DOHUK, Iraq – One of the most haunting memories 70-year old Aishan Ali Dirbou has of her encounter with Islamic State militants who overran her hometown is feeling the ends of their AK-47 assault rifles dig into her side as she lay face down, pretending to be dead.
Today, the widow is one of tens of thousands of members of Iraq's Yadizi religious minority, who after fleeing the town of Sinjar last month, are now living in squalor in unsanitary shelters and camps, with little food or water and no medicine — uncertain what their future holds.
The Kurdish military says it is now on a push toward Sinjar, located in the desert of northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border, in an assault aimed at retaking the town from the extremists. The past week, Kurdish fighters retook three towns just north of Sinjar — Mahmoudiyah, the Rabia border cross and the town of Zumar — with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The Yazidis now living in the Kurdish city of Dahuk are cautiously optimistic — wary after having already lost so much, but hopeful to return home and pick up the pieces.
At the Badlees Primary School, nearly 250 Yazidis are crammed in, some of them 28 to a room. Many are growing desperate, with nothing but handouts to feed them, and the clothes on their backs to keep them warm as winter creeps closer. The Kurdish government has provided some aid in the way of foodstuffs and thin cushions to sleep on, but the central government in Baghdad has made no contact, the refugees said.
Three families gathered around a small pan of eggs, sharing piece of bread among them. Outside, dozens of eggshells littered the ground alongside a tiny portable stove used to cook for all the residents. Outside, children fill up containers with water from a tank on the playground, but the water is not clean enough to drink. Inside, a woman washes children's clothes in a small muddy tub.
The rainy season has begun in this mountain city. Earlier this week, a few inches of rain flooded the school, packing the grounds where families sleep and children play with several inches of soggy mud.
They spoke of harrowing ordeals when the Islamic State group militants — who consider the Yazidis a heretical sect — stormed into Sinjar and nearby villages. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced this year as the militant group violently swept across western and northern Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Sinjar residents quickly fled into the nearby mountain range. Dirbou said she had no way out and no one to come to her rescue. When the gunmen swept by her home, Dirbou said she played dead. The gunmen prodded her with their rifles, then moved on.
For six days, she walked — and when she couldn't walk, she crawled — attempting to make her way to the Sinjar Mountains. When she was spotted by a few militant sympathizers, they took pity on her, giving her a piece of bread to hold her over. After 10 days on the mountain, she and others were rescued in an airlift and taken to Dohuk. There she was reunited with her daughters and their families — but many of her other relatives are missing, prolonging the ordeal.
"The fear has not stopped just because we ran from Daesh," she said, using the Islamic State group's Arabic acronym. "Sometimes I believe I was lucky to get away, but other times I feel it (would have been) better to die."
Other Yazidis in Dohuk recounted stories of babies and elderly relatives being shot by the militants
"Where is God?" asked Amal, one of few Muslim Sinjaris staying at the school. She withheld her last name out of fear. "I am sure some of us will not survive to see Sinjar again."
Many of them are missing loved ones and say the militants captured their sisters and daughters, taking them to unknown locations, for unknown reasons.
"My father and mother were killed," said Renaz Ravo, 16, a Yazidi who said her sister was taken captive by the militants along with dozens of other women. "I wish I could go look for her."
At least a dozen families who spoke to The Associated Press reported missing female relatives, many of them saying the last word they had last received from the missing girls is that they were in the town of Tal Afar, one of the militant's biggest strongholds in Iraq. They were eager to provide names and offer any information about their whereabouts in the hope they can be found.
In August, officials with the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry said that hundreds of Yazidi women and girls had been taken by the Islamic State militants. Yazidi lawmaker Vian Dakheel made an emotional plea in parliament to save the women, saying they're being used by the jihadi fighters as slaves.
At the Badlees School, the families all asked eagerly for news about the Kurdish forces' offensive toward Sinjar. Their hopes for its success were tempered.
When asked about the possibility of returning home, almost all gave a cautious reply — "Allah kareem," Arabic for "God is generous."