C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

marines

It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

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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.

An Afghan country garden: life on a Helmand base

First published on Sky News on 30th May 2010.

Bright pink magnolias, deep red roses, lush green grass, pergolas that Charlie Dimmock would be proud of and even the odd water feature.

No, this is not a lovingly manicured English country garden, this is thousands of miles away in one of the most dangerous places in the world – Sangin, Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In 50C heat, British troops are doing their laundry in basins by the river during a few precious moments of “personal admin” time on the Forward Operating Base.

Others are catching up on reading, preparing for their next patrol or having a blissfully refreshing dip in the Sangin river.

But for their Afghan National Army counterparts, it seems nothing beats a spot of gardening.

Just a few metres away from rows of armoured vehicles and pockmarked buildings stuffed with sandbags, the Afghan soldiers have created an incongruous oasis that stands out from its hard, dry, dusty, beige surroundings.

They are meticulous about watering their flower beds and lawns and coaxing creepers over gateways and walls.

And it seems civilian Afghans are no less green-fingered.

Roads and tracks through Sangin are bordered by large allotments of intricately irrigated land.

One soldier told me as we patrolled past an embryonic orchard that they are also streets ahead of us at genetically combining different fruit trees.

So it seems the English may have competition in the gardening stakes… and an unexpected hobby in common with the Afghan people.

It’s a dog’s life in Afghanistan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 31st May 2010.

Frankie

By Lorna Ward, Sky News Producer

His large red and white blanket has pride of place under the main operations-cum-dining table in the Patrol Base. He’s had his jabs, and he dines on leftover rations.

Frankie may not be a pedigree, but he’s won the hearts of the soldiers on a small and dusty Patrol Base in Sangin.

The scruffy white and brown dog is only about nine months old but has already been through the mill.

As a puppy, he was destined to be trained up as a fighting dog.

This meant grooming him according to Afghan rules, including cutting off his ears and tail.

As it turned out, he just wasn’t aggressive enough, so his career ended and he was left homeless.

Cue the arrival of the boys from 1 Scots.

Sgt Jamie Campbell arrived ahead of the rest of the soldiers who would call this small patch of land on the edge of the Green Zone home for the next six months.

He found cockroaches and rats, and one mangy, lonely dog with no ears and no tail.

Ridding the place of pests and turning it into a liveable hygienic base was a priority. Along with the rats and the cockroaches, the mangy dog had to go.

But the disfigured, mournful looking mutt won his first battle – the animal was spared and Christened Frankie.

Just under three months later, Frankie is part of the furniture.

So much so, that he insists on following the soldiers on patrol into the Green Zone.

Despite being firmly instructed to stay on the Patrol Base and left with his water bowl and snacks, he occasionally manages to escape.

Blissfully unaware of the improvised explosive device threat and the serious job the men are here to do, he bounds towards the gate of the Patrol Base, before being shooed back to safety.

Sgt Campbell has taken a particular shine to the camp mascot and plans to take him home as a family pet.

It’ll mean jumping through a number of administrative hoops and raising money – but with the process already under way, this is one ‘rescue’ dog that looks set for a loving home in Scotland in a few months’ time.

Inside the Gaddafi regime

(First published in Pen & Sword Club “Scratchings” newsletter June 2011)

As ‘guests’, we were in turn hosted and suffocated, welcomed and intimidated, engaged and spied upon, embraced and punched, accommodated and imprisoned. The same people were warm, good-mannered and kind one day; contemptuous, rude and violent the next. The pendulum swung in seconds and with little or no warning. And these were the people in whose hands we had effectively put our lives for the duration of our stay. Our hosts: the ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi and his Libyan regime. I’ve been a peacekeeper stuck in the middle of warring factions in Bosnia and Kosovo, mobilised as part of the coalition force in Iraq and later returned as an embedded Sky News journalist. More recently my country of choice has been Afghanistan as a – sometimes-embedded, sometimes free-moving – reporter.

