Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Sleeping Bag War

I sat up, shrugged the sleeping bag down and picked up my night vision camera which was next to me on the ground, filmed the Cobra and Huey helicopters flying overhead hoping that they would launch another volley of Hellfire missiles, in the green eerie light that is night vision they circled like hawks seeking mice in a field, but they were in fact looking for remnants of the Taliban Insurgents that the Marines had been fighting for the last twenty four hours.

The choppers faded off into the distance and I put the camera down, and lay back down. Dawn was a few hours away and I was freezing cold, in a few hours time I would almost be passing out with heatstroke.

“ You know you are close to the frontline, Mal when you can sit up in your sleeping bag and film war, without getting out of bed” commented Dana in the darkness of the night.

This trip has been one of the most grueling and demanding physically that I have ever done, in probably the most inhospitable place in the world. The Helmand Desert, known as the Desert of Death, average temperature 47 degrees Celsius, 126 degrees Fahrenheit. In the afternoon heat being in the sun is like feeling yourself being cooked from the inside. Add Body Armor and Kevlar helmets, and after a few minutes simply walking became a Herculean task.

Reflections, Looking back at my notes from the trip, what seemed important at the time becomes inconsequential with time. This truly was an embed back into the heart of darkness, where young marines as part of the new Afghanistan “Surge” were to take on the Taliban and Insurgents. What struck me throughout this trip was that not one Military person ever mentioned “Al Qaida or Osama Bin laden”; the threat now comes from “Insurgents and the Taliban” and is of course across the border in the Tribal areas of Pakistan that no one can go into.

Not one person ever mention Osama Bin Laden, the Army and the Marines along with the other forty countries that form the coalition in Afghanistan have simply decided that Al Qaida and Osama fall into the to hard basket and by ignoring them they will go away and hopefully the media will forget them too.

One thing you get used to when traveling with US military is flying in helicopters, I have to admit that whilst the excitement has gone out of flying in choppers for the most part. Flying across war zones in the middle of the night when you have absolutely no idea where you are or where you are going, and hanging off the back platform is a 25 year old girl with her blond hair pulled back firing a 50 cal gun into the desert floor does provoke some male fantasies, When you land in a cloud of moon dust and have a hot zone when nothing is turned off and the blades are screaming to take off whilst we try to get 14 cases and bags off loaded can be fun.

Arriving at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Dwyer, we were pre warned that it would not be comfortable, so lets begin, it is in the middle of a desert the tallest natural object is a small rock, living quarters are Hesco Barriers filled with dirt and a roof layered with four deep sand bags against Mortar attack, there are no windows and no air movement within, toilets are the piss tubes made from 6” plumbing pipes and toilets made of wood with the sign on the back of the door that read “When Mr. Brown has left the building, please put the seat down” , in the morning the pans of shit are pulled out and set on fire. Which is better than having the flakes of burnt shit come down on you, which happened later on the frontline, when the wind changed direction and the burning shit pit came back to haunt everyone. The most valuable commodity when we arrived was coffee, there was no way to have boiling water and there were no cups so using the meal heaters from the Mire’s (Meals Ready to Eat”) you could get a small plastic bag of water half tepid then adding the coffee, whitener and sugar to an empty water bottle you had a bad tepid cup of chemical coffee which given where we were actually tasted ok.

Breakfast was a MRE, lunch was a MRE and dinner was a commercial brand MRE, which in the big picture means that you are so clogged up that body functions become limited. I could eat one MRE a day and that was it, they taste ok but after 7:30am it was simply too hot to eat. The recommendation of the Marines at the base was to try and consume 9 liters of water a day, the best I got too was 7 liters that is 14 small bottles of water over ten hours and I only pee’d twice. Camel pack are useless in this environment, you just carry a bottle and search for another bottle that is hopefully not hot. At one stage I made a coffee from a bottle of water that I let stand in the sun for ten minutes and it was the hottest coffee I had in a week.

In the cold harsh light of the day, there is nothing cold you begin to accept that nothing will ever be cold and get on with life. Perhaps that is what bonds us as a team we can live thru the worst and hardest of times together and throughout it all we know that it will end and we will laugh when we reflect back. But at the time it is “Brutal” as Maryam would say “Just brutal Dude”.

I rarely write or comment on people I work with, but our team for this trip was great. Dana Lewis a superb Correspondent with a funny wit that can annoy you but at the same time make you laugh. And no matter what he says “I do not sound like Darth Vader, when I sleep”. It is always a pleasure to work with a correspondent who can turn on the barking words and work with my pictures. Maryam is one of the best Producers in the Network and this was one tough assignment, both Dana and I would go with her anywhere, and we have agreed never to mention the fact that whilst Dana and I survived the Desert of Death trip in the back of a 7 ton truck, Maryam sat in the luxury of a humvee. But then again she never found out our secret purchase.

Then you meet people like “England” all people in the military are called by their surnames, England well he joined the Military because he was told that Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR driver who died was actually killed by the Taliban and for him this was a personal reason.

Then there is Mr. Brown, who has left the departure lounge, and requests that you lower the seat lid, this is to avoid flies congregating in numbers that would become biblical around the latrines. On the back of the door of the home made wooden toilets was the sign that literally said “When Mr. Brown has left the departure lounge, please close the lid”. In the morning they drag the cans of crap out through the back flap, pour diesel on them and burn the shit. Be warned, what goes up does come down and one day we found ourselves with flakes coming down from the burn pit behind.

