ERBIL, Iraq — Assad Haig received a call from his mother's phone number. On the other end was a militant of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Haig's family, the man said, were going to be executed.
Haig is 23 years old. He works in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. He comes from Sinjar, a town that was overrun by Islamic State militants on Aug. 3. Almost every relative he has ever known — 63 in total — was in ISIS custody at the time he got the call. Most were women and small children.
A week before Friday’s phone call, Haig's dozens of relatives in Sinjar were still free. “My mother called and said ISIS were coming into the city,” Haig recalled of that morning. He struggled to hold back tears as he clasped his hands together in an attempt to keep them from shaking. “I begged them to leave everything and just run, but it was hard with so many kids. My little sister Rama, she is just three, and Iyhab is only five.”
Haig tried to call his mother back repeatedly. When someone finally answered it was a male voice on the line.
“They will be executed tomorrow," the man told Haig. “We took them all. They belong to us now,” the man said before the line went dead.
All but Haig's father, who escaped to the Sinjar Mountains, and his grandmother, who is 84 and can't walk. ISIS left her alone in the family home but threatened to return and shoot her if she didn't leave Sinjar. She has no way of leaving the home on her own.
Most residents of Sinjar, like Haig, are Yazidi, an Iraqi minority group estimated to number 600,000. The ancient Yazidi religion is shrouded in mystery, and a misunderstanding of Yazidi beliefs has led to many labeling them “devil worshipers,” resulting in centuries of mass persecution.
Details of the ISIS takeover of Sinjar just over a week ago are still sketchy. Those who escaped said captives were given two options: convert to Islam, or die. Others reported mass executions of men, while women and children were taken prisoner.
On Sunday, Iraq's human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani told Reuters he had evidence that at least 500 Yazidis had been executed by ISIS, among them women and children. Some had been buried alive.
ISIS media posted photos of some of the executions online. Several images showed around 20 men said to have been killed in Sinjar, with a quote from the Koran saying, “Slay them where you catch them.”
Kamil Amin, the spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, said that many Yazidi women under 35 had been captured and were being held in Mosul.
"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told the Associated Press.
Many fear that ISIS militants are following ancient battle customs practiced by the Prophet Mohammed and his men.
In stories about conquering villages of people considered "infidels" or "apostates," both the Koran and the Old Testament of the Bible speak of killing the men and taking the women and children for sale as slaves. The practice of having sex with female slaves is mentioned several times in the Koran.
“Blessed are the believers who restrain their carnal desires except with their wives and slave girls, for these are lawful to them,” reads one verse of the Koran.
"Prophet, we have made lawful to you the wives whom you have granted dowries and the slave girls whom God has given you as booty."
Accounts from witnesses so far suggest ISIS tactics against the Yazidi population are mimicking such practices, but the militant group hasn't yet released official statements about their intentions.
Haig prepared documents listing every one of his missing relatives — their names, ages, and phone numbers — to submit to the Kurdish police and US authorities. His grandmother helped him complete the list by phone from Sinjar. As he read through the papers on Friday, he was overcome with grief when he reached the names of his mother and sisters.
“Some people say they have been raping the women, maybe 6 or 10 men with one woman,” he said, staring vacantly out the window, in tears. “Some say they have even forced FGM [female genital mutilation] on them.”
On Friday, as Haig was en route to the U.S. Consulate in Erbil to yet again beg for help, he received a call from a man claiming to be an ISIS member. The man informed him that his family had been collectively sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam.
“They will be executed tomorrow,” the man told Haig.
An estimated 50,000 people were stranded in the SInjar mountains for a week with no supplies, no food, and no shelter, slowly dying from starvation and thirst. Reports on Sunday said that about 20,000 had managed to escape the mountains after US bombings of ISIS targets helped cleared the way.
In a report released on Aug. 8, UNICEF said at least 25,000 children were among those trapped in the mountains, and 40 were already confirmed dead from starvation or dehydration. The real number of dead is assumed to be much higher, the report said.
The U.S. has been conducting humanitarian drops of food and water and launching targeted strikes against militants near Sinjar and Erbil since late last week. The mountain range spans 60 miles, and air drops of large containers can only be so precise.
“Every time I see on the television they have air dropped supplies I call my father and he says, no. There are no helicopters, no food, no soldiers,” Haig said on Friday. Haig's father turns on his phone every day to check in, then off to conserve the battery.
Relief supplies continued to be delivered by air throughout the weekend, with the US reporting a total delivery of 36,224 ready–to-eat meals and 6,822 gallons of water. At time of writing, British aircraft were also en route to deliver supplies.
For Haig, the wait and the uncertainty are unbearable. He's filed reports with both the Kurdish military and the U.S. seeking help to find his family. On Thursday he attempted to drive to Sinjar himself, but was turned back by Kurdish forces.
“It’s all lies! No one is fighting the IS. No one is helping to get my family back,” he said. “Give me a weapon and I will go to fight. Give the weapons to all the Yazidi men. Just give us a chance to fight for our families or die trying. That’s all I ask.”
This story first appeared on GlobalPost.
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