DUHOK, Iraq (Reuters) - When shells began crashing around the town of Tal Afar as Shi‘ite militias brought the fight to Islamic State in northern Iraq, Abu Faraj saw his chance to escape captivity.
He and 17 other members of the Yazidi religious community, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities, moved to the town’s outskirts while their Islamic State captors were busy with the battle.
Four days later, in the early evening, they fled. The group, which included women and children, walked overnight through the desert and hours later reached Kurdish-controlled territory -- and safety.
“I remember the exact time we decided to flee, it was 6:50 p.m.,” said Abu Faraj, 23, who had waited more than two years for that moment.
“We had to walk in single file through the desert and follow each other’s footsteps in case the area was mined,” he said, giving an alias for fear of identification by Islamic State militants, who still hold some of his relatives.
The group, including Abu Faraj’s wife and two daughters, were captured when Islamic State overran Sinjar in northern Iraq in August 2014.
The insurgents systematically killed, captured and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions and are regarded by Islamic State as devil-worshippers.
Mass Yazidi graves have been found since Kurdish forces retook areas north of Sinjar in December 2014, and the town itself in November 2015, but Islamic State had already transferred many Yazidis to other areas, including Tal Afar.
Reports from the area suggest thousands of people have fled Tal Afar in recent days as the Shi‘ite paramilitary groups -- assisting a U.S.-backed operation to drive Islamic State out of the city of Mosul to the east -- advanced.
Most of those who have fled are from the town’s Turkmen Sunni Muslim majority, fearing sectarian revenge by the Shi‘ite fighters.
But Yazidis are also among them, and for Abu Faraj and his fellow Yazidis, who squat for now in a half-finished building in the northern city of Duhok, the escape has been a huge relief.
“We left our house when other people were also fleeing. We didn’t ask who they were, whether they were Daesh (Islamic State) families. We just used the chaos to go,” he said, smoking a cigarette -- a practice forbidden under Islamic State rule.
“Under Daesh we watched executions, beatings. You name it, we’ve seen it.”
Abu Faraj, who worked as a slave laborer in Tal Afar, is among the few young Yazidi men to have escaped Islamic State. He did not say how he managed to survive when others had disappeared or been killed, also for fear of identification.
“The rest of the group are women, children and elderly,” he said.
U.N. investigators said in a report in June that Islamic State is committing genocide against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to destroy the community of 400,000 people through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.
One 42-year-old woman, who gave her name only as “a member of the Meshu family” and covered her face with a scarf, made the same journey as Abu Faraj with her three youngest children.
“When we finally made it to a peshmerga (Kurdish forces) position, we took our veils off and raised our hands -- with our all-black clothes we were scared they’d think we were Daesh and shoot us,” she said.
Her husband, 16-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter had been separated from her and the younger children when they were first taken by the militants.
“I don’t know what has happened to them, or where they are,” she said.
Islamic State took many Yazidi girls as sex slaves.
The family was moved from town to town after their capture, spending some time in makeshift prisons and the rest under what amounted to house arrest in Tal Afar.
“We didn’t leave the house except to get essential supplies. I avoided sending the kids to an Islamic State school,” she said.
“Daesh fighters gave us just enough to eat, but it was often dirty food and water,” she said, sitting next to her tired and pale children.
The Office of Kidnapped Affairs in Duhok, a department backed by the Kurdistan regional government, said about 3,500 Yazidis were believed to remain in areas controlled by Islamic State, many of them women and children.
But even for those who have escaped, the ordeal is not over.
“Now, we don’t know what we’ll do, if we’ll be able to get home, even where we’ll sleep tonight. It’s up to God,” said Abu Faraj.
Editing by Patrick Markey and Timothy Heritage