Sinjar, they tried to take the mountain, too.

ISMAIL: (Through interpreter) But the - our fighter was there. And they don't let him come. And they kill all of them.

FORDHAM: U.S. airstrikes began and Kurdish fighters opened up a corridor for people on the mountain to escape. Most did on foot. But hundreds of families like Ismail's refused to leave their mountain.

ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ISMAIL: (Through interpreter) It was a very hard time.

FORDHAM: The corridor out closed off and they were surrounded again. Aid agencies airdropped tarps and a little food and water, but for two months they were hungry. The ate wild plants and fed the babies tomato paste. And it was bitterly cold. Still, Ismail insists no one ever wanted to leave.

ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He say, no, all of them accept the decision and they say no we have to stay here. We don't have to leave here. We cannot go anywhere.

FORDHAM: I meet a woman who also stayed, Dr. Khansa Shamdeen, a Syrian who decided to go to the mountain and provide medical aid. She's wearing military uniform, full makeup and several gold and diamond earrings in each year.

KHANSA SHAMDEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She says, when medicine was airdropped to her, desperate Yazidis would get to it first, mobs tearing the package apart looking for anything edible. And yet, she admires these people who stayed.

SHAMDEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She discovered here what it means to work for your land, to be prepared to die for it. In December last year, Kurdish forces pushed ISIS out of some nearby villages. Food, water and fuel could now get up onto the mountain. And last week, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar city. By Ismail's tent, there's now a water tank where women are washing dishes as he talks. But one of them, Sevi Zendi, says she's not going back even if ISIS is kicked out of her village.

SEVI ZENDI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She says the enemy is still all around. So for now they will stay here.

ZENDI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She tells me, in the evenings, she talks to the children about the village, about life there.

ZENDI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: As she's talking, the sun sets behind the top of their beloved mountain. Abruptly, it's cold. Their second winter here is just beginning. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The place where you hear the voices of the world. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.