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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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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