Saturday, December 29, 2007

Somewhere Bad But Safe

Now ths should of been the first of the blogs from England, whereby i would be starting to take the riotous preverbial out of the Pom's however in my quest to visit every hotel rooftop on the planet I am sitting here watching the sunset and burning tyres in the distance over Karachi in Pakistan.

The not so gentle drone of the hotels air conditioner plant mingles with the effusive smells coming up from the kitchen vents.

I arrived in the bureau in London two days ago and within twenty minutes, Benazir Bhutto was dead, Pakistan launched itself into riots and I was packing equipment I had never seen or used before.

Luckily my trusty Pakistan Airlines Frequent Flyer card was in my Passport holder and hours later we were on PK 788 direct from London to Karachi flying overnight. Now Business lounges around the world can be graded according to which other airlines share the same lounge, and you know you are in for a treat when waking to the door of the PIA lounge we noted that two other great airlines also shared the lounge facilities those being Turmenistan and Uzbekistan Airlines.

Arriving in Karachi a city of 15 million people, twice the amount of New York City it was as they say in the movies like a ghost town or as Greg Palkot put into prose "An unerry quiet" . The streets are deserted, all shops are closed, buses are burnt and shops banks in some parts of the city are trashed.

Karachi is not a city for the feint hearted and trying to film rioting is to be honest bloody dangerous and driving to the edge of the suburbs with smoke on the horizon, the nerves were tingling, we made it about half a mile into the city before he crowds were drawing in and the mood of the mob ensured that we did a rapid U turn and got the hell out of dodge.

So Somewhere bad we managed to get too , somewhere safe NOT

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

And thus

I have wondered in recent times how i would write this entry as I wait the final hour before leaving Israel for the final time as a resident. No longer when asked where I live will the answer be the "Unholyland"

Five years have passed since what started out as a simple newsletter to friends has developed into this rather bizarre rambling of what happens in my rather strange world.

Much has happened and much more will continue to happen.

Will I keep the title "Unholyland" ? that is still for debate.

I leave behind friends who have shaped and defined my life into what it is today. Each and everyone of you will be missed more than you realise.

I have made it a point than rather say "Goodbye" i prefer only see you later.

And thus

"See you later"

Ben Gurion Airport
Tel Aviv

How Uganda has won the War in Iraq


Thanks to Kerrie, for a correction , the term is "Jambo"

The odds are that most US servicemen serving in Iraq will come home with a better grasp of Swahilli than Arabic. Despite the fact that Arabic is the language of Iraq, very few soldiers will actually meet an Iraqi in the big picture. Whilst they will meet Ugandans a minimum of three times a day, upon which they will utter "Jambo"

The simple fact is that a private security company has won the contract for all bases in Iraq for guards. When you arrive at any base the first person you will meet is odds on to be Ugandan, want to eat today, well guess who checks your credentials to get into the DFAC (thats army slang for food hall) need anything from the PX (again me showing off my vast knowledge of military terminology - the PX is the shop on the bases where you can buy anything from chewing gum to tampons to televisions and of course pouches for your ammunition clips)

Want to shop? well the Ugandans are there to check you. And man do they check always with a smile. If you do not have the right card then it is easier to argue with a brick wall.

To give you an example of the power they can wield, we were coming back from a Special Forces mission flying thru the streets of Baghdad at four in the morning wielding more guns than most small countries have, when we came to the entrance of the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, we planned to drive thru to return to base. Well the convoy stopped at the gate and because the Ugandan on the gate had not been told we were coming he was not going to let us in. Let me say that the Special Forces did not take to this kindly and it took ten minutes of artful negotiations before they let us pass.

Thus Uganda can claim to be the most powerful nation in Iraq , you cannot enter or leave without them approving, want to eat or shop for toothpaste and washing powder the keepers of the gate determine who may pass.

and "JAMBO" well that is swahilli for Hello

Sunday, December 23, 2007

4 went in 4 came out Iraq 2007

Definition of success, in a war-zone: Four go out on a mission, four come home safely.

