The reception area was all messed up. It’s what you’d expect to see at a Saigon Airport in the 1960s. We had reporters, soldiers of a variety of nationalities and some suits. The building had stairs leading up to it, obviously commandeered after US troops had taken the place over. A US flag unfurled and snapped in the wind, they probably do a ceremonial raising and lowering of the flag where one, tear brimming soldier would salute until it was complete. The whole scene was marred by a mass of MREs stacked at the base of the steps.
“What the fuck is that!?” I exclaimed a little too loud, “You guys having a bonfire?”
“MRE. Meals Ready to East. Mm. Mmmm,” a guy behind me said. I think he was a reporter and an American as well, “Yes – sirrreeee. Guaranteed to give you the shits, my friend.”
“Uh huh,” he agreed and give me a wink.
“Come on, mate,” I tugged at the Police Chief’s cuff and dragged him with me. I headed on up in to the building where I saw the RAF. It was like a stall in a market – the RAF only had about 20% of the real estate, the Yanks had everything else. I headed over to the MovCon as the Police Chief began to yabber on in his phone.
“Hiya. I’m from Basrah,” I said to the Flight Sergeant who put down his book and glanced at me.
“Yeah. I got the Police Chief with me. They said you’d know and we could get him to his RV to meet up with the rest of his crowd. Y’know, the Police,” I said.
He looked non-plussed. Oh fuck. Here we go.
“Do you know anything about this?” I asked.
“Nobody said anything to us, mate,” he stuck out a hand, “Tony.”
I shook it, “Dougy.”
“Well, Dougy. Where does he need to get to?”
He gave an exasperated whistle. “State normal, eh?”
“A lack of communication,” he said and I thought for a second he was going to run the line from ‘Cool Hands Luke’ by me, but he didn’t.
“Basrah, must have spoken to someone and they haven’t passed the message on. Well, Tony, I’ve got to get him there today and then pick him back up again tomorrow.”
“I can run you down there mate. I could do with a fresh supply of…” he winked, “refreshments, if you take my meaning.”
Oh yeah? Refreshments. These fuckers were on the piss every night. Lucky bastards. “Great. When can we go?”
“Give me an hour. In the meantime, help yourself to the kettle and don’t eat the fucking Poundcake,” he pointed to the MREs and tapped his belly. “Shitting through the eye of a needle. Arse like a Japanese flag.”
“Cheers – I’ll bear that in mind,” I turned to the Police Chief, but couldn’t find him. I’d lost him!
“He went that way,” Tony stood and pointed to the exit.
I found him 10 minutes later, arguing with a US guard who was having none of it. It sounded like he wanted out of the compound, but I wasn’t sure. I tapped my watch. Waa-hid Sa-aah.” I nodded to him and he nodded back, but he didn’t look too happy. Fuck him. The prick.
We spend the hour sat at the base of the steps, listening to all the huge aircraft that dwarfed our tiny C130. A heavy machine gun hammered away in the background and the occasional crump and whoof.
Not sure why I took my rifle, because I didn’t have any ammunition. I left them back in the room. I figured I was pretty safe where I was. Body armour and webbing too? No helmet, no beret. Nobody gave a fuck really. There was no Jack Kemp here to kick me up the arse and inspect me. Or any other RSM. It was basically a law to ourselves, within reason, of course.
“Hey, Dougy. You ready?” I looked up and was greeted by Tony, a giant of a man with a tropical hat on and sunglasses. He must have been over 6 foot.
“Yeah,” I said, looked at my watch and then looked at my other friend, who I didn’t let out of my sight, “Jaheez?”
“Na’am,” he said and stood.
We signed out from the gatehouse where a twitchy looking American soldier eyed the Iraqi policeman. Fuck. We were in a beat up Toyota corolla which I wasn’t too happy about as there were no markings on it to distinguish us as friendlies… That might have been a good thing, I suppose.
“This is the back way,” he said as we drove out he camp and made a sharp right into a dusty track off the main road. The road meandered slightly as we followed a huge fenceline to the left.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“An old Iraqi air force base. It’s now a Serious Crimes Unit HQ. That’s where they hang all their prisoners up and beat the soles of their feet with sticks. Fucking hooligans – doing shit to themselves,” he said inferring the Iraqi Police. “Can he…?”
“Nah… well, I don’t think so,” I hadn’t thought of that. Some Iraqi police could speak English. Why not? It was one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. This fucker could be playing cunny funts and listening in to all the abuse he was getting.
“Up ahead, we have Uday and Qusay’s palace,” he pointed to a building that could have passed as a larger version of the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was overgrowing with ivy and had bullet holes all over it.
“How far to the airport?”
“Not too far mate. Just a couple of miles and we’re there.”
We sat in relative silence, until Chief in the back broke the silence with him rabbiting on in Iraqi on his phone. The phone call got intense and heated. Me and Tony exchanged looks. Sounded like he was a twat to work for.
We drove straight into the airport. No check points. We parked under the car park. I got out with webbing and a rifle.
“I wouldn’t go in like that,” Tony said. “You’d get shot. Put it in the boot.” He opened the boot and I put the rifle in, which was against everything I’d been taught, but this was an exceptional circumstance. It still didn’t feel right when we escorted the Chief up the ramp to the terminal.
A screech of tyres shot through the underground parking lot and I turned to see this huge pick up truck with about 10 blokes sat in the back with AKs.
