IRBIL, Iraq — The elderly and exhausted lie listless on thin mattresses strewn on concrete floors in a half-finished warehouse — they are among thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled Islamic State militants overrunning their towns, finding refuge in the Kurdish-controlled north.
In the Ankawa suburb of the Kurdish capital, Irbil, a makeshift camp for the displaced has been established on four levels of a commercial building under construction behind a row of shops. At night, the hum of generators, smell of wood-burning stoves and low, diffuse light give the place a dystopian feel.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 200,000 people have fled to the Kurdish region since early August as the Islamic State has expanded its territory, pushing to the edges of areas under Kurdish control.
Islamic State militants have been blamed for kidnapping and slaughtering people of non-Muslim faiths who refuse to convert to Islam, including Christians.
Local churches have donated food and water. Plastic tarpaulins with U.N. markings screen off sleeping areas and there is a row of latrines at one end of the building.
Martin Banni, 23, a seminarian with the Chaldean Catholic Church, who himself recently fled the Islamic State advance, is overseeing the camp at Ankawa, which is home to 1,000 families. Most came from Karemlash and Quaraqosh, two Christian towns near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State seized in June as Iraqi forces fled.
The Christians started arriving two weeks ago, Banni said.
“They escaped with just their clothes and I.D. cards and money,” he said. “Many forgot important things. I escaped with just my clothes and passport.”
Those who fled feared beheading and rape by the Islamic State forces, he said.
Nadeem Elijah, 38, was still in Karemlash when it was overrun by the Islamists and found himself trapped in his home with his mother and brother as armed militants roamed the streets.
Each day, Islamic State fighters came to the house and threatened the family if they didn’t convert to Islam, he said.
Eventually, Elijah said, they made a break for Irbil. When they reached the last Islamic State checkpoint on the road to Kurdish-controlled territory, militants confiscated all their money before letting them pass, he said.
Banni said America was partly responsible for the suffering, blaming Iraq’s instability on the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army after the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. However, he added that the problems are also of Iraqis’ own making.
“We are many religions,” Banni said. “We fight about many things. We need to say we are Iraqis before anything else.”
Now, those displaced are hoping America will save them, he said.
“If she wants, she can do anything,” he said of the United States. “She is the biggest power in the world.”
President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes Aug. 7 in part to protect Yazidis, members of a religious sect, who were trapped on a mountain at Sinjar by Islamic State forces who flushed them from their homes. The strikes were also authorized to protect U.S. personnel in Irbil, as the militants advanced on Kurdish-held territory.
Last week, the U.S. expanded airstrikes to aid Kurdish and Iraqi forces as they pushed back against Islamic State fighters, forcing them from the critical Mosul Dam.
The U.S. should continue to bomb Islamic State targets until its fighters leave the Christian villages they have occupied and the displaced can go home, Banni said.
Amir Sulask Ben, a bank manager from Karakush, fled to Irbil last week with his extended family and thousands of frightened neighbors ahead of the Islamic State advance, he said.
The townsfolk scattered, with some heading for nearby cities such as Dohuk and others crossing the border into Turkey, he said.
Life for the displaced is hard.
“It’s too hot and there are many women and children,” Ben said. “All of them are very tired.”
The U.N. refugee agency this week began an airlift of aid into Irbil, where the displaced are living rough in schools, mosques, churches and unfinished buildings similar to those at Ankawa.
Thousands of tents, plastic sheets, kitchen sets and jerry cans will also be trucked into Kurdistan from Turkey and Iran, UNHCR said.
An estimated 1.2 million Iraqis have been uprooted since the start of the year, including some 600,000 fleeing Islamic State advances in Anbar province since January, and 600,000 displaced in and around Mosul and Sinjar since August, UNHCR reported.
The U.N. is looking to set up more than a dozen camps across Iraq with room for 140,000 people. The displaced have also gathered in the provinces of Sulaymaniyah, Diyala and Kirkuk and the Iraqi government has set up three centers for the displaced in Baghdad, according to UNHCR.
The swift advances by the Islamic State were due in part to sectarian divisions in Iraq, with many Sunnis disillusioned about being shut out by the minority Shiite-led government initially throwing support to the Islamic State fighters.
Ben, the bank manager taking shelter at the Ankawa camp, said his family is split on what to do. His wife wants to go home eventually, but he thinks they should leave Iraq — perhaps, try to join relatives in the U.S.
The experience has left him distrustful of his fellow countrymen.
“I suspect all Muslims are Daash,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym.
The Islamic State group and its supporters blame Iraqi Christians for the American bombing campaign, he said.
But the U.S. should continue airstrikes against the militants, he said.
“We want America to attack Daash,” he said. “If no Americans attack, then Daash will stay. If no Americans attack, Daash will be here [in Irbil] in 10 days.”