Perhaps the only thing that matters when it comes to looking back at the last three weeks is that we all went in and came out safely. As the 5th Anniversary of the war approaches early in the New Year, you can ask nothing else than to come back from a war zone safe and intact. You constantly see signs around all the bases that “Complancy Kills”.

True words, then again you also see signs that say “Deadly Force Authorised” , and my favorite “you are not allowed to drive your tank on this road” and in case you cannot read it does not matter because it is one of those picture signs with a tank and a cross thru it.

So what makes life on the road fun in Iraq, how do I stay sane and enjoy company. Perhaps snippets in no order taken from my diary can show you a side to life on the road in a war zone.

Riding in choppers is fun unless it is nearly three in the morning, the temperature is below zero and the crew decides that they want range practice at night. So off into the desert they fly and each gun is fired just to clean the cobwebs and then the pilot takes us up to nearly 8000ft for the rest of the ride before an ear splitting descent into Baghdad to be dumped in the cold by the side of a helicopter landing strip with no one to meet you and our 12 bags.

Now Humvees, they look enormous, they should be able to sleep a complete Bedouin tribe plus goats in comfort however the Military have managed to some how make the seats and leg room the equivalent of sitting in a pre school on those small chairs and desks. You can literally be screaming in pain and unable to walk after a few hours cramped up and remember the door weighs 400lbs due to the armor against roadside bombs. And by the way if you get out in a gunfight make sure you close the door the gunner in the turret does not want his legs blown away, a serious request.

Road side bombs are no longer six sticks of dynamite with a fuse, the one we were shown off the record was an incredibly highly sophisticated bomb complete with infra red sensors, timing devices and electronic circuitry all shrink wrapped and believe it or not it even came with its own little carry bag that any person could walk around with. The armor on the humvee would stand no chance at all.

What was unique about this trip to Iraq was that we spent ten days with the US Special Ops’s Teams from Seals to Delta we met and talked with them, became friends laughed joked and got a great insight into what makes the ultimate warriors tick.

The bottom line is that these guys are good, really good at what they do. They do not take risks everything is a calculation of perfection, sure shit can happen but the odds are that they have planned for it . Then again some plans are very simple; like when we were being given our briefing for a night operation to bag a bad guy in a very bad part of Baghdad.

Asking what the E & E plan was (Emergency & Evacuation) was for the operation, hey we have all seen Blackhawk Down and here I was actually preparing to go and take down a bad boy in the close to the worst area of the city.

The Master Sergeant giving us the briefing looked at Ollie North and me and asked if we had a compass and could we run if required. ‘Well yes in fact we both have wrist compasses on our watches and if needed we could run’ “Well good … Head south till you get to the Euphrates River swim across it and look for a good guy” I shit you not that was the it all gone wrong plan and you are on your own.

The comforting fact was that we had air cover with the flying death star 130 above us, F18’s circling and Apache helicopters were poised for instant support. These guys can summon up what they need when they need it . Truly elite soldiers.

The Medics are something to marvel at they carry close to 110 lbs with their body armor and weapons, if you ever find yourself in a war zone stick with the medics, these are the most protected and respected men in the unit. Before we even went out the gate on anything the medics at all the bases wanted our blood types and to know if we were allergic to anything. The way they ask it is how you would say hello in the morning and would you like a cup of coffee. As a rule I normally have my blood type written on three different parts of my body and kit, it is not something you do to be a hero in photos back home, but a critical piece of information that will save your life.

My medic first aid kit is in fact the largest pouch I have on my flak jacket, two tornaques , one large battlefield dressing for chest wound, a smaller battle field dressing for leg or arm , and the medic on this trip gave me a drip starter kit , needle tape pipe the whole nine yards, as he said one day you may need this hopefully not today.

Now what would you think talking to three young guys in their twenties standing around , not looking like Sgt Rock Jaw, but to all intensive purposes almost college nerd looking who upon asking why they joined Spec Op’s answer

“I like to blow shit up” and my other favorite:

“Why go in the front door it may be booby trapped, when you can go in thru the wall” and proceed to show you what looks like a Childs electric slot racing set from the seventies in a figure eight which is made of high explosives and will in fact take down a wall.