The District Police Chief smiled and raised his hand. They were IPS and I started to calm down after this. The guys in the back of the Pick Up were all wearing these blue berets. I think they must have thought they were some sort of special unit or something. That happened a lot after the invasion. Some twat from the USA sorted the Police units out into various disciplines such as Serious Crimes, and they created a load of IPS who thought they were special forces. They were just jumped up policemen, not even that, in different coloured berets. Laughable to be fucking honest, but in that moment when that truck screamed through the parking lot – I nearly pissed myself in fright.
The Police Chief gave me a weak limped shake of the hand by way of saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and fucked off with the idiots in the truck.
“Is he gonna be safe?” I asked.
“Probably get shot at as they go to the station. They’re all in with the insurgents anyway. The Iranians have got their fingers in all the pies too. It’s all fucked and I can’t wait to get out of this shit hole.” I looked at Tony – he looked like he’d had enough of this place. He sighed. “1 month to go,” he said and looked up, “Might as well take a look in the terminal. Coming?”
“Doesn’t look like I’ve got a choice,” I said, “Plus I need to fill the time.”
Off we went to the dilapidated terminal that was Baghdad City Airport.
We entered the foyer after a frisk off the Gorilla at the main door. The fucker had a metal detector truncheon and looked like he was going to beat me around the head with it.
Inside, it was relatively quiet and it was just like any other airport terminal with shops and shit. Yes, shit. And lots of it. Shops with shit you’d buy in Blackpool. Tony, however was having none of that and making a beeline for the Aladdin’s Cave which was near the vacant Bureau De Change. This place was lined with booze, whiskey, cigars and perfume. It reminded of my time coming back from Sarajevo in 1995 and all those places that sold the Tax Free King Eddie cigars; you’d buy them for 20DM and sell the box for £100. I found this lovely looking hookah pipe thing all laid out in a padded suitcase. I came out of there with the suitcase which I bought for $45 USD and Tony my new RAF buddy left with 2 bottles of Glenmorangie. Good lad. One month left to go? Really? Can’t be that bad.
On our way back to the car, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder in the darkening shadows of the underground car park. It didn’t feel right. I hadn’t seen one Allied Soldier yet, just some armed Iraqi on the door.
We made our way back to the little airstrip, the APOD (Air Point Of Departure) I suppose that’s what it was called.
“Fancy a coffee, Dougy?” Tony asked me, handing me back my rifle.
“Yeah, fuck it. Why not,” I say back and we walk off in the direction of Starbucks. Within the APOD the US had their own little residential area where they’d have all their Air Conditioned tents and 24-hour Cookhouse (that had burgers, coke, and ice cream) – those fuckers had everything, a right porkers paradise.
“Yeah, he’s with me. We’re just after a coffee,” Tony explained to the guard pointing to the Starbuck hut that stood, beckoning, 20 meters away.
“Has he got the approved clearance?”
“Clearance? Nah, he’s here for a couple of hours, then he’s back to Basrah,” he stopped short, realising this might be futile, “Look – Richardson. It is Richardson, isn’t it?” Tony said glancing at the US soldier’s name tag.
“I’ll need to see his clearance to enter,” the guard was having none of it.
“Automaton. Tony – pointless. I’ll wait here, if you get me one, that’ll be great,” I say.
Tony pointed at Starbucks. “He’s only after a coffee. He’s a British soldier and has SC clearance.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
Tony shrugged and waltzed through to Starbucks. “What you want?” He shouted.
Five minutes later he came out with two Styrofoam cups with lids firmly shut. He gave one to me and with one final, indignant look at the US soldier walked off.
“Fucking brainless,” he said.
I spent another 4 hours reading a book in the reception area, sat on a bench. My C130 arrived and I boarded it at 7pm.
The next day I arrived back in Baghdad, without a rifle or webbing. I was just some dude in Army uniform. The Police Chief was coming back at 7pm that evening with me. The RV was meant to be at 10am and so far I’d been waiting for five hours with no sign of him. Had he been absconded? Had he been killed?
I had a phone and used that to call him. This was my last resort. Despite 10 weeks Arabic language training, it still wasn’t enough. I got through to him and all I got was him shouting down the phone at me. It sounded like he was in a truck. What I needed was an interpreter.
“Any interpreters in the house!?” I yelled.
“Dougy,” Tony pointed to a guy who was selling cheap, rip off gold. He was at the entrance. He had this huge black moustache that looked like a Bass Broom stuck under his lip.
“Cheers,” I walked over to him and the fellah got up all defensively, I slowed down. “Can you talk with a person on this phone. I need to know where he is.” I handed the phone to him and he pressed it to his ear. Frowned and spoke.
“Salaam, ya seedee. Min’ ayn inta,” he nodded, “Na’am. Ahhhh.” He opened his mouth in a toothless grin and began to howl with laughter. “Na’am. Eee. Shukran. Shukran. Ma’silama.” And with that he handed me the phone back. His smile had gone as quickly as his howl of laughter erupted. “He gone. To Basrah.”
“Where in car?” Fuck!
“He nuss… sorry… half way.”
“Thanks.” I took the phone off him, “Great. That fucker is on his way back with his entourage of Spetznaz actors.”
“And you’ve got a six hour wait for your next flight,” Tony helpfully added.
“Thanks for that useful information. Yes. Six fucking hours. Reading the same shit,” I sat down, looked at the pallet full US MREs outside at the bottom of the steps, “And eating the same shit.”