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A Gas Mask, a Bottle of Vodka, and a Budgerigar
The secret life of a war reporter
In three decades of teaching, giving talks, and writing articles I have often been asked what makes for a good war correspondent. I usually say something pompous about curiosity, integrity and a streak of independence.
The second question I often get is a variation of: what is it like – working on the frontline Sometimes: what is it really like? And so, to mark the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, here is a small insight into what the daily life of a war correspondent actually looks like …
Twenty years ago this week I was sitting on a dirty carpet in a shabby frontline town in Iraqi Kurdistan swigging vodka and chain-smoking. Opposite me Ant, an old friend who worked for a rival newspaper and so was ostensibly my competition, was doing the same.
But even the booze could not dull our frustration.
In what was the biggest war story in years and the reality was we had both picked the wrong front. While colleagues 300 miles to the south were all over the front pages with tales of tank battles and derring-do, we were stranded in a provincial backwater.
When my editor had invited me to lunch in London and asked if I wanted to cover the US-led invasion of Iraq, I had jumped at the chance. With a decade covering wars, conflicts and bits of ethnic argy-bargy under my belt, I knew that this would be a big one.
The Americans, still smarting from 9/11 and fresh out of what appeared to be an easy victory in Afghanistan, had decided that Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, would be the next pin to fall in their crusade to bring errant Muslim regimes to heel.
My editor asked where I would like to be: in Baghdad under Iraqi government control, in Kuwait where the Americans were gearing up for a scrap in the desert, or in the north with the anti-Saddam Kurdish militias.
It seemed a no-brainer. Like a petulant teenager I hated being controlled and western armies had a long history of restricting access. I had already tried and failed to get an Iraqi visa. Going into battle with the Kurds, then, seemed to fit the bill: plenty of action and perhaps a chance to shine.
We had been told emphatically – and wrongly - that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, had chemical and biological weapons, that he would undoubtedly unleash them when war broke out.
So I got a gas mask and some rather comical rubber boots. Then I spent a weekend in the British countryside where former NCOs drilled us in how to get the gear on in a hurry.
Next I spent a chunk of my newspaper’s money on slimline Israeli-made body armour, far sexier than the bulky standard-issue gear.
With a pocket full of dollars, an Iranian visa, and 250 grams of Golden Virginia, I took a flight to Teheran, and, after wandering around the Iranian capital for a couple of days, a taxi south. From there it was a hop across the border into Iraq.
Once in country I teamed up with Ant, whom I had known since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. With two photographers, we rented a house within sight of the Iraqi guns.
When the war started, we reasoned, the Kurds would throw up roadblocks and block access points to the front, but we could sneak through on small backroads.
There was more than enough time to prepare. Back in Washington and London governments were making last-ditch efforts to bring other countries on board what was a pretty madcap idea.
US ambassador Colin Powell told a pack of porkies (lies for the non-Brits among you) at the United Nations about Saddam’s supposed arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
There were stories about ‘yellowcake’ – a type of uranium – and endless columns from hawkish commentators and opportunistic journalists who had flung themselves on the bandwagon of war.
In Iraq I rented a shabby Land Cruiser, hired a translator called Mr Dara, and stocked up on car batteries, water and other essentials.
And then we waited. And waited. We speculated endlessly on how it would be when Saddam deployed the inevitable poison gas. Then, one day, as we mused, we realised there was a flaw in our plan.
For all our fancy training and equipment how would we know if Saddam had actually used his gas? Would we wait until people starting dying around us and then don masks in a civilian neighbourhood where no one else had one?
And then what? Grab a gun from a bodyguard and shoot anyone who tried to take our masks from us? Wasting women and kids as they choked on poison gas was hardly the epitaph either of us wanted on our gravestones.
We never really did find a solution to that problem, but one thing we decided was that we needed an early warning system.
I remembered how miners had used canaries to warn of gas build-up underground. (My mother’s kin are from the Rhondda Valley in south Wales – proper coal-mining country.) The next day Ant headed off to the local market with instructions to buy a canary.
He returned mid-morning. But instead of a canary, he had bought four budgerigars. I was nonplussed. As far as I knew budgies could be the most gas-resistant bird on the planet. When I complained then Ant became defensive.
“There weren’t any canaries,” he said grumpily.
Ant then proclaimed, unfairly in my view, that he was the owner of three of the budgies – even though I had paid half the total cost. I was going to argue. But I decided in the end I didn’t want to break a friendship over a tiny Kurdish bird.
I must admit I did soften a little when I saw how much he loved his new charges. He fussed over them endlessly. After weighing several options he announced, rather grandiosely, they would be named after First World War British poets: Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
I couldn’t think of a suitably noble name for my bird – and Ant was putting me under pressure - so I settled for Lajos (pronounced Loi-osh) the Hungarian equivalent of Bob, or John. (The non-Rhondda half of me is Hungarian).
For days Ant cooed over his birds. He talked about their prowess and their looks. Sometimes he even spoke dismissively about Lajos. (I did my bit as a responsible bird owner - Lajos got three square meals - but I can’t say we formed a strong emotional attachment.)
And then one morning, just as I was tiring of hearing how superior Ant’s birds were, I happened to glance at the cage. And I noticed Lajos had mounted one of the illustrious British poets and was going at it hell for leather.
“Siegfried Sassoon is a girl!” I shouted at Ant with glee.
(It has been two decades years since this important incident and – without notes – I may have polished some of the rougher edges of the budgie story, perhaps even smoothed out the narrative a little.
And given that Ant is now The Times’ best-known war correspondent and I am a humble bear guide I hope he doesn’t decide to challenge my story in print.)
That evening we returned to our vodka and our cigarettes. In the south battles were fought. Baghdad fell. The Kurds, who were as impatient to get going as we were, were told by Washington to wait and then wait again.
And then, one day, the frontlines across the fields from our house, finally broke. The Iraqis fled, and the Kurds poured forward. In the ensuing confusion, Ant also made his move. And by the time the dust had settled and Saddam had fallen, he had four budgerigars. And I had none.
LINKS & MORE
+ Next time: Into Battle with the Kurds of Iraq.
+ I plan to return to Ukraine for a short stint at the end of the month. The main aim of the trip will be to meet potential participants in our Wild Bear Vets 2023 programme, but I will, of course, be on the lookout for fresh reporting opportunities.
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