Day Trip to Basra

Basra third largest city in Iraq

We had visas and letters of introduction and were quickly ushered towards the diplomatic booth, the guard look at the ink smudged pages of my passport with a bemused smirk and called to his colleague for guidance, the advice was simple, just stamp them in. He did and we were.

As frontiers go Basra international airport was a breeze and minutes later we were driving through one of the most depressing landscapes the Middle East has to offer. The road potholed and broken, shops shuttered, orange flames and plumes of black smoke rise from refinery towers, silhouette of derricks against a filthy sky.

There are not many reasons to come to Basra these days, war and oil being the obvious ones, the taxi driver was asking why we were here, which company he asked several times, engineers he questioned, no sir, we are archaeologists.

I am not an archaeologist. My companions though were and it was their connections with the antiquities ministry that granted our papers. I quite liked saying I was an archaeologist and tried it out a few times at check points. In my time working across the Middle East I had used a number of nom deplumes, poet, actor, artist, once at hole in the fence crossing from Qamisli in Syria to Nusybin in Turkey the Syrian guard asked me to paint his portrait, I gulped but he gave a garrulous belly laugh, slapped me on the back and waved me through, better stick to poet I thought that time. Archaeologist had a ring of Indiana about it and I have been thinking about hats ever since.

Basra was deserted, we drove through shanty suburbs with streets empty, a mangy dog and few nervous cats, I walked the along the corniche beside the Shat Al Arab, a rat scrambled over packets of biscuits on sale inside a kiosk, I wasn’t hungry. I sat and chatted with an old guy fishing, he was cheerful and happy for me to sit with him, rusting wrecks and old pleasure cruisers were moored near-by, a hint of history and a more prosperous past, black flags were fluttering on the far bank, rubbish was clogging the water below the pier we were sitting on, any fish? I asked my new friend-I didn’t catch his name, some he said but very small, I think he was killing time more than expecting to catch his lunch. I glanced at the modern bridge spanning the waterway, built by the Italians he explained, very big he said proudly, very expensive. There was little else around that promised progress and little sign of promised prosperity. Its been 15 years since the fall of Saddam and 11 years since the British military turned tail and abandoned Basra to the Mahdi army and while the fighting has stopped the sad mess that survives is one fueled by oil greed and tribal domination, street protests are now common.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

The map made the stroll to Basra Museum seem simple enough so I left the fishermen and wandered off, the solid concrete blast wall outside the Basra International Hotel was a canvas of halcyon images, a mural of Mesopotamian Marsh life, the wetlands thought to be the Garden of Eden are now as far from Paradise as they could be, as I would find out in the coming days.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

I reached a checkpoint and deflected the questions with the aloofness of visiting professor, archeologist on my way to the museum I smiled, they check my bag and were very impressed by the size of my camera and soon had me snapping selfies. It tends to be like this in the Middle East, checkpoints can go one of two ways.

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Past the checkpoint the street became wider, more water filled potholes, rubbish filled wasteland, more military, I walked alone and kept my camera in my bag. Suddenly the sound of boots and gasps of hht hht hht across the road, a small platoon of soldiers all had their weapons trained on me, one behind the other they snaked out of the gate of a tennis court, it took me a few seconds to process what was happening and bring a smile to my face and resist the temptation to get my camera out, just a training exercise of Iraqi army volunteers, they raided an abandoned building and I went to the museum.

Housed in what was once one of Saddams palaces, the museum opened in 2016 with help and support from the British Council and British Museum, I pushed the large wooden doors open and walked into the main hall with glass cases with pottery, coins and artifacts that date back as far as the first millennium BC. The importance of the archeological heritage of Iraq cannot be underestimated and the small museum in an almost forgotten Iraqi city is small sign of hope. I would later drink coffee with the indefatigable director Qahtan Alabeed who deserves so much credit for this beacon of light in such a dark place.

Basra Museum

Outside the heavens open and a deluge not seen since Noah, I splash my way towards the hotel, soaked to the skin a car pulls up beside me and the driver tells me to jump in as if kidnapping was not an actual threat.

What are you doing man he says as I drip all over his upholstery, its like summer in England I tell him with a smile, yeah, he says but are the roads this fucked? We weave around the rapidly flooding road, we pass the Italian bridge that leads to Iran now just a faint outline in the mist, I think of Sinbad who set sail from Basra in the time of Harun al Rashid as we pass a listing Dhow moored in the dirty Shatt al Arab, Sinbad battled many monsters in his quest to right wrongs, the British took his name in 2006 as they set out to right the wrongs created by the invasion of Iraq, Sinbad is a myth and Basra is a mess.

