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bearing witness

Suad Mezze (left) with two of her five children (the girl and boy closest to her). The other children are her nephews and the older woman to the right is her husband's aunt (not the one taken by the Islamic State).Patrick Martin/The Globe and Mail

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

Suad Mezze is a Yazidi Kurd from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq.

The 33-year-old, her husband and their five young children fled the only home they've known on Aug. 3 as the radical Islamic State movement closed in on their Yazidi town in the mostly Arab province of Ninevah. Together with the families of her husband's two brothers – a total of 17 people – they crammed into a Kia minibus and drove in the only direction they thought safe: north, to the top of Mount Sinjar, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters were preparing a last stand.

"I was terrified, for me and my children," she said, describing how she felt at the moment when the family fled.

"We had heard what IS did to women – that some were sold as slaves to other Arab countries, that unmarried young women committed suicide rather than be taken by IS. That's why we were among the very first to leave Sinjar," Ms. Mezze said.

"My uncle and his wife hesitated and decided not to leave that first day. Now we have learned that both were abducted by IS and are with them still; we don't know where.

"It was very hard to leave. I wasn't sure if we would ever be able to come back. We left everything behind because there was no room in the car to take things with us."

After just one night in the open on Mount Sinjar, the Mezze family drove farther north, along the Syrian frontier, until they reached Zakho, on the border with Turkey. "We weren't trying to go into Turkey; we just wanted to get as far away from IS as we could."

The Mezzes spent 10 days in the border town, using their own money to buy food and taking shelter with some others in an unfinished building. There was not yet any help from Iraqi or international organizations there. They then chose to move on, driving on the mountain roads, southeast to Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, bypassing the largest concentration of displaced Yazidis in the area of Dohuk.

"My husband and his brothers said there were more jobs in Erbil, so it would be better than staying in the north in an overcrowded camp."

In Erbil, the Mezzes did stay in one of the refugee camps until her husband and one of his brothers found work as labourers with a company building a new subdivision east of the city. Instead of travelling back to Dohuk where most Yazidis were moved, the builder let the Mezzes stay in one of the nearly finished three-bedroom townhouses, at least for a while. Security guards patrolling the grounds pay particular attention to make sure the Mezzes are secure.

"I feel relief, safe. I can relax a little," Ms. Mezze said. "But I still worry that we may not be able to return to our home," which is 200 kilometres away. "And I worry about the children [all under 10]. They have been very frightened and will never forget what happened."

Patrick Martin is a global affairs writer for The Globe whose primary focus is on the Middle East, to which he travels regularly.