Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Cards

Greetings Everyone

From what can only be termed a wet cold and miserable day here in the Unholylands, it has been belting rain for the last 24 hours, thunder and lightning that is driving Molly scared.

OK so I have to admit that this year is for the first time a xmas card free event in the sense that we did not get our act together to (A) find any xmas cards (B) write in them and (C) deal with the situation at the local post office. Now I do have an excuse in that I have been in Iraq for the last two weeks helping establish democracy in the elections and learning how to shoot a M16 rifle and Browning 9mm pistol (you will be glad to know that the Marine Instructor gave me a "good to kill" rating after my time on the range)

I would like to say that democratic elections were the highlight of the trip but the best time of the trip was being holed up in the Outpost in the Middle of Ramadi for 24 hours listening to IEDS exploding and gunfire, plaese note this was on Election Day.

Now what has this to do with forgetting Xmas Cards , nothing but at least I have an excuse, now there are some of you out there who did send cards and they are in pride of place in Chateau James as you walk in the door.

I should also add that even between the members of the James family, Myself, Cheryl, Louise and Brittany that we did not give one card to each other, I will check email later no doubt one of those really personal e cards will be announced in my inbox. I sign of the times no doubt, my thoughts are for thiry years time when Lou and BJ are sitting around with their families will cards even been remembered.

From all of us here to all of you there, may you enjoy the day with family and friends and do not forget the blog site where the daily trials and tribulations of the Unholyland are chronicled

Merry Christmas
Ho Ho Ho
Unholyland 2005

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Morning in Downtown Ramadi Iraq

Ramadi Iraq
Saturday December 10 2005

If you have ever attended your child’s pre school and had to sit on one of those small chairs they use, where the legs are eight inches off the ground and the back comes up less than a foot, well then you have met the man who designed the seats that they use in Military Humvee’s. Now take this seat put it in a cold car, with a heater that blows dust at hurricane force, add complete Military body armor including a Kevlar helmet and find yourself in the car park of the Government Center in Ramadi at four AM, our next live shot is an hour away and welcome to another day on the road with Ollie North and Producer Greg Johnson.

The advice from a Marine was that when you cross this piece of ground between building A and the actual offices “ It is advised that you move swiftly, Sir “ there have been Snipers in those buildings.

Life on the road in Ramadi is anything but dull. Everything is coordinated and planned because as things get better in some ways they can become more dangerous in other ways. You lock the doors on the fully armored humvees when you travel around the city, not for security but safety. The reason being that if a roadside bomb, known as an IED, “Improvised Explosive Device” goes off next to you it can literally blow the door off the vehicle. We all wear earplugs whilst traveling again in case a bomb goes off and the as always you are rolling the camera again in case a bomb goes off, by the end of this trip we will of shot endless hours of video of just driving thru the streets.

This is our fifth trip back to spend time with the forces based here for an extended period, and what is scary is that we actually now know the streets of Ramadi. Its like being in a city where you jump in a cab and start to question the cab driver as to why he is taking such and such way when you could of gone this way. Only here, the “cab drivers” are heavily armed and we change routes for security so if we go the back way it is normally for a good reason.

I had had no sleep for nearly thirty six hours apart from trying to curl up in the frozen humvee for an hour, it had got so cold that I had in fact managed to get my arms inside my flak jacket to try and save body warmth. After filming the dawn breaking over the city from the roof and the Marines on guard, I found an old lounge sofa in a hallway and was trying to catch some sleep before we were scheduled to move back to our Camp.

One of those times when you are asleep but not asleep, when suddenly standing over me is a Marine saying in the great way they do, when an order is an order but in a nice way shaking me out of my half sleep with a “James , Col North wants you on the roof NOW”.
Now when traveling with Ollie that means only one thing, something is happening and happening now. Slinging on the flak jacket and Kevlar helmet grabbing the camera and going thru the mental checklist as you run out of the door, the sound of heavy machine gun punched thru the air.

An IED had just blown up a U.S. military truck carrying 300 gallons of gas 500 yards away down the road outside the offices on the main road and the Marines were now firing to keep the Insurgents from throwing more bombs at the smoking vehicle as they tried to get the gas to explode and destroy the truck which sitting there damaged but still recoverable.

Ollie and I ran the last few yards of open ground on the edge of the compound and scrambled up into the outpost looking down the road at the scene. People often think fighting a battle is chaos, when in fact it normally a very controlled and calculated operation. The Lieutenant and the Machine Gunner plan and execute everything down to the last detail, three other Marines watch observe and work together backing up everything, there are ten eyes on the objective and these guys can observe something as small as a water bottle being thrown from a side alley from 500 yards.

For the next half hour bunkered up in the outpost we filmed the Marines of Kilo Company take control and when the Machine Gun fires the air is almost sucked out of the lookout, the first few times you instinctively jump and the camera moves. Just like the Marines have standard field procedures Ollie and I too work as a team to co-ordinate the filming we shoot different angles to ensure that not do we see the firing of the gun but also what it is being fired at. This is no movie set with unlimited space and time to ask for another take, but full combat and there are no second takes, it is cramped and you film thru gaps in sandbags and behind Marines, you cannot ask someone to move to get a better angle to film from because they have a gun trained down the road.

We hear on the radio that a convoy is moving back to the Camp where our transmission is based from and we have to leave, once again “now” and saying a quick goodbye to the guys we scamper down and running across the courtyard we jump into the humvee’s and head back out onto the streets of Ramadi to run the gauntlet to get back and send the pictures to New York, just another morning in Iraq.

