I can still hear screams of children we left behind: JONATHAN RUGMAN, the first British journalist to fly to Mount Sinjar, reports on a desperate crush of humanity


By Jonathan Rugman

I watched yesterday as traumatised children on board an Iraqi military helicopter came under attack from an anti-aircraft gun fired by Islamic State jihadist militants.

A machine gunner on board scoured the desert and returned the fire, discharging several rounds into the void beyond.

And all around me in the helicopter’s cramped and chaotic space, dehydrated children winced in pain and their exhausted parents burst into tears.

The Kurdish Yazidi refugees being rescued from Mount Sinjar had cried while squeezing through the helicopter’s narrow door when it landed on the mountainside to rescue them, staying for all of five precious minutes.

They had cried as they laid piled on top of one another when the helicopter took off, abandoning hundreds below who couldn’t fit aboard.

They sobbed quietly when they realised the stampede was finally over; that the trauma of the last ten days – trapped on a mountain in thirty to forty degree heat with almost nothing – was behind them. And now, amid this machine gun fire, they were crying again.

Thousands of feet up in the air, and still Iraq’s Yazidis, a people driven to the brink of extermination, could not call themselves safe.

 Our flight had taken off from the northern Iraqi city of Zakho, loaded with water, biscuits and dehydration salts. After about half an hour, the Sinjar range loomed ahead.

Vast and forbidding, the foothills are hospitable only to mountain goats, just miles of barren scrubland. The Kurds have a saying that they have ‘no friends but the mountains’. On Mount Sinjar it looked as if they had no friends at all.

Then the people appeared. Waving frantically at us, those who could running towards the shadow of the helicopter’s blades. Yazidi families, driven from their homes by jihadists who would not hesitate to kill those they caught.

Looking down, I saw stick-thin figures seeking sanctuary in the middle of nowhere, carrying only the clothes on their backs, signalling to us that they were desperate for food and water.

We saw hundreds of people; infants in arms and the elderly sheltering under trees in the few places where they could find them. One family was camping in a dry river bed under a simple blue tarpaulin.

How many are trapped is impossible to say. But in searing heat, the sun beating down, it was clear to me that hundreds would die within days without more help.

Our Iraqi pilot claimed that none of the aid dropped by British and American aircraft in the past few days had reached the people he was helping.

His men weren’t dropping pallets from a great height but risking their lives by flying in low. From about 100ft up, we started throwing out bottles of water and boxes of food.

I feared that many would break open or smash on rocks, but the helicopter had many rounds to make and did not stop to check.

Then we landed on a rare space of flat ground and the awful scramble to get aboard began. There was space for only 25 refugees and if there was anybody on the ground organising this evacuation, it wasn’t working.

As the crew tried throwing out more cardboard boxes, old men travelling in the opposite direction angrily thrust them aside.

At one point one of the airmen began punching and kicking refugees who were besieging the aircraft, in danger of overwhelming it in their battle for a seat.

I found myself picking up drooping and dehydrated children, taking them to the back of the helicopter to recover. I saw a toddler trapped under several people until her hysterical mother dragged her to safety.

Helicopters in flight are noisy places. But in my head, I can still hear the sobbing of those lucky enough to escape yesterday.

And I can see the others too: a desperate crush of humanity, screaming at us for mercy, but never making it aboard.

Jonathan Rugman is Foreign Affairs Correspondent at Channel 4 News



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