LONDON, Aug 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – "They came from nowhere and they have no mercy," is how Sherman Haj, a Yazidi woman, summed up the Islamic State insurgents whose approach forced her to flee her village in northern Iraq with two of her children.
Zaid Al-Rawni, head of communications at Islamic Relief UK, met Haj in northern Kurdistan after she had trekked for a week to escape the militant Sunni Muslim group, which has captured one third of Iraq and declared a caliphate in the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls.
Al-Rawni, who returned from Iraq last week, said Haj and her children had even crossed into neighbouring Syria, before finding refuge in a school in Iraqi Kurdistan, several hours' drive north of Arbil.
"When we saw them, three or four days after they arrived at the school, they were still completely shattered," Al-Rawni told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "They had nothing to sleep on. Between the entire family, they were using just one blanket to soften the hard, concrete floor. She didn't say an awful lot - she was still traumatised."
CONFUSION AND FEAR
Haj, 40, was one of about 800 people sheltering in the partly built school with no running water or proper sanitation, where Islamic Relief had been distributing mattresses, blankets and hygiene kits, Al-Rawni said.
"Maybe it was too soon after what had happened to them, maybe it was the hunger, the lack of sleep, maybe it was the aching feet, but it was very muted. For 800 people there wasn't a lot of noise," Al-Rawni recalled.
"There was a lot of fear, a lot of wide eyes, a lot of confusion. Many were saying, 'Why now? Why me? We've lived with Muslims for a millennium and a half, and suddenly this group is telling us we're not welcome in our own homes'."
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes this year. According to the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent (IFRC) well over 500,000 of them are in Iraq's Kurdistan region.
On Monday, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned "ethnic and religious cleansing" by Islamic State fighters, who she said had targeted Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen among other minorities.
Insecurity remains one of the biggest obstacles to delivering humanitarian aid, Al-Rawni said.
"Everyone's looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out where the next attack is coming from. Everyone's looking up at the sky wondering whether they're going to be misidentified as ISIS (Islamic State) fighters when all they're doing is delivering aid," he added.
Al-Rawni also admitted the name of his charity - Islamic Relief, which was founded in 1984 - raised misgivings among the people it was trying to help.
"You'd think in a predominantly Muslim country, people would understand, but it's a real challenge, trying to understand - where do you come from, which angle of Islam are you coming from?" he said.