In the sun-baked hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, haunted, starved Yazidis who escaped the Isis siege of Mount Sinjar staggered to the last place on earth they feel safe — the shrine of Lalish.
Cut into the mountains just north of the Yazidi town of Shekhan, the shrine is a rabbit-warren of shady passageways and leafy terraces. Its name means “don’t talk, just listen”, and over the splash of a fountain and the laughter of children, horror stories are being told.
Oubaid and Khayri Khalaf arrived yesterday, skinny and sunburnt after a week on Mount Sinjar. The brothers left their parents and youngest brother behind on the mountain, swearing they would return for a rescue, but neither is in any shape to do so.
Oubaid, 44, is a medic. Rehydrated and with bandages wrapped around seeping blisters on his left foot, he cannot forgive himself for leaving his father behind. “He has Parkinson’s, he needs my help, but I just couldn’t carry him,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.
Oubaid was one of the volunteer fighters who defended the villages around Sinjar. He held his position with an old machinegun for three hours before the Yazidis ran out of ammunition and fighters from the Islamic State, formerly known as Isis, swarmed in.
“If we hadn’t fought back that first morning, they would have taken the whole town. Those up on the mountaintop now would have died too. We covered for them,” he said.
He knows, though, that the tribulations of his people are not over yet and he fears that his family will be next to die. “They are now under the mercy of Da’ash,” he said, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State. “And they have no mercy.”
Even as a medic, Oubaid is scarred by what he witnessed. “I saw people die in front of my eyes. A pregnant woman and an old man, and no one with the strength to bury them. The bodies were just left out in the sun.”
Khayri, his brother, is 22 and so overwhelmed that he has trouble speaking. His jeans hang off his body; with no food and just a cupful of water a day, his belt had to be tightened by three notches in three days.
On the long trek across the mountain Khayri found a toddler alone, riding a donkey, after being separated from his parents. He took care of the boy and brought him safely to Lalish, where a woman broke down in tears as she recognised her nephew.
Though he has saved one life, he is consumed with guilt over abandoning others. “I’ve lost my entire family,” he cried. “If I can’t take medication to my dad in 48 hours he will die.”
That the brothers and the 25 or so other families who escaped with them managed to get away from the mountain suggests that the US airstrikes might be having an effect.
At dawn on Saturday, when IS fighters massing around the foot of the mountain were distracted by the airstrikes, the Yazidi group crept down the slopes. At 6.30am they slipped out of the valley and headed for Syria.
After three hours on foot, they were picked up by fighters from Syrian Kurdistan, who drove them into Kurdish-controlled Syria so that they could skirt an IS-controlled swathe of Iraq to reach Lalish. The trek took ten hours in 45C heat after a week without food and water.
Before the IS offensive, just 16 people lived at Lalish. Now, all but two of the 42 Yazidi villages north of Mosul, which has been claimed by Isis militants, have emptied. For the displaced inhabitants of those 40 villages, Lalish is a beacon, calling them home.
Yazidi tradition dictates that the keepers of the shrine must provide shelter and food to every visitor, and they are working around the clock to welcome people and prepare meals.
“We never turn people away. We could put people under trees and in the mountains. There is no ‘no’,” said Fakhir Hussein, the shrine’s senior caretaker. He collects aid from the community and arranges special packages for the survivors of Sinjar, who arrive with nothing — many of them barefoot.
Several days ago, 680 families arrived from the city of Sinjar and outlying villages. There were rumours that IS fighters were moving on Lalish, Mr Hussein said, and people became crazed with fear. A father shot himself with an AK47, choosing to die rather than witness the fighters raping the women in his family.
IS did not arrive, but the echo of his fatal gunshot so terrified the other Yazidis in Lalish that they panicked and fled, creeping back only two hours later. The anxiety and desperation remains.
For those left on the mountain, time appears to be running out. Despite efforts by the US, the UK and others to provide food and water, the logistics are next to impossible and people are still starving and dying of thirst. Oubaid and Khayri said that they had heard of one aid drop reaching the top of Mount Sinjar five days ago, but they could not reach it.
Other survivors who watched planes come close only to veer away after IS fighters shot at them suggest that the group’s ready access to anti-aircraft guns and its seemingly endless stock of ammunition might be hampering aid efforts. As the days tick by, those who escaped say they are growing increasingly afraid for those left behind.
In Lalish, Mr Hussein and his wife and children are hopeful. Word has reached the shrine that another 150 families are en route. Rice and chicken are cooking, tea is being poured and a welcome readied.