SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

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Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

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Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

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Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

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Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

Libya Part I - 21

The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

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GOODBYE HEATHROW TERMINAL 1

Airports are loud, bright, busy places where no-one and nothing stands still.  Of all these beasts, the ever-improving, ever-expanding London Heathrow was, until last year, the busiest in the world. 24-hours a day, sombreros, flip flops and tanned limbs jostle with skis, puffer jackets and woolly hats. Ibiza party-goers gulp pints of lager at dawn in the ‘olde English pub’ style drinking holes, honeymooners sample bubbles and caviar perched atop the chrome stools around the minimalist shiny glass bar at the pretentious but delicious seafood stand. Babies in the wrong time zone scream while harassed parents with ruffled hair and a dazed look trail battered suitcases and pushchairs piled with cuddly toys, Louis Vuitton matching luggage gets wheeled across the concourse on a trolley while its owner teeters through Duty Free in the highest stilettos and ‘Jackie O’ style designer shades en route to the executive lounge.

Heathrow’s terminals have borne witness to heart-wrenching goodbyes, obscene mementos brought back from far-off tourist traps that never look quite the same when they get back home, unbridled screaming matches between tired travellers in a multitude of languages, tearful reunions and joyous departures to long-awaited sun-drenched destinations.

So it is sad to watch one of these behemoths be put to bed. Terminal 1 has just days before it is closed down. And demolished. It’s making way for further expansion and no doubt more caviar stands in the gleamingly new Terminal 2. It apparently has aspirations to match the retail and hospitality experience that is currently Heathrow’s T5. I can’t say I blame it – I’ve on occasion almost missed my flight I’ve been so busy enjoying the trappings of the British Airways hub and dancing across its vast shiny hangar-sized concourses. Which terminal wouldn’t want to be T5?

In fact, I have become so familiar and attached to my T5 ‘experience’ that on a recent trip to Jordan, I turned up there on automatic pilot assuming my British Airways flight was there waiting for me. It was news to me that some (or just that one, I think) BA flights still depart from Terminal 1. So that was how I came to see the old lady in her final days.

After a mad dash on the transit shuttle, we emerged from a lift into a dark and unoccupied check-in hall. I thought we had accidentally been ferried into a parallel universe like the ones in films where everyone has disappeared and the protagonist is alone on the planet running around in the deserted school corridors and shopping malls of his life. I might even have seen some tumbleweed but I can’t be sure.

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Terminal 1 Check-in hall – where is everyone??

I self-consciously walked across the huge hall up to a line of unmanned check-in desks, almost walking on my tip-toes to try and dampen the single echoing sound of my flip flops slapping the floor.

One lady in a stretched and faded British Airways navy blue uniform (the new crisp tailored ones must be reserved for the high-flyers in T5 – excuse the pun) had been left behind by the invading aliens, ostensibly to provide a semblance of normality.

She smiled and was cheerful, over-compensating I thought, for the deathly quiet, or perhaps just relieved to be getting the chance to speak to another human-being during her shift. I almost asked her what she had done to deserve to be sent to what seemed to be Heathrow Airport’s most remote outpost but decided it would be mean to rub it in.

Security and passport control went by so quickly I almost felt guilty for not giving them more to search through after they’d gone to the trouble of turning on their machines and lining up the plastic trays for me to choose from.

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London Beefeater welcomes no-one in particular in darkened arrivals hall

By the time we returned to Terminal 1 two weeks later, I really did think our captain had parked his aircraft in the wrong place. First off the plane, we strode down dark corridors. The life-size Beefeater and London Taxi driver welcoming us into the UK from the billboards were left waving at nobody in particular. I almost walked straight through passport control, barely noticing the diminutive Customs and Excise lady nodding off at her terminal.

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“Reclaim Closed”

The whole place looked like closing time in a shop, where the tills have been totted up, they’d rather you didn’t buy anything thank you and could you please just go home. We followed the half-lit yellow signs underground to the baggage collection area to find silent carousels stationary and all signs showing an apologetic “Reclaim Closed”.

As I typed texts into my phone absent-mindedly, a sign flashed up suddenly announcing “Reclaim 1” for my flight from Amman. But like a ghost house in a movie, reclaim 2 behind me whirred into action inexplicably, with a steady thump thump thump of rubber catching on the worn rivets in the mechanism.

