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U.S., Iraqi Teams Aid Yazidis Trapped By Extremist Fighters


Here's just one way to understand the desperation religious minorities are feeling in northern Iraq. Their best hope might be to reach Syria.


They're being welcomed in Syria by members of the Kurdish community there. Many of the refugees are Yazidis, a religious minority that Islamic militants believe are heretics.

GREENE: The extremist group known as the Islamic State has trapped thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar with little, if any, food or water.

INSKEEP: The United States is trying to help. The Pentagon announced 130 more military advisers are on the ground, joining 250 already there in Iraq. The advisers are helping the Iraqi military figure out how to end the desperate humanitarian situation.

GREENE: And let's listen now to an eyewitness account of the situation on Mount Sinjar. Jonathan Krohn, a reporter for Britain's Telegraph newspaper is one of the few journalists who've seen what the Yazidis are enduring. We reached him by Skype in Erbil.

JONATHAN KROHN: The mountain I was on was lucky because they had some water. But that water was the water used for the sheep - disgusting and dirty. And they've been drinking that water, and they've been relying on that. But one person was telling me about a point on the mountain, in the mountain range, where there's only, like, a crack in the side-rock for freshwater. And it takes about five minutes to fill up one normal sized bottle of water. When you have hundreds of people, it's certainly not enough. And there are some makeshift tents there. I saw one person, for instance, where they'd taken the barbed wire left around and taken a blanket and used the barbed wire to tie the blanket to the bushes around it so they could get some shade because at the top of this mountain - it's an arid mountain covered in rocks and sand and goat feces. There's goat feces everywhere because this is where the shepherds used to graze their coats. And they still do, but they're eating the goats now. And they're not able to fully cook it, so that's bad as well. But these people are making these makeshift communities centered around that at different points on the mountain and different points in the valley nearby.

GREENE: These are people you were meeting, Jonathan, who came to this mountain escaping, you know, attacks from the Islamic State militants. What have they told you about these fighters who swept in and drove them away?

KROHN: They're telling me some really awful horror stories. Obviously, these things are hard to confirm. There was one guy who told me how he had seen 60 people shot, one by one, in a line, and they were buried in a mass grave. There's another man who told me his story of running out of the city of Sinjar with his brother and carrying their parents on their backs, because their parents are too old and feeble to get out, while they were being shot at. And they said they had about eight members of their family who were killed.

GREENE: Difficult to hear. Now, I asked Jonathan Krohn if aid from U.S. air drops was reaching these Yazidis. He said at first, an official with the aid group Red Crescent suggested much of the food and water from American planes was smashing onto the rocky mountainsides. He told us the Iraqi forces had more success dropping supplies from helicopters at low altitudes. Meanwhile, thousands of the Yazidis have managed to climb down the mountainsides now.

KROHN: The best bet, and the one that most of the people who've gotten off the mountain have taken, is to go through Syria. And there's a road that goes up the top of Mount Sinjar, and it goes north towards Syria. Many thousands of people have taken that route out.

GREENE: And is Syria a safe option for these people at this point?

KROHN: Well, the area of Syria that they're going to is safe enough for this trip because they're going into YPG or Kurdish-controlled Syria. This is a Kurdish militia which has been trained in fighting the Islamic State. And they have done a good job of doing it there and here in Iraq, where they have been working alongside the Peshmerga. And there's a very obvious coordination, by the way, with the YPG and the Peshmerga and even the Iraqi army, interestingly enough, at least in Sinjar. But I've seen Peshmerga and YPG cooperation elsewhere, particularly on the front, towards the city of Rabia. So it's very obvious that there is some level of cooperation, at least.

GREENE: As horrific as this situation sounds, if there is a corridor right now with relatively safe passage to get to a Kurdish area of Syria where people could find some safety, it sounds like things might be more optimistic than they were when these people were first trapped on that mountain.

KROHN: It might sound that way, but that's only for people who have access to this road. This is a 70 kilometer mountain range, and only people who can get to that road can get out. And there are people who, even if they can get to that road, there's no way they're going to be able to walk out on that road. It's several kilometers by foot, at least, unless they can get into a cramped vehicle, which some people do.

GREENE: And as you talk to people, Jonathan, and they were speaking about their best hope - I mean, describe what they're thinking right and now their emotions.

KROHN: It's hard to say. Most of these people just want out. I had one guy who I quoted one of my pieces and he said, I want to be a refugee in another country; I don't want to be a refugee in my own country, or something along those lines. That's the general sentiment. These people don't want to feel like they're not welcome here anymore. They've heard stories, and they've seen people die in their hometowns, in their home villages. And they don't feel like they're welcome.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Jonathan Krohn. He's a reporter for The Telegraph who was doing reporting on Mount Sinjar. And we reached him in the city of Erbil. Jonathan, thanks very much.

KROHN: Hey, thanks for having me, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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