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Yazidis haunted by cries for help as militants bury victims alive

DAYRABUN Iraq (Reuters) - Refugee Samo Ilyas Ali has nine children to feed but he can’t focus on the future because the sounds of women and children crying out for help while being buried alive by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq often consume his mind.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, take part in a demonstration at the Iraqi-Turkish border crossing in Zakho district of the Dohuk Governorate of the Iraqi Kurdistan province August 17, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Tens of thousand of Yazidis fled their ancient homeland of Sinjar and other villages to escape a dramatic push by the Sunni militants who regard the ethnic minority as devil worshippers who must embrace their radical version of Islam or die.

The refugees sit idle in camps in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Traumatized by Islamic State militants notorious for beheadings and mass executions, they have simply given up on Iraq and want to go as far away as possible; to countries like Germany, worlds away from their mysterious customs.

U.S. air strikes against Islamic State positions and vows by Kurdish commanders to recapture Yazidi villages provided no reassurances.

It’s easy to see why.

Ten days ago, Ali and his fellow villagers were suddenly surrounded by Islamic State militants with machine guns at night. They had long beards. Some had face masks and Arabic writing on the sides of their heads.


Absent from the scene were Kurdish peshmerga, or “those who confront death”, fighters who had held parts of the north and were seen as the only force that could stand up to Islamic State after thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers fled their advance, leaving them with heavy weapons including tanks

Suddenly the men began digging ditches - soon to become mass graves.

“We did not understand. Then they started to put people in those holes, those people were alive,” said former grocery shop owner Ali, 46, pausing to weep.

“After a while we heard gunfire. I can’t forget that scene. Women, children, crying for help. We had to run for our lives, there was nothing to be done for them.”

It was not possible to independently verify these accounts.

Some of the Yazidis escaped with the help of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters. But similar scenes are reported in several parts of the north.

In some of the most recent bloodshed, militants massacred at least 80 Yazidi men in Kawju village because they refused to convert to Islam, Iraqi officials said. Women and children were abducted.

Islamic State seemed most intent on killing members of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite sect, which it considers to be heretical. During Islamic State’s latest offensive in the north, minority Yazidis and Christians have suffered the most.

The Yazidis, followers of an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, are spread over northern Iraq and are part of the country’s Kurdish minority.

Many of their villages were destroyed when Saddam Hussein’s troops tried to crush the Kurds. Some were taken away by the executed former dictator’s intelligence agents.

Now they feel helpless again. Fellow Kurds abandoned them. Iraq has a new prime minister who is seen as moderate and may be less inclined to engage in disputes with the Kurds over budgets and oil than his predecessor, perhaps bringing political stability that could benefit the north.

But many Yazidis have lost faith in Iraq and its leaders. They have few options. Some complained that Kurdish forces would not let them travel to Turkey.

So for now, it seems all they can do is wait, and try to forget what caused them to flee their homes.

“They put women and children under the ground. They were alive. I still hear their screams. They were trying to keep their heads up to keep breathing,” said car repairman Dawud Hassan, 26.

“Iraq is finished for me. We had houses, shops, they all burnt our things. We have nothing. We want to cross to Turkey but the peshmerga is not letting us. We will not stay there, we want to go to Europe.”

It is not clear if Iraqi government forces or peshmerga will manage to claw back territory and then hold it - something that could help Yazidis believe in their country again.

Islamic State is getting more ambitious. It has already grabbed much of the north and resources such as oil fields that will help fund its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Some Yazidis, like Hassan, 22, a student, shake their heads in disbelief when recalling how only foreign Kurdish fighters from Turkey or Syria extended a lifeline in the face of Islamic State.

“They tied the hands of one woman to the back of a car and her legs to another car and they split her into two,” he said beside makeshift tents as women cried.

“Have you seen anything like this? This is all because she is not Muslim and did not want to be converted. We barely made it.”

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Giles Elgood