No sooner was my suitcase catapulted onto the deck, and I was out of the “Nothing to Declare” channel in a shot, seeking daylight and normality, and to reassure myself that the world had not ended during my time within the grey walls of Terminal 1.

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Arrivals and baggage collection

London Heathrow’s Terminal 1 will close at 21:15 on 29th June this year. It has served us for almost fifty years, starting out as the biggest short-haul terminal of its kind in Western Europe. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1969, it is somehow fitting that it should be replaced by the recently opened and now expanding Terminal 2, the ‘Queen’s Terminal’.

The Entitled Waitress

We’ve all met her, she’s that waitress or shop assistant who behaves as if she’s doing you a favour to even acknowledge your presence, despite the fact that she’s employed to serve customers.

I did my time behind a fast food counter as a teenager, suffered the indignity of the candy cane uniform on minimum wage as an usherette at a theatre when I was slogging it out as a professional dancer, and graduated to silver service waitressing at black tie events to make a bit of extra cash during my law studies.

I had my share of rude and condescending idiots, of gropers, and of people who simply wandered through me as if I was invisible or simply too lowly to acknowledge.

Throughout, I gritted my teeth, maintained a polite tone and a smile and stuck to the motto “the customer is always right”. Almost always. Just once, someone went too far and the gentleman in question found himself wearing the bowl of soup he had ordered. I had tripped, obviously, so I apologised profusely and offered to pay for the dry cleaning (on behalf of the pizza restaurant I was working for) over the cheers and guffaws of my waitressing colleagues.

So I am very sympathetic to staff in retail and hospitality who work long and tiring hours, get paid peanuts and often get little thanks for what they do. As a result, I always go out of my way to be a polite, friendly and patient customer. Seriously, you would have to wipe my food on the floor or visibly spit in my soup for me to dream of complaining to the chef or the management.

I had some time to kill in between meetings near Sloane Square in London so decided to select a café where I could sit quietly on my laptop with a cup of tea. The outside was, as you’d expect in this area, expensively welcoming; the name of the café scribbled in trendy handwriting across a plush awning suitably shielding would-be patrons from the torrential rain, while they perused the menu displayed in a glass case by the door. It had an area laid out with floor-length crisp white tablecloths for serious diners but also an alcove where coffee and snacks were the order of the day. Perfect.

Or at least it would have been if the young Sloane in the apron with a notepad and pen in her hand had had any intention of prising herself away from the stubbly Mediterranean beefcake manning the bar to take an order. I soon realised there were already three people seated in the alcove, on a sliding scale of frustration from mild annoyance to about-to-throw-cutlery-at-her, waving for her attention. Every now and then in between gazing into Eye Candy’s face and giggling coyly, she would do a scan of the room as if checking for new customers or tables to clear. She managed that aloof middle-distance stare that pointedly avoids eye contact with anyone and remained blind to the ever-more frantic gesticulating of the businessman in dire need of his morning espresso and the painfully elegant couple on their way back from the gym looking to refuel on one of the green kale and edamame bean-based smoothies on offer.

A full 20 minutes later, the delicate velour stools scraped unceremoniously across the floor and their occupants stormed out of the café loudly complaining about the lack of service. The Entitled One was buffing her nails on her apron and barely noticed.   Having caught her eye three times without so much as a kettle being boiled, I decided on a different approach and was determined not to give up.

I wandered up to Eye Candy who was drying glasses behind the bar, apologised for disturbing him and asked innocently if there was anyone actually serving the tables in the cafe area (the undeniable decorative value of the Entitled One notwithstanding) and would it be possible please to have a pot of tea (sometime before Christmas). Eye Candy shot a dark accusing look at the Entitled One, before turning back to me and apologising, oozing charm and a thick Italian accent. With an unnecessary flourish of his tanned arms, he had a pot of tea and plate of macaroons (the latest in biscuit trends) set out for me before I could get back to my velour stool and sit down.

The nail buffing stopped abruptly and the Entitled One’s vacant eyes darkened as a petulant scowl spread across her pretty face. With more energy and purpose than I had seen her display since I had walked in, she marched over and announced “actually that’s the job I am supposed to be doing” and stood there looking pleased with herself. I am not sure what she was expecting me to say and I didn’t have the heart to come out with the numerous sarcastic comments I had on the tip of my tongue (most inspired by Julia Roberts’ killer lines to the shop assistants on Rodeo Drive in the film Pretty Woman).

