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Chris Gray’s War Diary

Chris Gray in Iraqi Kurdistan.


Chris Gray is picture editor with the BBC NewsNight team. In Kurdistan from the days of the lead up to war, he provided this glimpse of the everyday life of a journalists' community waiting for, and sometimes getting, their story.




March 10

Journey to northern Iraq/Kurdistan.

Well, I've finally found access to the internet in Northern Iraq. I'll send this brief report to you despite it taking 20 minutes to log-on and the Arabic keyboard making my typing a fakir!

This is certainly a strange place to be. We're in Iraq but not in Iraq. Officially, this place doesn't exist and we're sort of honoured non-persons being here. If the Iraqi regime got their paws on us it'd be chokey for sure and judging by the state of my 'hotel' room you don't want to sample government hospitality!!

Uploading by satellite from Biyara, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The journey here was a marathon. A four a.m. start meant London to Istanbul went smoothly but then we had to travel into the city to pick up special authorisation to join the invited group of journos that Johnny Turk had given 'permission' to travel into the Kurdish controlled part of Northern Iraq. The border's been shut since the last Gulf war ten years ago for 'security' reasons. However, there's a queue of decrepit oil tankers at least six miles long on either side of Habur gate, the crossing point, waiting to smuggle oil from the oil fields at Mosul.

We returned to the airport to find our evening flight to Diyabakir cancelled because of snow shutting the airport there. By this time it was also snowing heavily in Istanbul too. We met a British Kurdish delegate to the conference and he advised us to switch to another flight going to Gaziantep in the South East and travel on from there. A mad scramble ensued, including our refusing to board the aircraft on the steps until we got sight of our twelve bags of checked in luggage for the Diyabakir flight!

Arriving at Gaziantep, we booked two taxis for a three hour drive to Salinurfa. We got there at three a.m. and had two hours sleep before a five thirty start for the six hour drive to Salopi, the nearest town to the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi border. The journey was interesting; abutting the Syrian border most of the way with minefields, electric fences and guard towers every two hundred metres for the entire length of the border! This of course, is designed to stop the PKK from crossing Syrian Kurdish areas into Turk Kurdish territory.

The entire Kurdish region in Turkey is very run down and evidence of the disdain with which the Turks have treated their Kurd minority. In fact, the only poverty I've seen like it has been in India. We had a jolly fixer arranged for us by Johnny Diamond in Istanbul. 'Tommy' certainly came up with the goods in terms of arranging transport and accommodation. His engaging smile almost made you forget the prodigious quantities of dollars he was relieving us of for his services. He was missing the first two joints of his right index finger. He informed us that his friends had nick-named him Tommy Half-finger after Tommy Hilfiger.

There then followed a four day media pantomime in which the Turkish authorities played a bizarre form of 'It's a Knockout' with the World's press. They'd call sudden 'briefings' in a school hall to tell us that 'for security' all our passports would be taken off us. The ensuing outrage made them back down. We were also told that if we didn't come back to Turkey with the official party we'd never be let in again. Of course, you have to realise that of the approximately 250 journalists on the beano fewer than a dozen had any intention of coming back to Turkey as everybody saw this as the last chance to get grandstand seats for the forthcoming attraction.

The Turks would then announce that the arranged coaches were leaving in an hour. There would then be various scenes from Wacky Races as the assembled media raced to the location in a variety of vehicles and fought tooth and nail to get favoured locations for luggage and bums. Then the Turks would flourish a seating list and it all happened again!

We set off for Iraq only to turn back five minutes later as the Turks had suddenly heard that the conference was 'postponed'. In fact, there was a furious battle going on between the Turks, who wanted to escort us with a military convoy and the KDP (Democratic Kurdish Party) who would have no truck with this and threatened all sorts of nasty things should we be accompanied on the journey.

After a couple of days waiting and further 'briefings' we finally embarked yet again and actually got to cross the border. Having had our hopes of getting into Iraq dashed so many times there was real relief that we'd finally made it and couldn't now be turned back.

On the Iraqi side there was an immediate contrast with the Turkish conditions. The infrastructure was much better and there was evident wealth in terms of the quality and quantity of goods in the shops at the roadside.

The region is breathtakingly beautiful with sweeping plains surrounded by snow capped mountains and we climbed into these as night arrived. Snow also fell in quantity. Before long, the coach drivers announced that it was too dangerous to continue and we put into a fabulous but completely empty luxury hotel in Dohuk, the nearest town to the border on the Kurdish side. There was speculation that the hotel was built purely to launder the money derived from oil smuggling operations.

