The Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) gathered behind a berm of hard brown sand as they prepared to cross the border — smoking and discussing the route among themselves. From the Iraqi side, trucks loaded with Yazidi refugees streamed through in plumes of fine dust, met by Syrian volunteers handing them cartons of fruit juice, biscuits, and cigarettes.
The Yazidi Kurds, marginalized followers of a secretive religion, had fled their homes in advance of an offensive by the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, and taken shelter on Mount Sinjar — a range of barren, waterless crags, where many of the weakest died of thirst and heat exhaustion. Earlier, at the newly created Newroz refugee camp in Derik, Yazidis bitterly described their privations.
"There was no way to come here except through the mountains, walking," one man said, showing us his bandaged feet. "There was no food and no water and no weapons. ISIS advanced so much that there was nowhere else to go, so we had to go to the mountaintop. I have a four-year-old boy who has walked all the way from there to here."
Their plight, and their widely circulated accounts of the Islamic State's atrocities, has aroused the West's conscience, leading the US government to intervene in Iraq by dropping food and water on the mountaintop and bombs on the Islamic State's positions surrounding them. But the Yazidis were unanimous on who they owed their lives to: "It was the YPG who saved us. The peshmerga betrayed us and ran away like cowards, but the YPG saved our lives. They are heroes to us."
Desperate Yazidi child clasps a block of ice in Newroz refugee camp in Derik, Syrian Kurdistan.
Yazidi child receives medical treatment in Newroz refugee camp in Derik, Syrian Kurdistan.
Inside an aid tent at Newroz camp, a group of men and women in NGO vests sat around eating a hearty lunch surrounded by hundreds of refugees clamouring to register their names to receive food. They insisted they not be filmed eating, and that we join them for lunch. Awkwardly, we ate with them, stared at by hungry Yazidis.
They were, it transpired, Syrian regime officials, showing markedly more concern for Iraq's Yazidi refugees than for the millions of Syrians who have fled their homes from government air strikes. A Hassakeh politician, Adel Bachu, discussed what Syrian government officials were doing here in the autonomous Kurdish region.
"The role of the government is to provide whatever it can to provide to these people, despite the wounds that we already have as the Syrian government, as you know," he said. "Despite four years of this crisis, we are still open to receive these refugees."
A year ago, the Obama administration was close to bombing the Syrian regime, which may well have ended the war. Instead, Obama blinked and did nothing, and the Islamic State took advantage of the chaos to rise to dominance across much of Syria and Iraq. Now America found itself reluctantly bombing the Islamic State, in Iraq but not in its Syrian powerbase.
"All these years we have been fighting ISIS, many countries have been supporting ISIS against the Syrian government, and the Syrian regime, against the Syrian people, they have been killing Syrian people," Bachu said. "Now the Americans are striking ISIS in Iraq, we hope these strikes will be extended into Syria as well. But not only against ISIS but also against other terrorist organizations such as Nusra and others, and that they will stop providing them arms and money by different countries."
Masters of their embattled, autonomous state in northeast Syria, the Kurdish fighters of the YPG, an offshoot of Turkey's PKK movement, have fought the Islamic State almost since the group's creation, with no support and little interest from the outside world. Heavily outgunned and almost encircled by their jihadist enemy, the YPG has stood its ground, fending off Islamic State assaults with heavy casualties despite a blockades by both neighbouring Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
But when the Islamic State turned its attention to KRG, the YPG sensed an opportunity to change its fortunes. As both Iraqi central government troops and KRG peshmerga fled the Islamic State's offensive, the YPG moved into Iraq, fighting side by side with their former peshmerga rivals, and urging a fragile, newfound sense of Kurdish unity.
At the berm of sand that marked the desert border with Iraq, a grizzled Yazidi guide seated himself in the front of our vehicle and explained the route ahead to the YPG fighters inside as we set off.
"Be careful, and drive fast," a Yazidi fighter shouted as we left. "IS keeps shooting at the road, with mortars and Dushkas."
The "safe corridor" the YPG had carved through the heart of Islamic State territory was far less secure than we had realized. With the desert roads firmly under Islamic State control, the YPG had ploughed a track through the desert with a bulldozer, for a few miles at least. The bullet-riddled bulldozer abandoned in the desert marked the end of that track, and the beginning of a difficult breakneck dash across shifting desert sands to the foot of the Sinjar range.
Where is the Islamic State from here, I asked the guide. The YPG fighters laughed.