Well, at least behind the vacant superior look, she knew what she was supposed to be doing, even if she wasn’t quite prepared to do it just yet. I hoped for her sake she’d realise before too long that the more pride she took in her job and the harder she worked, the more likely she was to get the respect to which she so clearly thought she was entitled. Otherwise she’d be left with highly buffed nails, a well-sculpted mask of disdain and her unused notebook, wondering why the rest of us were ignoring her as we got on with our lives with a please, a thank you, and a plateful of macaroons.

Not a New Year’s Resolution

It felt as if the cheeks of my backside were bumping against the backs of my knees, as if my post-Christmas muffin top had not quite set and would pour over the elasticated waistband of my running leggings, but I did it. I went out for my first run of 2015. I say run; it was really more of a shuffle or a ‘joggette’. To be fair, it was my first bit of real exertion in a while. The chest infection and hacking cough that had been hanging on since early December were still lurking in my lungs on the uphills, threatening to explode messily and alarm passing dog-walkers. The neck and shoulder muscles that have set like concrete after years of extreme activities started screaming after just a few miles (who am I kidding – a few metres), and the large piece of Christmas cake I had hoovered down earlier in the afternoon almost made a colourful reappearance due to the excess of effort.

Now the trick is not to allow myself to feel disproportionately virtuous for my small trot around the block and justify rewarding myself with a large amount of snacks or wine. I cannot keep wearing the same pair of (baggy) jeans forever – they will eventually leave home of their own accord if I do not wash them – and one of these days the cold weather will be pushed out by a glorious summer (I am trying to think positive) and I will have to peel off the clothing currently camouflaging my hibernation layers. So when I am tempted by steak and chips with a nice glass (or three) of Rioja, a cream pasta with yet more red wine, or a gluttonous portion of Nandos chicken, I will remind myself that even though I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, what I will call my 2015 ‘reboot’ of that relatively healthy lifestyle I used to have, must continue.

I tell myself that as I get back into it, I will start to enjoy my runs around the local countryside, sucking up the vitamin D as the days get longer and stretch into balmy sunlit evenings, silently scoring the immaculately English country gardens as I pass their green-fingered owners pruning and trimming the spring flowers, and slowing to quietly observe the families of deer foraging in the woods. I tell myself that at the gym, I will be able to enjoy the smug feeling of still being there punching and whooping my way through Body Attack classes when the New-Year-resolution-joiners of 2015 have long lost interest and torn up their membership.

But most of all, I tell myself that as I get back into it, I will start to feel the cheeks of my backside returning to their rightful position, the muffin top melt away and my breathing calm to a more dignified wheeze. I will then genuinely be entitled to that steak and chips, that glass of wine (or three), and the leftover Christmas cake that I have yet to hoover up.

A window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

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Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

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Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

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In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public. 

Royal Welsh soldiers see progress in Basra

First published 12th Nov 2007 on Ministry of Defence website.

As Armed Forces personnel around the world were preparing to remember their fallen comrades on Remembrance Sunday, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh were out on patrol in Basra Province looking for ways to help local people prepare for the winter.

C Company deployed to the Al Qurna district in the north of Basra Province, visiting projects set up by the British Army in neighbouring villages. The convoy carried a JCB digger, which was used to dig irrigation ditches for date palm plantations in one village and excavate land for a new school in a neighbouring settlement.

Major Richard Crow, who oversees the projects on behalf of the Multi-National Division (South East), explained the importance of such visits:

“We’ve come to the village and, following advice from the last time, we’ve brought a light-wheeled tractor. We’ve been digging some irrigation ditches so they can grow some cash crops and crops for feeding themselves.

“The reaction has been very positive, we’ve been welcomed in and seen lots of smiling faces. We’ve been able to discuss with the leaders what we can do to help them.”

The 2 Royal Welsh soldiers endured a difficult first few months of their tour in Iraq. Having the opportunity to meet ordinary Iraqis and see the difference they have made to their living conditions and prospects gave the soldiers a considerable boost in morale as they near the end of their operational tour.

