After a weeklong exodus of near-biblical proportions, the massive flow of besieged practitioners of the ancient Yazidi faith has diminished to a trickle along this stretch of the Tigris River.
Handfuls of bedraggled Yazidis, exhausted and hungry, were seen crossing the Tigris into Iraq on Thursday under a blistering midday sun. In comparison, about 30,000 crossed the pontoon bridge between the two nations Monday, the zenith of the panicked flight from Sunni Muslim extremists intent on converting or killing them.
The U.S. assessment that most, but not all, of the terrified Yazidis trapped on the barren slopes of Mt. Sinjar have managed to escape appears to be accurate, according to Iraqi officials and Yazidi community leaders. That finding led U.S. officials Wednesday to hold off on the idea of a military operation to help free besieged multitudes on the mountain.
What has proved to be the Yazidis' lifeline has been an extraordinary humanitarian corridor opened up with little fanfare by Kurdish forces, including Yazidi fighters, in both Iraq and Syria.
The roundabout route led more than 100,000 to safety, according to official estimates, first down the mountain, north into Syria and then back into Iraq across the Tigris, which forms the border here. Those making the arduous trek have included pregnant women, newborns and elderly men and women carrying sacks of possessions and leaning on walking sticks.
Still, recent arrivals say thousands remained trapped in the rugged terrain, including many too weak or infirm to hike their way down.
"As soon as I drop my family off, I'm going back to the mountain for my mother and father," said Khudeida Ibrahim, 46, who crossed back into Iraq on Thursday with his wife, eight children and several other extended family members, who live in a village near Sinjar.
His elderly parents, he explained, could not make the trip without his help. He told them to wait. He carried two flour sacks with his families' belongings and seemed full of energy despite having spent 11 days on the mountain. Here, back on the Iraqi side, international aid workers handed out plastic shoes, biscuits and water. Ibrahim said airdrops of food and water had proved essential.
"Without the helicopters, we'd all be dead now," he said.
Sinjar, in the northwest, is the heartland of Iraq's Yazidi minority, followers of a faith linked to Zoroastrianism who are among the nation's poorest citizens. Islamic State militants overran Sinjar and its environs Aug. 3, providing the largely Yazidi population a stark choice: Convert or face death. Most chose to flee, their dramatic escape from what President Obama labeled potential genocide contributing to the
But even if most Yazidis have escaped with their lives, there is still the matter of the dead and missing, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, including kidnapped girls and women, according to Yazidi residents and Iraqi authorities. Some of the missing died on the mountain. Others may be safe somewhere in Iraq or Syria. But some fell captive to the militants, the Yazidis say.
"They took 33 members of my family," said Haji Kejo Murad, 44, a slim, bearded laborer who broke into tears as he spoke at a refugee camp, where he and his family arrived Thursday after crossing the Tigris. "My brother told them, 'Take me and let the women and children free.' But they took him and the others anyway."
He spoke at the Bajid Kandal camp, erected last year with United Nations funding for refugees from Syria. The sprawling tent city sits on a desolate rolling plain where sheep graze in the distance. In the last 10 days, Bajid Kandal has become home to more than 20,000 Yazidis. Although they are safe in the camp, the Yazidis complained bitterly about a lack of food, shelter, medicine and other staples.
"I can't get a tent for my family, there's not enough to eat, what are we to do here?" pleaded Said Aziz, 30, one of a number of men lined up outside the administrator's office seeking to be placed in vacant tents.
In the case of Haji Kejo Murad, he, his six children and his wife and other family members were packed onto a blanket placed in the shade of a concrete building that is part of the camp's health complex. Diapers and crackers littered the blanket as the youngest, Anwar, 9 months, slept fitfully, a pacifier in his mouth. The children had nothing to do. All tried to keep out of the sun as the temperature soared toward 120 degrees.
Inside the clinic, staffers doled out a steady stream of medications for a variety of ailments, especially blistered feet (from the trek in the mountain), bronchial infections and diarrhea, particularly among children. People walked out clutching handfuls of pills.
"They really don't get a lot of attention here," said Khalil Khalat, 24, a Yazidi medical student volunteering at the clinic.
Umran Khudaida, 22, was seeking something for his ailing wife, Ahlam, 18, who gave birth five days earlier on the mountain. "Our daughter was born in a cave," explained Khudaida, who had green eyes that matched the green-checked scarf wrapped around his head.
The Yazidis appear to face a bleak future in their native land. More than 300,000 fled the onslaught of the Islamic State, both in the Sinjar area and elsewhere in northern Iraq, according to community leaders. In northern Kurdistan, clusters of displaced Yazidis can be seen in rough camps and unfinished construction projects, under highway overpasses and, especially, in schools, many of which have been turned into shelters. Aid has been flowing in, but it is not nearly enough.
"We feel like the international community has abandoned us," said Khidher Domle, a community activist, speaking in the Yazidi village of Sharia, now home to 40,000 people, almost triple its usual population. The displaced mill about aimlessly in the main square of the village, lining up for fresh bread when it becomes available at a shop.
For now, there is no prospect that any can go back to their ancestral lands. The Sinjar area remains firmly in the hands of Islamic State, whose forces are proceeding with their bloody policy of sectarian cleansing of those they term "infidels."
The influx of people has placed an extraordinary strain on officials of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, who are also hosting displaced masses of Iraqi Christians and Muslims, as well as more than 200,000 refugees from Syria.
"These people need to go back home, but they can't go back until there is security — and there is no security now," said Ismael Muhammed Ahmed, deputy governor of Dahuk province in northern Kurdistan. "We are afraid this lamentable situation could continue for some time."