SHEKHAN, Iraq — More refugees fled into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq as government and Islamist forces battled on Wednesday over key cities and a major oil refinery.
Many found help from people who, decades ago, were refugees themselves.
“I was very scared … there is no government, no army, no police, just the gunmen,” said Samir Rashed, 40, who worked at a school in Mosul.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida splinter group, and other Sunni militants seized that city, “all our neighbors left, and we were afraid and didn't want to be alone there.”
He, his wife and two children wound up at one of four camps hastily erected on Kurdish territory. Most refugees there have only the clothes on their backs; they sit in 105-degree heat in one of 500 white U.N. tents on a dusty field.
“It started with five families, then 15, then 19, and today 25” — around 300 people — “so there is a rising arc,” said Valerie Ginhoux of Action Against Hunger, a French relief agency. She expects more if the fighting continues.
The displaced Iraqis looked shell-shocked, their futures unclear.
“We are not short of food and water, said Galizar Rashed, 48, but her husband and 7-year-old daughter have “these spots” — red welts on their arms, probably from sand-fly bites.
Humanitarian groups have not yet set up a clinic or distributed hygienic items.
Chris Elliot of Mining Advisory Group, which clears away landmines and other explosives in war zones, checked the camp's grounds.
“Kurdistan is filled with unexploded ordnance,” he said. “I don't think there are landmines here …but these camps should be cleared first.” A mortar round was found in another camp.
Fawzia Abed, 34, held her 3-year-old son on her lap. “We are alone here, and we don't have any money to go back if we wanted to,” she said, voice cracking.
She ran after the Iraqi army bombed Islamist fighters, “and we saw dead children with our own eyes.”
By late afternoon, an Iraqi police car led a minibus with more families into the camp.
The United Nations on Wednesday upgraded the refugee crisis to alevel 3 humanitarian disaster — its most severe designation.
In the nearby village of Nasariya, 75 refugees camped in a small one-story school.
“Most of us were walking by this village, and the villagers saw us … and said, ‘Come here, we have a school for you,' ” said Jumah Rida, 41, who has eight children.
The village, like many northeast of Mosul, is populated by Yazidis, an ancient Kurdish sect linked to Zoroastrianism.
“In the '80s, Saddam Hussein forced us to gather all in one place,” said Hussein Hassan Nerman, a former Iraqi parliamentarian. “(We) went through so much suffering. We know what the refugees are going through.”
This area is part of Nineva province; Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, took control of it after Islamists seized Mosul, the provincial capital.
Nerman said the Kurds simply reclaimed land that was traditionally theirs, and “now that we have it … we won't give it back.”
Not far away, young boys played soccer — a sign of the calm here.
But checkpoints are everywhere, manned by peshmerga wearing U.S. Army camouflage; other soldiers in full military kit waved from trucks while heading toward Mosul.
And Kurds began to feel the impact of Islamists seizing Iraq's largest refinery: In the northern city of Dohuk, vehicles lined up for a mile, waiting to refuel at the only open gas station; a Kurdish SWAT team maintained order.
“Even in the black market there isn't a drop,” said one man in a car-parts store. “You can take my blood before my gas.”