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Tales from the road – Mosul

Matt Jasper Iraq 2007

Matt Jasper in Mosul, Iraq, 2007


I never thought I’d go to Iraq; it just isn’t who I am. I guess I knew it was always a possibility, given the nature of my job: then – in 2007 – I was the China-based camera operator for Channel 4 News, UK, and that took me all over China and into neighbouring countries like Kazakhstan; even as far afield as South Africa. I was covering news stories, and Iraq was definitely news, so Iraq was always possible.
So … one day you find yourself saying ‘Yes’ to your boss on the phone, agreeing to travel into a war zone, to be embedded with US troops. The next thing you know, you’re writing your will and working out your blood type so that it can be added to your ID. This blog is about one particular incident that happened in Mosul, Iraq, but first I’d like to take a moment to talk about arriving in that war-torn country.

WELCOME TO BAGHDAD!

For a start (and who knew that, then?) passenger planes were still flying into Baghdad in 2007, but, with the help of mostly South African pilots and crew, they were. Approaching ‘Baghdad International’ at that time was quite different to coming in to Sydney or London: the descent had to be steep and rapid to – hopefully – avoid being shot at. One minute you were at cruising altitude, the next you were on the ground. Having landed, incident-free, the next thing was to get to the ‘green zone’, a relatively safe area in Baghdad that housed most of the international embassies, the UN and the command base for the war effort. We – my journalist colleague and I – were met by a private security firm at the airport and transferred to an old Toyota sedan that sat really low to the ground due to its body armour retrofit. We were given long sleeve shirts to put over our own body armour, to make sure no-one else could see we were wearing it; body armour could have shown that we were important enough to attack or kidnap. A convoy of local vehicles then accompanied us into the green zone. I’m not going to lie, this was one very scary and rather surreal introduction to Iraq. What was possibly more bizarre was arriving in the green zone and being greeted by a Hungry Jacks and a Cinnabon for the troops. We were in Iraq in 2007 primarily to cover the Americans’ surge – President George W Bush’s attempt to throw a lot of resources into Iraq to try and get the situation under control.

ONWARD … TO MOSUL

We spent a few days in Baghdad, then got on an army transport plane to Iraq’s second city, Mosul. For the first few days we accompanied the US troops on patrol. The constant threat of IEDs – improvised explosive devices – seemed to be the main worry. Any suspicious item on the ground in front of a Humvee would be investigated and, on occasion, detonated. Sometimes you would be confined to a vehicle while a bomb disposal robot went in and did its job. Our principal location in Mosul was at a combat outpost, the name of which escapes me now. Basically, these were temporary troop locations, places where it an American platoon – probably 20 or so soldiers – would live for a couple of weeks in the middle of the action before returning to a larger base to refresh and regroup while another group went forward. Mosul is a complicated place and at the time (and I can only speak to the time I was there), the Sunni and Shia Muslims were fighting each other, causing bloodshed on both sides.

INTO THE THICK OF IT

One night it was the platoon’s job to venture out and protect a group of truck drivers and construction workers who were placing a wall between the two warring sides in one part of the city. The workers were being attacked as they put up giant concrete barriers. My ‘journo’ and I went too. We were in the middle of what was, practically, an empty field, with nothing but a flatbed truck that had offloaded its cargo. The platoon commander was chatting to the leader of the truck drivers (through an interpreter), trying to ensure that they were getting the support they needed. I was shooting the conversation using infrared, the only feasible way to extract any vision in the pitch dark without having to use a light and drawing very unwanted attention to ourselves (you’ve probably seen this type of footage; it nearly always shows up as a ghostly green image). My journalist asked for permission for me to turn on my light to capture things more easily and the platoon commander’s response was ‘Yes, no problem’. We were safe; or so he thought. I didn’t switch my light on. I don’t know why not, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t! Some 30 seconds later, there was a giant ‘BOOM!’ – an explosion about 10 metres away from us in the direction I was pointing the camera, then the unmistakeable sounds of machine gun fire. It was right above our heads. I remember the tracers as being green, and only a metre or two above our heads. The bad guys knew we were there, they just weren’t sure exactly where. Everyone dropped to the ground, then the three or four soldiers close to us started to fire back in the direction of where the tracers were coming from. Of course, because the Americans also had tracer bullets, the bad guys then had a much better idea of where we were, so the tracers got closer. The platoon commander then yelled, ‘Journos, with me!’. We stood up and took off, blind, across the field behind the captain, so he could get us out of the empty field and into the back of an armoured personnel carrier, and safety. Although it was probably only 50 metres, it felt an awful lot longer, particularly in the dark – you never knew what you might be running over, and you certainly couldn’t slow down to be safe. The gunfire continued, increasingly, behind us, and we quickly got into the back of the APC, while the captain went back to continue the fight. My journalist, by this time, was all fired up, almost apoplectic that we had to hide in the back of the APC. He yelled: ‘We shouldn’t fxxxxxg be in here, we should be out there filming this!’ I offered him my camera. He declined. Within a few minutes, with gunfire continuing, we heard the sound of a Black Hawk helicopter, then three very large bangs – rockets being fired – then, suddenly, all of the gunfire stopped. The bad guys had been ‘switched off’ and it was again safe to get out of the truck. We were transferred into a Humvee, to be returned to the Combat outpost where we found out that the captain had run straight through razor wire and opened his leg up to the bone in his attempt – thankfully, for us, successful – to get us to safety. After a couple of stitches to hold everything together, he went straight back out to help his men. Gutsy stuff. My journalist was keen to know if I had been ‘rolling’ during the whole gunfight, but I honestly couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t remember if I’d pressed the red button or not. Thankfully I had, I was rolling when the initial mortar hit and throughout the whole fight. Instincts obviously kicked in, but a greater force was self preservation, and with all of the adrenalin I had no real recollection of what I had been doing during those few important minutes. The fighting was over, but our work wasn’t. As a news team, we had to edit video and audio together for the program the following night. This meant, of course, that we needed, in a way, to relive that experience as we watched it again and again, so that we could edit it down to a bite-sized chunk suitable for a 7pm audience in the UK. It’s very hard to explain how the events of that night may have affected me. It still comes back to me from time to time. I know others have been through much worse, but experiences like that affect everyone differently, and I guess I will carry it with me forever. It was enough that it should have stopped me ever going back and putting myself in that position again.  It didn’t. I was back there again the following year, but that’s another story. I’m just glad I didn’t switch my light on!  
 
Humvees Iraq 2007

Humvees with IED detection devices fitted – Iraq 2007

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Matt Jasper

Matt Jasper is the owner of The Jasper Picture Company. He is based in Melbourne but works around Australia and the world.