A Better Basra

I have had this travel blog for a number of years now.  I have written about travels in Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Germany and Scotland.  I also wrote during a week in Baghdad a post which proved to be a big hitter – not perhaps because I witnessed a lethal bomb explosion, but because I chose to illustrate the post with a picture of Iraqis playing football in an attempt to show another side to Iraq.

This week, I was thrilled to officially launch another story of my times in Iraq.  My book – A Better Basra touches on the political side to my diplomatic mission in the Southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, but is also a warts-n-all personal account of my time there:  As a woman.  As a mother.  And as an out-of-her-depth civilian in a military theatre.  It’s less a sharp analysis of strategy and more “Brigid Jones of Basra”.  But it also proves to be an allegory of the British efforts to reconstruct a blighted city as part of a larger state-building game.

The World Bank blog have kindly published an extract, so I thought I would share with my own blog readers, a different extract – one that speaks less of strategic struggle and one of my battle for sanity.

Extract. Page 53.

During the day, when busy with work or in the cook-house, I was surrounded by people.  The bar provided good company, and even for the short walks between the fortified buildings that made up our compound I fed on chatty banter with anyone and everyone; from the Iraqi laundry man and the one armed gardener; to exchanging a few newly learned Nepalese words with our perimeter guards.  I got to know the Zimbabwean dog handlers and their dogs – Debbie the German Shepherd was a particular favourite.  There were members of the Danish police who always enjoyed conversation; and I loved  chatting to Taha, our one remaining Iraqi advisor.  As friendly as this was, I know myself well enough to know that this constant desire for talking was largely driven by my fear of being alone. 

On my first night in camp I had collapsed into slumber wearing just my sarong, yet it was weeks before I was relaxed enough to get undressed again for bed.  True enough, I had managed to strip down to my swimming costume and take the occasional dip to take the steam out of the 54 degree heat, but at the pool I was not alone and therefore didn’t feel as vulnerable (although in coming months I would find myself both alone and vulnerable there). 

Once the day was over, and colleagues had been bid goodnight it was just me in a concrete bunker, all alone in Iraq.  It was these quiet moments that were the hardest during my first few days at the Palace.  My life at home was so full of friends, children and family that I rarely spent time on my own.  And to be honest, even outside of Iraq I hadn’t been entirely comfortable in my own company.  So I faced all my demons at once – this was the extreme cold turkey approach to learning to be with yourself.  My main fear was quite basically of being killed and leaving my children without a mother (I know, I know, I should have thought of that before volunteering).  My second fear was (having been sternly told to acquaint myself with emergency evacuation procedures) that I would not be ready to get out in a hurry – despite the obligatory emergency bag packed by the side of my bed.  Back home, some young Sri Lankan friends had joked that their parents still had a suitcase packed on top of the wardrobe “just in case” even though they were safe in Tooting.  I wondered if I would become like them?  My emergency suitcase was a small maroon coloured holdall, and I would often wake actually clutching at the handle of the bag and nearly falling out of my bed.  It was not unlike my fitful sleep some 12 years earlier on bringing my first baby home from hospital – so concerned that my little girl would stop breathing in her sleep that I would rest a gentle hand on her chest as she slept in the Moses basket next to my bed.   There was less tenderness as I clutched my holdall of course! 

As well as the maroon bag, I had a small pouch that carried my passport, a pocket torch, a list of phone numbers, photos of my family, a pen, a notebook and my fags.  And yes, I slept with this around my neck too for the first week or so.  The other dilemma was my boots.  I actually wore sandals to work most days, but I knew in an emergency my sturdy desert boots were best, plus (allegedly) you weren’t allowed on a military aircraft without proper ankle covering foot attire, said the rules.  My boots were difficult to lace up at the best of times and would be impossible in a hurry, so the safest option seemed to be to sleep with them on my feet, loosely tied.  As you can imagine, this was not conducive to a decent night’s kip.

