Tuesday 28th April
Our Interesting Night.
I had just, or at least it felt as if I had just fallen asleep when the door of our tent clattered open and there was a great babble of noise. Another contingent of my press colleagues had arrived. I felt somewhat grumpy with them as they chatted about where they were going to sleep etc’. I felt sure that I would not have made quite as much noise. My sense of humour did return briefly when I heard what I took to be an Irish accent above all the hubbub “I forgot to bring my sleeping bag!”
That was the last I heard until my alarm went off. I was then surprised at how quiet the guys had actually been, given that the bed spaces around me that had been empty were now filled.
Our task for this morning was to get some footage of the last Lynx helicopters to fly over Iraq being made ready to go back to Germany. I filmed the engineers take off rotors. The pilots and other engineers together washed the aircraft down with scrubbing brushes and cloths paying attention to every little detail.
We were just about to do some filming with a pilot, Paul Tedman. He had landed one of the first Lynx helicopters here in Basra back in 2003 and flew the last Lynx mission from here just yesterday. Then a couple of chaps turned up to say good-bye to the Lynx crews. They were Iraqi airforce officers There was much shaking of hands and dishing out of biscuits and juice they had brought over as parting gifts and a token of thanks for what the British army had done. It made great shots.
There was time for a quick bite of lunch the DEFAC. We were having no problem getting in now because the guards had been briefed about the press cards. If any one was going to have no trouble it would be me because the security guard boss had taken a photograph of my card to use as the example when briefing his guys.
The original plan for our afternoon was a little trip into Basra City but that fell through. We were very disappointed because having been the first in when the city was “liberated” and having gone there in 2004 in a hire car from Kuwait and seen the real Basra. We were very keen to see the transformation that the Army Officers were banging on about. Instead the facility offered was the dog unit.
The RAF Dog Section were very excited at getting on TV. I filmed a couple of sequences. An attack dog brought down one of the handlers in a big thick protective suite and a sniffer dog managed to find a tiny bit of explosive hidden in a large piece of land. It would make a nice piece but was no substitute for a City tour. We had been told that we might be going in to town in the evening but we were not too confident.
Later in the afternoon it was confirmed that we would get into town after all.
Just after the sun had set we were onboard a Merlin helicopter zipping across the flat dark Iraqi landscape heading for The Shat al Arab hotel which is a base for the coalition forces. I sat on one of the back seats so that I could get a good shot of the guy manning the rear machine gun silhouetted in the lights of the outskirts of the city and the flares from the oil fields.
The Shat al Arab Hotel is quite an interesting building. In the 1920s and the age of the seaplane the aircraft would land in Basra for the passengers to break their journey before heading on the nest leg. To make the whole process easier the Control Tower was built in to the hotel.
The Shat al Arab hotel with it's integral control tower
The Iraqi army were our guides and escorts with members of the British army there with a watching brief. In the dark streets outside the base we mounted up in the Iraqi Humvees. Our convoy set out for a new shopping mall for us to film Iraqis going about their day to day lives. I filmed out of the open window of the armoured car as we cruised through the city. The street were bright and busy. It looked very rundown and the roads were in a pretty bad state underlined by the not infrequent bump and jolt.
Our Humvee Convoy
The Tented Souk, the brightly lit mall was the first stop. It was busy but not bustling. The locals were very welcoming. I filmed men woman and children walking, browsing and buying from the various colourful stalls and shops. The smells coming from the incense shop was powerful and exotic. The clothes, particularly the women’s were equally exotic. Richard spoke to a few locals who spoke either in very bad English or through the interpreter that was with us. Most were very happy that the British army were leaving. A few were not happy that the infrastructure and the job situation was not better.
Ladies we talked to in the Tented Souk. Sadly they didn't make the final edit.
Back in the cosy comfort of the Humvee we wended our way through to an old part of the city near to a place we had visited way back in 2004. There were many men, no women this time I noticed, were buying kebabs and various fruit drinks. The atmosphere was very good, lots of smiles and laughs. We were cheerfully invited to sample fruit and drinks. A kebab seller did little tricks flicking the fillings into the pitta bread. Richard was just in the throws of being given a very small cup of no doubt very sweet tea when things changed in the most dramatic way possible.
