by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
It’s Dec. 11 in northern Iraq. I’ve ridden on an Iraqi air force helicopter to Mount Sinjar in order to meet the mountain’s Yezidi and Kurdish defenders and the thousands of refugees still stranded there.
Islamic State has laid siege to the mountain since August.
I’m at a Kurdish Peshmerga camp when I hear that the last copter flight of the day is coming in half an hour. There may not be any flights tomorrow.
I make my way to the area where, I’m told, the helicopters usually land—a strip of road next to a building that was once a fort.
Families line up along the road. Two men collect a frail, elderly Yezidi man from a truck. They help him walk, bent over and moaning, to the front of the line closest to me.
They sit him down on a piece of cardboard.
I’ve been warned that I’ll have to fight to get on a helicopter. I’d seen how it was when I arrived. Yezidi fighters—desperate to get off the mountain—pushed and shoved for a spot in the copters’ cabins.
Yezidis and Peshmerga surround me. Only one of them speaks English. Khari is a 22-year-old Yezidi fisherman from the village of Borek. He looks tired. He wears a bandanna around his head and a battered fake leather jacket.
He says he’s been on the mountain for three months. He’s lucky—his whole family made it to the mountain. He actually has no plans to leave Mount Sinjar—he’s just assisting the hopeful evacuees. “This is my country,” he says. “I will die here.”
He says the Yezidis need help. “We need food and shelter, clothes and shoes. It is very cold up here. No one gives us food, no one gives us anything.”
Khari says his people need weapons. “I want to kill ISIS,” he says. “We need big guns. We only have Kalashnikovs.”
“We want the U.S. and U.K. to come and help. The U.S. came to see, but then went,” he says, likely referring to small detachment of American Special Forces and Marines who visited Mount Sinjar in August.
I hear the sound of the helicopters, very faintly at first. People stand up in anticipation, shouldering their possessions. But just two helicopters fly past, nowhere near the road, quickly disappearing behind the mountain.
People aren’t sure what should happen next. Some families clamber into trucks and tractor trailers, maybe intending to hunt for whatever landing zone the Hips have flown to.
A Peshmerga fighter tells me he thinks that the copters landed somewhere else and will now be going home. He offers me a cigarette and we sit down. He laughs at the weight of the pack I’ve brought onto the mountain. His own pack weighs almost nothing.
After smoking a couple of cigarettes, I start walking. But I get only 100 yards before I hear the helicopters again. They pop over a rocky outcrop, heading for the original road landing zone.
I run back.
The first Mi-171 lands, its textbook touchdown a testament to the pilots’ skill. Before the copter even comes to a halt, the evacuees are rushing toward the cabin door. A crewman tries to toss out supplies but the crowd overwhelms him.
The second helicopter lands. Refugees swarm it, too.
A Yezidi fighter grabs me and drags me through the crowd to the open cockpit window.
The pilot, Maj. Sabah, looks me up and down and motions for me to head to the main cabin door behind us. But there’s no way I’m going to get through the throng. I shake my head and Sabah understands. He motions to another door—the smaller port-side gunner’s portal, which is currently closed.
He then holds up two fingers and mouths, “Two minutes.” The message is clear—I have two minutes to get through the gunner’s hatch.
The Yezidi fighter runs with me to the hatch. We wait. The helicopter’s gunners and engineer are still trying to offload supplies and deal with the people rushing through the open main door.
Sabah flashes me a thumbs-up, a gunner opens the hatch and grabs me and both he and the Yezidi fighter hoist me through the opening and into the copter.
I look outside and the Yezidi who helped me puts his two forefingers together, a sign for friendship. He points to the inside of the helicopter—he wants to get in.
The door gunner sees this and without argument indicates that he can’t come in—by shutting the door. I look outside and the fighter shrugs and waves at me. He puts his hand on his chest to indicate his sincerity.
While stowing my gear, I peer around the inside of the helicopter. Two Yezidis are trying to toss out sacks of flour. Doing this against a tide of refugees trying to get in … is no easy task.