Every office and most family kitchens have a white board with things to do or buy at the shops, well at one base we spent time at I looked up on their white board and here is the quote …Ammo in stock 1,000,000,000 5;56 bullets, ok a joke but made me laugh. Or the classic on the door of a barrack room, no explanations needed

One change in attitude now is that I was asked daily “If I carried a weapon?”

“No, but I now know how to use them”

Both Producer Andy Stenner and I spent time on the range learning from the best how to use a multitude of weapons, and then asked “If needed would I use it?”

“Yes, trust me I am not going to end up on an Islamic web site with a knife to my throat” is by far the

Do I carry a gun?

No, but the day when come I believe I will have to, and it nothing to do with Iraq.

Perhaps what you need more than anything is a perverse sense of fun, because for three weeks you are locked together with other people and there is no out. You are in Iraq. The secret then is go in with friends and learn to laugh at yourself. Because there are so many times when laughter is the only thing that keeps you honestly sane. We have so many in jokes that to try and explain “The Mexican Police Chief Belt” or “Padawan the Turp” is so unimportant and for the record the “Man Sandwich” and “Budgie Smugglers” go no further.

What counts is that as a team we had highs and lows, far more highs than lows, The lows being dying of food poisoning from the

”Half cooked freshly killed still raw in the middle do not offend the sheik by not eating his provincial wide famous goat kebabs”

The only positive was that the kebabs felt more processed and cooked on the rapid way out.

Now having highly trained Medical staff around is a total bonus as if they are not busy they are generally bored stiff like everyone else and the chance to deal with normal human functions enables me to get on our trips free medical consults. This time I had my right ear cleaned and boy this was like something from the movie Alien being removed, followed up by a Spec Forces Medic armed with a lengthy book sticking needles into my feet which by the way hurt like bloody hell, but I was tough.

Then there is the ridiculous events that make you realize that the war in Iraq is being controlled not by the US or Iraqis but by and wait for this …..

Uganda is the most powerful country in Iraq today, forget Uncle Sam forget Osama Bin Laden. Ugandans control Iraq.

And as they say that is the tease for the next entry

Friday, December 21, 2007

Out Safe

Kuwait Airport
The simple words are out safe another assignment done in Iraq. Perhaps the hardest thing is the incident that I cannot write about for many reasons. But every once in a while you do shoot tape that is so explosive that releasing it would send tremors on a global stage of outrage.
I have been keeping a diary of the trip and will start to put insights down , hopefully on the plane overnight but most likely will fall asleep and wake up in Frankfurt.
Again let me say one thing it is not always hot in Iraq in fact the temp has dipped to below zero over the last couple of days and add the cold rain in Kuwait tonight , glad to be heading to warmer weather for a few days before London.
Kuwait City

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Moments of Definition

A question that faces many of us in conflict and war zones is at what point do you put down the camera and start to help. It is important that you never forget what you are there to film and record not only for the story you are working on but also as a document of history. Bad things can and do happen in conflict zones, and the rule of thumb that I apply is that I switch off emotions and switch on the camera record for twenty seconds to capture what I am witnessing then just as quickly turn off the camera and assist.

It is not a matter of being a ghoul by these actions but a cold hard fact of doing a good job in a bad position. It does not always have to be death or injury to allow these events to happen. They can and do occur when you least expect them too and when they happen it can reduce you to tears in seconds and rip the soul out of you.

It happened a couple of days ago on this assignment in Ramadi Iraq. Not a major event in terms of world news but an image that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. We were at a medical clinic that members of the US Special Operations were running on a football field at the back of a Sheiks house for the poor. Since the war commenced nearly five years ago all semblance of medical care has disintegrated, doctors have fled the country for fear of religious backlash from Al Qaida Terrorists trying to intimidate all authority to the age-old Sunni Shia issue that vexes Iraq.

The end result is that for the poor there is no hope of basic treatment, children stand in line with their parents hoping for a cure for blindness, two policemen stood there with one eye between them, a medic treats a man whose foot is bloated with gangrene and when an old woman is asked whether she would like medicine or blankets for her children, she replied “blankets”.

