THE LEVANT – Juno Khalaf brought most of his family to the relative safety of a Syrian refugee camp but he is wracked with anguish over the son and daughter who got separated in their escape from Iraq.
A Yazidi, Khalaf joined his co-religionists in headlong flight when jihadists of the Islamic State group stormed their hometown of Sinjar nearly two weeks ago.
The 45-year-old, his wife and nine children ran for their lives to the mountains north of the town in terror of the Muslim extremists who regard them as heretics.
The Kurdish fighters who had controlled the town were no match for the well-armed jihadists and as their resistance collapsed, civilians fled.
“They were firing at us as we were running away from our home. There was total chaos,” Khalaf said.
“We lost my little Alifa and my son Imad on the way. I don’t know where they are, I don’t know if we’ll ever find them again,” he said, struggling for breath as he fought back the tears.
Khalaf, his wife and their seven other children hid for days in the high mountains as the jihadists overran the Yazidis’ ancestral villages in the valleys that carve into the range.
Short on food, and water amid the searing summer heat, the family battled their way along the escarpment towards the Syrian border to the west.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that it was US air strikes that opened an escape route for Khalaf’s family and others like them to make it towards the border where they were met by Kurdish fighters.
I lost my soul
But in Khalaf’s mind, the nightmare of that fateful day of Sunday, August 3 will never end.
“We don’t have a car. We had to run up Mount Sinjar, with just the clothes we were wearing. There were many people around us as we ran,” he said.
Most of the Yazidis who escaped to Syria have crossed the Tigris back into Iraq further north to join the hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in makeshift camps in areas still under Kurdish control.
But Khalaf and his family have stayed on in Syria, finding refuge in the Newroz camp originally set up for Syrians driven from their homes during the country’s three-year-old civil war.
A handful of aid groups provide assistance to the refugees in coordination with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish rebel group whose fighters control the area and which has proclaimed self-rule in three regions of northern Syria.
Hadiya Yusef, who heads the Kurdish administration for the region, is in no doubt that it was Syrian Kurdish fighters who rescued their Yazidi fellow Kurds.
“The YPG opened a front against IS from the Syrian side of the border and lost eight fighters before it could secure a route out for the Yazidis,” she said.
“Everybody from the villages around here mobilised to bring the people who made it down to the bottom of the mountain to safety,” she added.
The camp provides a measure of security for the rest of his family but Khalaf looks dazed and haunted.
He has no idea whether his 18-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter are dead or alive and doesn’t know where to start looking.
His wife Khonaf had to leave her blind mother behind too. “She couldn’t have made the journey,” she said, squinting into the sun.
With her wailing baby in one arm, she pointed to her four-year-old daughter Rania’s bruised cheek.
“She was hit by a car speeding past us as we all tried to escape. Thank goodness she is alright.”
Barefoot and wearing a bright green dress, the little girl said she walked the seven hours from her village to the high mountains unaided.
“I am scared. I don’t know where my brother and sister are. I want to go home,” she said.
Asked whether he thought he would ever be able to return to Sinjar, her father Khalaf said: “I may be in a safe place now. But I lost my soul in this escape. Anyone, please help us.”