This was taken over Baghdad on a flight back from the Green Zone to Camp Victory next to the international airport during the worst of the violence between the Sunni and Shia militias and the American troops.
I don’t have the date for it, but working from the several trips I made to Iraq it was probably the summer of 2005.
It was taken on a Blackberry phone and I’m surprised at the quality of definition especially as we were on a helicopter thundering above the capital.
We were on an RAF chopper for the 12 mile journey which, despite its own drawbacks, was infinitely preferable to doing the road trip. That entailed using several unmarked but bullet proofed cars along with two bearded and armed ex British military security guards in the front. They usually wore sunglasses and Arab headgear. We usually ducked down on the back seats behind tinted windows.
After several kidnappings and beheadings of Westerners, we really didn’t fancy running into trouble. The airport road was known as ‘Route Irish’. Due to the checkpoints, and stopping if there was gun fire up ahead, the journey could take over an hour. One team which escorted us used to be ready to go about 8 hours before a flight. They would wait until there was a gun battle and then set off on the basis that ‘By the time we go past they’ll have packed up and gone for cup of tea”. Bad things happened on Route Irish.
With the helicopter all you had to worry about was someone firing a missile at you.
It never happened on the 6 or so occasions I hitched a lift with the RAF, but several times a pilot, thinking something might be afoot fired off ‘chaff’ from the side of the aircraft to divert any heat seeking missile which might come our way. The bang when the chaff was fired used to set the heart racing.
It was exhilarating flying over the Baghdad rooftops especially on the journey home. Life in the Green Zone was claustrophobic punctuated by the occasional mortar round landing, and then nerve wracking forays out into the streets to do some real reporting. Homeward bound, with the blisteringly hot air blowing through the open doors of the chopper, you knew you had only a few minutes before the tension, which was permanent whilst in the city, would begin to lift.
The gunners were from the UK forces, and used to spend the journey scouring the land below us, occasionally ‘sighting up’ suspicious activity. In the photo you can see the gunners knee pads which were necessary as long periods were spent kneeling on the metal floor. He is also wearing a harness to prevent him from falling out on the occasions he had to swing the gun even further out of the aircraft. Over his shoulder you can see what I think is the blue bag holding our cameraman’s tripod.
The microphone coming from his helmet was to speak with the pilot. The gunners rarely communicated with us other than with hand signals, which were abrupt and to the point as in ‘You. Sit there. Don’t move. Get out’.
Due to the overwhelming noise of the chopper, both on the ground and in the air, we never got a chance to say thank you to them other than a via a quick thumbs up as we tumbled back out on the tarmac. I’ll always be grateful for those rides.