We all know the truth about Iraq – it just depends on your point of view.
But to have a point of view it helps if you’ve actually been there.
Colin Freeman went to Baghdad in the early post-war days, and he did it in the hardest way for a civilian – living with no security in a backpacker hotel (the Al Dulaimi) well outside the relative safety of the Green Zone, with the daily risk of kidnap, torture and death.
To get to Iraq, Colin gave up a safe, reasonably well-paid but ever-so-slightly dull staff job on the London Evening Standard, where he doubled as the paper’s pothole/roadworks correspondent and a showbusiness ‘doorstepper’, and travelled as a freelance.
No income, no contacts, no guarantee of work, no security guards – just a few dollars he’d saved up, and his wits.
The anti-US, anti-British uprising was in full swing, and every day could quite easily have been his last. People he knew were taken by jihadists (and later, in Somalia, Colin himself ended up Kidnapped, too).
If I could change one thing it would be the cover – my idea, it looks terrible, and I’m sure it adversely affected sales.
Here’s a free extract – Colin decides to put Fleet Street behind him for a while after a moment of truth one Christmas Eve:
THE PATH TO IRAQ – for me, anyway – began on Christmas Eve 2002, on a sunny pavement outside Cheryl Barrymore’s house.
Cheryl lived in a block of maisonettes in a posh street in Swiss Cottage, a part of London that ‘boasts’ – as we journalists like to say – more celebrities in a few square miles than the rest of Britain put together. Like many who have spent time in the lower echelons of British journalism, I’ve visited a lot of them – generally getting about as far as the doorstep, where I’d pitch camp for as long as my editor wanted me to.
‘Doorstepping’, as the practice is known, is no more than legalised stalking. The idea is that if you hang around outside somebody’s house long enough, they will eventually talk to you just to get you to go away. Or throw something, which always makes a good picture.
The trouble is that this seldom actually works. These days, even the thickest, most publicity-addicted Big Brother has-been is media-savvy enough to say ‘No comment’ or ‘Call my PR’ if he doesn’t want to talk. In all my years hanging around outside celebrity addresses – and it probably does add up to years – all I’ve ever got out of it is a skin as thick as a rhino’s and a collection of extremely banal celebrity anecdotes.
Liam Gallagher from Oasis told me to fuck off.
The late George Best said something similar, I think (it was unintelligible).
Various nonentities have called me a ‘ghoul’, a ‘vulture’ and a ‘sad, sleazy little twat’.
A few minor royals have called the police.
Cheryl, of course, was the ex-wife of Michael, the TV ‘entertainer’ whose life has resembled a sort of slow motion car wreck in recent times. Yet another unflattering tale about her ex-husband had appeared on the front page of the Sun that day, and my newspaper, the London Evening Standard, wanted her reaction to it.
I’d got to the office at five o’clock that morning – despite having the word ‘Evening’ in its title, the Standard‘s first edition actually comes out at around 11am. I’d had a heavy night at a Christmas party and could barely see as I was briefed by Mike Leese, the paper’s deputy news editor and unofficial newsroom enforcer.
Most newspapers employ at least one hard nut like Mike to keep the reporters on their toes, and they give the place a permanent frisson of danger. I read an interview once with a former warden at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital: he said most of the time everything was fine, but the moment you dropped your guard someone would try to stab your eyes out with a Biro. It’s a bit like that in newspapers.
Mike had stood over my desk under the harsh office lights, puffing on a strange plastic cigarette he used during his periodic attempts to quit smoking; judging from the ferocity of his drags, he had some way to go.
‘Get down to Cheryl’s, see if you can get some reaction,’ he had muttered, brandishing the front page of the Sun. ‘Take a photographer with you.’
Then he was gone. News editors rarely hand out detailed briefs, preferring you to use your alleged skill and judgment as a reporter to work out the finer points yourself, and Mike was no exception.
So there I was. Sat outside an eight-story mansion block set back from the road behind a high brick wall.
December 24th. Early morning. No sign of Cheryl.
It looked like a long wait.