The air-conditioner also bothered me.  With it on, the air was cool and dry but it almost completely masked any outside noise.  Many times a night I would rush to switch it off because my ears tricked me into hearing “something” outside.  And until I actually heard my first explosion in Iraq, I wasn’t really sure what sound to expect.  Would it be a crash?  A kerr-boom?  A thud?  A crack?  However with the air-conditioning switched off, although you could hear a pin drop, even in the dead of night, the heat meant that it wasn’t very many minutes before I was a sweltering mess – especially fully dressed with my boots on.

I didn’t have to wait too long before I witnessed my first IDF attack.  IDF means indirect fire – but it felt pretty direct to me (or maybe it is “in direct fire”).  I was outside and on my own at the time, which is a zillion times worse than being inside – it is flipping loud outside and the ground shakes.

I had been in the bar that evening, which was another reinforced concrete building. The ceilings were high, the lights were bright and lusty MTV videos were projected onto the wall as people played darts or pool or sat and chatted on more FCO furnishing.  I met another man named Chris (there were four Chrises in total!) This Chris was an ex-RAF chef who worked for KBR and managed the team of Sri Lankan cooks as well as volunteering to work behind the bar.  Like any good barman he was full of quips, but the first thing I noticed about him was that, unlike the others, he had his ID card strapped to his upper arm.  I took the mickey and we were instant friends. 

Chris and I – together with every other heavy smoker – spent most of our evenings huddled in the disabled toilet at the bar, which was the designated smoking room.  There was no air conditioning and no ventilation in a room that was built to house just a toilet and a small table.  Even with the door open, by the time five of us were in there it was so crowded we were virtually sitting on each other’s laps and the air thick with smoke.  We managed to get at least ten people in there one night, including the much tattooed Sid, who despite being from the military side of camp, wore nasty shiny 1970’s shorts. I mention his shorts only because his testicles had the habit of squeezing themselves out of them whenever he sat down – so I usually chose to sit next-to rather than opposite him for fear of getting an eyeful of bollock!   Apart from his tendency to inadvertently expose himself, he was a lovely guy.

Two things struck me about the smoking room – firstly, that it might have been less of a risk to our health if we actually smoked outside in the open air and secondly – who in their right minds thought a disabled toilet was necessary in a place like this?  We had to fill in a million forms and pass a medical to get here,  surely anyone disabled would have been considered an evacuation difficulty? 

So on about day three of my time in Basra, I emerged choking out of the smoking room, donned my body armour and helmet and prepared myself for the 100 yard dash to my pod.  The bar was usually only open for two hours an evening and it was near enough closing time.  I had my torch at the ready and my door key in hand.  I was in good spirits, despite having drunk next to nothing (being drunk in Iraq held little appeal).  I swung open the heavy metal double doors and stepped out, embarking on my scuttle home.  

After just a few steps, a huge explosion shook the ground; I froze.  I could hear the faint pattering of shrapnel landing nearby. Then another occurred, not quite as close but still loud.  What should I do?  Throw myself to the floor?  Run like buggery?  Hug a Hesco?  Another explosion, closer this time.  I felt a hand on my shoulder and I felt myself being dragged back into the bar – one of the CRG security team guys had clocked me leaving and worked out that I would have been in the thick of it and bravely headed out to pull me back inside.   There were nine mortars that landed in all (no one was hurt, miraculously).  By the time the ninth one landed I was back inside the disabled toilet and my new smoky friends were laughing – “we thought you were going home!?”   Then the sirens started up and the recorded voice over the Tannoys urged us to stay under hard-cover.  No shit.  Everyone groaned as the grills across the bar were pulled meaning the bar had closed and I faced the first tedium of lock-down until the security teams had made safe the main routes.  We were stuck in the closed bar for what seemed like hours.

It was true that in the first few days I couldn’t sleep through being so worried about leaving my children without a mother, but once I experienced that first attack and after witnessing a couple more quiet thuds in the dead of night, it was amazing how quickly one adjusted to the situation.  They say you remember your first, and it was true, I wasn’t ever quite as deeply frightened as that first time outside the bar – despite the increase in attacks and the loss of life to come.

A Better Basra is available in print, ebook, and Kindle from Askance Publishing

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