A Better Basra – extract from the book

Better Basra Book CoverAs I am about to head to Iraq once more I thought it would be a good time to share an extract from my book about my time there in 2006.  This post was first published on the World Bank website in 2011 – please leave any comments there: http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/better-basra-five-years

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3 November marks five years since CommGap writer Caroline Jaine was evacuated from the Iraqi city of Basra.  In 2006 she was heading Press & Public affairs at the British Embassy Office, during what proved to be one the most perilous moments during the British occupation.  Today her book – a personal account of her 100 days in Iraq – is launched with a seminar at the House of Lords in London.  The seminar, like the title of the book, draws from the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan for a “Better Basra” and looks at whether the city is in fact any “better” today.

An extract from A Better Basra appears below:

Here was that movie feeling again, but this time the soldiers, perhaps about a hundred or so of them, were like extras waiting to go on set.  I was intrigued about where they had been, what they had done in Iraq so far and where they were off to.  What was their day like? Why weren’t they at that moment busy “soldiering”.  I guess even soldiers have lunch breaks or dinner breaks, whatever the time was (I had no idea).  These men (and a few women) were three-dimensional human beings – some were glum, some quietly sitting reading, others smiling, joking with animated bellows of hearty laughter.  Some were smoking – like I was, AGAIN.  Some were munching on fresh Subway sandwiches or drinking coke.  They barely glanced up at Chris and me, which surprised me, considering how clearly different and civilian we looked (and felt).  I must have been nearly twenty years older than many of them, and by now my linen shirt was soaked a darker shade with sweat; I had beaming, red, exhausted cheeks and was severely squinting from lack of sunglasses.  To say I felt self-conscious was an understatement.  We had stumbled onto the wrong film set, clearly.  They were being filmed by Spielberg, whilst we were in a cheap cable TV documentary about inadequate civil servants.

Many hours later, after more dozing (Chris) and more bewilderment (me), the pair of us, weighed down with body armour, bags, and those damn batteries were shouted into the back of a Merlin helicopter by an airman waving a small, flickering torch in the darkness.  Watch out for the rear rotor, watch out for the rear rotor I kept telling myself, remembering my training.  I tried to follow the quick pace of the body in front of me to keep in line with his path.  It was very dark.  The blades blew warm dust up into our eyes and did not stop turning – they only touched down for a few minutes, enough time to load and then they were off like a shuttle bus.

The helicopter flew with its lights out so as not to be seen and I could just about make out the outlines of the 20 or so soldiers who were, like me, strapped into their seats.  I had been warned that strapping yourself into a Merlin was a tricky operation, but it seemed I had acquired an unlikely skill.  I may have been a civilian, and a female one at that, but having had three children and strapped them all into baby, child and booster seats with various buckle configurations – I was better placed than any to fathom the military seat belt situation.  It proved no challenge.  The first of many examples proving that motherhood was a good preparation for war.

We flew with the flap at the back of the helicopter down so that the rear gunner could precariously perch with his weapon facing any potential threat from the ground.   He was attached to the Merlin by a thin cable, and my maternal instinct wanted to say, “oh do be careful!  You could fall if you don’t watch out! Are you sure that thing is strong enough?”  Not that he would have heard me – the noise was such that his ears were well protected (a little more impressively than my squishy yellow ear plugs from Boots).  Another gunner was poised at a side sliding door, opposite me.  Apart from soldiers, the space was also packed full of bags, boxes and equipment forming lumpy night-time shapes down the central aisle of the aircraft.  As the side gunner turned to flick switches and talk into his very complicated looking headgear, the light from the console revealed an almost childlike face.  A teenager, it was clear, and not that much older than my daughter.  He turned back, fixed his night sights in front of his eyes and stood ready by his weapon and we lifted off.  My tummy lurched in a heady mixture of excitement and fear.

Once we were up in the air, the gentle turbulent sway began to calm me slightly.  I caught glimpses of Basra City below and thousands of dots of electric light told me that contrary to the rumour mill, Basrawis had some power at least.  It looked like any city, flying over it by night and I wondered how it would look in the daylight – although I understood well why we were now flying under cover of darkness:

   Bloody battles were fought on the streets of
Basra last night after a British helicopter
crashed in the city, reportedly killing four
airmen and drawing an Iraqi crowd shouting
‘Victory to the Mahdi army’.

   At least three British army vehicles were set
on fire as the crowd hurled petrol bombs at
troops trying to reach the blazing wreckage.
Iraqi police officials believed the aircraft
had been brought down by a shoulder-fired
missile. Four charred bodies were seen inside
it, reports said.

   Source: Jason Burke and Ned Temko in the
Guardian, Sunday May 7 2006

Although deafening, the thudding drum of the helicopter was somehow reassuring.  Something about the sheer forward movement of travel makes me feel like I am achieving something, and my confidence grew as every minute passed.  However somewhere very deep down a small voice inside me was saying, “Just what the hell are you doing now, you fool?”  I told the voice to shut up and reassured it that there was no doubt, I was going to have a rich and rewarding experience.  I even foolishly told myself that the difference I would be making to the lives of those people down below me in Basra was worth it.

Another thud, this time out of sync with the turning blades and in an instant flash the expression of every fellow passenger was illuminated.  They looked bored, tired and showed not a flicker of reaction – unlike my own expression which must have glowed in absolute terror.  Chris glanced at me and the soldier sitting next to me shouted in my ear – “it’s alright ma’am, it just means they’ve got a lock on us”.  Funnily enough, the reassurance didn’t really help much.  I had heard how counter measures worked – a large flash of heat fired so that anything heat-seeking would be attracted to that rather than the aircraft.  But for some reason I wasn’t expecting it to make a bang, which to the untrained ear could easily be mistaken for being hit.  I was also unprepared for the dramatic twists and turns of evasive flying that followed, which to a stupid person, could also be mistaken for the fact that we had been hit.  The only thing keeping me from peeing my pants as we (deliberately) rapidly lost height was the relative calm of the people around me.  Chris grinned at me in the darkness, he really was one laid back dude.

The journey was only about ten or fifteen minutes long.  The lights vanished and water could be made out very close beneath us, the downdraft from helicopter creating ripples in the blackness.  I knew we were nearly there, as the Basra Palace Compound was situated on the banks of the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.

The Palace itself could not be seen as we landed and disembarked with similar shouts and flickering lights as before.  Within minutes a waiting huddle of soldiers on the ground had clambered on board the craft we had just left. Moments later the Merlin was shuddering off into the darkness again, leaving me open mouthed in disbelief that I had been on board such a machine.  I felt well and truly part of the war-movie.