The concierge refused to tell us which flat she lived in, whether she was in, or even if we had the right address, which we weren’t sure of. Newspapers’ information on celebrities’ whereabouts isn’t as accurate as you might think. It’s not unknown to spend several days on a doorstep only to find that your intended victim has been coming and going all week from a house round the corner, or has just been photographed at a movie premiere in Los Angeles.
The photographer, Cavan Pawson, and I sprawled in his car for a while, drinking coffee, moaning, and getting bored, like we were stuck in a stake-out scene from a bad episode of Starsky and Hutch (playing supporting roles, obviously).
By about 9.30am, we had weighed up the options. There were at least three possible entry and exit points to Cheryl’s block. Which meant that if she left the building and we didn’t spot her we could hardly be blamed. Not much, anyway.
‘Starbucks?’ asked Cav with a yawn, starting the engine. I nodded. Out of sight and out of mind, with any luck we could spend the rest of the day doing nothing and then knock off early for Christmas.
Unlike mine, Cav’s star was in the ascendant at the Standard. For a while he’d been a journeyman like me but on September 11, 2001, he’d been in America covering New York Fashion Week when the news broke that two aircraft had just been hurled into the World Trade Center.
With only around half an hour until the Standard’s final deadline, he jumped in a taxi and got close enough to reel off several brilliant shots of the towers before they collapsed. The photo on the Standard’s front page won him the British Photographer of the Year award, and Cav’s fortunes had been transformed. He’d gone to New York to photograph skirts and dresses, but came back as someone who could handle himself in a Major World News Story.
As a result, Cav was now off to war.
Nobody knew exactly when the much-talked of invasion of Iraq was going to take place, but by December 2002 there was little doubt it would happen. All the whispers from government to the Standard’s political and defence correspondents suggested it was cut and dried.
After all, Britain and America were already sending 250,000 soldiers out the region, something they wouldn’t do if they thought it’d be resolved diplomatically.
What was even more certain was that I wouldn’t be there to report on it. The Standard was planning to send a whole team of journalists to cover the war, but it would be the usual coterie of their most favoured news and feature writers. Of which, it was fair to say, I was not one.
To my intense frustration, and despite working as hard as I realistically could, I’d never quite made it to the top rung at the paper.
The only assignment I’d ever been hand-picked for was to cover London’s roadworks. With its large commuter readership, roadworks were a subject the paper was obsessed with, but reporting on potholes every day was less exciting than filling them.
I’d made the mistake of doing a good job at it, assuming I’d get rewarded with something more interesting after a few months. Instead, they’d mistaken my eagerness to please for genuine enthusiasm, and now refused to let me palm the job off on anyone else.
So while Cav would be out covering the biggest story of his life, I would be revealing that the A23 through Streatham had been dug up because of a gas leak.
‘When are you off then?’ I asked, half-hoping he’d say, hadn’t I heard, I was going, too. The roads were going to be bombed to shite in Iraq, after all.
‘Sometime in January,’ he said. ‘We fly out to Kuwait, then follow the Brits in when the invasion starts. But that might not be till February or March.’
‘A bit. I’ve never done a war before, I suppose. But I might not get another chance.’
‘You lucky bastard.’
There was a silence, while we slurped our coffees.
‘Didn’t you put your name down for the war team?’ he said.
‘Already been decided, hasn’t it? The team’s picked already, plus all the reserves. I’m not even on the subs’ bench.’
‘Have you asked?’
‘No point, is there? Not flavour of the month, me.’
Cav looked at me. ‘If they won’t send you, why don’t you just go yourself?’ he said. ‘As a freelance?’
‘Freelance? To a war?’
‘Why not? You don’t even have to go Iraq itself. Once it starts, it could spill into all the neighbouring countries. Turkey, Syria, Jordan. The Standard will want their own people there as well in case anything happens. And you could work for other papers too.’
I mulled it over, briefly. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I could see myself turning up wherever nothing was happening and getting precisely nowhere.
‘What have you got to lose?’ he said.
What had I got to lose? Well, my job. My savings. And my life.
Cav gestured back up the road towards Cheryl’s house. ‘You might be still on that doorstep in ten years’ time, wishing you’d done it,’ he said.
Saddam Hussein or Cheryl Barrymore.
