There’s something regal about Abdi Ismail. The white-bearded paterfamilias sits cross-legged on a mattress, a scarf wrapped turban-like round his head, his children and chickens keeping a respectful distance.
Ismail’s extended family lives in a tent stamped with U.N. logos. He’s proud they’re here.
“We didn’t leave our mountain,” he says. “We stayed here and we fought.”
They’ve been eking out an existence on the rugged slopes of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar since ISIS took their village of Tal Azer in summer last year.
“ISIS came and surrounded our village — they killed our men and took our women,” he says. The family is from the Yazidi religious minority, non-Muslims who’ve been brutally targeted by ISIS, which considers them heretics. The extremists have killed, captured and raped thousands of Yazidis.
The Sinjar area is the Yazidi heartland, dotted with their shrines. Some believe the mountain is miraculous, that gravity works in reverse on part of it.
After the extremists took their villages and then the city of Sinjar, they tried to take the mountain, too.
“But our fighters were there,” says Ismail. “They didn’t let them come. They killed them all.”
U.S. airstrikes began and Kurdish fighters opened up a corridor for people on the mountain to escape. Most did, on foot — an extraordinary exodus that produced heartbreaking images, waking the world up to the Yazidis’ plight.
But hundreds of families, like Ismail’s, refused to leave their mountain.
“It was a very hard time,” he says.
The corridor out was closed off; they were surrounded again. Aid agencies airdropped tarpaulins for tents and a little food and water, but for two months, they were hungry. They survived on wild plants and fed the babies tomato paste. It was bitterly cold.
Still, Ismail insists no one ever wanted to leave. He says his family accepted the situation. There was nowhere else they wanted to go.
A few Kurdish peshmerga soldiers also stayed, as did a doctor named Khansa Shamdeen, a Syrian woman who decided to go to the mountain and provide medical aid.
She’s wearing a military uniform, full makeup and several gold and diamond earrings in each ear as she tells me it got so cold she couldn’t move her fingers. Once the displaced Yazidis stormed her tent and the peshmerga’s cabin looking for food.
When medicine was airdropped to her, desperate Yazidis would get to it first, mobs tearing the package apart, looking for anything edible. And yet she admires these people who stayed.
“The people here are very strong,” she says. “They just think they have to stay here. When someone makes the land his goal, he’ll do everything to stay.”
Last December, Kurdish forces pushed ISIS out of some nearby villages. Food, water and fuel could then get up to the mountain. The Yazidis looted livestock from the abandoned villages. Life got a little easier.
And last week, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar city.
By Ismail’s tent, there’s now a water tank where women are washing dishes as he talks. But one of them, Sevi Zendi, says she’s not going back, even if ISIS is ever kicked out of her village, about 12 miles away.
“The enemy is all around,” she says.
Many Yazidis blame local Muslims for collaborating with ISIS. She won’t go back unless there’s an international peacekeeping force.
In the evenings, she talks to the children about the village, about life there “and how we’ll go back.”
As she’s talking, the sun sets behind the top of their beloved mountain. Abruptly, it’s cold. Their second winter here is just beginning.