Iraqi Helicopter Goes Down, But Rescue Effort Has More On The Way
Iraqi military helicopters have been bringing food and water to Yazidi refugees trapped in the mountains near the Iraqi city of Sinjar, also at times even evacuating people off the mountain. For an update on the situation, Melissa Block turns to reporter Jonathan Rugman, who rode on one such helicopter mission recently.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
On a mountain in northern Iraq today, a deadly helicopter crash. The Iraqi military helicopter was one of a handful delivering aid to stranded people and shuttling some of them off the mountain. Thousands of members the Yazidi sect have been stuck in the Sinjar mountains after fleeing Islamic state fighters, and some of those refugees were injured in the crash. Correspondent Jonathan Rugman rode on one such helicopter mission yesterday. He's with Channel Four News in the U.K. We reached him on his cell phone in the city of the Dahuk.
JONATHAN RUGMAN, BYLINE: Well, I actually saw the helicopter take off. And I spoke to the pilot minutes before he took off, and he told me he was worried that he was carrying so much aid and a number of journalists and a local politician. He was worried that the helicopter was too heavy. And indeed, it did seem to struggle to take off. I've since spoken to the governor of Dohuk, who is the senior official here. And he told me that the recent helicopter crashed was that Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar were clinging to it. They were desperate to try and get on it, and they managed to bring the helicopter down. Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, who was on board the helicopter, was injured. She is OK. And the pilot has been killed. And it's the same pilot who flew me on a similar aid flight on a similar helicopter yesterday.
BLOCK: And so you're saying that seems to have brought the helicopter down is that once it had landed, delivered aid, taken refugees on board, there were others who were clinging to the helicopter, trying to get on. Is that the issue?
RUGMAN: I think that's correct, and I saw it for myself yesterday. I saw old men clamoring through the helicopter door, crushing children beneath them. There was screaming, and there was shouting and piles of bodies - literally piled onto the helicopter, to the extent that I found myself dragging dehydrated and drooping children to the back of the helicopter to try and make space. It was one of the most distressing things I've seen.
BLOCK: You can just imagine the desperation of these people. There were images in your report of one of the crew members kicking and punching to keep some of the people off the helicopter - people who were begging to get on who couldn't.
RUGMAN: Yes, that's right. And in the light of today's crash, I think we can understand why that crewmember did what he did. You can overturn a helicopter if you besiege it - if you try and overwhelm it. And the site of the faces of the people on that helicopter after it took off - so many of them bursting into tears of relief and anguish after 10 to 12 days trapped on that mountain, having seen terrible things - bodies lying unburied on the mountainside - and of course, knowing that hundreds of people, possibly thousands, are still there and are very unlikely to be rescued.
BLOCK: Apart from the small number of refugees who've managed to get onto these helicopters to get off the mountain, it does seem that there's now a pretty steady stream of refugees who've managed to get safe passage through Syria, thanks the Syrian Kurds - through Syria and then back into Iraq.
RUGMAN: Well, that's right. Yazidi refugees are so desperate that they walk down the mountain into Syria, of all places, and are then escorted by Kurdish fighters around the big circle, away from the jihadist positions, back into Iraq. There was a steady stream of them today.
I met a woman who had just come into Iraq from Syria, and she was caring a two-month-old baby. And I said to her, well, how did you both survive on the mountain? And she said, well, my milk did run out, and I got a mountain goat to suckle my two-month-old baby in order to keep the boy live.
BLOCK: Oh, my goodness. What kind of condition was the baby in?
RUGMAN: The baby who was screaming a pretty - I think, a healthy scream, in the sense that the baby is alive, and the baby has made it. But it seems they are so desperate, and the sense of abandonment is very great, I think.
BLOCK: Well, Jonathan Rugman, thanks very much for talking with us today.
RUGMAN: Thank you.
BLOCK: Jonathan Rugman is foreign affairs correspondent with Channel Four News in the U.K. He spoke with us from the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.