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In Iraq, Yazidis Are Trapped And Starving Even Though ISIS Is Gone


When the U.S. began its air war against ISIS in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, it gave two reasons. One was to protect American interests. The other was to protect Yazidis, an ancient religious minority. They were facing genocide at the hands of ISIS. So many Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where they ended up trapped and starving. That was nearly four years ago. NPR's Jane Arraf recently went back to Sinjar and found thousands of Yazidis still taking refuge and still desperate for help.

NAVINE: (Speaking foreign language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In a tent on Sinjar Mountain, Navine pulls up the sleeve of her sweater and holds out her arm to show me a crude tattoo. It's the letter N. Her younger brother Arras's arm is inked with an A. Their mother Halo says she made sure the two children were tattooed while she and her children were being held captive by ISIS - that way if they were taken from her, they could be identified. They don't want their last names used because they still have relatives missing.

HALO: (Through interpreter) We used a nail and ashes. We all made them when we were first kidnapped. We were afraid of being separated.

ARRAF: They escaped from ISIS, but now they're afraid to go home. Instead, they and more than 4,000 other Yazidis are living in misery on the mountain where so many fled escaping ISIS four years ago. Navine is 15 now, and Arras is 12. Their father, two older sisters and an older brother are among more than 3,000 Yazidis taken by ISIS who are still missing. For more than two years, while Naveen was held in Raqqa in Syria, along with her mother, brother and a baby sister, she pretended to be paralyzed and mentally ill, so she wouldn't be taken away as a sex slave.

NAVINE: (Through interpreter) It was so difficult. Sometimes they were pulling my hair and saying, you have to walk. You have to talk. But I wouldn't answer them. Even when the airstrikes were hitting very close to us, and everyone was running away, I just stayed where I was lying down.

ARRAF: Eventually, relatives raised the money to buy the mother and three children back from ISIS. But they don't have money to repair their damaged home in Sinjar, and they worry that ISIS could come back there. Navine says she wants to learn English. She knows a few phrases.

NAVINE: Hi, how are you? I am fine. Where do you come from? Where do you live?

ARRAF: But today there's still no school she can go to. There's no electricity or running water either. Her mother says there's almost no help coming from anyone.

HALO: (Through interpreter) Sometimes a organization comes and gives each family a box of food. But it doesn't last long - just a few days. They say now it will be more difficult because the roads are closed.

ARRAF: The roads are closed because of territorial disputes between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. Yazidis say neither Iraqis nor Kurdish forces, which retreated when ISIS came, have helped them. The U.S. says it channels aid through the U.N. and other organizations, but hardly any of those organizations are operating here.

Outside the mountain is dotted with groups of tents. Some are made of the same pieces of plastic dropped by U.S. organized airlifts in 2014. I walk up one of the paths that terrified Yazidis took four years ago, still dotted with the things they left behind. You can see clothes still thrown on the rocks in the bushes as people abandoned the things they were carrying to go further and further up the mountain. It's a very unforgiving terrain. It's all rocks and sand and almost no water.

HADI AHMED: Many people died. I saw their bodies on top of the mountain - and kids and men and women.

ARRAF: That's Hadi Ahmed, who's 29. He shows me the trails the Yazidis took.

AHMED: Thousands - thousands of the people walking.

ARRAF: He says most of the houses in their village were destroyed by ISIS explosives and U.S. airstrikes. And they're afraid of the Arab villages surrounding them where some people they've known their whole lives joined ISIS to attack them. At home in his family's tent, Ahmed says, four years later, people feel abandoned. He believes it's because Sinjar doesn't have oil like other areas in Iraq.

AHMED: We just don't have oil like Kurdistan and Iraqi government. If we have some oil like them, I'm sure that the United States will come to help our people because of our oil.

ARRAF: At the base of the mountain, there's the town of Sinjar. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled here. The head of the town says almost 70 percent of buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Only a few thousand of the 50,000 families that lived in Sinjar have returned. They barely have enough money for food.

SHIREEN HASSAM: (Speaking foreign language).

ARRAF: I go to see Shireen Hassam, a Yazidi mother whose daughter Wargheen died in January. She was 2 and malnourished. There was no specialist in Sinjar, and they didn't have taxi fare to get her to a hospital in another city.

HASSAM: (Through interpreter) We tried our best. We were doing whatever the doctor told us. We were borrowing money and doing 4 to 5 tests every few days. We couldnt afford anymore.

ARRAF: At Sinjar's hospital, Shireen Kamal is waiting for the rare chance to see a visiting pediatrician. There are holes in the walls from the battle. There's no power. Kamal is holding her daughter Nermeen Jassim. She was born on the mountain on the very day four years ago that the Yazidis fled ISIS. It was a difficult birth, depriving her of oxygen. The child is lovely. She smiles and reaches out to strangers, but it's clear there's something wrong.

SHIREEN KAMAL: (Through interpreter) When she was born, there wasn't even anything to wrap her in. It was so difficult for her and also for me. She stayed hungry for a long time. She can't talk. She can't sit. And she can't walk.

ARRAF: Nermeen's birthday is also the day the Yazidis mark as the start of the genocide. The world saw the crime that happened to us, Kamal says. Yazidis, still suffering the aftermath of ISIS, believe the world has now turned away. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Sinjar in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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