After about fours hours sleep we arose and tried to separate from the travelling media by hiring a Jeep 4x4. Unfortunately, just about everybody else had the same idea whilst the Kurds did their level best to hold us all together by stopping us at check points along the route.

We climbed high into the mountains through a tiny pass. The snow was very deep and cars were abandoned everywhere. There were frequent delays as vehicles became stuck passing one another. There is another road bypassing the mountains but it passes very close to Iraqi troop positions and is too dangerous to drive.

Another marathon drive brought us to Erbil, where we're now based. It's a bustling town with a thriving market very reminiscent of Shepherds Bush market so I almost feel at home!

The BBC have taken almost an entire floor in a hotel here and we've set up our edit pack ready to file back from here when our dish arrives. There's quite a strange atmosphere. We're about a four hour drive from Baghdad and well within artillery range from the current front line between Kurds and Iraqis which is only twenty minutes away. There is of course much discussion of how we imagine the situation will develop. It's not beyond reasoning that Saddam may try to hit this area before he goes down as he hates the Kurds with a vengeance. Strangely, the Kurds here are very proud to be Iraqi and they all support the Iraqi football team.

It's just Saddam and his regime that's the problem.

First Impressions of Kurdistan.

Two weeks in Northern Iraq now and still only starting to adjust to different life.

It takes time to get to know a place. Until you've left every expectation of 'your' life behind; the friends you're used to seeing, the food you expect to eat and are used to, you can't really begin to appreciate the impressions flooding in on you. It's hard enough to do when you're on a two week vacation but another level entirely when the society that you're in is poised on the edge of a precipice.

I packed almost all the wrong clothes to come here. Fleeces, hats, gloves, thermal socks. As though to mock me, Spring has arrived with a vengeance. Rain and lightning at night but warm, balmy days and the countryside bursting with life. It's hard to believe that so many people may soon die prematurely, even harder to believe when there's no apparent sense of doom or approaching conflict amongst the Kurds.

We spent the first week in Erbil, capital and stronghold of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), one of the two Kurdish factions. The other is the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). These two were are loggerheads in a bloody and futile internecine war until only five years ago. Each side backed covertly by neighbouring states or Saddam. Peace came with the realisation that nothing was being achieved except continued division and confirmation of the economic advantage stemming from the UN food for oil programme in which the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq receives 13.5 % of the revenues from oil sold from the Iraqi wells.

The flashpoints of the civil war are now adorned with peace symbols painted on the rocks and manned by joint checkpoints. There are of course, numerous other checkpoints to negotiate as you travel around the region.

Erbil itself is a bustling, lively town, somehow reminiscent of what all towns must have been like at some point in their development. The streets are thronged with unemployed men. Women are far rarer but can be seen even in Western dress and more frequently in traditional Burka. Commerce is thriving, mainly aimed at the economic expectations of the residents; shoe cleaners, cigarette sellers, cigarette lighter fillers, soap salesmen and countless other small tradesmen all hawking their wares. My 'best buy' to date is an alarm clock in the shape of a mosque which has the muezzin chanting instead of an alarm.

The town is strictly divided into commercial areas making it surprisingly easy to find what you are looking to buy and convenient too. All this is dominated by 'The Citadel' and imposing hill and fortress dating back thousands of years and now filled with a motley collection of Kurd refugees from the oil region of Mosul which has been 'Arabised' by Saddam. The grim collection of shacks and raw effluent running down the packed earth alleyways assault the senses. Every inch is used for housing and there are scores of brightly dressed and happy children running everywhere. The old men squat on their haunches and often touch their hearts with their right hand in greeting as you pass.

I still find it bizarre to have complete strangers approaching me in the street grasping my hand and proclaiming "Thank you, thank you". They think that I'm American and want to express their gratitude for ridding them of the Iraqi dictator.

Not everyone welcomes us of course. There is the (hopefully) remote chance of Islamicists attacking us but it hasn't stopped most of us from the BBC contingent walking around the town, even late at night. The same can't be said of the U.S. networks. CNN and Fox News have created sand bagged fortresses of their respective hotels much to the amusement of ourselves and the locals. Perhaps they'll have the last laugh.

With every passing day we spend more time considering our own security. How many vehicles to use, how many spare tyres to take; cluster bombs have pieces in them specifically designed to shred car tyres. We're also hoping to eventually find out how to mark our vehicle roofs so that we can minimise, to some extent, the risk of friendly fire. We've also started to carry our CBR kits in case of chemical or gas attack.

