The most important ride of his life - Caught in a helicopter crash in Iraq, reporter tells story of the pilot

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  • Published 18.08.14

Alissa J. Rubin, a veteran foreign correspondent of The New York Times, was injured on Tuesday in a helicopter crash in Kurdistan and dictated the following article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, where she was evacuated from Iraq. She suffered broken bones and a fractured skull but was stable.

If it weren’t for the helicopter crash on Mount Sinjar, what would I have written about the plight of the Yazidis?

I would have started, I guess, with this mountain that everybody is talking about, to which the Yazidis (a minority group that practises an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism) have fled. It’s hard to overstate the size of this mountain, a sacred place to the Yazidis, and the place they went to escape the terror that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been inflicting on them. It’s really more of a range than an individual mountain — 60 miles long, 5,000 feet high.

Then I would have written about our pilot, Maj. Gen. Majid Ahmed Saadi, a veteran Iraqi Arab officer helping the Kurds rescue the Yazidis.

Adam Ferguson, our photographer, and I were waiting all day at the Kurdish military base for a helicopter to take us to Mount Sinjar.

Gen. Majid came in from his first run up the mountain with a full load of Yazidi refugees, and a British TV journalist asked him: “Why are you taking such risks overloading your helicopter?” He just said: “I checked my numbers, I checked the weight, and it was possible to do it.”

Also waiting with us was a Yazidi member of parliament, Vian Dakhil. She seemed very together, very organised (although she was inexplicably wearing high heels), and, of course, passionate about her people’s plight.

When we finally got in the helicopter, it was 3.45pm, not a lot of daylight left. I had a seat on a load of bread, behind one of the door gunners. Otherwise, there were no seats, no seatbelts.The helicopter was full of bread, and probably bullets, too: bread for the Yazidis and bullets for the base of Kurdish pesh merga fighters on top of the mountain.

The pilot really made a big impression. You know, the Yazidis feel so betrayed by the Arab neighbours they had lived among for so many years; they all turned on the Yazidis when the IS came. Many of the atrocities were carried out not by the militants but by their own neighbours.

Yet here was Gen. Majid, an Iraqi Arab himself, who was taking off from his own job — he was in charge of training for the Iraqi air force — to help these people. He told me it was the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years.

It was as if it gave his whole life meaning.

Gen. Majid was especially moved by all the Yazidi children.

The top priority was to get food up there. There were many places where there had been no airdrops of food at all, so these drops by the Kurdish authorities were really important.

When we were nearing the top of the mountain, people were gathered already. I remember one mother holding her son by the hand on one side, her daughter on the other, and they were trying to stay upright in the downdraft from the rotors so they could push forward to climb aboard. And they did make it on.

One older woman’s face sticks in my mind; it was very rough and tremendously sad.

We were on the ground only about 10 minutes. The Yazidis were battered. Some older people were barefoot, legs swollen from walking; others were just totally dehydrated; and children sunburned. The kids — a lot of them — were crying, afraid and confused, and others were silent, just frightened.

When we landed, it was almost scary, with people thronging to get to us. All these people just wanting to get onto the helicopter and off this mountain. And I’m sure most of them had never seen a helicopter up close. One woman’s legs were so swollen she had to be carried in a sling by several men.

So many climbed into the helicopter, coming up the rear loading ramp, the crew couldn’t get the ramp closed. So they had to reopen it and make people get off.

When they tried to take off, they couldn’t and had to set the helicopter back down.

Then there was this sad moment: they pulled this woman and her two children off the helicopter. They were crying. The mother was quite thin.

The pilot was just so moved by all this. He wanted to help all these people, especially the children.

Then Gen. Majid took off. But you could see he was going to use the downward slope of the mountain to aid in the take-off, until he could build up enough lift. The nose of the helicopter was pointing downhill as the flight started.

I felt the helicopter hit something; later, someone said it was a rock. I thought the pilot would right it, but then I saw the ground come up. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew it was bad.

Later, someone told me the co-pilot shut off the fuel when they lost control, which made us stall. Otherwise, it might have caught fire and exploded.

When we went down, I thought, all right, we’re on a mountain, it’ll slide a long way before it stops. Stuff fell on me; I didn’t know if they were people or things. Then Dakhil landed on top of me.

Everyone was groaning. There were no screams, but everyone was groaning. Adam was great. He dragged me out of the helicopter, as I couldn’t possibly walk. Adam wrapped his scarf around my head to stop the bleeding.

A pesh merga soldier took off his kaffiyeh and wrapped my arms together so that they wouldn’t flap around. I thought it was really sweet at the time, but then I realised how sensible it was: He was immobilising my arms because both my wrists were broken.

Just before dark, a rescue helicopter came.

Several people picked me up and carried me aboard in a very inexpert fashion; that really hurt, unfortunately. I heard myself groan like everybody else. At that moment, it just hurt so much. But then I thought, that’s good. At least I’m alive.

I bet a lot of them are not.

How is the pilot? Did he make it? He just wanted to help.

About 25 Yazidis, as well as five crew members, five Kurdish politicians and four western journalists, were aboard the Mi-17, a Russian-made transport helicopter. Nearly all were wounded, although none as seriously as Rubin. Dakhil was also evacuated to Istanbul, with both legs and several ribs broken.

The only person to die in the crash was the pilot, Gen. Majid.