Skip to main content

'Heroic' mission rescues desperate Yazidis from ISIS

By Dana Ford and Josh Levs, CNN
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The United States conducts airstrikes around Mount Sinjar
  • Yazidis fled there to escape the march of ISIS
  • A CNN crew was on the rescue flight
  • Yazidis, among Iraq's smallest minorities, are of Kurdish descent

In a breathtaking half hour, CNN takes you behind the scenes of the dramatic rescue from Mount Sinjar as people embark on a flight from terror. Watch "Flight from Terror" on CNN International this Sunday at 0300 GMT (0500 CET), 1000 GMT (1200 CET) and on Monday at 0000 GMT (0200 CET) and 0530 GMT (0730 CET).

(CNN) -- The face of 15-year-old Aziza says it all.

Her mouth slightly agape, tears stream down her face as she glances around the inside of a helicopter with confusion in her eyes.

She looks completely exhausted, overcome with emotion. She cries the whole flight to safety.

The Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish peshmerga carried out a dramatic rescue mission Monday at Mount Sinjar, taking supplies to desperate Yazidis and ferrying a handful of people out, including Aziza.

A CNN crew was on the flight that took diapers, milk, water and food to the site where thousands of people have been driven by ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.

Map: Where is ISIS?

CNN's Ivan Watson, who was on the chopper, described the mission as "heroic."

Teams hurled out bags and boxes of food from as high as 50 feet before approaching the ground.

"We landed on several short occasions, and that's where -- amid this explosion of dust and chaos -- these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children on board the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible," Watson said.

Soon, some of the trapped families -- including babies and the elderly -- were packed into the flight. A man held a water bottle for a woman trying drink, her head propped up on his shoulder.

Others didn't make it and were left behind as the helicopter pulled away.

An Iraqi gunner opens fire at possible ISIS targets during a rescue operation by the Iraqi Air Force and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on Monday, August 11. The dramatic operation at Iraq's Mount Sinjar involved taking supplies to desperate Yazidis and even bringing some aboard a helicopter to make it safely out of the area. An Iraqi gunner opens fire at possible ISIS targets during a rescue operation by the Iraqi Air Force and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on Monday, August 11. The dramatic operation at Iraq's Mount Sinjar involved taking supplies to desperate Yazidis and even bringing some aboard a helicopter to make it safely out of the area.
Yazidis rescued from ISIS
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Yazidis rescued from ISIS Yazidis rescued from ISIS
Raw Video: Dramatic rescue in Iraq
Dramatic rescue mission of Iraqi Yazidis

"It was chaotic. It was crazy, but we were able to then lift off with about 20 civilians," Watson said.

Iraq's Yazidis trapped, hiding from ISIS in the mountains

Kurdish official warns of genocide

Yazidis, among Iraq's smallest minorities, are of Kurdish descent, and their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect that draws from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

One of the oldest religious communities in the world, they have long suffered persecution, with many Muslims referring to them as devil worshippers.

More than a week ago, they fled into the surrounding mountains when ISIS fighters stormed the town of Sinjar.

Now, trapped without food, water or medical care in the summer heat, thousands of families are in desperate need of help.

A senior Kurdish official warned Monday of the potential of genocide against the Yazidi people.

Speaking to CNN's Watson, Fazil Mirani repeatedly called for a humanitarian intervention. He estimated that as many as 70,000 people remain trapped on Mount Sinjar, and that at least 100 people have died so far from dehydration and the heat.

CNN could not independently confirm those estimates.

Who are the religious and ethnic groups under threat from ISIS?

'They flew in shooting; they flew out shooting'

The United States on Monday conducted airstrikes on four ISIS checkpoints and "multiple" ISIS vehicles near Mount Sinjar, according to U.S. Central Command.

"Our aircraft remain positioned to strike any terrorist forces around the mountain who threaten the safety of these families," President Barack Obama said the same day. "We're working with international partners to develop options to bring them to safety."

Back on the helicopter, the relief of those already rescued was palpable.

The crowd on board burst into tears as the chopper took off. Young and old, women and men, civilians and servicemen -- all cried with the intensity of the moment.

Gunners had to open fire at the ground in order to make it away from ISIS.

"They flew in shooting; they flew out shooting," Watson reported.

"There was not a dry eye on the aircraft."

Who are the Yazidis? Why does ISIS want to kill them?

CNN's Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Iraq
Get all the latest news and updates on Iraq in Arabic by visiting CNN Arabic.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 2232 GMT (0632 HKT)
ISIS has published a video titled "A second message to America," showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0427 GMT (1227 HKT)
Kurdish leaders in Iraq say U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish ground forces are driving ISIS back. CNN's Anna Coren reports.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
CNN's Andrew Stevens speaks to The Daily Beast's Christopher Dickey about ISIS' strategy in Iraq.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
ISIS may begin to suffer setbacks on the battlefield, according to a new analysis of its capabilities and tactics.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0350 GMT (1150 HKT)
The beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants brings into focus once again the risks faced by reporters in modern conflicts.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
When war reporter James Foley wasn't writing for GlobalPost or recording video for AFP, he occasionally shared stories on his own blog, aptly titled "A World of Troubles."
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
"May God help you," the speaker of Iraq's parliament told Haider al-Abadi the day he was nominated prime minister.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
The answers to this question lie in some clear differences in the two conflicts.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
Framing the intervention in religious terms bolsters theories of U.S. bias, says Fahad Nazer.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
They are the faces of an entire community on the run.
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 0854 GMT (1654 HKT)
In an exodus of almost biblical proportions, thousands trudge across a river to escape killers belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Theirs were the faces that stood out in the chaotic helicopter evacuation off the Sinjar Mountains.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Browse through photos of thousands of refugees trudging across a river to escape ISIS.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
The face of 15-year-old Aziza -- rescued from Mount Sinjar in Iraq -- says it all.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
CNN's Ivan Watson flies along with the Iraqi military as they drop emergency supplies.
Why do the militant Islamists have the Yazidis in their cross hairs?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Images illustrate the ongoing violence in Iraq.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
The message from a growing number of actors inside and outside Iraq is the same: Maliki must go if the country is to be saved.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
ISIS gives young men "cars to drive, guns, cell phones and cash money."
ADVERTISEMENT