Another problem entirely is extraction. Should one of us be injured, we're effectively stuck here. There is an arrangement with an Italian hospital which is well equipped. Getting to it would be a long and difficult journey. Hopefully, once hostilities start, the Foreign Office will pressure neighbouring states to the conflict to let us pass their borders should we need to make a dash for it.

We've bought a generator sufficient to cover our technical needs as we're assuming the power supply will be cut when Bgan satellite ip modem theoretically at up to 120Kbs but more realistically at around 40-50Kbs. It takes just over an hour to feed two minutes of vt but does completely free us of being attached to a dish and enables us to feed from literally anywhere.

A few days ago (March 1st) we moved from Erbil to the PUK capital of Sulaimaniya. The drive takes about four hours through dramatic mountain scenery. There were several vehicle checkpoints to negotiate on the drive and a final one just before entering the town itself.

The next day we passed through this checkpoint again en route to visit one of the concentration camps built by Saddam in the 1980's to house the Kurds in his drive to eradicate opposition from them. 'Peshmerga' (those willing to die) had been using the mountain villages as bases on their daily attacks against the Government forces and had succeeded in assassinating three regional governors. Saddam simply bulldozed villages by the thousand and moved the inhabitants into concrete compounds with no essential services connected alongside the main roads in the plains and next to military camps which took daily roll calls.

Today, these mud filled hovels of unspeakable squalor are still half full of people. Those that were able returned to their villages and rebuilt their houses. Those that remain have no money and no job and nowhere else to go.

You sort of get used to the various militias and men with guns everywhere. We passed the checkpoint once more returning to Sulaimaniya and learn that five Islamicists were shot dead in their car just a few hours earlier. The initial response seems to be that it's all a terrible mistake but as the story unfolds it appears to be a deliberate targeted killing. An eight year old girl was also hit in the crossfire.

Working in news I thought that I should at least know something about the Kurds. Of course, I remember the footage of the refugees fleeing across the Turkish border after the last Gulf war when Saddam moved to crush the uprising against him. He exacted terrible revenge on both the Shia in the South and the Kurds here. Somehow, it completely passed me by just how dreadful it was. Sulaimaniya was seen as the stronghold and there were daily executions and mass torture. The park just down the road from my room was the execution ground. The family of those to be killed were drawn to witness the act and made to applaud and shout pro-Saddam chants as their husband, son or daughter was murdered in front of them. Women were invariably labelled as prostitutes.

When the U.N. imposed no-fly zones in the north and south, offering some measure of protection to those opposing the regime, Saddam reacted by withdrawing his 'administration'. He destroyed as many buildings as possible. He cut the electricity supply and the water. He nullified the currency by cancelling the most common 25 dinar note. Ten years ago the Kurds came back down from the mountains with literally nothing.

To have achieved as much as they have in such a short time is astounding. The whole place looks like a building site and the roads are pot-holed tracks and so what if my hotel room doesn't have hot water; they have their freedom. Unlike almost any other state in the region there's freedom of speech and association far greater than most and there's an active system of democratic debate and government.

I've been pretty ambivalent about this war myself but actually being here has changed my mind completely. I lay in bed last night and listened to the World Service on my short wave radio. There was an item interviewing some 'anti-war' thirteen year old school girls who'd taken the day off school to go to a demonstration and who thought the whole idea of us going to war was wrong. I now know that it's right but surely it was right too ten years ago when we should have finished it but didn't for fear of the Islamic state that could have arisen. Surely it should have been right too when Saddam Hussein gassed the residents of Halabja in 1987, except that he was then 'our' ally in his war with the Iranians. The more you see of the world the more you realise that states only occupy the moral high ground when it suits their strategy.

This week-end we're being offered protection by a famous mountain fighter Kaka Hama, to visit his mountain stronghold on the Iranian border. We need protection as he's at war with Ansar Al-Islam, Islamic radicals backed by Iran. We'll also be visiting the village of Halabja.

March 19

The future seems as misty as the hills surrounding Sulaimaniya. War fever has suddenly gripped not only the local population but all the journalists as well. My own colleagues are not immune. Knots of journalists sit or stand around the hotel lobby in small groups and there's much grand talk of all the preparations and planning that needs to be done. In reality, the planning appears to comprise of sitting around, drinking tea and smoking of endless cigarettes. This is not a place to be a non-smoker. Virtually the whole population are to be seen with a cigarette permanently stuck in their mouths and the press contingent here are similarly addicted. Every so often, money is flourished and drivers sent on errands to buy things or have something done to their cars like top up with fuel or change the petrol filter.

