An Iraqi Yazidi child who fled Islamic State (IS) jihadists in the northern town of Sinjar shovels snow off the top of a temporary shelter at a camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, on January 14, 2015
An Iraqi Yazidi child who fled Islamic State (IS) jihadists in the northern town of Sinjar shovels snow off the top of a temporary shelter at a camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, on January 14, 2015 © Safin Hamed - AFP
An Iraqi Yazidi child who fled Islamic State (IS) jihadists in the northern town of Sinjar shovels snow off the top of a temporary shelter at a camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, on January 14, 2015
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Jean-Marc Mojon, AFP
Last updated: January 24, 2015

Iraq’s displaced Yazidis hunker down as northern winter bites

Last summer, tens of thousands of Yazidis faced searing heat as they fled a murderous jihadist onslaught in northern Iraq, but many survivors are now shivering in the snow.

They first took precarious refuge on the barren heights of nearby Mount Sinjar, but most of them eventually made their way further afield to safety in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Sherzad Hussein lives in the Dawdia camp, in the Kurdish province of Dohuk and is one of the few to have housing units.

"The snow that fell a few days ago has melted a bit but it's still freezing at night," said Sherzad Hussein, puffing clouds of warm breath into the frigid air as he energetically shovelled slabs of ice from the roof of his prefabricated shelter.

Just having a roof puts the young man in a minority among those displaced from the Sinjar area when fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group launched a renewed drive in the north in August.

Most of the 500,000 displaced people in Dohuk live in tent camps or are scattered in hotels, flats, schools and unfinished buildings, depending on what they can afford.

When the Yazidis fled up Mount Sinjar to escape IS in August, they suffered through blistering heat that often reached 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in a dramatic siege that captured world attention.

Temperatures now drop below freezing.

The few hundred families still on the mountain live in rudimentary camps, filled mostly with women and children, because the men are fighting alongside Kurdish security forces against IS a few miles away.

"Life is very hard here. When the winter started, we had nothing to wear, and very basic food," said Hassan Hisn Semmo, sheltering from pouring rain under a tent where young men are busy making tea for a funeral gathering.

"We need kerosene because it's so cold, and we also have a problem with water. Our women have to walk a long way for the water," the elderly man said, wrapped in a coat stitched together from pieces of one of the blankets airdropped onto Mount Sinjar.

The mountain that saved so many Yazidi lives last year is not a hospitable place, but it holds special significance in the community’s culture and is home to several of its holiest shrines.

MAJOR HUMANITARIAN EFFORT

"If we leave, who will protect our mountain? It was here for us; we have to be here for it too. I had a nice home in the village but I would not lose my life for it. For this mountain, I am ready to die," Semmo said.

The conditions are a little better in some camps such as Dawdia, but the lack of medical care and other shortages mean that the displaced's fight for survival isn't over yet.

"There are power cuts, kerosene for the heaters is in short supply and we don't always have enough clothes on our backs," said Nayef Khalaf Hussein, 42.

As he spoke, he showed cold burns on his three-year-old nephew's skin, one of nine siblings he is looking after since their father died of a heart attack during the August violence and their mother of leukaemia this month.

Humanitarian agencies and local authorities have spent months preparing for the cold, and disaster was largely averted as freezing temperatures set in on parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Special "winterised" tents built on concrete slabs for better insulation have been set up across the region, and vast quantities of heaters, plastic sheeting and blankets distributed.

"From October, temperatures started dropping and people were seriously worried," said Eric Besse, who coordinates the activities of Action Against Hunger in the Dohuk region.

"But by and large, the humanitarian community has responded to expectations,' he said. "I have heard of some cases in which children died... but the cold has not killed large numbers of people."

Amshi Hussein Qassem fled her village with her husband and their six children in August just before IS fighters swept in.

In the initial panic, her husband went back to the village to fetch identity cards but was wounded by mortar fire and later executed by IS fighters.

"We got some help from other people who were fleeing and stayed nine days on that mountain, with absolutely nothing," said Qassem, 30. Her children -- some of them barefoot -- huddled around her legs on the threshold of their new prefabricated home.

"Then we walked with everybody to Syria and then back into Iraq. That took several days too and it was so hot. So the conditions here are better, of course. But the main problem now is the cold."

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