These deployments have undoubtedly been challenging, exhausting, in parts traumatic, and all without exception hugely rewarding. With hindsight though they have been in many ways relatively straightforward and predictable. The Arab Spring brought an altogether new experience for me. The uprisings spread across the Middle East and eventually opponents to the Gaddafi regime in Libya launched their offensive in earnest with their so-called ‘Day of Rage’ on 17th February. Colonel Gaddafi and his entourage were initially predictably tight-lipped and refused entry Visas to all Western journalists. Eventually hours spent getting to know the embassy staff in London paid off and our 3-man Sky News team had clearance to go to Tripoli – as ‘guests’ of the regime. Gatwick airport was thronging with families carrying backpacks and skis. One check-in desk at the far end of the terminal stood clear of queues. Afriqiyah Airways had one flight departing – to Tripoli.

Under the perplexed gaze of holidaymakers, Lisa Holland – the Sky Foreign Affairs correspondent, Nathan Hale – our cameraman, and I checked in for our unconventional mini-break. We started our (‘it’ll be about three or four days’) mini break in February. We next set foot on British soil in April. We were in Tripoli as the stalemate with Gaddafi escalated, watched on Libyan State television as the votes were cast at the United Nations and the No-Fly zone was agreed. We were inside Colonel Gaddafi’s compound as the first bombing missions were launched, and were woken by nightly firefights, anti-aircraft fire and the sound of NATO planes overhead. And when we weren’t taking cover from our RAF compatriots’ raids overhead, we were talking down increasingly desperate regime goons brandishing guns at us. At least in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, I had within reason been able to identify potential enemy and threats and distinguish them from friendly forces who might provide help, safe haven and evacuation.  Here on the ground in Tripoli – apart from a last resort and very risky emergency escape plan – our ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly forces’ were effectively one and the same, just swapping at the drop of a hat from host to hangman.

We and about forty other journalists were cossetted in the 5-star Rixos hotel. Our 5-star prison – effectively under ‘hotel-arrest’. All of us at some point tried to leave without a minder, to get the ‘real’ story. All of us were escorted back with a slapped wrist, like naughty school children. Some got further afield, some were detained for hours, some were even tortured. But all were eventually rounded up by militia or soldiers at checkpoints, by men in leather jackets emerging at speed from unmarked minibuses, or by informant taxi drivers on the regime’s payroll.

Back at the hotel, the anti-virus software on our laptops fought a constant battle against ‘hackers’ over the hotel wifi. Every phone call was accompanied at the very least by a loud click; and at its most ridiculous, by the sound of someone else picking up a handset and voices chatting in Arabic in the background. The circus continued when parts of conversations we’d had over the phone were casually related to us by government representatives – a not-so-subtle reminder that they had all the power and were monitoring our every move. One such moment came from the official government spokesman himself. With a tone of concern and a beatific smile, he asked me about my family and how worried they must be about me. I had returned from a Tripoli hospital in plaster after breaking my wrist earlier in the day and had just called home to let them know. The spokesman recounted the words of my family to me almost verbatim.

But in a spurt of over-confidence he then went on to ask about the wellbeing of a daughter I do not have; having clearly mistaken in his hasty eavesdropping, the name of my cat for one of offspring. I smiled, thanked him for his concern and went on my way with a wry chuckle. He was the least of my worries. I had an admirer, a senior government minder, and a pretty persistent one at that. I could not brush him off politely; and to do so more forcefully would have put me and my team in a very precarious and potentially dangerous position. If I was going to have to put up with that I thought; it may as well be useful to us. So I drank numerous cups of mint tea, smiled as he tried to order me around like his chattel, allowed him to carry my tripod, edged gently away from his wandering hands, chatted during cosy coach rides and didn’t flinch at his whispered ‘sweet nothings’ during his translations of speeches. After one long press conference during which he draped himself over my chair and ‘translated’ for me, a Channel Four colleague commented that I ‘oozed rejection’ and ‘couldn’t the slimeball see that?’. It was a game of cat and mouse for all of us; and one that was only bearable to play thanks to a press-pack that put aside all competing interests and united in banter, support and camaraderie in the face of a common foe. And let’s face it; I had it easy. Three of our BBC colleagues were detained for two days, hooded, cuffed and subjected to mock executions. Enough to mobilise even the most cynical and selfish of hacks. This had the making of a BBC exclusive; but as soon as the three had been released and were safely out of the country; the BBC chose to release the interviews and pictures of their story to other broadcasters and we all ran it extensively.