There's a tremendous drive to get material on air even though, in reality, little is happening. The process of actually gathering the material is straightforward and relatively leisurely, certainly for the correspondent, producer and fixers, who all disdain to carry anything heavier than a mobile telephone whenever they possibly can. On the other hand, the process of creating the story to transmit is fraught with tension. The correspondents drift off into themselves whilst writing their script and show little real interest in the actual picture content. The producer has a tendency to become manically aggressive when the editing process starts and only calms down as it becomes obvious that the deadline for feeding the story back to London will be met. In the car en route to the KurdSat tv station to feed the story, both become suddenly like hyper-elated teenagers; giddily light hearted and congratulating themselves whilst telephoning colleagues back in London with 'updates' on their experiences here.

There was some amusement whilst we were editing and we covered a sequence in the town nearest to the Iraqi controlled area called Cham Chamal. The Iraqi tank crews have been firing the occasional machine gun round down from the hills and enfilading the streets. A small group of Kurds are showing 'our man' where one of these bullets landed and we suddenly realise that he's conducting the interview whilst he crouches in a doorway whilst the poor Kurd is in full view of the marauding Iraqis! We rib him mercilessly about this but in reality it's quite a relief to have one of the world's biggest cowards with you in a war zone.

March 20

Sulaimaniya seems like a ghost town. Many people have left to seek sanctuary in the mountain villages for the duration of the war. However, some of those living nearest to the Iraqi controlled areas have migrated into town so there is some movement. There are long queues and short tempers at the petrol filling stations, though most of these are nothing more than a couple of men sat at the roadside with a few dozen plastic jerry cans filled with multi-coloured fuels of various provenances.

The deadline to Saddam expired at 04:00 local time and I awoke with a start at some point in the night and listened to what I thought was an almighty barrage of guns. Only slowly does it become obvious that I'm listening to a tremendous electrical storm playing itself out in the mountains nearby.

There was a final flurry of excitement amongst the hack-pack and a clutter of luggage in the lobby of the hotel as the majority of them made preparations to strike out for the border areas but not without leaving hefty deposits on rooms in case they need to return in a hurry. Final deals are being arranged with local fixers and there's much muttering in corners and furtive shaking of hands. The locals, of course, are making hay whilst the sun shines, so to speak and those fleet of foot and/or gifted with languages are making a financial killing. The free market is in full flood and the daily rates for fixers is experiencing hyper-inflation. A daily rate of around $30 has inexorably climbed to $200 and stories are legion of fixers tarting themselves from crew to crew on a daily basis and there's a desperate panic to secure the services of a dependable local contact. Many journalists who thought they were nicely set up have suddenly found their fixer has gone AWOL and returned to his family up in the mountains.

One particularly unhappy spot is the ABC News suite in the Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel. They haven't managed to transmit a single item since being here as their uplink dish has died on them. What a situation to be in; more money than Croesus to throw around but nothing to do with it. Tempers have reached boiling point and there are a lot of raised voices. Charlie Glass, their anchor doesn't seem to mind, he's writing a book anyhow so the situation suits him.

March 25

An early start with no breakfast as I had to pack all my bags and the equipment up. With no proper northern front the rich seam of events in Sulaimaniya was drying up and as American special forces were now appearing openly in Erbil we decided to decamp to there to see if we could sniff out another story or two.

A few miles down the road we drove up behind a pick up truck with a man standing in the back covered from head to foot so that he was unrecognisable. He held onto a machine gun mounted so that it faced the front of the vehicle.

Kurds drive like madmen, it's in their blood. There's a constant tooting of horns as cars thrust up behind slower, usually older, cars and overtake them. The horn sounding is necessary because of the dreadful state of the roads and cars are constantly weaving erratically all over the place in a futile attempt to avoid the worst of the holes.

As we tried to overtake the mystery car, its driver swerved out to prevent us overtaking and the machine gunner half turned and motioned with his hand for us to stay behind and not overtake. Then we noticed the relatively new four wheel drive car in front of our gunner, its windows blacked out. We instantly surmised that both vehicles contained American special forces on their way to some secret destination.

We sat back and watched the fun as car after car of insanely driving Kurd overtook our car and tried their damnedest to overtake the pick up truck. Not one of them made it.