Alone in my thoughts

Wednesday Dec 7 2005
18:06 local Baghdad Time

“ Flying Alone “

It is like sitting in the belly of the beast, just Jonah must of felt like in the belly of the whale. There is nothing comfortable or relaxing about the inside of a C130 Transporter Plane. It is a rattling noisy machine with four large propellers that have somehow managed to find the optimum pitch with which to vibrate the entire frame of the plane.

You sit in webbing like hammocks that stretch down the two sides and another two back to back in the centre. If you need to go to the toilet there are two pipes and funnels down the back by the ramp and in extreme times there is what is called the “Honey Pot” but since it cannot be emptied or flushed anywhere there a consensus that if possible hang on, because we all do not want to share the aroma of a bucket of the preverbial.

You sit alone in your thoughts as conversation is impossible over the noise and you are wearing earplugs, these are not fashion accessories but a reality. So for the hour and half it takes to fly from Kuwait to Al Asad Airbase North West of Baghdad you are totally isolated in your own world.

I use this time to reflect and plan, and not to think too much of what is to come in the next fortnight. Being scared of hypothetical scenarios is silly at times like this you need your wits and intuition, You mentally rehearse in your mind how to handle the day to day operations of gathering and transmitting News from the war zone.

We are scheduled to arrive in Al Asad and then hopefully later tonight get a chopper flight into Ramadi, the capital of the largest province in Iraq Al Anbar. There is a lot of insurgency and from all accounts it does not look good. Last week ten US Marines were killed whilst out on a foot patrol in the city and many others were injured when a IED bomb went off, Improvised Explosive Device.

This will be my third trip into Ramadi with Ollie North and Producer Greg Johnson, we have seen plenty off action and have filmed everything from full running street battles to exploding cars, on the first trip I was actually inside a armored humvee when it was hit by a roadside bomb. I can only hope that, that will be the last time I have to experience that sort of mayhem. It happens so fast that you do not realize what has happened only to think back later and count your lucky stars.

The main reason for this trip is to cover the Elections here on the 15th , somehow I think that it is going to be a adrenaline charged week leading up to the Polls.

Democracy is coming to Iraq at a high cost in every regard. Everybody wants to go home, the question we ask is what home do you want to create for the children of Iraq. We land in twenty minutes time to put the body armor on.

Where in the World is Mal, even he does not know

Wednesday Dec 7 2005 – 3 am

Damman Airport
Saudi Arabia

I have never heard of this place and God willing, will never have a reason to ever come back here. The only reason we are here … Fog.

Kuwait is supposedly engulfed in a pea soup cloud and the plane could not land, I somehow managed to sleep through the entire attempted landing, flight to where we are now, the landing here only to wake and find everyone standing in the aisles and it was ten pm.

We have been off loaded into the lounge in this ghastly edifice that doubles as an airport and now face the prospect of waiting till 11.30 in the morning to continue, most likely the only reason that 11.30 is now the departure time is so that the crew can get a twelve hour break. It is a challenge to try and describe the lounge here and not have my words come across as an attack on Islam, but lets face it someone is to blame for designing and furnishing this room.

Quick aside here, We should all feel sorry for Betsy North, Ollie North’s better half because the machine gun is snoring away like no tomorrow on the couch with his feet in the air, again note another insult to Islam displaying the soles of your feet, however since they are pointing at me I will take it like a Christian, How many tones and combinations can you snore in, There is the in pause and fast release snore with the half content exhale, the little staccato snores where you come back with the deep grunt that wakes you up followed by the rub the ear hands back on chest and finally some quietness, after ten seconds you think it is all ok and you too can get some sleep only to be caught by the half chain saw intake with the nasal exhale. Now I have no doubt that Mrs. North would simply poke her fingers sharply and repeatedly into Ollie and demand that he roll over, I however will let him snore because it is easier to write about snoring than it is to describe the lounge

You quickly realize the status of where you are in the world when you look at the departure monitor on the wall and see that today you can fly to Delhi, Damascus, Doha Sharjah, Bombay and Cairo

Ollie has just completed the double roll back down the throat with a half nasal block hammer snore that I think woke Greg up, luckily for other passengers in the lounge Greg rolled over half an hour ago and stopped his attempt to out snore Ollie.

So you have a base light industrial brown carpet to which you add blue and green octagonal shapes all held together by a radiating red interlinking chain. The Blue and Green lounges are positioned in an informal formal way so as to maximize the effect of the round black coffee table with sharp edges at shin height. The brown marble wall panels and pillars are highlighted by lights that you would happily find in the back storeroom of your Grandmothers, naturally 100 watts to maximize the sterility of the room.

A windmill is on the desk where your friendly airline person would be to greet you as you come to relax and socialize with family and friends prior to flying to either Delhi Damascus Doha Sharjah Bombay or Cairo. Two massive television sets on stands are naturally turned off

The rapid three in succession with the half content pause exhale, oh hark I now hear a fellow snorer calling out across the room to Ollie, steady and without any personality to his snore I might add.

A fluorescent light makes those cheese and egg club sandwiches so tempting in the refrigerated glass display cabinet, Luckily they made the sandwiches with stale bread to enhance the dining experience.

The smoking corner is positioned next to the food and coffee service area, so as to meet Saudi Health and Hygiene regulations.

Why have muzak, when the call to prayer can be broadcast at Volume 11, Allah the merciful has managed to silence Ollie’s snoring, well not completely but the combination of snoring and the call to prayer is a meeting of two great religions.

It will be daylight in a couple of hours and even the golden rays of dawns first light are not going to make this room any better, only another six and half hours to go. If Ollie snores at once every five seconds that means four thousand eight hundred and sixty snores till we take off.

Inshallah we shall leave here.