SHARIA, Iraq—”Daesh hatin, daesh hatin,” rippled from village to village across the Sinjar plains until all who could flee did, purging the northern Iraqi land of its ancient population.
Through the dayslong trek to safety that followed, the Yazidis of Sinjar took that catch phrase—a mixed Arabic-Kurdish warning of the advance of Islamic militants—with them. Even in the relative safety of Sharia, a hamlet straddling the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, neighbors spread the warning through a school courtyard housing the displaced, and children woke up at night in fright.
“My children can’t sleep,” said Saleh al-Yas Khalaf, his six children scattered in a half-circle around him. “They just see the men with the beards all night long.”
Mr. Khalaf, his two brothers and their families fled the Sinjar plains on the night of Aug. 2, when an exodus of Iraq’s Yazidi minority—Kurdish-speaking followers of a pre-Islamic faith—set off a humanitarian catastrophe in which tens of thousands were stranded on a mountainside.
Barack Obama has authorized airstrikes in Iraq to allow aid to reach the Yazidis, a religious minority that has fled to the mountains to escape Islamic militants. But who are the Yazidis, and what are their beliefs? (Photo: Getty Images)
Families were separated by the advance of militants calling themselves the Islamic State and also known by an earlier name, ISIS, and the Arabic acronym “Daesh.” Men lost track of their wives and children as they tried to secure a path for them to Syrian Kurdish land on the other side of the mountain.
The trek seared the jihadists’ invasion of Yazidi towns—”hatin” means “entered” in Kurdish—into the collective consciousness of the community, as some of the infants and elderly died from dehydration and heat.
“We’ve had 72 attacks in history. This is the 73rd,” said Zuhair Lazgeen, a Yazidi activist and resident of Sharia, which is in Dohuk province, part of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.
During just a few days this week, Mr. Lazgeen, 24 years old, helped take 35,000 of his religious kin from Sinjar into Sharia. He then watched much of that expanded population empty out again on Thursday as a new Islamic State advance north of Mosul sent panic through the town of 13,000.
Linked to Zoroastrianism and rooted in beliefs in the oneness of good and evil, the Yazidi faith is sometimes regarded as unusual or heretical, leading to a history of repeated persecutions, Mr. Lazheen said. Yazidis are so used to having to pick up and flee, he said, that they don’t record their religion or sacred texts in writing but spread them through song and chant.