Scores of Yazidis, mainly children, who fled as jihadists overran their villages in northern Iraq are now sheltering in an abandoned construction site on the outskirts of Dohuk city.
While they have found safety in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, the members of the Yazidi religious minority have little to celebrate, having lost loved ones, homes and their belongings.
Four-year-old Alia, who arrived with five relatives, sobs with hunger on her mother Hazika Ahmed’s knees.
Alia, her three siblings, mother and grandfather now sleep on mattresses provided by local residents, surviving on just one meal a day and with no medical care.
The children’s father Nuweil Qassem Murad, a shepherd, was kidnapped by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group as its fighters advanced in Iraq’s Nineveh province from August 3, targeting minority groups and forcing many to flee.
“We would have been better off if we’d died in our homes,” says Hazika, 25.
She tries to keep calm, but half way through her interview with AFP, she too bursts into tears.
– ‘The children saw everything’ –
“The children saw it all on Mount Sinjar. They saw the killing, the gunfire,” Hazika says of the place where thousands of people were trapped by the jihadists for more than 10 days.
“We had to walk for hours as we fled upwards onto the mountain. We had no food, no water to give them.
“Now we’re here, and though we are safer, we’ve lost everything — our homes, our clothes, our money, our gold, everything,” Hazika says, lips quivering.
“The only reason we are still alive is by God’s grace. But no one has done anything for us here.
“The children want their father,” Hazika says. “Every day, things get harder. What is going to happen to us when the cold winter months arrive?”
At the construction site, families are sleeping on the first two floors of an unfinished five-storey building.
They cook food donated to them by local Kurdish tribes, but the food is not enough for their growing numbers, they say.
There are no toilets, no walls, and in order to reach the first floor, people must climb a shaky wooden ladder.
Hazika’s five-year-old son Lawi’s eyes are swollen, probably from the sand and dust constantly blowing through their makeshift home.
– Exposed to the elements –
“We have cried so much for the children that we have no more tears to shed,” says school principal Samir Darwish, who is also among those living at the site.
Some of the children in the unfinished building are starting to get sick, says Darwish, a thin man with a short black beard.
“They are constantly exposed to the elements. It’s inhumane,” he says.
Many of the children sleeping at the site should be starting school within less than two weeks, but Darwish says there appear to be no plans for them to return to lessons.
Nine-year-old Dalia, wearing a T-shirt with two pink ponies printed on the front, says she misses her classmates, but she doesn’t know where many of them are now.
“I finished third grade. I like school very much but I think I will miss school this year.”
The IS advance in Nineveh province, which borders Dohuk, forced some 200,000 people to flee their homes.
Thousands of women and children are also said to have been kidnapped, and many men are feared to have been summarily killed.
Many of the displaced are now living in unsanitary and poorly serviced camps, while others have taken shelter under bridges, in schools and on building sites.