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Tens of thousands of Iraqis are dying on a mountain, stranded without water

Yazidi refugees from Sinjar.
Yazidi refugees from Sinjar.
Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis who are members of a persecuted religious minority known as Yazidi are currently trapped on a mountain, besieged by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. The ISIS militants have forced the Yazidi up the mountain, where they have no water, forced to choose between descending to near-certain death or waiting for thirst to claim them.

The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority with about 600,000 adherents worldwide. The largest concentration by far is in northern Iraq, where ISIS recently made significant inroads — including into a heavily Yazidi town called Sinjar.

Yazidi religion is often described as a blend between Zoroastrianism and Islam, particularly mystical Sufi Islam. As this helpful Economist piece lays out, Yazidis believe that an angel named Malak Tawous, together with God and six other angels, protect the world. Malak Tawous was supposedly thrown out of the Garden of Eden for refusing to obey Adam. Many non-Yazidis see the figure as a fallen angel, which is why ISIS calls the Yazidis "devil worshippers."

Yazidis have long been persecuted — in 2007, they were the target of what's still the largest single suicide bombing in modern Iraqi history, in which 800 people were killed. ISIS has taken special efforts to slaughter them. In fleeing ISIS, between 10,000 and 40,000 Yazidis from Sinjar and nearby environs have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, an adjacent mountain. They are trapped between thirst and ISIS' guns. The situation has gotten so dire that Yazidi MP Vian Dakhil made a tearful plea to Parliament for some, any kind of help:

"Mr. Speaker, we are being slaughtered," Dakhil said. "An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth."

According to the Washington Post, "UN agencies have offered the Iraqi government technical assistance with airdrops but have yet to be asked for help." If you want to read more about the Yazidi crisis, George Packer has a really harrowing report in The New Yorker.