"Right here, now, belongs to YPG. But everywhere around is the Islamic State. That village there," the guide said, pointing to a cluster of mud brick huts a kilometer or so to our left. "That is the Islamic State. And that village there is the Islamic State," he added, pointing to an identical-looking village the same distance to our right. "Everywhere is the Islamic State."
The YPG opened an emergency route to Sinjar for refugees through ISIS-held Iraqi desert. Lorries of Yazidi refugees are thrown food as they reach the unofficial Syrian border at the end of the desert crossing.
A Yazidi guide discusses the route through the desert with Syrian Kurdish fighters.
As the SUV struggled across the desert, lashed by plumes of sand, the fighters played cheery YPG anthems on full blast, smoking incessantly and squinting at approaching vehicles, visibly relaxing when they realized they were YPG. The guide urged the driver this way and that onto firmer ground, past empty-looking huts and through Arab oasis hamlets of dubious loyalties. Every half mile or so, isolated forts straight from old foreign legion movies loomed out of the desert, fluttering YPG flags or banners emblazoned with the portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader still imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges. Gun trucks sat pointed at the hostile desert surrounding us. The sun was setting, and we needed to reach the mountain — fast.
Towards the end of the desert track, the YPG stopped at a lone peshmerga outpost for water, to a visibly cold reception. The peshmerga made polite small talk as the YPG washed the dust from their faces with a hose. The corridor had widened by this point, with a buffer zone of YPG-held villages securing the road. On the horizon to our right, a boom and a cloud of dust marked an Islamic State artillery strike. The fighters peered at the Islamic State-held village on the hilltop beyond with vague interest before setting off again, turning the stereo on full and blasting out PKK songs, clapping along and laughing, the peshmerga regarding us with stony faces. The rival Kurdish groups may have joined together to fight the IS enemy, but there's little affection between them.
At the foot of Mount Sinjar, an accompanying minivan transporting Western aid workers, which had struggled all along the route, finally gave up and died. The fighters stood around discussing what to do. The little convoy was led by a female commander called Evin, who I was told had been sent to Syria by the PKK high command in Iraq's Mount Qandil.
"Put them in another truck," urged the Yazidi guide. "We'll reach the top soon, it'll be safer there. It's dark already, and it's bad to travel back through the desert at night."
A huddle of YPG fighters stood in a knot around Evin and loudly voiced their differing opinions as she struggled to make a decision. What little light was left had gone. As the fighters argued, a stream of bright lights became visible crawling down from the mountain. An unarmed convoy of trucks driven by Syrian Kurdish volunteers had been combing the mountain looking for Yazidi refugees to bring to safety. They hadn't found any, they said.
"There is no one there, no one," one told me. "They have all gone."
Whether or not this was true, it provided Evin with a solution. "There are no refugees anymore," she told me, "so there is no need for us to go to the top of the mountain. We must go back to Syria."
The convoy turned around, in a stream of brightly lit moving targets through the desert night, shedding vehicles as it went as they sank into the soft desert sand, their drivers cramming themselves into other trucks. "Is this an Arab village?" Evin asked suspiciously whenever we passed a hut. Flashlights flickered in our faces at the mobile YPG checkpoints that had sprung up along the route to watch for Islamic State movement. The slow-moving trucks at the rear of the convoy attracted Islamic State machinegun fire, and some halted for the night at a YPG fort as the Kurdish fighters shot back into the darkness, and others pressed on to Syria.
The YPG opened an emergency route to Sinjar for refugees through ISIS-held Iraqi desert.
A US Humvee in Syria, given to Iraq, captured by ISIS, then captured again by YPG.
Hours later, at Girke Lege, deep within Kurdish Syria, Evin sat watching activists sing patriotic songs in a circle as she waited for the last stragglers to be accounted for. Marquees decorated with posters of Ocalan's face had been set up to shelter Yazidi families, and a few dozen lay inside sleeping, surrounded by their meager possessions.
News had come that American troops had landed on the mountain to evacuate the last refugees, and that the British government had agreed to arm the Iraqi Kurds to fight the Islamic State.
"Look at this," an English-speaking doctor said, as a Humvee drove past, YPG scrawled on its front and back in yellow paint. "ISIS took this from the Iraqi army, and we took this from ISIS. It would be better if you give us weapons directly next time. Give us artillery and rockets and tanks and we will destroy ISIS in three days. Three days!"
He laughed, and clapped his hands, and walked away into the night.
All photos by Frederick Paxton
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