We were of course in the country by choice, and had passports that protected us, that got us out when we needed to. Iman Al-Obeidi did not. She was the Libyan law student who made world headlines after she burst into our hotel breakfast room one morning screaming in Arabic. After realising she was no suicide bomber (our instinctive assumption), slowly journalists gathered to sit her down and try to speak to her. Banging the table and pointing out bruises and scratches, she accused the Gaddafi regime of detaining her, then beating and gang-raping her. Within minutes we had mobilised our cameramen and were capturing her story. Instantly mobilised too though was the army of hotel staff who joined the official minders to attempt to shut her up. She was literally muzzled by one. A waitress then threatened Iman with a knife shortly before her young colleague expertly threw a jacket over the treacherous woman’s head and dragged her to the door. The minders smashed cameras, punched journalists and tried to wrestle equipment and footage off us. One minder who had been full of concern at my broken wrist just twelve hours before, and had been offering the services of a doctor-cousin of his, pulled a gun on us. Somehow we got the footage out to London over our satellite dish. We then agreed with other broadcasters who had been there that we would share the story and give it the widest possible airing.

We’d been in Tripoli for five weeks, welcomed initially like long-awaited friends. We’d been taken on tightly controlled trips to alleged NATO air strikes on civilians, pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, and visits to alleged Al Qaeda prisoners plotting against Gaddafi. We had been fed daily press conferences by a state claiming to be unfairly victimised by the West and accused of atrocities against its people it had not and would never commit. As we had got increasingly frustrated by our smiling gaolers and gilded cage, they had got increasingly angry with our desire to escape their clutches and their propaganda. The smiling masks had begun to slip and the earlier superficial warmth was replaced by orders announced over Tannoy and the occasional uncontrolled venomous outburst. Despite the glaring evidence we had managed to gather; the daily arrests of errant journalists, the threats, the intimidation and guards physically barring us from leaving the hotel, the regime still blindly reiterated its message; insisting this was all a figment of our biased imaginations. But weeks of pressure had taken their toll. They were holding on so tight they momentarily lost control.

One woman had somehow made her way unobserved into one of the regime’s fortresses and she had lit the fuse. And that day, the world was shown just what the Gaddafi regime is really capable of. And yet, more than two months on, journalists are still sequestered at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, the minders watch them more closely, the Tannoy still bellows out and the phones click. The nights (and now the days) are filled with the noise of NATO air strikes. The café still serves gallons of mint tea, and no doubt my admirer is circling around his next prey. Iman has since popped up in Jordan and Romania and if reports are to be believed, is heading back to her native Benghazi. The regime spokesman still holds a daily press conference. Libya is still the victim of the colonialist oil-hungry West and Colonel Gaddafi is still in power.

Ex-Libya PM jailed for illegal entry into Tunisia

The former prime minister of ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government has been jailed for six months in Tunisia for entering the country illegally.

Al Baghdadi Ali al Mahmoudi was arrested after security forces found him without a visa in his passport near Tamaghza at the border with Algeria on Wednesday.

He was sentenced to half a year behind bars when he faced the state prosecutor on Thursday.

Earlier this month, another member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, Khouildi Hamidi, was briefly detained at Tunis airport for illegal entry.

The latest arrest and sentencing comes days after the interim Libyan government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), captured key sites in one of Gaddafi’s last strongholds of Sabha.

It has now been claimed that forces loyal to the NTC uncovered a stash of chemical weapons when taking hold of the town.

But there may have been a bigger prize concealed there.