It was not these scenes of despair and tragedy that drew my breath, but the sight of a man whose son lay on the ground crippled by Cerebral Palsy. Inside the tortured body of this young man was human being, whose thoughts and ideas will never be known due to a disease that has been part of his family fight for help. His father cradled his rolling head slowly moving his hand across his face to keep the flies away.

I did not think much about at the time took a couple of shots and moved on with covering the story of the medics treating the people waiting on the lawn.

About an hour later I looked across the lawn and saw the young man lying exposed alone on a mat, his father was away and he lay on the mat his body contorted with the disease and his face exposed to the sun. That was enough to make me walk over and there he lay his face covered with flies.

At this point the question is, what to do?

I took a breath, framed a close up and let the camera roll. Showing the flies crawling around his eyes and his mouth and I counted to twenty. That was it. I turned the camera off and walked over and knelt down beside him with my body casting some shade over him and I started to brush the flies off his face.

Tears of sorrow rolled down my face as I looked into his and tried to understand what was behind the face and eyes that looked up. Producer Andy Stenner and Ollie North came over and asked to do something. I looked up and glared nothing they saw what I was doing and walked away, understanding that I was doing what I needed to do.

For ten minutes I sat there, brushing away the flies wondering where his father was, I stroked the side of his face. Feeling the texture of his face under my hand hoping that he could realise I understood that he was a human.

I would have sat there all day if I had too; there is no way I could leave him. I had taken an image that will haunt me and now I was prepared to pay the price of capturing his plight, everything has a price. But it was not that I had too, it was because wanted too.

I looked up and saw his father walking to me; he looked and said the most heart-warming words anyone can hear. It was simply “Thank you”.

I walked away and went back to Andy and Ollie and continued working.

Looking back half an hour later the ground was empty, Father and Son had left.

Tragedy in a War Zone sometimes comes when you are least prepared.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sandstorms in Winter

Sandstorms Suck at the best of times , add a freezing cold wind and clear sky above and the added fun of watching the Iraqi Commandos driving around in highly non technical vehicles whilst my camera is being filled with talc fine sand and well thats the type of morning we had . Not to mention that they would not let us play with the guns on the ranges


Commuting Iraq Style

It is like the ultimate muscle car, the roar of the engine and the wind ripping in thru the windows. Except the US Army Blackhawk is capable of doing all of that and flying at 150 knots an hour and at 5o ft above the ground. By the time the bad guy has seen you, you have passed which is a comforting thought.

Flying over Baghdad and across the desert to visit Army Bases and walk thru Iraqi villages is an experience that so few people will ever have happen to them, yet in many ways for me it is the means to get to a location. You cannot help but feel like a king of the universe as the adrenaline kicks in along with the fear. Perhaps it is the fear that drives the excitement. For fear is ever present here.

You will hear on the radio, see on the TV News and read in the paper that another helicopter has been shot down or mysteriously crashed in Iraq and that X number of soldiers have been killed, and that is when the fear factor comes into play.

As I type this entry I am waiting for a night flight from Baghdad to Fallujah. Just a short 20-minute flight. But try doing it at night with a hot landing and off loading, in the pitch black the choppers will land twenty yards away and without shutting down we have a minute to load the ten cases including our personal bags into the chopper. There are no porters or smiling check in counter girls you pick up what you can and ducking trying to avoid the rotor wash approach the bird drop the gear in the doorway and run back for another load. Whilst wearing 30 lbs of body armor and Kevlar helmets. Earplugs and clear glasses. The moment we load we take off and lift into the black. The only noise above the wind and rotors are the loadmasters cocking and priming the guns that are pointing out and down. Fingers never leave the triggers as they peer thru night vision lens and we sit back and say our silent prayers that we will not be hit.

You see nothing but blackness, you only feel your own adrenaline in the darkness and hopefully we will land and scramble to unload as fast as possible, then turning our backs the Blackhawk’s take off and thirty seconds later it is silent and the night remains jet black.

Thinking that again in twenty-four hours we will move once again and the process of fear and adrenaline replays itself.