I see a door gunner literally kick someone out of the aircraft. I’m shocked by what at first appears to be the crewman’s callous disregard for these desperate people.
After unloading as much as they can, the two Yezidi fighters inside the Mi-171 literally dive out the door. Some of the more able-bodied Yezidis have already forced their way inside and are sitting at the back of the helicopter, trying to ignore angry stares from the crew.
With the unloading done, the crew lets some people board. And kicks some others to keep them out.
As the crew fights with potential passengers, an old Yezidi man in his 50s or 60s hangs from the mounting of one of the M240 machine guns outside the copter. He grimaces as he struggles to pull himself up. A door gunner grabs the man and dumps him inside.
It becomes apparent that there’s a method to what the door gunners are doing. A child appears and the gunners pull the kid aboard. A gunner reaches outside for someone else—another child.
The crewmen are trying to get a whole family on board.
The helicopter begins to rise. The two boys look shocked. Both are crying. Their mother and the rest of their family have yet to make it onto the copter. After hovering out of reach, the pilots set the Mi-171 down again.
Aided by unseen selfless souls, a woman leans into the helicopter. A crewman takes a child from her and passes it from person to person inside the cabin.
The mother comes next. When she sits down on the metal cabin floor, I notice an even younger child—maybe one or two years old—bound to her chest.
A few other refugees manage to grab a place on the Mi-171 before the pilots open the throttle, the door gunners clear a few stragglers hanging from the airframe and we take off.
The flight engineer shakes my hand. One of the gunners does the same before returning to his weapon.
There are more than 20 refugees in the cabin with me.
The other door gunner, whose name is Zaid Abbas, turns away from his gun, stands up and looks around the cabin. Abbas bends down to comfort the family’s crying toddler.
Abbas counts heads. It’s obvious he’s angry.
He was the gunner I saw kicking people to make sure the family got onto the helicopter. He unclips his facemask on one side, letting it hang, and shouts at some of the passengers. He’s shouting at the people in the few seats, as well as at those who clambered over the family to get in.
Abbas motions to the men sitting in the seats and then to the family. The implication is clear—why are they on the floor and you’re in the seats? One man gets up, a look of embarrassment on his face. But the space he has made isn’t enough for a family of six. He sits back down.
Abbas is disgusted as he turns his attention to the men at the back of the helicopter.
He motions between them and the family. A man in his 20s or 30s hides his face in his arms. Abbas looks at me and motions to the people beyond the family and gestures angrily.
I begin to understand his anger. The family should have come on board first, but the strongest in the queue took advantage.
Even over the sound of the engines and the wind, the inside of the helicopter seems silent. The tension is palpable. Abbas and the other gunner focus on their machine guns, scanning the ground below for threats.
The spent casings on the floor of the helicopter indicate that at some point today they’ve already fired their weapons.
Abbas fires his M240—whether at a target or out of sheer frustration, I can’t tell.
The ground below us changes as we near the town of Fishkhabour, our first destination. It seems greener and less barren. The gunners relax.
We set down. The crew motions for the refugees to stay seated until we come to a complete halt.
We stop and the Yezidis disembark. Their relief is evident on their faces. They’ve made it off the mountain.
Some of the stronger Yezidis who’d forced their way aboard offer to shake hands with the crew. The airmen refuse.
Abbas and Sabah tell me this mission was normal. “This happens every time we visit Sinjar,” they both say when I speak to them separately. They look exhausted. It’s not hard to understand why.
On the tarmac, the Yezidis line up and an aid worker counts them. I head to the other aircraft with my gear, bumping into the crew who flew me to Sinjar earlier today.
Their copter had sat out the mission, owing to some minor damage. They seem happy that I managed to get out.
I return to my Mi-171 for the next leg to Erbil. As we take off, I gaze through a window at the small crowd of refugees down below. They’ve exchanged winter on the mountain for a safer but just as harsh winter in the refugee camps around Dohuk.