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The difficult route to safety across Iraq's sun-baked Sinjar mountains

News Stories, 20 August 2014

© UNHCR E.Colt
Khilid counts prayer beads in Khanke, Iraqi Kurdistan. He and his extended family fled to the village after militants attacked their home near Sinjar.

KHANKE VILLAGE, Iraq, August 20 (UNHCR) Khilid sits cross-legged on a thin piece of carpet, fingering a string of amber prayer beads, a red and white keffiyeh atop his head and dusty gauze covering a blistered big toe. A bowl of bread and stewed tomatoes is on the concrete floor in front of him as guests arrive.

"It was difficult," he tells the UNHCR visitors about his family's journey from their village outside the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar, which was captured in early August by armed groups, triggering an exodus by the city's ethnic Yazidi minority.

"When the terrorists came I sent my family ahead in our cars. I stayed behind to look after the house and fields," Khilid explains, adding that he knew it was time for him to flee when he saw his male Yazidi friends rounded up and led away, their hands tied.

Khilid hasn't heard from them since. He says a female cousin reached some of the missing people in a nearby city last week by mobile phone, and said hundreds of women and children had been moved from the village and were being held in a large building there.

After he finally fled his village, the 62-year-old patriarch says he caught up with the 13 other members of his family. They spent four nail-biting days on the sun-baked Sinjar mountain range, eating wheat and raw mutton provided by a shepherd. "The elderly suffered most," Khilid says. "Food was dropped from helicopters, but it was too far away to reach."

They moved again when they heard that Kurdish paramilitaries had opened a route to safety in Syria. Four more days of walking across the mountains brought them to a road: sun, heat and blisters taking their toll. They crossed the Tigris River into Syria, were offered a ride, and then spent a night recovering at a refugee camp there. The next morning they headed to Iraq's Kurdistan region, specifically the village of Khanke, where relatives were waiting.

Khilid and his family are more fortunate than many of the other tens of thousands who have fled the Sinjar area since early August. No one in his immediate family has died or is missing. However, nephews and cousins have gone missing, and all are worried about their fate.

Home for Khilid and 32 other families is now a two-storey unfinished apartment building, about 1,000 metres from a sea of brilliant white UNHCR tents that have been mushrooming in a former wheat field. There's shade, water and food.

One side of the building is open, so there's a breeze, and Khilid can watch as the new camp for the displaced goes up. Periodically a truck drives by and drops off aid. Most seems ad hoc so far, but the families in the building have built up a reserve of water. They sometimes have electricity, and food is being provided nearby from a huge field kitchen run by the UN's World Food Programme.

The nearest latrine is a long walk away, but they are getting by for now. The families have erected privacy walls of cardboard. They have registered to receive regular support, but are hoping to avoid a move to the new camp. "We are family," says Khilid. "All of us here. We want to stay together in the same area."

When asked about the future, Khilid is non-committal. While he says his family has lived in Sinjar for more than six generations, he feels it may be time to leave permanently. "Give us a safe life. A safer life for my family," he says. "But we do want to go back," a daughter reminds him. "Life there was difficult, but it is home."

By Ned Colt and Rasheed Hussein Rasheed in Khanke Village, Iraq




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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

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