We eventually left FOB Dwyer to join Charlie Company at the front lines of the battle. You imagine that a frontline is like a line in the sand when in fact it can be just ten steps outside the compound you end up in. We arrived at dusk and two minutes after arriving Dana and I were running down the dirt track to the sound of gunfire as the Marines were pounding a Taliban position across a field.

I often get asked what goes through your mind as you literally run into the death zone, bullets are ripping overhead and the sound of incoming rounds smack around. The simple answer is that you are so pumped on adrenaline that everything slows down and each decision is calculated and planned. I work from shot to shot, each and every camera angle is calculated before I hit the record button and above all I must see the eyes of the Marine. Each close up reveals the horror and emotion of the moment. People like to see the bang bang of guns, but impact only comes with the full adrenaline of a close up of a nineteen year old kid eyes frantically trying to stay alive.

We filmed for ten minutes, raced back to the compound and in today’s world loaded the video into the computer, edited, compressed into Mpeg4, and transmitted to New York all this took less than fifteen minutes. That is the reality of covering war now, if not live then within twenty minutes of a gun battle in the remotest part of Afghanistan, the pictures are on air in America and the world.

In fact I was trying to edit and send, whilst racing back out to film in the dying light, before racing back and editing to send again, when the Apache helicopter (could have been a Cobra chopper cannot remember) came screaming overhead in the black of night now and I grabbed the night camera and took the best shot of the trip as it let a hellfire missile rip into a building that the Taliban were fighting from a hundred meters from us.

The shockwave almost sucks the air from your lungs and the explosion lit up the area like a July 4th Parade finale, then there is quiet. Dead quiet because if you were in this building you are plain simple dead.

Does this worry me, no not all. The only thing that mattered was to get this footage back to NY ASAP and with 10 minutes of this strike, people around the world were watching it.

It then questioned down and the sky was a complete blanket of stars and every now and then the helicopters would circle back and leave. All night this continued and after a while we simply lay our sleeping bags down in the dirt and tried to sleep.

Around 3am, the helicopters, returned and all I had to do was sit up in my sleeping bag reach out with my right hand and pick up the night camera resting on my boots and start filming the attack runs on the frontline.

By 5 am I was so cold that I forgot about trying to film any action and tried to crawl deeper into my sleeping bag, knowing that in two hours I would be literally suffering from heatstroke, I collapsed after filming the remains of the hellfire house and opium fields. I cannot remember what my pulse was but I was physically ill and could not stand after being in the sun for half an hour, the temp was pushing 45 degrees Celsius and in body armor and Kevlar helmets, you are simply being cooked alive.

Walking around the compound that was destroyed by the hellfire we found live grenades, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Italian Anti Tank Landmines this was not a home for nice boys.

Where is the satisfaction in covering war, well it comes when you race back across the desert to the base, running three hours late and with a deadline that is so close you have doubts. When as a team we look after one and another, I was so ill from lack of food I thought I was going to pass out, and yet Maryam found some rice and two pieces of meat for me, as Dana wrote and Maryam verbated interviews I stood in the dark trying to eat. Then it happens the sheer adrenaline rush of covering news in war zones, when you cut and edit a spot and everything works because of a simple word “team”. It was probably the best edit I have done, every shot matched every word and impact was there.

That is why I do my job for the sheer joy of the success of that night in the Helmand Desert; It was a damm good story.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Afghanistan Photo Essay

Hellfire Missile Attack on the Frontline

Producer Maryam Sepheri and I

Birthday in Afghanistan

Rainbow over Bagram Airbase

After four hours of travelling accross the Desert of Death

The full kit for covering War , In the backpack I carried Computers , bgan uplink, telephones, sound, four cameras, food and water

Waiting for war

The aftermath of crossing the Desert of Death

After the Hellfire Missile Attack , filming the ruins, a live grenade is a few feet from my "feet"

From the top of a 7 ton truck, shooting Charlie Co about to deploy for a mission

Breakfast , coffee in a bottle , whilst Dana holds up the most important thing Listermint Mouthwash

Correspondent Dana Lewis and I in the Desert , filming Charlie Co

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stuck in a plane , that well

Kabul Airport
Flight 401 Ariana Airlines , from Kabul to Dubai, via Kandahar
It could be worse but i doubt it, we have been stuck on the runway for two hours due to weather in Kandahar , the cockpit crew are screaming in Turkish at the local authorities , as it is a charter operated flight, and the plane is putrid and hot , the whole thing stinks like a bad drawer of unwashed socks in summer and there is no air con on the plane .
Not exactly a way to spend the day but hope above hope we get out of this god forsaken place .
Just announced , flight cancelled to kandahar , now they have to empty the plane
Maybe we will make Dubai

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Between Embeds


You can always laugh when you reflect on what you have endured, but at the time all things move slowly and painfully. We are back out of Hellmend as I call it , after a week embed in conditions that make Iraq look like a summer camp for spoilt children. Without a doubt the hardest assignment I have done to date, I have six pages of notes thoughts and incidents to write up and will do so, no doubt on the plane next week when we leave. We leave on a second embed tomorrow out to the East with the Army who I hope have the sense to be more comfort orientated, than the Marines.

The thought I leave you with is that the recollection piece will be called the "The Sleeping Bag War" , because I could literally wake up in the night sit up in my sleeping bag and film the frontline of fighting between the Marines and the Taliban, put the night camera back down next to me and try to get back to sleep on the ground in my sleeping bag. We were that close.

Picture of me coming into Camp Bastion, after driving across the "Desert of Death"