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?
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”