One heck of a way to commute to work.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Great Hotel Rooms of Iraq

Now life in a warzone is not all five star hotels and room service , but you eat for free and where you lay your head at night or in the morning depending on what time you are up partying too [NOT] . Thus a selection of my rooms of recent

At least this one had a window which is a very rare treat, you could watch the lake being refilled with blackwater [ a tem used to descibe water that is well removed from certain locations } had a nice kitchenbut you need to buy your own coffee maker , tea and coffee provided , in fact we had five industrial size Maxwell house cans and no coffee maker but a quick thirty minute drive to thePX store solved that issue. No check in required and the door code is 4 5 32 . Water in showers runs orange


Comfortable rustic approach with pull chain lights, toilet and showers accross the gravel , No coffee making facilty , but a complimentary can of mountain dew upon check in . gym facilty nearby , restaurant is a ten minute walk . Warning thou no softener is used on blankets


Again the rustic natural pine is all the range in Al Anbar Province these days , centrally located to a food hall that resembles a supermarket where taking anything you want is totally acceptable without paying. Good selection of salt and pepper sachets available. toilets are portaloos centrally located ten feet from the door . Hospital blankets make a nice change , rooms are small and check in involves a ten minute death by powerpoin orientation whilst still wearing body armor.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Unhealthy Bathroom

Now cleanliness is next to ... well for the lack of a better description "The Piss Tubes" , bathrooms are a luxury when in an outpost and the the humble tube allows you to do what nature intend , but just in afunnel and since you wash your hands might as well do the teeth at the same time

Army Outpost Camp Murray
South of Baghdad

Monday, December 10, 2007

Going Dark

An expression that we use when there are things and places where you cannot report or discuss , hence the expression " Going Dark" , best explained in the current context that I am in a city the same size as Baltimore or Boston surrounded on all sides and the only thing that is between me and half a million people are 48 men , thats it total.
Have been keeping a detailed diary and when this is over a long piece that I hope will make up a chapter of my never to released book will cover the next ten days.
At times in the last few days I have honestly felt that I am living a Hollywood movie script, doing things that are so extreme (and I add at this stage yet to be shot at) yet you can stand in the staging area in the morning and listen to a never ending barrage of automatic weapons and around you people just hope that is not an omen
Dark Deep and in Iraq

Friday, December 07, 2007

Snapshot of Life inIraq

Have no tshowered in three days
Have not hd a hot meal for 36 hours >
Wkoken at 4.40am
5.40Live shot
Endureda a famous Iraqi sandstorm
have not slept inthe same bed more than 1 night
Have not been shot at ... That is good
Flown in Blackhawks that s fun
Still wearing the same clothes as three days ago
Cannotremember the last time I showerd three days ago i think
Coffee is bad
Life e is good wish you were here
10 mles south of Baghdad

The School Safety Belt

Lucky for a Pillow

When we checked into housing tonight at the Army Base South of Baghdad, two things struck me. One was that instead of on the back the room door a fire escape map, there was at reception a “Warning Sirens explanation Chart” so that you could tell the differnce between “Incoming, all clear and this siren is ok because it us firing out”. The other was that somehow when Producer Andy Stenner and Chuck Holton, a fellow cameraman/correspondent traveling with us, rushed into our room I somehow managed to pick the only bunk bed that did not have a pillow.

The pillow issue being resolved I find myself at 11:30pm writing this entry lying in bed in my sleeping bag with a headlamp on trying to figure out where the last 48 hours have gone.

The best part of the trip so far has been flying around Baghdad in the Army Blackhawks below 1000ft over the roofs hoping that the movie Blackhawk Down had been a box office failure in Iraq. These machines are like being buckled into a muscle car and bullying your way thru the skies. With the cold winter air rushing past the machine guns and buffeting me as I tried to film the classic gun turrets over rooftops. The adrenalin rush is always tempered by the thoughts of how many times I heard of helicopters beng shot down over the course of this war, whilst at the same time the incredible sense of awe and excitement is a complete rush. For those used to hearing radio reports of traffic on the I 95 I can tell you that traffic was moving well on Route Irish today but expect delays at checkpoints near the bridges.