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The driver pulls up outside my hotel and we chat a while longer, an old woman shrouded in black is standing in the middle of the street begging from cars passing on either side of her. Sistani saved Iraq the driver re-iterates, Sistani not Sinbad then.

Basra was a bustling hub of global trade in the 1950s, elegant villas and tree lined boulevards, the British writer and traveler Gavin Young was working in a shipping office then when he met the legend that is Wilfred Thesiger,Thesiger was headed to the Marshes and Young was keen for adventure and tried to persuade Thesiger to take him along, I will be back in six weeks for a bath said Thesiger, come with me then.

I too am headed to the Marshes and will be back for my bath very soon.

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Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal

So it was bound to come out sooner or later; Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal.

Thanks to that bloody Assange and his leaking Wiki tittle-tattle, like a jealous teenager Julian it seems has been scrolling through Hilary’s Whatsapp messages and internet history to find irrefutable proof that the inevitable leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.

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That the Democrat nominee is corrupt would not come as a surprise to many, that she has been funding ISIS is, albeit unlikely, hardly something she would shy away from had the deal something to offer in her interests such as, well you know, profit, no, obviously the shock of the revelations is my involvement.

So the accusation that Hills back in the early 1990’s was a board member of the French cement company Lafarge, the same company may have received micro finance loans aimed at development projects in third world countries, Lafarge has a cement factory in Raqqa province in Syria, in the heart of the short lived (I am sure) Caliphate, the French CEO is reported to have paid via a series of middle men, or as we prefer to call them; blood sucking parasitic war lords, substantial amounts of cash to keep the factory operational, ISIS taxes or protection money call it what you like, the factory was able to continue production and importantly continue to employ and pay local staff until it finally closed in 2014.

So where in this sordid story does Wreford come in I hear you ask; In the summer of 2011 I was commissioned by Lafarge to visit Raqqa province and photograph the factory, staff and some of the surrounding area, the revolution in Syria was well underway by that time and fighting was taking place in Homs and the south but Aleppo and the north still relatively calm, it proved to be one of my last paying jobs in Syria.

I flew with a representative of Lafarge to Aleppo, as usual on arrival my camera equipment caused a degree of excitement with the security guys, journalist, journalist one was the cry of one young recruit almost weeping with pleasure, we calmed them down with some official paperwork and set of for our hotel.

We checked into the brand new Carlton Citadel hotel, a swanky palace of a place that was once a beautiful Ottoman hospital, I had already visited the hotel just before it opened the previous year, its only redeeming feature being the views over the beautiful old city of Aleppo. Syria in 2010 was a very different place and tourism investment was flourishing, the Carlton though was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the time being 2014 and the wrong place being the front line between the Syrian regime army who were using it as a base to attack the rebel opposition, in an audacious attack opposition forces tunneled under the hotel and laid enough explosives to raise the hotel to the ground, its Google + page now declaring it permanently closed.

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The Carlton Citadel just before it closed.

Early the following morning we drove the 150 Kms or so via a few military checkpoints without problem to the factory where we spent the day, unlike cement factories I have photographed in Egypt this was pristine, efficient, safety conscious and came with the usual overwhelming Syrian hospitality that included not only a substantial lunch but also a porta-cabin with bed and shower to relax in. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the local farming villages, remote and beautiful countryside, Bedouin shepherds and fields of smiling sunflowers, it was a calm and peaceful time but the war was very close and would inevitably arrive.

The factory eventually closed its doors in 2014, the staff were paid for a while but soon mostly fired, and the local villages were overrun by the godless animals of Daash, now as I write this the trip is fresh in my mind yet so much has changed, I hope those beautiful people have survived all that has been wrought upon them.

My name has been redacted from the emails but I will confess here and now I did take money from Hilary Clinton via a Syrian intermediary working for Lafarge during the Syrian uprising.

Just Another Day of War in Damascus

From my back-dated Damascus Diary.

Emerging from Hamadiyah souk the light is almost blinding, the shoppers silhouetted, the modern world outside the Old City is noisy and harsh; in the summer the heat slaps you in the face and where the traffic is frustrated and angry.
The Old City an urban oasis offers protection, a sanctuary where the narrow alleys and trellised vines shield the sun, the mud brick thick walls of century before muffle the noise, its only necessity that compels me to walk the half kilometer of covered bazaar, leaving behind the calmness and languid pace, where only pigeons being chased by children disturb the peace until the Muezzins recital, a sound even to the unbeliever is as harmonious as birdsong.
Always it feels like leaving one world for another, a world of cars and commerce, of electric elevators, offices and underpasses.
In the past when I had to leave the Old City I would avoid Hamadiya simply to avoid the crowd of shoppers seemingly all heading towards me but these days I prefer it simply as it avoids a couple of checkpoints, that’s not to say it’s not watched, soldiers lounge in front of the Mosque at one end and undercover police mill around at the other, they never shown any interest in me and I pretend not to notice them.
Sharia Thawra, Revolution Street, every Middle Eastern city has one and this one no less revolting, clogged with traffic, the car park opposite empty since the car bomb, I had been in the exact spot twenty-four hours exactly before it exploded, I felt the blast under my feet while walking in the souk near my house, I should vary my route I keep telling myself-kidnapping is becoming more and more of a threat, past the Palace of Justice and more irony, over the road and into the electric souk, a thriving market in generators that now only the very well off can now afford to counter the frequent cuts.
Standing on the corner of Merjeh Square I think how anyone of the hundreds of cars parked randomly on corners could be full of TNT or whatever it is they use.
I cross over the foot bridge as a convoy of ragged Syrian troops trundles underneath to or from the front line just a couple of kilometers in either direction, at the bottom of the footbridge a soldier is checking bags, the road is closed now and concrete blast walls line the street, perhaps when all this is over it could stay pedestrianized I wonder, its much nicer, another bag check, everyone being very polite.
My current favorite watering hole, for coffee that is, Pages café, Americano coffee and electricity, well more than in the Old City anyway, the WiFi is somewhat iffy but enough-it’s not as though I have images to file these days. The café is crowded as usual, the smoking ban being flouted, I can’t see anyone being brave enough to try enforcing it either given the situation, most of the familiar faces of my friends have gone now, some have died but most have left the country, the waiter brings my coffee without me ordering it, I perch on a redundant barber’s chair by the window, most of the clientele are students busy with studies, hunched over books, ipads and laptops, the sound of artillery thundering overheard gets no attention whatsoever, if it wasn’t for a war outside the scene inside would be the same anywhere, bright young things working on a bright future, on various occasions I have been approached and asked for help with language study, CV writing, job and visa applications, rarely we discuss the elephant in the room.
Despite everything happening I retain great faith in the young Syrian generation to drag the country from the mire, however long it takes.
The following day a massive car bomb explodes in Merjeh square, dozens are killed and scores injured, mangled cars are strewn across the streets and every windowpane blown out of every building, I felt the blast under my feet at home and watched the black smoke billow in the breeze.

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Outside Pages Cafe Damascus on a better day.

Damascus The Beginning of the End ( PT6)

I knew what I was getting into moving to Syria, I knew the risks, I have no regrets, my bank cutting me off and leaving me without funds was to say the least fucking annoying, it’s hard to imagine being made bankrupt is the least of your problems, I could live with the war, I wanted to stay in Syria as long as I felt the risks were calculable, Syrians had to live with this and if I was being denied the opportunity to photograph what was happening at least I could bear witness, the media was as is no surprise all over the place and hardly giving a true picture of the situation.
My issue with the Moukhabarat was obviously something to worry about; for the most part I had been following Kipling’s advice and keeping my head, it’s just routine everybody would tell me, if it was serious they would have come for you, the Old City was crawling with security these days and I wasn’t hard to find, if they did surely my blood coloured British passport would save me from diplomatic embarrassment, my embassy and minions needless to say had long since fled, I had placed all my faith in a corrupt not very secret secret policeman, one thing stuck in my mind, the words of the soft immigration officer, after telling me I was wanted at the intelligence building he advised me not to go.
I sat on my terrace, shielded from snipers, ignoring the shelling and read Eat Prey Love; a book so annoying I wanted to throw it into the air and see if it got shot to pieces. When the power was working my television viewing was just as banal, ten years of being detached from popular US/UK culture I was now well versed in Kardashian catchphrases.
Wasseem would call and tell me where and when I should meet him, numerous visits to filthy offices, usually I would wait outside, at the passport office in Merjeh I sat at the guards desk and watched as several detainees were lead away handcuffed and chained to each other, the filed through the reception area and up the stairs, nobody paid any attention, now as I think about it I hardly paid attention only looking up from the messages on my phone as they passed.
Cruising the clogged streets of Damascus with Wassem as my chauffer had its advantages, closed roads were open to us, checkpoints were just a formality as we skirted around long queues of those waiting to humiliated; a friend had been arrested at a checkpoint a few weeks previously, when he asked why he was told “we’re arresting everybody today” Wassem would pepper me with questions about my financial situation, the value and size of my house with obvious thoughts in the back of his mind, he had an agenda and was helping me not only for the few hundred dollars we had agreed but had his eye on a bigger goal, despite his position he never questioned me on the current situation which was unusual for those connected to the regime.
A battle was raging a few streets away, I climbed to the roof to get an idea of where it was happening, some neighbors had the same idea but they thought it prudent to bring the children too, as if the collapse of the country was entertainment or a video game, suddenly bullets were flying above my head and striking the satellite dishes, I ducked instinctively for cover although I knew I was shielded by the higher building, my neighbors on the other hand were not and made a run for the stairs, the shooting only lasted a few minutes but it gave me plenty to contemplate after, how far do those bullets travel.