There are fresh – as yet, unconfirmed – reports of sightings of Col Gaddafi himself fleeing the town as it fell.

Both the towns of Sabha and Jufra in the southern desert are now fully in the hands of the NTC, according to its military spokesman.

In the former regime strongholds in the north of the country, it is a different story.

Pro-Gaddafi fighters in Bani Walid and Sirte continue to hold out against NTC assaults and Nato air strikes.

The resolve and heavy defences of the pro-Gaddafi forces are giving rise to speculation that there must still be something or someone valuable worth protecting and fighting for.

Outside the towns, the frustration is mounting amongst the rebels. So far they have made little progress beyond the outskirts.

Every advance has been repelled by heavy artillery and mortars. As they move closer to the centres, snipers are picking off fighters and bringing an ever-increasing number of casualties.

The inability to make any inroads is causing frustration and boredom among the NTC forces stationed outside the towns.

Tensions are also reaching boiling point between local fighters and outside reinforcements, causing rifts and accusations of treachery in the ranks.

That friction has been mirrored in the NTC’s efforts to agree on a new government.

An announcement of its members was expected earlier this week but has repeatedly been postponed. It is hoped the return of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil from the United States will be the catalyst for agreement.

His efforts to bring its members and the country together have reportedly received a financial boost, with a surprise find in the Central Bank of Libya.

Officials from the Libyan stabilisation team say they have found $23bn worth of assets. The new funds will help set the country on track for redevelopment.

It is still waiting for international sanctions to be lifted on much of the Libyan assets frozen under the Gaddafi regime.

Gunshots Part Of Everyday Life In Tripoli

We were just about to have some dinner in our small hotel in central Tripoli when the quiet streets were suddenly filled with loud bangs and shouts.  Initially we barely flinched – in a city where every other man is armed these days, celebratory gunfire is just part of the daily colour on the streets.

The odd shot here and there turns into a cacophony of automatic fire most Thursday evenings when the residents of the capital stream on foot and in their cars towards Martyrs – formerly Gaddafi’s ‘Green’ – Square.

It is gridlock.

The new national anthem blaring out of loud speakers mixes with the sound of ammunition and fireworks; the resurrected flag of the Libyan monarchy brandished from every car window and sold at impromptu souvenir stalls.

But this evening was different.  Somehow the gunshots were more threatening, focused and less carefree.  As we moved down the street to find out what was going on; NTC forces sped past us towards the commotion.

More gunshots and screams brought one of them back towards us – there was a Gaddafi supporter he said, one who was resisting arrest.  He was armed he said, and firing at the NTC men trying to talk him down.  By this time, families were coming out onto the balconies of the apartment blocks above.  They peered down the street, shouting at us to get back and stay out of the way.  Young lads ran past, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

A few nights ago their boyish fascination with guns and drama got a gruesome reward.

One of the revolutionaries guarding the street had been demonstrating a move to his colleagues when his AK47 went off.  He was taken to Tripoli central hospital with a gaping wound to the stomach.  Tonight though, they came back looking thoroughly dejected.  It was not a Gaddafi supporter after all. Just a neighbourhood dispute that had got out of hand. No bloody firefight, no excitement for them.

Earlier today we visited a boy their age in a Tripoli hospital. We were filming there a few weeks ago when 15-year-old Abdul was rushed into the Emergency department with his friend.  The two boys had found a grenade outside their school – a remnant of the fierce battles during the ‘liberation’ of Tripoli.  They had been trying to prise open their new toy when it blew up in their faces.

Abdul is starting to smile again and enjoying the home-cooked food his father brings into the hospital.  But he has got a long and slow recovery ahead. And it will be a while before he comes to terms with his best friend’s death.  No such harm done this evening. But it is worrying to see guns and bullets become such common currency on the streets; representative of playtime and celebration rather than the lethal weapons of war they really are.

The National Transitional Council says it will eventually collect the weapons off the streets of Libya.

Let’s hope that by then they haven’t become such an entrenched part of everyday life that people won’t want to give them up.