Private Read, from C Company, who was mobilised from the Territorial Army to join the Royal Welsh on tour, said:

“This operation has been really good. I’ve been here before on other tours and it’s very different now; we can actually talk to the locals, where we couldn’t before. We actually feel as if we’re achieving something so it feels brilliant. We’ve really moved on.”

2 Royal Welsh returned to their base in time for their Remembrance Sunday memorial service. They were planning to remember, in particular, the three friends and colleagues they have lost during this operational tour. Having now seen the positive result their efforts have had on the ground, many of the men from 2 Royal Welsh will go home feeling the last six months’ sacrifices may not have been in vain.

Mixed fortunes for RAF officer hit by stray bullet

First published on Ministry of Defence website on 24th Dec 2007.

Quick thinking medics have helped save the life of an RAF officer after he was hit by a stray bullet while working on his base in Basra, southern Iraq.

Flight Lieutenant Neil Lawrenson was walking along the road at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra when a bullet quite literally ‘fell’ out of the sky and lodged in his arm. The stray bullet had been fired by local people just outside the base where celebratory gunfire is a common occurrence.

Although getting hit by the bullet was a stroke of misfortune Flt Lt Lawrenson’s luck then changed when he realised that help was close at hand. The RAF officer was lying just a few feet away from the Incident Response Team’s crewroom. The Incident Response Team, or IRT as they are referred to by most personnel on the base, are the emergency medical team who are dispatched to incidents involving UK troops deployed in the region.

The medics were straight on the scene and quickly moved the casualty into cover. As the sirens warning of indirect fire attacks began to sound across the camp the medical team were already treating their patient as IRT nurse, Sgt Leanne Kirkwood RAF, explained:

“We got alerted to a casualty nearby, just outside the IRT accommodation,” she said. “It was a gunshot wound and we immediately picked up the standby equipment, made our way outside and found the casualty sat on the blast wall. He had a gunshot wound to his upper arm, no obvious other injury and was conscious at the time.”

Flt Lt Lawrenson was quickly evacuated by ambulance to the Field Hospital on the base where surgical staff operated immediately and removed the bullet. A second operation the following day cleaned up the wound and patched him up. Consultant anaesthetist, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Kate Prior (Royal Navy), explained:

“What we’ve done today is a second operation. He’d had his emergency surgery but today was a planned procedure to have another look at the wound, to make sure it was clean, that there were no signs of any infection. The wound has been sutured closed and dressed and he’s gone back to the ward. The nursing staff will look after him and make sure that he’s comfortable.

“The plan is to get him back to the UK. He’ll probably have a couple of weeks of sick leave and then he may well come back out as he’s got another two months of his tour.”

The round went through Flt Lt Lawrenson’s upper arm but, by yet another huge stroke of luck, it entered his arm at such an angle that it left almost no damage, not hitting the bone or any muscle. Had it gone in at a different angle, the clinical staff believe he may well have lost his arm.

Flt Lt Lawrenson spent a few days recovering on the ward before being flown out of Iraq and back to the UK. He described the strange turn of events:

“I was in the Force Protection Operations office where I work; my colleague and I were going to go for some lunch. I was standing waiting to cross the road and it just felt like someone had punched me in the arm. We were looking around and thought someone might have thrown a stone or something. I grabbed my arm in pain and started to feel it was getting wet. Because of what had been going on outside, we knew there was celebratory fire, we realised I’d been shot.

“I sat down and my colleagues got the medics, who are based just round the corner. I wouldn’t say it was blur, I can remember what happened, but there were lots of people around. They patched me up and I was brought here. It didn’t feel too bad at the time, it was just constant aching, a painful aching feeling that wouldn’t go away.

“From the X-ray, they realised the bullet was still in my arm. They were more concerned about the chest X-ray, because a bullet can go anywhere and there was no exit wound. It was lodged in my arm though. I waited a while and then went into theatre, where they removed it. I went to theatre again to get it checked out, make sure there was no infection and close it up.

“I told my wife over the phone, she didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. I think the shock hit her when I spoke to her after the operation.”

Surprisingly Flt Lt Lawrenson was somewhat philosophical about the whole experience:

“It’s just one of those things. You might think you’d be shot outside the base; I was out on patrol a couple of days before and we had the usual gunfire. But no, I get shot back on the base. Just one of those things – what goes up must come down, as they say.”