Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.

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A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

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The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

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Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

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Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

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Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

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Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)

 

An Unspoilt Nature Paradise in KwaZulu Natal

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Rocktail Beach

The single-lane tarmac motorway runs almost exactly South to North, carving a straight line through small towns, villages and (very) isolated service stations with an incongruous bright red ‘Wimpy’ or ‘KFC’ sign protruding out of the bush. The ‘N2’ follows the coastline towards the Swaziland border and took us to our turn-off for the Maputaland Marine Reserve and our destination for four nights, Rocktail Beach Camp.

Off the main road, we were directed down a gravel road with surprisingly green and lush bush on one side and tall forestry blocks on the other. We had been instructed to park up at a place called ‘Coastal Cashews’ and wait for a 4-wheel drive to pick us up. A few kilometres down the track and a large brown sign outside a cashew plantation took us to our parking spot under an awning behind a barn and next to a row of tractors.

We emerged into the sticky heat from the luxury of our air-conditioned rental car and were soon met by Abi, one of the team from Rocktail Bay. Having hauled our luggage and us into the back of the open-topped safari truck, we set off further down the gravel road. The gravel gave way to yellow sand as we travelled deeper into the forest and towards the sea. After about half an hour, we pulled up to a small sign: we had arrived at Rocktail Beach Camp.

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View from our treehouse

Natalie and her husband Willem welcomed us off the truck and led us up the stone steps into a small clearing with a bright blue swimming pool, a few sun loungers and a thatched open dining area that led into a bar populated with comfy sofas and glossy marine life coffee table books. They apologised profusely that our ‘room’ was the furthest away up in the treetops. It was rather secluded as it was the honeymoon suite and did we mind being upgraded? The ‘room’ was more of a tent-cum-house on stilts. The pathway through the woods led us up the hill through the woods delicately lit at regular intervals with forestry lamps, and eventually onto a deck that wrapped around a thatched house. The deck was level with the treetops, affording a breath-taking view across the forest and out to sea. The ‘room’ consisted of a living room, complete with tea and coffee making facilities and a complimentary decanter of sherry, a bedroom with a bed big enough for a family of five, and a shower room in between – also big enough for a family of five. The panorama across the ocean was uninterrupted across all three rooms, with a series of glass and mosquito net panels across the front. Standing in the shower while trying to spot dolphins jumping became a particularly entertaining pastime, but one which was not conducive to short ablutions – a requirement in a nature reserve suffering from a drought.

As is the African weather’s wont, the skies went from bright blue and sweltering sunshine, to torrential steamy downpours and back again in a matter of minutes. Whatever the weather, the beach – a 10-minute walk through the forest – was spectacular. Quite literally not a human being to be seen on it as far as the eye could see. The waves crashed up the fine yellow sand, disturbing the odd Red Duiker (a diminutive bush buck) that had strayed out of the treeline and sending the small Bambi-like figure scampering back over the dunes.

Our hosts could not do enough for us – insisting we have lunch on the beach on our second day. We expected a picnic basket and a couple of bottles of beer. We got a feast of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and homemade bread. With it came an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a cooler box filled to the brim and topped with a surprise bottle of bubbles. The spread was carried onto the beach for us, laid out on a tablecloth, salt and pepper sellers, champagne glasses and all. We were then left to our own devices – finishing off a perfect and utterly undisturbed afternoon by body-surfing the incoming tide like teenagers – until the leftovers were spirited away again and we wandered back up to the camp on the forest track.

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Lunch on ‘our’ beach

We could not visit the Maputaland Marine Reserve in the summer season without going out on a turtle drive. Between November and March each year, hundreds of turtles make their way into the bay and lay and bury their eggs on the beach. The numbers had dwindled but thanks to a wildlife conservation project, they are booming once more. We set off with our turtle guide at midnight, driving along the beach looking out for the tell-tale signs of turtles emerging from the waves. We passed a number of flipper tracks before stopping by what was the jewel in the crown – a rare Leatherback turtle – the largest species in the world. It had laid its eggs and was busy scuffing up sand with its enormous and powerful flippers. Our guide straddled the beast to measure it– a whopping 1m60 long and 1m20 wide. We did not stay long, leaving it in peace to complete the burial of its eggs and make its way back into the water. During our outing we also spotted the smaller and more common Loggerhead turtle and watched quietly in the darkness, swatting away thousands of tiny flies buzzing around our heads, while it laid egg after egg into the deep hole it had excavated. An unforgettable sight and one which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Reserve.

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Measuring the huge Leatherback turtle

We did not get around to snorkelling on the nearby reef during this visit but that leaves us something to do next time we visit. Other guests were drawn to what we hear is exceptional scuba diving with a wreck to explore as well as the unpolluted reefs.

The area is a rare unspoilt and unpopulated tourist destination and huge work has gone into the preservation of its beauty and its flora and fauna. It seems perverse to encourage people to visit as it is precisely its seclusion and remoteness that is appealing. But if you are up for peace and quiet, a privileged insight into nature going about its business undisturbed, and do not balk at the prospect of being cut off from the outside world, then this is the place for you. Natalie and Willem and their team go to every length to make your stay as perfect as possible, while giving you the space to feel like you are all alone in your own personal paradise.

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Our own personal paradise

The idyllic setting and relaxing stay made it all the more difficult to readjust to everyday life back in grey and wintry UK. Three days later I am still in denial, reluctant to discard my flip flops. But the onset of frostbite and odd looks from Christmas shoppers are a price worth paying for the pleasure of clinging on to the utter bliss of Rocktail Beach Camp for just a few more days.

(our holiday and itinerary was booked through AfricaAndBeyond)

 

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm

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.

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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.

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. 

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.