Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

My terrifying helicopter trip to the baking heat of a war zone

In the second day of a special report from inside Iraq, Deborah McAleese shares her experiences as she joins the Ulster soldiers currently based in one of the most dangerous countries in the world

"Ladies, gentlemen and sirs, welcome to Basra Airport. When we come under indirect fire immediately hit the kerb and, as always, do not move until given the all clear."

I am one of a small group of civilians, sitting conspicuously among a troop of uniformed soldiers, who share a nervous laugh and hastily tighten our body armour as further security instructions are hollered down the length of a stuffy bus parked on a runway at Basra airport.

It is 1am and I have just arrived at the front line in Basra with a group of soldiers returning to war after two weeks rest and recuperation.

As we disembark the bus to enter the aircraft terminal, which is no more than a brick hut, despite the early hour the heat is suffocating.

A fiery orange hue that tinges the night sky looks like the city is ablaze, but is actually burning gas flares of oil wells on the horizon.

Less than 12 hours ago I boarded a charter flight to Al Udeid, an American air base in Qatar, with a couple of hundred soldiers, looking downcast, in desert fatigues.

There was little conversation among the soldiers, many of whom had just left children, wives and husbands behind after a break at home.

From Qatar we were herded onto an RAF Hercules transporter and sat cramped together on uncomfortable orange, net seats. It was hot and sticky as ear plugs were handed around to help minimise the deafening noise of the engines.

As we entered Iraqi airspace someone shouted: "Body armour and helmet on now." The urgency in his voice panicked me and I fumbled to secure my protective clothing.

Suddenly the lights went out and I grasped the unsuspecting hand of a London nurse called Natasha who was travelling to Basra where she had volunteered to help out at the airport army base hospital.

The transporter plunged unexpectedly towards the ground, intermittently rocking from side to side and I let out an involuntary scream, which thankfully was disguised by the drone of the engines.

It wasn't until we were safely on the ground that one of my fellow passengers - a very tough looking army sergeant who was clearly amused by the confusion and fear on my face - informed me that the terrifying landing was normal practice as insurgents have been trying to shoot down military aircraft.

After being grilled by security inside the airport I finally arrive at the Contingency Operating Base (COB) in Basra, where over 200 members of the Irish Guards - many from Northern Ireland - are based and am led through a maze of tents housing 5,000 military personnel, surrounded by sand bags and bomb shelters, to my sleeping quarters - a mattress at the bottom of a bunker.

The COB has been attacked by indirect fire mortars or rockets more than 300 times in the past three months and I am warned to keep my body armour and helmet with me at all times. I sleep with it by my side.

After three hours of restless sleep, not unusual for the troops, I am awakened by the sound of Northern Ireland accents outside the tent.

The sound of a familiar accent in the middle of the Iraqi desert is both surreal and comforting and the Ulster soldiers are as pleased as me to meet someone from home.

"It's great to talk to someone from back home and we are really glad that the media at home is now taking an interest in us," said 22- year-old Sam Boyd from Dundonald, a guardsman with the 1st Battalion Irish Guards.

The Irish Guards are due to return home in six weeks. Many have been involved in heavy fighting with insurgents, some have lost friends, all have wondered at some point if they would ever make it home.

As I join a convoy of them on an intelligence operation south of Basra we are crammed like sardines into the back of an armoured tank which is riddled with bullet holes from a recent battle.

There is little air in the back of the vehicle and the heat, compounded by having to wear heavy body armour, is unbearable.

When we finally arrive at our destination, after several stops to check for roadside bombs, there is no respite as I step out into the relentless 40°c sun and overlook the vast bareness of southern Iraq.

Back at the army base, where for several months during the summer it was a shooting gallery for insurgents, I am surprised by the quiet.

Apparently attacks on troops have reduced dramatically over the past few weeks and the camp was targeted just once during my stay, while I was out on an operation. One soldier was injured and had to be treated for shrapnel wounds.

The welcome calmness in and around the Basra area is in stark contrast to my arrival in Baghdad where the sound of gun fire and explosions from the red zone are a common background noise.

I was lucky to fly into Baghdad in the cockpit of a Hercules and from the air it looked just like any other cosmopolitan city until a mortar exploded, lighting up the night sky.

We landed in darkness and hurried across to a waiting helicopter to transport us across the red zone to the green zone, where around 60 Irish Guards are providing security at the residence of Major General Rollo, British Commander in Iraq.

The deafening sound of several whirring helicopter blades, which covered us in a thick cloud of dust, almost drowned out the sound of gun fire and explosions.

We had to be choppered into the green zone, known as the International zone, because going by road - along what is known as Route Irish and once the most dangerous road in the world - is just too risky.

The Puma helicopter flew fast and low across the red zone that is urban Baghdad and into the relative quiet of the green zone with its empty thoroughfares populated by US and British military vehicles and opulent palaces from the Saddam era.

Back at the COB and exhausted by the excitement of my first few days in a war zone, I decided to join some of the soldiers in the welfare room - a tent with a large television, fridge and dusty seats. We settled down to watch Eastenders, my body armour and helmet at my feet, next to a row of AK47s.

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