High in the mountain passes the strange convoy slipped off the road toward lake Durkan and the private residence of Talibani, the PUK leader, no doubt on some clandestine mission.

Erbil itself was pretty much like Sulaimaniya, half-deserted and most of the shops closed because residents had fled to the mountain villages to seek sanctuary from the feared chemical weapon attack by the Iraqis. Things had improved slightly from the week-end though and life was slowly returning to the towns.

March 26 & 27

We drive down to Kalak, the frontline between Kurds and Iraqis about 20 minutes drive to the south of Erbil. B-52's have been giving the Iraqi positions on the ridges facing the town across the river a terrible pounding. For the first time, at night you can hear enormous numbers of aircraft flying overhead almost constantly.

The BBC have rented a house at the edge of the town directly facing the Iraqi positions only a few hundred metres away. Live 'two ways' are being conducted from the roof of the house and sent back to London via the satellite dish parked in a small truck at the side. There's an almost constant thud of ordnance detonating in the hills just beyond.

No camera lights can be used because of the danger of attracting incoming fire so a small mini DV camera with an infra red illuminator is used. This has the effect of making the correspondent look like a ghoulish green figure from a Stephen King movie. John Simpson has been affectionately dubbed 'Shrek'.

Because our programme goes out at half past ten in the evening UK time, it's one thirty in the morning for us here and often two thirty before we start the drive back to our hotel. There isn't another car on the roads and bumping along at night it's easy to fall into a reverie and almost impossible to believe that literally a few minutes drive away people are doing their best to kill each other.

March 28

Late on Thursday evening we'd heard that the Iraqis had made a tactical retreat from the heights around Cham Chamal where they'd been terribly exposed to bombing and pulled back into Kirkuk.

Having returned to the hotel at three in the morning, most of the team had only three hours sleep before pulling out to see whether they could gain access across where the Iraqi checkpoint and frontline had been.

I had the luxury of another couple of hours sleep before packing all my equipment away and gathering up the bags the others had left and stacking them in a truck to take back to Sulaimaniya. Sat in the lobby of the Chwar Chra Hotel there was a sudden loud detonation outside and everybody rushed out. A plume of smoke and dust was rising into the clear sky only a couple of hundred metres away. It later transpired that the Iraqis had launched two artillery shells toward Erbil but only one of them had exploded.

The drive back to Sulaimaniya was idyllic. Crystal clear skies and unlimited visibility led us to take the scenic route through the mountains. Kurdish music blared on the car's cassette player. The large 'TV' stickers emblazoned on the outside of the vehicle made it obvious who we were and lots of people stopped their work in the fields and waved to us as we weaved our way around the pot holes.

The most noticeable thing upon returning to the Ashti Hotel was the step change in security at the entrance. Everybody was body searched and bags examined. It was an obvious reaction to the suicide bombing last week-end and a sensible precaution with the imminent assault upon the mountain bases of Ansar Al-Islam, the radical Islamic group fighting the PUK around Halabja.

We also learned of a disturbing incident in the hotel restaurant during our absence.

The 'hack pack' had been sat around their tables chattering when an unknown figure had walked through the restaurant and into the men's toilet. One of the journalists commented upon the stranger when the man suddenly appeared from the lavatory waving a hand gun in the air. Apparently all hell broke out. Some people were screaming at the man and others were screaming at those shouting at the gunman. The suicide bombing was foremost in everybody's mind and this highlighted how vulnerable they all were. It eventually transpired that the strange figure was a bodyguard for a senior Kurdish figure also eating in the restaurant.

The rest of the team had gained good access to the zone beyond the checkpoint and toward Kirkuk and we had a cut story to edit and feed back to London.

Everyone was very tired and tempers were short during the edit, everyone snarling at everyone else but only because of the fatigue. Back in this location, I suddenly realised my prescience in how I'd set up this edit location. I noticed that I'd placed the correspondent on the other side of the room from where I was editing and by chance I'd put him in front of a mirror. No wonder he hadn't been talking very much, every time he looked up from his lap top computer he was preening himself, budgie like, in his reflection.

March 29

A slow start. Everyone is exhausted after three days of non-stop work and travel.

I spend most of the morning typing up my diary and reading e-mails. Thanks to the satellite i.p. modem we have with us I am able to read and participate in the online discussion forum of my neighbourhood web site.

The anti-war movement have been very vocal and strident in their denunciation of the allies campaign and would have everybody believe that there is no alternative to their point of view, labelling everyone else 'pro-slaughter,' a 'bigot' and worse.