Two hours later, we wandered back up Cheryl’s flat. Still no sign of life. We rang the office and got permission to knock off for Christmas. A few days later I heard she’d been in Spain the whole time.
* * * * *
One of our best books, with one of our worst covers: mea culpa
Cav’s words echoed round my head later that afternoon as I sat in the pub with Max, my ex-girlfriend. We’d gone out together for eighteen months before splitting up in the summer. It wasn’t that we didn’t get on well – just that when the question of getting married and having children came up, I couldn’t get enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, with no problems in our relationship other than its lack of long-term prospects, we’d continued to spend nearly all our time together. Until two weeks ago, that was, when Max had given me an ultimatum. Either we started going out properly again, or, with New Year beckoning, we made a resolution to stop seeing each other.
‘How was your day?’ she asked, draining a glass of pinot grigio.
I debated whether or not to tell her what Cavan had said about Iraq.
In all practical terms, his suggestion of going to Iraq as a freelance seemed about as feasible as going there as a mercenary.
I had a full-time, salaried staff job on a proper newspaper in London, even if it was a bit crap. Wasn’t it a bit silly to give all that up?
Yet I couldn’t deny the spark of hope inside me, the thought that, somehow, my stagnating career might find direction again.
Best to keep quiet though, until I’d actually checked out whether it was possible or not.
‘Max, I’m thinking of going to go to the war as a freelance.’
Well, I never was much good at keeping my mouth shut.
‘The war. How many are there? The one in Iraq. The one that’s going to start in the spring.’
‘Yes, yes, I know. But isn’t a bit difficult to get into Iraq?’
‘I thought I might base myself in one of the neighbouring countries. Saddam might invade them or something. Or, er, fire chemical weapons at them. Then I’ll be right on the spot.’
A less understanding woman might have stressed the potential drawbacks of this but Max was both a fellow journalist and at the end of her tether: she’d heard me whingeing about my stalled career so often that she was like a probation officer stuck with a persistent re-offender. Any new resolve, in no matter what direction, represented potential progress.
‘So which countries might you go to?’ she said, an encouraging expression on her face.
‘Er… dunno. Jordan, maybe, or Syria.’
Max knew even less about the Middle East’s geography than I did.
‘Are they next door to Iraq?’
‘Er… Jordan is. And Syria is, too, I think. To the left, and down a bit.’
‘Will they let you in?’
‘Would you get any work?’
‘What sort of stories would you do?’
‘Where did you suddenly get this idea from?’
‘Dunno. Well, Cav suggested it outside Cheryl’s today. I… I need to look into it a bit more, obviously.’
Max had met the crackpot barstool explorer in me before. Last January, in a fit of despair at work, I’d suggested we both resign and backpack across Africa for six months. She sensibly dithered, while I actually got as far as handing in my notice. Then, forced to think about it properly for the first time, I realised I’d get fed up within about a fortnight. There were only so many epic bus rides, vibrant markets and historic temples that I could handle before I’d get crashingly bored. Humiliatingly, I’d asked for my job back, and returned to work.
I tried to make my case. ‘This wouldn’t be like Africa, though. I’d be working, so I wouldn’t get fed up. And if it didn’t work out, it’d just be like backpacking with a difference. But yeah, I doubt it’s possible. It’s probably a daft idea.’
‘No, it’s not,’ she said. ‘It’s exactly what you need.’
She also knew what else it meant. Unlike Mission Africa, this particular birdbrained scheme would potentially mark a final parting of our ways.
‘So we won’t be getting back together, will we?’ she said.
I stared at her, pouring white wine into my mouth where profound or soothing words should have come out.
She smiled. ‘I don’t mind, you know. I just want you to be honest.’
We headed off to spend Christmas with our respective families.
Six hours before, the Iraq war had been something to discuss while killing time outside Cheryl Barrymore’s. Now it was shaping up as my future.
George W Bush had better not cancel it.
* * * * *
I rapidly realised that one big drawback to my new plan was that I knew nothing about war reporting whatsoever.
I’d seen it done on TV, by people like Martin Bell, the BBC man with the ‘lucky white suit’ who got shot in the Balkans. You’d see them crouched down in a trench somewhere, explosions and gunfire going off around them. Occasionally their colleagues – Spanish cameramen or Japanese sound guys – would get killed.
