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Long Drive Through A Short War

A couple days ago I met a man from the land of plenty,
I said to the man you look like a villain.
He just smiled and gave me a villainous look.

I asked him where from in Oz. He said Melbourne. I asked him if he knows Peter Wilson.

He said no.
But Peter’s from Melbourne too! I said.
Still, no go. An odd lot those downunderites.

I said Peter’s a well known journalists in Australia, particularly his hometown, he writes for The Australian.

Ah, he said, he never reads The Australian, just The Age.

Like my Aunt Katie Ternent I said. The one who lives in Perth. The one who emigrated to Australia decades ago, my father’s sister, the last remaining family from my father’s side (my father who passed away many years ago).

Then there was the internet. As the last century came to a close and the internet was starting to creep into every nook of our lives, my mother had heard that people were finding long lost family members on the internet, and that I should try find my Aunt in Australia.

I tried a few basic things but she’d married and changed her name accordingly, and we didn’t know her new name. She’d also moved cities, maybe more than once.

But I tried nevertheless, knowing the futility of it, but wanting to please my mother, hoping I could give her a gift of a family member, a renewal of an old relationship that she seemed to cherish and had lost.

Still, no Aunt Katie but so persistent was my mother that I was about to hire a PI see if he could track her down.

It was now 2003, the war in Iraq was about to start, and no one was going to have a war without me.

I put everything on hold and found work with news agencies covering the war. I wasn’t interested in journalistic coverage, I wanted to see the war.

An ex child soldier, I had an affinity with the violence of war.

I eventually linked up with a crew from the Australian The Australian; a crew composed of Peter Wilson, Middle East Correspondent, and John Feder, Senior Photographer.

I would eventually come to regret a nap I took one afternoon that might have had a bigger impact on John’s life than any nap has the right to have on any human being. It bothers me to this very day some fifteen years later.

But I digress.

I’d met Peter outside the Kuwait Ministry of Defence – trying to get press accreditation. We exchanged contact details and moved on.

Meantime I was getting frustrated with news crews faffing about in Kuwait, running into shelters and donning chemical protective gear and masks every time Saddam lobbed a scud missile at Kuwait – scud missiles suspected of carrying chemical weapons.

I was missing out on the real business of Iraq.

I get a call from Peter. These two were among the few news crews making a real effort to enter Iraq and follow the advance of US lead coalition forces to Baghdad. They’d actually driven to the border in an attempt to cross but didn’t quite make it into Iraq. A real attempt, a live crew as far as I’m concerned. I signed up with them immediately.

We sorted out a vehicle, equipped it with roof rack to carry petrol and other supplies, bought flak gear (ballistic protective), woke up early the next day and headed north towards Iraq.

Finally I was moving in the right direction.

Long story short, one that includes donning helmets to look like soldiers to cross the border, having to walk across what might have been a minefield to avoid being shot – or fired at from a tank (remember, if you don’t see the barrel of a tank it’s because it’s pointing directly at you – a lesson that would have me scrambling for cover on other occasions thereafter – most memorably on a hillside on the Lebanon Israel border years later), sleeping in flak gear and gas masks when expecting incoming, taking my first picture, and sleeping across the road from the US run POW Camp Bucca.

Bucca is the internment camp where the leader of ISIS Al Baghdadi cut his teeth. I always search my memory see if I’d run into him on my ventures into the camp, and when I gave released prisoners rides home after the war so that I could do my own bit of journalism with them in the embrace of families they hadn’t seen in months, maybe years.

Was he ever in my car? The question always haunts me.

But again, I digress.

The novelty of wondering around southern Iraq behind the front lines of the British advance forces was wearing off. We wanted in. Where the action was. North of the front line and the relative safety of south of Basra. We’d heard that the people of Basra, under seige, were in a state of near starvation, that they were drinking from sewers, that disease was rampant, and a slew of other urban myths that were making their way out with traumatised civilian refugees.

