THOM WESTCOTT

Land Rover Monthly - - Contents -

“The Iraqis seemed de­lighted at the prospect of driv­ing a west­ern jour­nal­ist around”

So, the war is over in Mo­sul and ISIS de­feated. Well, al­most. There are still a few mil­i­tants lurk­ing in tun­nels un­der the Old City and the an­nounce­ment of lib­er­a­tion has made it harder to get ac­cess than when the Iraqi forces were ac­tively en­gaged in com­bat.

Our mis­sion is to get to the banks of the River Ti­gris, the fi­nal area of Mo­sul that was lib­er­ated and which ap­par­ently turned into some­thing of a killing field. Ru­mours abound but it can’t be re­ported un­less we can get ac­cess. In the morn­ing, my­self and a hand­ful of other jour­nal­ists make it up to the brow of the hill and hang out with a group of Iraqi sol­diers.

From the top of their half- de­stroyed house, we can see the river and a de­serted ex­panse of rub­ble lead­ing down to­wards it. This is all that’s left of this sec­tion of the his­toric Old City, af­ter a cam­paign of air strikes try­ing to erad­i­cate ISIS’S last des­per­ate de­fence of the city pretty much flat­tened the whole lot.

Then we get told to leave. Mind you, the 50 de­gree heat is so un­bear­able, we’re al­most re­lieved. Af­ter a few hours, we try again, hitch­ing a lift with a truck de­liv­er­ing wa­ter and food to mil­i­tary po­si­tions. We are stopped at an Iraqi Army check­point. “No jour­nal­ists al­lowed,” they beam. We try ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing plead­ing with a mil­i­tary com­man­der, but it’s all to no avail. We are sent back again. Now on foot, we stomp back, sweat pour­ing un­der our heavy flak jack­ets, dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting smug­gled through the check­point in the back of an am­bu­lance.

Be­tween the Humvees lin­ing the bro­ken street, there’s a lovely bat­tered old Se­ries III and I pause to chat to a cou­ple of Spe­cial Forces sol­diers stand­ing nearby. It was an ISIS Land Rover be­fore, they tell me en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, and now it’s been re­pur­posed by the Iraqi Spe­cial Forces, as a sup­port ve­hi­cle for the ar­moured bull­dozer unit.

Coin­ci­den­tally, their mil­i­tary at­tire and ve­hi­cles are black. All they needed to do to the Land Rover, painted black by ISIS, was to change the stick­ers on the doors and bon­net from ISIS ones to those of Iraqi Spe­cial Forces.

I be­come so en­gaged with the con­ver­sa­tion, my fel­low jour­nal­ists have van­ished, de­feated by bore­dom or the un­bear­able rays of the sun. They must have pro­ceeded on to the field hos­pi­tal with­out me. A five-minute stroll is a mis­sion in this heat, so I fig­ure their walk­ing speed should buy me an­other ten min­utes.

“Please can you take me to the field hos­pi­tal?” I ask the Spe­cial Forces guys in crap Ara­bic. I re­ally don’t fancy walk­ing this road alone. The city is tech­ni­cally lib­er­ated, but yes­ter­day a few rogue ISIS mil­i­tants were still pop­ping up.

Iraqis love a mis­sion. Any time, any place, they’re usu­ally up for it. The guys seem de­lighted at the prospect of driv­ing a ran­dom west­ern jour­nal­ist around and I soon find my­self crammed into the mid­dle seat be­tween two hefty Iraqis. We bump down the ru­ined street with me try­ing to un­der­stand what they’re say­ing, since they have mis­in­ter­preted my abil­ity to string a few words to­gether in Ara­bic as be­ing flu­ent.

When we meet an am­bu­lance, I tell them to stop just in case it’s got my fel­low jour­nal­ists in the back. I climb out and open the back door and I’m con­fronted by three faces, wide-eyed with guilt, cam­eras awk­wardly com­pressed be­tween their knees and chins. “Any room for a lit­tle one?” I ask hope­fully. They shake their heads.

I ex­plain in ges­tures to my Spe­cial Forces guys that we must quickly fol­low the am­bu­lance and we pile back in. As we ap­proach the Iraqi Army check­point, I pull my newly-ac­quired army cap low over my eyes and try to as­sume a mas­cu­line pos­ture.

The am­bu­lance cruises through the check­point but my dis­guise fails me. “You can’t take that jour­nal­ist up there,” the sol­dier tells the Spe­cial Forces guys. “She’s not a jour­nal­ist,” the driver replies vaguely, wav­ing him away. The sol­dier takes of­fence and puffs him­self up into a pos­ture of self­im­por­tance. “She is a jour­nal­ist and they’re are for­bid­den here. You can­not go.”

The driver car­ries on talk­ing and then sud­denly loses his tem­per and says some­thing to the ef­fect of “who are you, an or­di­nary sol­dier, to tell me, a Spe­cial Forces sol­dier, where I can and can’t go and what I can and can’t do?” to the now de­flat­ed­look­ing guy on the check­point. We drive on, past the stink­ing ISIS corpses, crum­pled cars and de­mol­ished build­ings, with the Iraqis still laugh­ing up­roar­i­ously about the check­point in­ci­dent.

They pull up be­hind the am­bu­lance and let me out. Af­ter thank­ing them pro­fusely, I climb slowly up to­wards the brow of the hill hop­ing that, as far as ac­cess goes, it might be a case of third time lucky.

 Thom Westcott is a Bri­tish free­lance jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten for the Times and Guardian, and now mostly spends her time re­port­ing from Libya

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