They came across as earnest, serious individuals, who enjoyed great respect for the bravery and integrity of their reporting. They were the polar opposite of anything I did. Interestingly, even the big names complained that the reports they risked their lives to get were being chopped to make room for more ‘news’ about celebrities – the kind of rubbish I was trying to leave behind, in fact.
If I knew little about war reporting, I knew even less about the Middle East. The Standard covered international news, but we rarely sent staff on anything but the biggest of foreign stories. Most of rest of the time we relied on the Reuters and Associated Press wire services, rewriting their copy in the office and running it under the byline ‘By our foreign staff’.
I was an unchallengeable expert on the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991, and my Mastermind specialist subject might have been The Love Life of Anthea Turner, but virtually all I knew about Iraq was from watching a bit of TV coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991, when I’d still been at university. We’d had a party the night Operation Desert Storm began, beers and spliffs in hand as if it was a football match.
After a couple of hours of watching green explosions, we’d got bored and switched channels.
The only way to find out how to freelance out there was to ask around, but that would be tricky in itself. For a start, people with war zone experience weren’t exactly thick on the ground in Kensington. I’d also have to be careful that nobody at the Standard found out I was making inquiries. I was already a marked man for having resigned and then un-resigned the year before. Any further evidence, rumour or otherwise, that I was thinking of quitting again would be seen as a further sign of disloyalty.
Over the first few weeks of New Year I asked around. I vaguely remembered that Allan Ramsay, a New Zealander who’d left the Standard recently, had tried freelancing during the Balkans wars in the early 1990s. I rang him up and arranged to go out for a beer.
Allan’s tale of war started brilliantly.
‘Another Kiwi hack just rang up one day and said, “There’s a bunch of us driving down to the war in Bosnia, do you wanna come?”’ he said. ‘I figured I could work for the Standard and freelance for some of the Kiwi papers, so off we went.’
‘Excellent. How did it go?’
‘When we first got there we stayed in some tower block in the middle of a small town. Then during the night, a huge firefight broke out, with one half of the town firing at the other. It was bloody terrifying, actually. You could hear injured people screaming.’
‘Blimey,’ I said. ‘The Standard must have loved it.’
‘To be honest, mate, I was so frightened I couldn’t write a thing. And they weren’t interested anyway. That sort of thing was happening all over the place. Just because I’d seen it myself didn’t make it a story. In the end, I decided it wasn’t for me, and went back home again.’
‘But at least you tried, though. Must’ve raised your standing at the paper?’
‘Not really. When I got back, the news editor just asked me if I’d enjoyed my little bit of war tourism.’
At least Allan had been able to get to where the action was. The more I asked around, the more it seemed that going to Iraq itself was completely out the question.
‘Not really a place for freelancers, mate,’ said a Daily Telegraph photographer I knew, who’d just come back from Baghdad. Iraqi government officials had made it impossible for anyone other than staff correspondents to work there, he said, because of their desire to screw as much money from everyone as possible. Not only did they charge you astronomical rates for a bugged hotel room, you coughed up hundreds of dollars a day for Ministry of Information ‘minders’ to watch you, hundreds in visa ‘renewal fees’ every week or so, and hundreds to ‘rent’ a telephone line. All for the privilege of being there when America flattened the place.
‘You want to try Kurdistan,’ he said. ‘That’s the Holy Grail for freelancers. Great access, but very difficult to get in.’
‘Yes, good idea,’ I said, having no idea where Kurdistan was, or whose side they were on.
A session in the Standard’s cuttings library revealed all. Kurdistan was a small, mountainous enclave in northern Iraq which had broken away from Baghdad’s control after the first Gulf War.
The Kurds loathed Saddam for massacring 5,000 people in a gas attack on the Kurdish Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988. Now they were hoping to get revenge by helping the Coalition stage a northern assault on Saddam’s frontlines. The assault would be spearheaded by the Kurdish peshmerga militias, whose name translated as ‘those who willingly face death’.
It was potentially even more perilous than being in Baghdad: because of his long and nasty history with the Kurds, it was widely predicted that Saddam would unleash the bulk of his feared chemical weapons arsenal against them. Maybe it was a Holy Grail for the combat-hardened, but it looked a bit vertical, learning curve-wise, for a novice.
