Yazidis still stranded on Mount Sinjar: 'We need weapons now more than food or water'

For the US and its allies, Mount Sinjar is a success story: a humanitarian disaster alleviated by US air power. But hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis – mostly sick and old – remain atop the mountain, with no relief on its way.

Satellite images taken on 21 August by the firm ImageSat International and interviews with members of the Yazidi religious minority still on the mountain indicate a humanitarian emergency continuing to unfold. While thousands have fled down the mountain’s north face, making a dangerous trek into Iraqi Kurdistan through Syria, those on the southern side remain in crisis.

There has not been a US airdrop of food, water or medicine since 13 August, after a reconnaissance team of US special operations forces that had briefly been on the mountain reported that conditions were not as dire as Washington initially thought.

Survivors of the Islamic State (Isis) siege describe leaving behind their elderly and infirm relatives. The younger Yazidis who have stayed behind talk of fighting Isis until they either liberate Sinjar city below or they die.

One Yazidi man, Abu Sulaiman, described the situation on the mountain now as “heartbreaking”.

“My pillow is a small rock, and my bed is crumpling ground where there is no water, no food, no single cigarette to smoke. Sometimes, my brother would get me a piece of bread, but I’m too ill and have no appetite to eat. I just want to be lifted out of here,” he said.

Those still on the mountain are effectively abandoned, while the Obama administration considers the Mount Sinjar operation a success. The Pentagon estimated two weeks ago that 4,000 to 5,000 people remained on the mountain, and says it cannot offer a more current estimate. The US Agency for International Development assesses that perhaps 2,000 people do not intend to leave. The United Nations mission to Iraq pegged the residual population at “a few hundred who did not want to leave,” said spokeswoman Eliana Nabaa.

Although Barack Obama said US warplanes and Kurdish forces “broke the siege of Mount Sinjar,” Isis fighters remain, confronted by a small and desperate Yazidi force.

“We need weapons now more than food or water,” Salim Hassan, a Yazidi fighter on Mount Sinjar, told the Guardian.

US Central Command would not say if it has assessed that Isis remains beneath Mount Sinjar. American efforts have moved on to planning an attack on Isis forces in Syria, where US surveillance flights have begun.

All US air strikes at the foot of Mount Sinjar occurred below its southern, south-western and south-eastern faces, apparently where Isis forces positioned themselves for the siege of the mountain. The main pathway off the mountain comes from its north face, though some have escaped from the west. Those on the southern slope appear stranded. Two people recently atop the mountain told the Guardian that they ascended the southern face only after Isis fighters prevented them from taking what they thought would be a safer route to the northern face.

ImageSat provides 70cm resolution satellite imagery and analysis for defense and corporate clients and works with partner firms like Germany’s BlackBridge geospatial firm and the European Space Agency. Its analysts tell the Guardian that the south slope of the mountain, shot below its apex on 21 August, is dotted with dark rectangles: trucks that once brought people up the heights. They sit in clusters, either containing people seeking refuge and hoping to escape, or abandoned outright.

The southern slope is conspicuously sparse, and some areas have visible burn marks. There are no livestock, said ImageSat’s Alex Imas, “no tents and no agriculture nearby. The people that fled here have nothing.”

It is possible the trucks remain abandoned, the result of a frantic escape up the mountain. Overall, Imas said, “the look of it all speaks of movement, people on the run, chaos.”

A retired intelligence officer experienced in satellite imagery analysis said it appeared like there were “scores” of cars and trucks in the image.

“It’s easier to make the call on the lighter colored ones,” he said, “because you can see the lighter body and then the contrasting darker windshield. That being said, taken together the dark things that are roughly the same size and shape are probably trucks, too.”

Satellite photography by itself carries inherent limitations. ImageSat captured a single day’s worth of images over Mount Sinjar, so it cannot show changes on the mountain over time. Nor did it capture the entire mountain, an area near 800 sq miles, which perhaps helps account for the relative paucity of clearly identifiable people. The Guardian supplemented the imagery by interviewing Yazidis still on and recently off the mountain, US government officials and international aid workers.

There are indications that those still atop Mount Sinjar are the most vulnerable.

Sulaiman, a 58-year old Yazidi, fled up Mount Sinjar’s south slope with his elderly mother and aunt. Afflicted with diabetes and heart problems, he has been without his prescription medications since he fled his nearby home on 3 August. He spoke with the Guardian via a mobile phone recharged through the battery of a water tanker brought in by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

“The scene of starving kids as well as elderly people is really heartbreaking, and I can assure you that many kids have died on the mountain for lack of food and water,” Abu Sulaiman told the Guardian on 18 August.

With his family, Abu Sulaiman drove from his home to the southern slope, but had to abandon their car. Seven men carried him up the mountain on a stretcher. His wife, sons and daughters and their families have managed to escape into Iraqi Kurdistan, “but I’m still here with the old members of the family,” aided by his young nephew.

Bassima Salim, from the nearby city of Sinjar, survived two weeks atop the mountain before evacuating from the north slope into Zakho, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan on the Turkish border. Corroborating Abu Sulaiman’s tale, she told the Guardian that before making the 30-hour journey – on foot, with minimal provisions, through Syria – families had to make a heart-wrenching calculation.

“Not all members of the family can stand such a strenuous trip,” she said. “The decision was to break up into two groups, some of us to remain with the old parents at the mountain and others to march to the checkpoint to find shelter in Kurdistan and to bring the entire family later on.”

US Central Command told the Guardian on 13 August that it had “no indications of ineffective airdrops.” But both Salim and Abu Sulaiman said that they were unable to access food or water dropped by US military cargo planes.

“I heard a lot about US planes dropping aid to the Yazidi refugees stranded on the mountain, but I swear to God I have not got anything till today,” he said, five days after the final airdrop.

Abu Sulaiman estimated 4,000 people remain on top of Mount Sinjar, a figure matching one offered by Rear Adm John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, after the reconnaissance mission. Gustavo Fernandez, the northern Iraq operations chief of Médecins Sans Frontières, said local authorities report 500 families remain on the mountain, as “apparently they have chosen to stay there.”

Those escaping have slowed to a trickle. “We see very few people arriving into Syria, around 50 [per] day,” Fernandez said. “They are tired and hungry but not in critical health conditions. Some people who needed further medical care were referred to the local hospital over the last week.”

The Obama administration has said little about the situation at Mount Sinjar since 14 August, when Obama declared the siege broken. Once US missiles began striking Isis near the Mosul Dam – the locus of the vast majority of US air strikes – international attention swiveled away from the Yazidis once feared to be at risk of genocide, and now centers around speculation of a US bombing campaign in Syria.

But Isis fighters remain below the mountain, said Hassan, who has stayed behind to take their Sinjar city home away from the jihadist army.

“I made an oath not to leave my place on the mountain till I die or Sinjar is liberated,” he said in a telephone call on Thursday.

Hassan said that he and others descend the mountain in shifts to ambush Isis forces, firing until their ammunition stocks deplete. While he credits US airstrikes for “easing the burden on us,” he wants weapons from the US, and blames the Kurdish peshmerga for letting Sinjar fall in the first place.

It is unclear if the US will do anything more to aid the residual population of Mount Sinjar, which played a central role in Obama’s rationale for returning the US to war in Iraq.

“I lost my son who was killed in the fight, as well as my neighbor, but we were able to kill many Isis fighters and then withdraw to the mountain,” Hassan said, where he and scores more remain.