Under threat: displaced Iraqi Christians take refuge in the garden of Saint Joseph church on the outskirts of Erbil, 12 August. Photo: Getty
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With the beheading of James Foley by Islamic State, a red line has been crossed at last

Channel 4 News’s foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman on a dramatic week spent in northern Iraq.

My hotel lobby in Erbil plays unwanted muzak while I sit sipping coffee, reflecting that the gun-toting crazies of Islamic State are a mere half-hour’s drive away. Should the jihadists ever conquer this Kurdish city, I guess the muzak would cease and the subsequent round of beheadings would probably include mine.

The journalist James Foley disappeared near the Syrian town of Taftanaz in Nov­ember 2012. I was in the same town a few months earlier, welcome (or so I thought) to report on the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Now, James has been executed and I cannot understand what changed in the hearts and minds of some of those who took us in and helped us. After not one but a multitude of jihadist atrocities too many, a red line has been crossed at last.

Britain and the US veered from over-intervening in Iraq to neglecting it. Now, there’s the inevitable talk of “mission creep” and being “sucked in” but at least we are trying to find a middle way: surveillance, arming the Kurds, air strikes, using special forces for whom discretion is the better part of valour. By the end of my week, I must allow an hour to reach the “Islamic caliphate” front line – maybe more during Kurdistan’s rush-hour traffic. This military reversal has been prompted in part by the tragic fate of a religious minority that most of us had never even heard of a fortnight earlier.

Intervention came too late for 100,000 Assyrian Christians abandoning some of Christendom’s earliest outposts. And too late for the vast majority of Yazidis – but at least their exodus caught the world’s attention. My reporting rarely changes anything but maybe the first pictures broadcast on Channel 4 News of desperate Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar helped prick the conscience of reluctant policymakers. Anyway, that’s what I like to think.

Into the mountains

Major General Majid Ahmed Saadi was the Iraqi helicopter pilot who made it possible. We were staying at the same hotel and my producer, Sarah, spotted him coming out of his room in his flying suit. We drank tea and smoked with him and struck a deal: he would take us up the mountain the next morning. The Iraqi army had just four ancient Russian Mi-17 choppers to rescue the Yazidis – and often they were being diverted to fire rockets at jihadists instead. On the way up to Sinjar, I tried amusing myself by dreaming up a T-shirt slogan for our crew: “Our country got invaded by the US and Britain – and all we got were these Russian helicopters, which we had already.”

Our pilot warned us that the Yazidis might try to storm the helicopter and so it proved: a desperate crush, bodies clambering over one another and people screaming. I found myself dragging dehydrated children towards the back. One of the Iraqi machine-gunners kicked refugees away so he could shut the door. Then, when we thought it was all over and our cargo of human misery was airborne, the gunner started firing because jihadists were shooting at us from below.

Weight of desperation

The next day, I returned to the airbase to find Alissa Rubin of the New York Times in the helicopter, sitting where I had sat. Major General Majid was at the door, making his final checks. “Maybe it is too heavy to take off,” he said to me gravely. That afternoon, we heard that the helicopter had crashed and our pilot was dead. Alissa was among the injured. The major general had taken on more refugees than he could carry and had tried to plunge the helicopter down the mountain slope until he could gain lift for take-off. Later, we were told that two Yazidi refugee children had died in hospital.

Hope for Iraq

My camerawoman, Philippa, has an 11-month-old baby at home and I have three children. So what were we to make of our near miss? “It is good news! God has decided it is not your time,” Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times tells me later, giving me a mystical, Middle Eastern look. My other conclusion is, strangely, one of hope for Iraq’s future: the major general was an Arab from Basra on a courageous mission to save his fellow Iraqis on the remote fringes of Kurdistan when nobody else would.

Scattered to the winds

Father John Tarachee is the man I am happiest to see all week. I first met him two months ago outside his church in Bartella, 13 miles east of Mosul, where he made the bold claim that if jihadists invaded and executed him, his place in paradise was assured. On 6 August, Islamic State arrived and Father John abandoned the prospect of paradise, preferring to flee for the Kurdish hills. Ours is an emotional reunion, though his village is empty and more than 2,000 Christian families have been scattered to the winds. “America said it would help us – but it is late,” he says sadly, showing me around a community centre hall packed with Christian refugees.

Among them is Mabel, who was born two days before jihadists overran Qaraqosh, Iraq’s biggest Christian city. Every family here wants a passport and a passage out, should it prove impossible to return home. A question bothers me: is the UK government, in its political correctness, so anxious not to be seen solely defending the rights of Iraq’s Christians that it will leave them here?

Homeward bound

By the time I am on the plane home, I have reduced a presenter on Fox News to tears with my tales of suffering Yazidis – tales undoubtedly helped by how photogenic these gentle mountain people are. Both the BBC and ITV claim to have found babies named “Hope” born on the mountain, while I’ve met a mother who had her infant suckle the milk of a mountain goat to survive. Now the inflight menu arrives and I try to put an exhausting week behind me and face a perplexing question: chicken or beef? 

Jonathan Rugman is a foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt