21 Mar 2013

This was it. After the waiting, the Iraq war had begun

Just before the war, the Iraqi authorities made all the journalists in Baghdad move to the Hotel Palestine. The food was lousy and the lifts erratic, but we had no choice.

With the semi-hysteria that comes from fear and a few too many glasses of wine, a group of us crowded round a karaoke machine that the departing Philippines ambassador was leaving behind. We belted out our version of The Eagles’ Hotel California: “Welcome to the Hotel Palestine… You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”

The Channel 4 News team consisted of Arabic-speaking producer, Paul Eedle, multi-skilled cameraman/editor/producer, Tim Lambon, and myself. Our government minder, Mohammed Fatnan, and our driver, Yusuf al-Taie, hated Saddam Hussein and were utterly loyal to us. “If anything bad happens, I will look after you in my own house,” said Yusuf.

The government refused to allow the Iraqis to stay with us in the Palestine, so the night the “shock and awe” bombing started we were on our own. Tim set up the camera on the balcony of our 11th floor room and started to film. The targets, as predicted, were mostly empty government buildings on the other side of the River Tigris, and we had chosen a good vantage point.

We had pre-arranged a special knock so when I heard three slow, deliberate blows I opened up, knowing it must be one of our team. Yusuf rushed in. He spoke no English but we got the message quickly – Mohammed had sent him because he had learnt that Saddam’s secret police were going room to room confiscating cameras.

We had very little time. Yusuf ran off – he would be in serious trouble if they found he had warned us. Tim stuffed the camera into the wardrobe and Paul thrust the tripod under the bed. They grabbed mugs and went back onto the balcony while I got into bed.

Within minutes there was a furious knocking and shouting. Slowly I got up and opened the door, making a great pretence of yawning, as if I had just been woken. A short man in a plain shirt and dark trousers pushed me aside and hurtled to the balcony. He was screaming, anger exploding from his lips in Arabic.

Tim and Paul looked at him quizzically. Filming? Us? No, they were having a cup of tea and watching the fireworks. More expletives and shouting. Luckily for us, he was too angry to think straight. He didn’t even look for the camera in the most obvious places. (And if he’d stopped to check the mugs he would have found they were empty!)

He swept out in a welter of curses. We got out the tripod and camera and started to film again. This is it, I thought. After months of waiting, the war had started and there was no way out. I had no idea how long it would continue, nor how it would end but I knew I was working with the best team imaginable.

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