Middle East

Rescuing the Yazidis: On a helicopter over Mount Sinjar

From the air, the plight of Iraq's Yazidi community is plain to see.

Jammed in between boxes of food and water, we flew low over the Sinjar mountains in an old Soviet helicopter.

After about 40 minutes, we caught sight of the people below - tiny figures, running across the parched and stony ground, waving frantically.

As the helicopter came in to land, a wave of people ran towards us.

We struggled to unload the supplies as people desperately clawed their way on board.

Old people, children, parents with babies.

They were hungry, thirsty, terrified - and this was their only chance of escape. It was overwhelming.

We had to take off again almost immediately, and as the helicopter lifted off the ground a girl in a pink dress was hanging on by her fingers, her legs hanging out of the open door.

Yazidis on Mt Sinjar
Desperate people ran towards the helicopter

With my camera in one hand, I helped pull her into the cabin and we swept away leaving huge crowds on the ground behind.

End of a nightmare

It had all taken less than a minute, and as the realisation sunk in that their nightmare was ending, people began to sob quietly.

But we were not safe yet. As the helicopter gained height, Islamic State militants on the ground opened fire.

A soldier on board told us all to take cover as he returned fire from a machine gun fixed in the open doorway.

Blinking back tears, the young man next to me put his hands over the ears of his baby son and closed his eyes.

He looked as if he really could not bear much more.

The soldier stopped firing and patted him on the shoulder to reassure him - a brief gesture of kindness that seemed unbearably moving against the background of so much sadness.

As we entered Kurdish-controlled territory, there was a sigh of relief.

It was a short journey but it had felt so much longer.

Displaced children from the minority Yazidi sect, in Sinjar town (12/08/2014)
Many other Yazidis are fleeing by land to Kurdish areas

The people we brought back are on now on their way to the relative safety of a refugee camp.

They had lost everything, but they are the lucky ones.

As I drove back to Irbil, all I could see in my head were the faces of all those other people that we had to leave behind.

They are ordinary people who, until last week, had ordinary lives, and who are now facing another night of fear on a besieged mountain.