The question is of course is the war being won, if so how is victory assessed. From what I have seen so far “ The Surge “ has been effective for it has provided Iraqis to have what is being called “ The Awakening”. Local’s have started to organize themselves into teams of Concerned Local Citizens or CLC’S and armed with nothing more than a yellow safety reflective belt, they are cooperating and assisting the local police and the US forces to give them intelligence and help with patrols.

What can a man do with a yellow plastic safety reflective belt, by himself not much but when groups of locals all start wearing the belt, it becomes a symbol of hope and provides the people of the villages and towns a new beginning of hope and of a future for their children. No mother ever wants their child to grow up in an environment where hatreds and frustrations lead her son or daughter to become a suicide bomber for the cause of desperation.

What is evident is that US troop morale is very high, for the first time in a couple of years they sense that there is an end to this war. It will not be tomorrow or in the next couple of months, but the pride of the people we met yesterday armed with a plastic safety belt, has become their new symbol of pride and hope. Small steps and snapshots of life here, now if they could only use this power of for once in long time, the “Yellow Revolution” may be the start of the winter of hope.

Waiting for the Colonel

Many days have passed , since i wrote this but it is a start 4.30 am Frday , south of Baghdad lets go back .....

This entry will be written over the next few hours from the lounge in Frankfurt to Kuwait. Perhaps one of the truly bizarre things about traveling in this business is that you just accept it as travel. I honestly worry more about bus timetables down to the rail station when on holidays in Australia than I do about flying.

Somehow you always believe that it has been taken care of and somehow computer magic will ensure that all flows smoothly without a blemish. So imagine my surprise this morning arriving in Frankfurt to be told that yes I had a seat on the plane to Kuwait but I did not have a ticket and that if I wanted my seat it would cost $3500, the full cost of a return ticket Frankfurt – Kuwait.

I did not bother calling the travel agent who made the bookings back in the states as no one there makes much sense at two am on a Monday morning.

So as I sit and wait for “the Colonel” aka Ollie I think and reflect on how bizarre it is that we can simply say see you in the lounge on Monday and have no idea whatsoever as to the travel plans or flight details of the other members of the team. Keeping it simple like see you in the lounge sounds good just hope they turn up in the next hour before I figure out am I going to get on a plane to Kuwait if no one else from the team is on the plane . Then again all my gear is theoretically on the plane so at least I know I will be getting on the plane if for no other reason than … my gear is in the hold

Hang on … Hello Ollie are you there ?

12:07 pm

Ollie walks in the lounge , off to our ritual photo shop visit .

Rituals and routines are something that I do not like to break on every one of the trips I have done to Iraq with Ollie we have always gone down to the photo shop in the airport in Frankfurt. And we have comeback from every trip safe and sound . Some people have lucky rabbits foots , well Ollie and I go and look around the photo shop at Frankfurt airport. I used to have a lucky red war neck hankerchief but it faded to white and thus became not so lucky

Back soon

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

in the belly of the beast

5.45 am kuwait
Crammed into webbing seats wearing flak and kevlar
33 soldiers and our team heding into Baghda5
Should be an hour half flight hope sleep but flying economy on Pakistan airlines would be more comfortable
Nerves are tingling as another tour begins
More from baghdad
And by the way no movie inflight just a bottle of water you carry
Engines are turning

Monday, December 03, 2007

Game Day Face

Ben Gurion Airport [Tel Aviv]
4:28 am

It is game day, and the airport seems a good a place to begin another trip into Iraq with Ollie North.

What is Game Day Face, it is the moment when you realise that you no longer are planning and thinking various thoughts. But as I was told " I have not been as focused as I normally would be leading up to this trip" . That was my warning that I need to get the face back.

Fact 1 Iraq is still dangerous and whilst everyone seems to be proclaiming things are getting better, from what base are they judging this. Fact 2 It seems that to many camera crews in the last year or so have been killed or injured whilst working in Iraq.

The time has come again to refocus, my personal life will be on holidays till Dec 22, the professional life will be at Defcom 4 , what ever Defcom 4 is, but they use it in all the movies. I worry for my family and friends more for the wishes and thoughts they have for me.

Trust me I will be careful, life is too short. But three weeks can be a long time