Richard and Me Enjoying Basrawi Hospitality Moments Before The Fun and Games.
The unmistakable crack of gunfire rang out, echoing round the streets. Everyone around us ran for cover. Richard hit the deck. I got down low enough still to be able to use the camera. As I was going down I saw a couple of the Iraqi soldiers running down the street. The British soldiers took up defensive firing positions. Richard did a short piece to camera lying on the ground simply saying that we did not know what was going on. A few seconds later the locals started to stand up acting as if it was pretty much an everyday occurrence, maybe it is. They didn’t stay up for long because another few shots pierced the now quiet night. Dougie, the British soldier that had been in our wagon called to check that we were OK. The locals began to rapidly drift away into the darkness as a few more shots cracked around us. All the time the camera was running and I was trying to get shots to make some sort of sense of the confusion. Dougie motioned for us to take cover beside a building which we did nice and quickly, camera still running. Richard then did another piece to camera pointing out that the British soldiers were letting the Iraqi army deal with whatever the situation was. Our objective was then to get back to the safety of out heavily armoured vehicles. Dougie pointed to the one we needed to head for and with a warning we did not need, to keep low, we ran to the vehicle. As we ran another shot resounded around us.
There was no driver in the wagon as we climbed in. There was still a great deal of rushing around going on outside. The situation was still very confused. A young British soldier squeezed in beside Richard. We sat for what felt like ages in the driverless box feeling somehow more vulnerable than when we were outside. The driver jumped in. He was very excited and jabbered very loudly on the radio and waved his hands around. We sped away from the area. The whole time the driver was yelling on the radio and at the guy in the gun turret. I was directly behind him and saw him make a cutting motion across his neck with his hand. It was very obvious that he wanted to get to wherever we were going as fast as he possibly could. The convoy system broke down a few times as our man threw the big brute of a vehicle on to the other side of the road, playing a pretty scary game of chicken with oncoming traffic as he overtook the humvees that were in front of us. I did not believe that such large and heavy vehicles could go nearly as fast as we were as we cannoned along the road. I was getting some great shots of that would be very welcome on Police Camera Action. There was just one Humvee we had not gone past. With that in the lead we sped through some gates that turned out to be the entrance of a hospital.
The crew from the leading vehicle quickly jumped out. They ran to the back an threw open the boot to reveal a man in a bit of a bad way. He was unceremoniously dragged out and thrown on to a hospital trolley. I switched the camera on. I went to get out the Humvee but was slowed down by the seat belt that I had put on and now half hanging out the door needed to take off. I got to the trolley which the soldiers were pushing as they were about to push it into the A&E doors. Our driver suddenly appeared and tried to get a hold of the guy on the trolley. The other soldiers held him back and pushing him away. A minor and quick scuffle took place before our boy calmed down and then went into the hospital.
A little while later he appeared with a dressing on his neck. It turned out that the guy on the trolley had tried to cut the soldier’s throat back at the market and that was what had kicked the whole thing off. Our driver had then pushed the attacker away and then shot him.
We spent a bit of time outside the hospital whilst the story unfolded before being driven back to our base at the International Airport.
The hospital as things started to calm down.
Back at the camp the guys from ITN and the BBC had heard that there had been an incident and were very keen to see the footage. There were another couple of newspaper journalists in other Humvees on the trip to town. They were also keen to see what I had shot. I was both nervous and excited as I rewound the tape ready to play it into the computer to edit with. Did I manage to get all the sound of the gunfire? Was I running when Richard did his pieces to camera? Will the shots look as dramatic as the situation was? All these thoughts were going through my mind as the pictures played.
ITN, The Mail, The Independent and The Sun study the rushes.
As the rushes played and the story unfolded everyone to a man and woman said I had done a good job. Julian Manion was particularly complimentary along with Paul the Editor from ITN. I felt we had done a good days work. That day wasn’t finished yet. The piece still had to be edited and fed to London.
In a fairly short time Richard had cut the package and it looked good. I was pleased. I called home to let my family know that there would be dramatic pictures on GMTV tomorrow but not to worry because I was alright, but going to get no sleep until we come off air tomorrow morning.