Until a few days ago, most people outside of Iraq had never heard of the Yazidis, an ancient religious minority living in the remote northwestern plains of the troubled country.
But the Yazidis are now a focal point in the widening war in Iraq. Up to 40,000 members of the community are stranded on barren mountain cliffs and encircled by the Islamic State, the extremist group that’s been advancing rapidly across Iraq this summer. Dozens of Yazidi children have already died of dehydration, according to UNICEF, and many more risk a similar fate.
The United Nations is warning of a “humanitarian tragedy” and The New York Times reported Thursday that President Obama was considering airdrops of food and medicine to reach those in the mountains.
A Yazidi member of Iraq’s parliament, Vian Dakhil, made an impassioned plea for support.
“There is a collective attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people,” she said in parliament in Baghdad on Tuesday before collapsing in tears.
Islamic State Overruns Yazidi Town
The Islamic State is made up of Sunni Muslims who adhere to a radical interpretation of Islam and their fight is with the Shiite Muslims that dominate Iraq’s government. But the Islamic State is also hostile toward other minorities such as Kurds, Christians and Yazidis, as well as moderate Sunnis who oppose them.
The Yazidis are among some 200,000 who fled after the Islamic State captured the town of Sinjar and surrounding villages in northern Iraq on Sunday. Most managed to escape to the nearby Kurdish Autonomous Region.
But many didn’t make it out in time, their only escape was to the mountains, which have effectively become a prison, under siege by extremist militants below. According to the latest U.N. reports, some of the Yazidis have been rescued, but thousands more remain.
Land routes are blocked and a small number of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and armed Yazidi youths are keeping the extremists at bay, according to Houssam Salim, the head of the Solidarity and Brotherhood Yazidi organization.
Meanwhile, those in need are hard to find. They are sheltering in numerous remote locations in the mountains and their phone batteries are dying.
A History Of Oppression
So who are the Yazidis?
They are Kurdish by ethnicity and also speak Kurdish. Their ancient faith is linked to Persian Zoroastrianism. They have adopted elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the centuries. Adherents are spread across Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, with the largest concentration in Iraq.
Yazidis believe that a supreme God placed the earth under the custody of seven holy beings, the most exalted of which is the Peacock Angel. For this, Yazidis are sometimes labeled as heretics or devil worshipers.
Iraq was home to some 750,000 Yazidis as of 2005, but many fled during the height of the anti-U.S. insurgency over the next couple years. Now, they are believed to number fewer than 500,000.
The Yazidis have repeatedly faced oppression from larger, more powerful forces in the region over the centuries.
The fate of the Yazidis who did not leave Sinjar, or who returned on guarantees from the local Sunni Arabs, remains murky. Dakhil, the member of parliament, says she has received reports that hundreds of Yazidi men were slaughtered by the jihadis, and women were taken captive.
The Islamic State has published gory images of its conquests in Sinjar. Dozens of men are photographed face down on the rocky soil, with gunmen taking aim from behind. One caption reads: “And if you find the nonbelievers, smite them in the neck.”
Alison Meuse is based in Beirut for NPR. You can follow her @AliTahmizian