SINJAR, Iraq: Tens of thousands of people fleeing militants have sought refuge in the small northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, cramming into schools and mosques. But now, there is simply no room left.
“No place remains for us to settle displaced people,” local official Myaser Haji Saleh says despondently.
Huge numbers fled an onslaught on the predominantly-Shiite Turkmen town of Tal Afar last month, part of an ISIS-led offensive that saw swathes of territory across five provinces fall out of government hands.
Some 58,000 of them, mostly children, made their way to Sinjar, further west toward the Syrian border, flooding into a town with a population of around 300,000.
“We opened schools, mosques and shrines for them,” says Saleh, the local official responsible for Sinjar and the surrounding area.
“In the early days, the people provided aid before international organizations arrived,” he says.
“We desperately need to open a camp for them, because our problem lies in housing this large number of displaced people.”
But a camp would create its own problems, as the area lies several hours from the nearest government-held city, and just a short distance from territory controlled by ISIS.
Sinjar is controlled by peshmerga forces from Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region, and protecting both the town and the camp from insurgents would stretch them.
“We are afraid of them being attacked,” Saleh says.
“We cannot exclude the possibility of ISIS militants attacking them with mortars if they were in a camp,” he adds.
Sinjar is populated mostly by Yazidis, who speak a dialect of Kurdish and live mainly in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Sinjar’s sewage system has been overwhelmed by the sudden uptick in its population, while families seeking shelter in a local girls’ school must make do with just one hour of electricity a day indoors or bear the scorching summer heat outside.
Many have even had to set fire to wooden chairs to cook food.
The U.N. voiced fears of overcrowding, poor hygiene and limited access to safe drinking water causing increased instances of diarrheal diseases, following a humanitarian visit to the town this month.
“We don’t know what to do, or where to go,” says Zainab Jarallah, clinging to her two grandchildren inside the girls’ school.
“We have big families, but we do not have anything. What happened was a surprise for us,” he adds. “We saw death with our own eyes.”
After seizing Mosul June 10, ISIS-led fighters swiftly took control of Sunni-majority areas of five provinces, but Iraqi forces battled for days to keep control of Tal Afar.
June 23, however, the town fell out of government hands.
Many sought to flee to Dohuk, one of the three provinces in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, but non-Kurds require local sponsors before being allowed to enter.
As a result, countless cars sit idle on the side of the road connecting Dohuk to Sinjar, ostensibly belonging to Iraqis who sought to enter Kurdistan but were unsuccessful.
Those who fled to Sinjar have even sought safety in the shrine to Sayyida Zainab, the daughter of Imam Ali and a revered figure in Shiite Islam.
Women sit within the shrine, while men stay outside, watching over their children as they run and play in a nearby graveyard.
Others who have not found physical structures have had to settle for tying a large piece of cloth between two parked cars to provide some shade from the sun, including a mother cradling her child, born just two days earlier.
Nearby are 39-year-old Saad Younis and his 44-year-old brother Ali, both fathers who fled Tal Afar with their families, who have themselves had to resort to similar measures to shield their families from the heat.
“All the roads were blocked to us,” says Saad. “We are trapped here and within days, our savings will run out. “We don’t know what to do.”