Traumatised refugees like the ones in the picture on the cover of Peter’s book – one of John’s amazing pictures, the same John who put a camera in my hand to take a picture of him, my first, for an article being written on how we were living in tents in the desert and filing stories every day using a portable satellite link, and the one who has caused me so much frustration all these years because he’d set a standard of quality photography that I’ve struggled to meet ever since. Bugger all Australian photographers.

We wanted to see for ourselves.

Eventually we made it. We should have stayed 10 minutes and left back to the relative safety south of the front line because 15 minutes later we wre picked up by Iraqi guys with guns. The two I most remember were the one pointed directly at me as we were bundled into the back of a car, then the other one that was pointed at my face from the front seat.

A reign of personal terror such that I had never experienced had begun.

We were held overnight under armed guard in the abandoned Sheraton Hotel building in Basra for a long night of questioning which our hosts quickly found out would move along much faster if I translated than had their own translator.

He would listen in and confirm the accuracy of my translation. It was exhausting.

I was under bigger suspicion than the obvious reporters I was with. I did not fit the profile. I had also left my passport south of the front line at our camp because it contained enough details to have me shot on the spot as an infiltrator, spy and saboteur.

That was the official charge eventually levied against us:
Infiltration, Spying, and Sabotage against Saddam Husseins’s Republic of Iraq.

I was separated from the others, put alone with two guards in the lead car as orders came in to move us to Baghdad – an eight hour drive (with stops) from Basra. The two guys upfront, mean and armed, had enough credentials to get us waved through all the checkpoints with a salute.

We passed exploding tanks that nearly knocked our cars off the road and came up close and personal to all manner of stresses of a country on the business end of the US (and allies) military machine.

We heard later that the Sheraton Basra was hit the day we left it and departed Basra. As we approached Baghdad I started to gather from the guards that the facility they were taking us too was also hit that same day.

So what the fuck were these guys supposed to do with us. They wanted to be back home with their families. They did not want to be driving us all over Iraq and Baghdad with a full on bombardment in full swing. They wanted to put bullets in our heads, dump us somewhere, and head back to the relative safety of their homes. Others had disappeared in previous days and afterwards – journalists, aid workers, NGO staff, perhaps in very similar circumstances as we found ourselves in. Most have yet to be found.

I was particularly uncomfortable at one point, after several hours of driving around Baghdad not knowing where to take us, when they bought cake and parked in a garbage and filth strewn empty patch of desert behind a power plant somewhere on the outskirts of Baghdad. I was not happy.

I was not happy at all that my life would come to an end in this dismal place, and that my body would be left to rot in the heat and the grim garbage that covered the area, as was the case with other bodies I’d seen – dumped or left to rot in filth.

I was not happy at what it would do to my mother.

I was reduced to these very basic thoughts. I love you Mum, and I’m sorry I did this to you, and what a fucking shit hole of a place to die in with a bullet to the back of the head.

Not wanting to spread the worry to my colleagues, I kept my calculations of what was happening to myself – a blessing of being bilingual. Peter would later be very clear that I was to share everything I hear. Not to keep anything to myself.

But I did refuse the cake, and I did stop trying to be politic with my hosts.

In a moment of anger I might have told them to fuck off, that I won’t play their final moments of a dead man game, that if not eating their frigging cake was going to be my one and only act of defiance then so be it.

I would die without giving them whatever absolution they thought they were going to get from feeding me a piece of cake before putting a bullet in my head.

They laughed, said nothing was going to happen. I didn’t believe them.

I’d been hearing their grumblings all day. Let’s just get the fuck rid of them and go home. Let’s just shoot the fuckers and dump them somewhere. The country, the whole fucking world is going to blazes. Thousands of Iraqi’s are being killed every day and thousands more will die in the days, week, and as it turns out years to come. Who’s going to give a fuck about these three.

They were dead right. Still, I didn’t eat their cake.

What right did I, or anyone, have to impose on these people to risk their lives to deliver us to some shit hole prison under the internal security headquarters of the Amn Al A’m – the Public Security, the most loathed and feared of the Iraqi regime’s internal security apparatus.

I’d have whacked us and headed home.

But, yet again, I digress.

And this is a tiring story to tell and I got IMOM things to do. I’ll finish it later.