Still, I looked into it. As Kurdistan was a NATO protectorate, rather than a proper country, it didn’t really exist, diplomatically-speaking. The only way in or out was via its other neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Because they had restive Kurdish populations of their own, they were reluctant to recognise Kurdistan officially, and therefore rarely gave permission to foreigners – especially journalists – to cross the border.
A few freelancers had somehow managed it, either by smuggling or bribing themselves in. But when I emailed them asking for tips, I got no response whatsoever. It gradually dawned on me that I was, potentially, their competition. The only people who could really help me, in other words, had a direct interest in not doing so.
Eventually someone put me in touch with a guy who’d been to Kurdistan before and was planning to go again for the coming war. Marcus Bleasdale was exactly how I’d imagine a war zone photographer: wiry and serious, with a heavy growth of stubble on his face. I’d never met this kind of photographer before, which wasn’t surprising since he seemed to spend most of his time in places like the Congo or Afghanistan as opposed to drinking coffee outside Cheryl’s.
He generously agreed to meet up for a beer to answer any questions that I might have. Like, how to get to Kurdistan, where I did I stay, how did I find stories, and how did I avoid getting killed.
To his credit, he didn’t snort contemptuously when I grilled him. It could be done, he reckoned, even by someone without experience. You could get into Kurdistan via Iran, as long as the Iranian Embassy in London would grant you a transit visa.
Then, once the war started, you just stuck with other hacks at first and didn’t take too many risks. But it would still be seriously expensive. Translators and drivers were at least £30 a day each, as was a hotel for the night.
For communications with the outside world, I would need a satellite phone, which cost around £1,000 and a dollar-a-minute for calls. Plus a laptop, flak jacket, helmet, gas mask and chemical protection suit, coming in at a further £3,000 minimum.
And that was just for starters. Once the fighting got underway, war zone economics would kick in. Translators and drivers would demand danger money, doubling or trebling their charges. Hoteliers, shopkeepers and purveyors of virtually every other commodity would do likewise.
I did the maths.
Even if I was lucky enough to be able to share drivers and translators with some other freelancers, as Marcus suggested, my bills could easily be £200 a day – £6,000 a month.
The flak jacket, satphone, laptop, flights and so on would push it to around £10,000.
Worst of all, because Kurdistan had no functioning banking system, your entire money supply for the trip had to be taken with you, in $100 bills.
I’m the kind of bloke who gets nervous withdrawing £50 from the cash machine in case I’m mugged. Taking half my entire life savings and wandering around with them in a war zone didn’t seem like a good idea.
‘What happens if you get robbed?’
‘Make sure you don’t.’
‘But if every journalist is carrying that kind of cash around, won’t all the locals realise that you’re a target?’
‘Is there anything you can do about that?’
I thanked Marcus for his time and said I’d buy him another beer if I ever saw him in Kurdistan. He smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I suspected he’d lie low the moment he heard I was in town.
A couple of weeks later, I headed down to my favourite beach in Devon for a surfing break. The weather was beautiful, spring sunshine lighting up the mist off the waves as it streamed over the sand dunes. I savoured every moment. Never in my entire life had my future seemed more up in the air. It was now late February, and some time in the next month or two the war was expected to start. I’d applied to the Iranian embassy for a transit visa, but so far I’d heard nothing back from them. And the closer the invasion got, the more likely they were to seal the border altogether. Overall, the odds on getting out there seemed about as promising those on Saddam winning the war. Sooner or later, though, the call would have to be made. Either give up the job, lash out vast amounts of money, and leave my old life behind, or stick it out at home.
When I got back that weekend my mind was made up. Come what may, I’d give it a try.
First I told my parents. To my surprise, they didn’t seem horrified at all. If anything, they were a little too encouraging.
‘You’ve been so down in the dumps recently, dear,’ said my mum, breezily. ‘If it cheers you up, I think you should do it.’ It was as if I had announced I was joining a local church group.
The Standard, when I told them, seemed equally blasé. All they asked for was a week or two’s notice.
Anyone would have thought they were happy to get rid of me.