Things were not looking any better.

Damascus Old City
Damascus Old City

Damascus The Beginning of the End (pt5)

A Syrian fighter jet screamed overhead, the roar of its engines unable to keep up with its speed, it turns into the sun, the light glinting off the fuselage, I imagine the pilot having to shade his eyes, the jet dives and dispatches its load, a plume of black smoke rises from the Damascus suburbs, the jet disappears but I know in a few minutes it will return, it’s a ritual, the circle of death.
I rarely sleep through the night, the sound of automatic gun fire disconcertingly close, the sound at night travels easily, it’s never as close as I think, then again sometimes it’s very close, usually rebels attacking checkpoints, often brief firefights but just enough to keep my senses too alert to go back to sleep-oddly though I can nap easily through the sound of daytime heavy shelling.
Most days my routine would be to walk through the Old City and out through Hamadiyya Souk, cross Merjeh Square and onto Pages Café in Shaalan, I would also have regular meetings with Wassem outside the immigration offices to check on progress, usually there wasn’t any, the weeks dragged on, on the days I didn’t go outside the Old City I missed car bombs, obviously it would be safer to stay at home but I refused to be bullied into being a prisoner in my own home although in effect I was already under house arrest, I could not really leave the confines of the city without permission anyway.
Once my laptop had died living without electricity became considerably more bearable, the cuts could be so regular you could set your watch by them and then sometimes the power would just go off and not come back for hours and hours. On one occasion I had been living without electricity for three days when I suddenly noticed my neighbors were enjoying TV, I stared up at their window, went outside to check my other neighbors and sure enough I was the only knob without electric, turns out the box had fused when the power had returned three days previously and I was oblivious.
Then the gas ran out.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of things, I often did, or as they say; you just cry. I didn’t cry, I made a conscious decision to stay when I had ample opportunity to leave, at no point had I underestimated the risks and consequences of my actions.
My usual buoyant sense of humor and oddly chipper mood though was shattered with a phone call from my bank in the UK, banks only ever call you when then want something and mine wanted my overdraft paid back that same day, I climbed to the roof to get a better reception, the noise from the shelling was intense and every sentence had to be repeated several times, yes they completely understood and sympathized with my predicament but business is business. Calling them back proved harder than you may imagine, I was sure having conversation with someone in my branch familiar with my account history etc would solve the issue; did I mention the absurdity of things just now? Try as I might the only people I managed to speak to using premium rate numbers were on the sub-continent, the war in Syria didn’t seem to register, the sound of bombing in the background didn’t seem out of place, I probably did lose my temper and may or may not have said things I may or may not now regret.

Merjeh Square Damascus Syria
Merjeh Square Damascus Syria

Damascus The Beginning of the End (pt4)

