CAMP BAJID KANDALA, Iraq (AP) — With shocked, sunburnt faces, men, women and children in dirt-caked clothes limped into a camp for displaced Iraqis, finding safety after harsh days of hiding on a blazing mountaintop after fleeing from the extremist Islamic State group.
Children who died of thirst were left behind; some exhausted mothers abandoned living babies, as thousands of Yazidis trekked across a rocky mountain chain in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), crossing into neighboring Syria, and then looping back into Iraq to reach safety at the Bajid Kandala camp. At least 56 children died in the mountains, Juliette Touma of the U.N. children's agency estimated.
Other Yazidis have settled in refugee camps in Syria: so desperate is their situation, they have sought safety in a country aflame in a civil war.
The displacement of at least tens of thousands of Yazidis — Kurdish speakers who practice an ancient Mesopotamian faith — meant yet another Iraqi minority was peeled away as the Islamic State extremists continue their sweep of Iraq, seizing territory they brutally administer. The Islamic State group fighters already forced the expulsion of Iraqi Christians, Shiite Muslims and adherents of the tiny Shabak faith. The hardliners see other religious groups as heretics who may be killed or forced to submit to their rule.
After a global outcry, the U.S. and Iraqi air force began airdropping food and water to Yazidis stranded on a mountaintop. The British military also helped in the airdrop.
It seemed to barely dent the suffering of the Yazidis in the Bajid Kandala camp, miles from the Iraqi border.
It was already crammed with 30,000 people, squashed into tents lined over rolling hills. Nearby, bulldozers were breaking earth to put up new tents. Camp guards expected thousands more to arrive by Sunday.
The extended Qassem family from the town of Khanasor arrived on Saturday evening. The children were already sprawled asleep on a mat, oblivious to the noise. The men, sporting traditional long Yazidi moustaches, hauled water bottles, tuna cans and chocolate distributed by aid workers. A woman wearing a purple headscarf, stood nearby and sobbed.
Iraq's Yazidis, who mostly live in a cluster of villages near the Iraq-Syria border, fled on August 3, hearing that Islamic State militants were approaching. Residents rushed in a panic to the nearby mountain chain of Sinjar, said the men of the Qassem family.
They couldn't take the roads because the militants had seized checkpoints once manned by Kurdish forces.
"We were so afraid, everybody only thought of themselves. I even left my uncle behind," said one Qassem family man, Abu Saado, of the panicked flight, pointing to a cross-eyed man sitting beside him. They rejoined in the mountains.
They were among the 50,000 Yazidis that UNICEF estimated had fled into the mountain chain. For days, there was no escape as extremists blocked the roads.
"We thought we would die in the mountain, but it was better than them taking our women," said Abu Saado, referring to widespread fears that Yazidi women would be raped or sold off as concubines to the extremists.
Maher, 16, of the Qassem family, but from the village of Yarmouk, said he watched with binoculars that he stole from a soldier, as Islamic State fighters stopped tens of people.
"They separated the men and women, and they took some of the women away on trucks. They shot the men," he said. "I went crazy. I couldn't sleep, eat or drink, I couldn't talk to anybody."
Another man from a different village told a similar story of watching from a mountain as militants killed men and took the women away.
Yazidis of two villages, Koshto and Hatmiya, were initially promised safety if they stayed, said a schoolteacher. But on Friday, they were told they had three days to decide: convert to the Muslim faith, or be killed, said Saldo Saado, who said panicked residents were calling him.
Their stories were impossible to verify, but U.N. officials and aid workers reported similar stories of suffering on the Sinjar mountain chain. U.S. and Iraqi officials also reported that militants had seized some women.
Distraught men showed photographs on their telephones, of piles of bodies they said were of relatives slain at militant checkpoints.
For days, members of the Qassem family said they drew rank well water on Mount Sinjar. Some ate leaves off trees until they were stripped bare. Some ate bread they stole from abandoned homes.
After days, they heard Kurdish fighters in Syria had repelled Islamic extremists in the northernmost part of the mountain chain on the border. If they could reach there, they'd be safe. Kurdish officials said they seized the area Thursday after clashes with Islamic State fighters.
The Kurdish Syrian fighters have been battling the extremists, who dominate the arc of the Euphrates river running from northern Syria, deep into Iraq.
The extended Qassem family — well over 30 people — marched for five hours, until they saw men in military uniforms in Syrian territory. Some of the Yazidi youth begged to join the fight against the militants.
"The Kurds saved us," said Abu Saado. "Now we want to fight with them."
As they walked to safety, more children died, said Salman Qassem, 19, of the extended family.
"The mothers left the dead children behind. There was no time to bury them. Some children were alive, but they were left in the wilderness, the adults were too weak to carry them," he said.
Thousands of Yazidis stayed in Kurdish-dominated parts of Syria.
Juan Mohammed, a local government spokesman in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli , said 7,000 Yazidis were staying in an encampment there. They were also staying in two other encampments in the area. Mohammed estimated another 20,000 Yazidis were crossing through Syria. Officials called on the international community to help provide the Yazidi refugees with blankets, food and medical aid.
The Qassem family decided to return to Iraq, following hundreds of other people, walking and hitching over dirt tracks and paved roads, until they found passage back into Iraq to the camp for displaced people, a journey of a day and a half.
They said thousands more were left behind on the mountain, still limping along to safety.
As they spoke, more people poured into the camp in the twilight.
An elderly woman leaned on an elderly man who leant on a cane as they limped into the gated camp. A jeep crammed with dusty children parked nearby.
And finally, three little boys in bright red and black clothes patiently waited at the entrance. They were looking for their families after becoming separated in the mountains.
Mroue reported from Beirut.