By simply reporting to the forum what I have seen and heard from Kurds and Iraqis I am driving some of the other contributors to absolute distraction. In an effort to reduce the impact the impact of my postings, some suggest that my perception is 'coloured' by contact with the Kurds, implying that they somehow weren't Iraqis too and so their opinion doesn't count.

In the afternoon, I return a favour to the French news channel TF1 and journey over to their hotel with my equipment to dub for them a selection of our rushes for them to fill in gaps in their coverage. Without crews in the field helping each other like this it would be impossible to cover the conflict. It's interesting that the only company not participating is CNN.

On returning to the hotel I find a note from my colleagues informing me that they've gone to the Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel for drinks and dinner.

When I eventually find them there's a convivial air. Their glasses are full of diluted raki, the aniseed flavoured local spirit and there are already a couple of empty 1/4 bottles lying on their sides. 'Andy' an ex SAS soldier and security 'consultant' joins our table and more bottles of raki arrive, followed by some hideous tasting wine.

I didn't know whether to believe him.

Allie implores Andy to join us on the road to Baghdad in our little convoy as we could appreciate his battlefield awareness. Just by listening to his general comments on personal safety I certainly agree that he'd be a welcome addition for the potentially hazardous journey. His relaxed manner contrasted sharply with the 'rough diamond' approach of the BBC's own security man in Erbil who'd already created a near mutiny amongst the drivers by his tendency to communicate with them by shouting louder, in English, whenever they didn't understand an instruction.

March 30

The first thing we learn in the morning is the news that there'd been a terrible accident with the Channel 4 News correspondent Gaby Rader. There are conflicting reports at first and it is only later that we learn the full horror that he'd fallen to his death from his hotel roof. Shock strikes the entire team. We had had many conversations with Gaby and his producer, Sophie. Allie does her best to comfort her at this awful time.

The weather is crystal clear and as I leave the hotel, pondering the fragile nature of our lives I look up and watch the contrails of the B-52's as they arc slowly southward in azure skies.

March 31

The week-end battle in the mountains to the north of Halabja between Ansar Al-Islam and the PUK, assisted by U.S. special forces is almost over and we are free, for the first time in over a decade to visit the villages that had been the strongholds of the Islamic groups. For Newsnight researcher and Kurdish guide, Hiwa Osman, it is a particularly poignant moment. We are to visit Biyara, birthplace of his father and somewhere he's never been able to visit.

We turn off the main road at the checkpoint where, only a week earlier, a suicide bomber had murdered five people including Australian cameraman Paul Moran. The wreckage of the vehicle still lay at the roadside.

As we wind our way up into the mountains the remnants of the week-end battle are everywhere to be seen. Shell craters and lines of rapidly dug trenches run alongside our road. We meet the security chief for the area and he warns us to be careful of mines. Groups of Peshmerga relax in the sunshine and wave us on cheerily not bothering to bear arms for the first time in ages.

We draw slowly into Biyara, a small village nestling in the steep sided lower slopes of a mountain whose crest is the border with Iran. The village is bisected by a mountain stream and the majority of the village is on the left looking upstream.

Biyara was the headquarters of Ansar Al-Islam and the U.S. had struck here with a vengeance. At least one cruise missile had hit the mosque in the centre and almost completely destroyed it. It was now covered with men bashing the collapsed walls with futile blows of sledge hammers and doing their best to sweep up the debris in the main building which was now ventilated with gaping holes.

What was remarkable was the relative lack of damage to surrounding buildings considering their proximity and close packed nature of the village. As in any conflict though, there were innocent victims. The row of small shops and houses immediately adjoining the mosque were totally destroyed and their owners, who in many cases had led a miserable life under the harsh sharia law of the Ansar mob, now had only the clothes they stood in.

At the entrance to the village there was also a building that had been used as a prison. It had been thoroughly looted by the time we examined it and discarded shoes and upturned cabinets filled the upper rooms. The ground floor housed the cells and they were medieval in their primitiveness. All natural daylight was excluded and the inmates had to squat on bare concrete floors of rooms that were barely one and a half metres wide by three metres long with a hole in the ground at the end for a toilet.

When the assault started, Ansar had executed all their remaining prisoners and the body of one lay outside where he'd been dumped, shot in the head.

This struggle was an almost irrelevant side issue in the major battles occurring to the south but still an accurate reflection of the vile nature of war in its widest sense.

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