Maliliya: In a dusty camp here, Iraqi refugees have new heroes: Syrian Kurdish fighters who battled militants to carve out an escape route for tens of thousands trapped on a mountaintop.
While the US and Iraqi militaries struggle to aid the starving members of Iraq`s Yazidi minority with supply drops from the air, the Syrian Kurds took it on themselves to rescue them. The move underlined how they, like Iraqi Kurds, are using the region`s conflicts to establish their own rule.
For the past few days, fighters have been rescuing Yazidis from the mountain, transporting them into Syrian territory to give them first aid, food and water, and returning some to Iraq via a pontoon bridge.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient Mesopotamian faith, started to flee to the Sinjar mountain chain on August 2, when militants from the extremist Islamic State group took over their nearby villages. The militants see them as heretics worthy of death.
"The (Kurdish fighters) opened a path for us. If they had not, we would still be stranded on the mountain," said Ismail Rashu, 22, in the Newroz camp in the Syrian Kurdish town of Malikiya some 30 kilometers from the Iraqi border. Families had filled the battered, dusty tents here and new arrivals sat in the shade of rocks, sleeping on blue plastic sheets. Camp officials estimated that at least 2,000 families sought shelter there on Sunday evening.
Nearby, an exhausted woman rocked a baby to sleep. Another sobbed that she abandoned her elderly uncle in their village of Zouraba; he was too weak to walk, too heavy to carry.
Many said they hadn`t eaten for days on the mountain; their lips were cracked from dehydration and heat, their feet swollen and blackened from walking. Some elderly, disabled and young children were left behind. Others were still walking to where Syrian Kurds were rescuing them, they said.
"We are thankful, from our heads to the sky, to the last day on earth," said Naji Hassan, a Yazidi at the Tigris river border crossing, where thousands of rescued Yazidis were heading back into Iraq on Sunday.
The UN estimated around 50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountain. But by Sunday, Kurdish officials said at least 45,000 had crossed through the safe passage, leaving thousands more behind and suggesting the number of stranded was higher.
Syrian Kurds have carved out effective self-rule in the northeastern corner of Syria where they make up the majority. But while members of the ethnic group in both Iraq and Syria pursue their destiny, the two communities are divided by political splits.
Iraq`s Kurds, who have managed a self-rule territory for over two decades, are dominated by factions that have built up strong ties with neighboring Turkey. Syria`s Kurds, however, are closer to longtime Turkish Kurdish rebels and until the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad were firmly under his control.