In the cold light of morning one thing seemed abundantly clear; I was in the shit.
I decided to pack up my things and prepare the house for my leaving, after ten years not such an easy task, I had already started re-arranging things in the hope of renting one of the rooms, several people came to look at the house but nobody wanted to deal with the militia checkpoint outside, the house was still only part restored, my builder, Abu Joudy’s work clothes still sitting on the top of his step ladder, he had long since left the country, Kurdish and without Syrian ID he found life difficult enough even before things went pear-shaped.
The artillery continued to fly overhead, some days it was relentless, very occasionally rebel mortars would fly back in the opposite direction, and several times they came close, bullets would zing overhead sometimes too but generally I felt I would have to be very unlucky to be hit, maybe I just preferred to think that.
I updated my friends and some family on my situation, few people could understand why I could not just leave, it’s simple, my name was listed on the computer at the borders as being wanted and I would simply be detained or sent back to Damascus.
Usually in Syria problems like this can be resolved with “wasta” or connections, over the years I must have built up some, not so very long ago I had a very friendly chat with the Syrian first lady and enjoyed tea with Presidential adviser Bouthania Shaaban, I went through my phone and collection of business cards, many had left, some had defected to the opposition, who could I actually trust? Eventually a friend suggested she knew a guy who smuggled people out of the country and I should give him a call.
I arranged to meet Wassem (his real name) at Trattoria restaurant in Shaalan, it was early evening and already the streets were becoming deserted, I sat on the terrace as I had done so many times before with friends, Wassem came over to me, wearing a pink or was it peach Lacoste t-shirt and a big ben size wrist watch, he didn’t want a drink just the details, I explained, he seemed to think it would be no problem, at least once a week he drove a car over the border with fugitives such as myself to Beirut.
Wassem I was soon to learn worked for Syrian intelligence, the Moukabarat, in most cases the not very secret secret police, this was an interesting turn of events, so I thought if Wassem is working for the very same people who are investigating me perhaps I can just pay him to remove my details from the computer-allowing me to leave legally and not ruining any prospect of return etc, So I left my fate in the hands of wide boy Wassem.
The only other option otherwise was to visit State security branch 235, I felt I would be okay and that my British passport might just save me from the horrors that have befallen so many that have been taken there, I had listened to chilling first-hand accounts from so many Syrians over the years, feel free to search Human Rights Watch and Amnesty etc to read brutal accounts of what goes on, I was prepared to face a short detention if I had to and deportation but more than that does not bare thinking about, a friend who was also expecting to be taken had told me she had quit smoking in preparation for the long stay and cut her nails back so they could not be pulled out, looking back I should have been biting mine to the extent there would be nothing left but somehow I still remained cool, and if I needed any other reason not to visit the opposition forces were regularly attacking the building, I didn’t trust Wassem but left him to see what he could come up with.
Could things get any worse I wonder, well apparently yes it seems they could.
My faithful Macbook decided now would be a great time to retire, it was not so old but each tech guy I spoke to said the same thing, it was fucked. Cash was running low now and although I had found a guy who made regular trips to Beirut with a pocket full of cash-cards to extract cash from working ATMs buying a new laptop was going to be a struggle, inflation was now rampant, I had to pay Wassem and I had to eat.

Deserted Hamadiya Souk
Deserted Hamadiya Souk

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt2)

I tried to put life in Syria behind me as I journeyed through Jordan; it had been a while since I had last been outside the country and it felt good not to be looking over my shoulder all the time, I did feel a sense of relief after checking into a cheap downtown Amman hotel, I have no great affection for Amman although filling up on Fuul and Falafel at Hashems is always a pleasure but putting Syria behind me was not quite as easy as I would have hoped.
My first reminder came during the night, I woke suddenly in panic only to find it was the noise from a nightclub in the next door building, my muddled mind was mixed up and for a minute I could not work out where I was, I am sure I heard gun shots, maybe I did, these kind dream induced mini panic attacks have been persisting until now, even here now in the cold light of day the sound of helicopters sends shivers down my spine.
I stayed a little too long in Amman busying myself with photography and meeting friends and was glad to be on the pre-dawn bus to Petra, now while I like to think my work shows a degree of emotion most close friends may argue that I am not prone to showing it, I am after all English so I guess I let the side down- the bus was dark and cold as I clutched a paper cup of stale Nescafe and cried to the sound of the only Lebanese women who embodies the essence of Syria; Fairuz.
From Petra to Aqaba in the hoof prints of Lawrence and that wonderful Arab revolt whose legacy is being fought over still. A boat across the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai, through the mountains and over the Suez canal and onto to Cairo, along the Nile to the Nubian city of Aswan and back to Cairo and finally a flight to Beirut before the cab ride back to Damascus.
I met displaced Syrians at every turn, hands held out hopefully, clutching a Syrian passport as undisputed evidence of suffering, the cafes of Cairo, the Streets of Beirut and Amman most surprisingly of all on a small boat crossing the Nile to a dusty village not far from the border with Sudan, I had tried to put some distance between me and the sadness of Syria but seemingly that was not possible and now it’s time to head back.
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