IRBIL, Iraq — Yazidis who fled Islamic State militants for safe haven in Kurdish-controlled parts of Iraq face an uncertain future, scarred by the horrors they have witnessed and fearful of returning to villages where the small religious minority has lived for centuries.
At a camp in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, Yazidis tell harrowing tales of torture, mass killings and abduction of women as sex slaves before they fled in August — first to Mount Sinjar and later to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“They (the extremists) took 50 of our neighbors and buried them alive,” said Elias Shingal, a former Iraqi army sergeant and construction worker who arrived in Irbil after two days on Mount Sinjar with his wife and four sons, aged four through 14. The family made a white-knuckle drive through Islamic State lines to escape in the night, he said.
Still, Shingal, who said he worked for the U.S. Army in Mosul in 2004, and his family were the lucky ones. His neighbor’s sister was taken as a sex slave, he said.
“I will cry if I keep talking about this,” he added.
An estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where many were trapped for days without food or water until the U.S. began air dropping supplies. Kurdish forces, aided by U.S. air strikes, managed to help most of the trapped Yazidis to escape either to Syria or Kurdistan.
“We didn’t know anything about Daash until they came to our village,” Shingal said, referring to the Islamic State by the group’s Arabic acronym. “Why they hate us, we don’t know.”
Much of that hatred likely stems from what Islamic extremists consider heretical Yazidi religious beliefs.
Yazidis, ethnically related to the Kurds, believe in one God who created the world. According to Yazidi beliefs, God then turned the Earth over to seven “holy beings,” similar to angels in Judeo-Christian traditions. Chief among them was the “Peacock Angel,” who is responsible for both good and evil.
The dual role of the “Peacock Angel” in promoting both good and evil has given the Yazidis an undeserved reputation as “devil worshippers,” which has been responsible for waves of genocidal crackdowns against them over the centuries, most recently by the Islamic State.
The arrival of the Islamic state appeared to awaken old prejudices among other Sunni Muslims.
Shingal’s wife, Hend Shingal, said their Sunni Arab neighbors joined with the Islamic State fighters in persecuting the Yazidis.
“They didn’t kill any Christians, but they killed Yazidi and nobody helped us,” she said, even though Christians and Shiite Muslims have also been victimized by the Islamic State.
The family was so traumatized that when Iraqi helicopters dropped food and water, they were afraid to eat and drink the humanitarian aid for fear it has been poisoned, she said.
In the Irbil camp and on Mount Sinjar, terrified Yazidis traded accounts of their own experiences, which only added to their horror.
Elias Shingal said that in one village, the Islamic State gave Yazidis the option of converting to Islam or death. Some converted, but about 300 who did not were slain, he said.
Yazidi accounts could not be independently verified. But officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights say they have received “verified reports” that the Islamic State is “systematically hunting down members of minority groups ... and giving them the ultimatum, ‘convert or die.’”
The U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, also cited “reports of women being executed and unverified reports that strongly suggest that hundreds of women and children have been kidnapped — many of the teenagers have been sexually assaulted, and women have been assigned or sold to fighters as ‘malak yamiin’ or slaves.”
'If the government can’t help us, we will fight'
The Shingal family is sheltering with other Yazidis in a school in Irbil’s Ankawa district. Classrooms there are filled with mattresses — the desks have been pushed outside. During the day, Yazidi women hand-wash clothes in steel tubs while kids run in the yard and old men play checkers or backgammon.
The 230 Yazidis in the camp are receiving food from aid groups. But there are only two refrigerators for them to store the food.
Fawaz Sadu, 38, a government worker from Bashika, said he escaped the Islamic State with his 4-year-old son.
“We have no money,” he said. “We used to have money and jobs, but now we only have what we are wearing.”
The Yazidi want an international peacekeeping force to protect them from the Sunni extremists so that they can go home, Elias Shingal said.
“If we don’t get that, we will have to immigrate to Europe or the States,” he said.
At the school in Ankawa, there are few young men among the Yazidis taking refuge there. Some have obtained weapons and are helping Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, win back territory from the Islamic State, Shingal said.
“If the government can’t help us, we will fight,” he said.
Zaynab Olivo contributed to this report.