Turkish Airlines Flight 304 from Istanbul began its slow descent to Erbil, the main airport for the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Looking down below, I could see the strange contrast of the region’s snowcapped hills and the evergreen valleys. It was not the only thing about the area that was incongruous: While it all appeared peaceful down below, only about 50 kilometers away to the south was the frontline of the battle between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Islamic State.
So here I was, finally on my way to making the documentary that would eventually become “Big Phil’s War.” It had taken weeks to get here. A combination of false starts, television bureaucracy, and the lack of availability of key personnel meant too much time had been wasted. Like all journalists, we had a deadline to meet, and that meant that the amount of time we could spend in country was less than we had planned for.
Journalist. It was still sinking in. Here I was, Trooper Campion, one-time member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, now transferred to Her Majesty’s press corps! It felt very strange indeed.
Sky had given me my journalist’s accreditation—a laminated plastic press card complete with a picture of my internationally famous handsome features. Even though I was very proud of the new addition to the collection of Campion ID tags, I could not escape one nagging feeling: I was about to enter a war zone, facing the most honking, motivated death cult on God’s earth, and the only thing I was armed with was a plastic ID card!
As the plane started its final descent, I took a quick look around at the three others who would be with me over the next month or so. Over on the other side, peering out of the window as though he was mentally framing up shots, was the cameraman. Rob was the ideal man for the job. A former 42 Commando weapons instructor, he knew this part of the world inside out. After all, he had been deployed here during the Second Gulf War and had gotten up close and personal with Saddam’s mob.
He was an expert mountaineer, supremely fit, and one of the very best cameramen that Sky had—the go-to geezer if you were ever headed anywhere that might boot off. He was, on top of all that, a top bloke to spend time with. We were very lucky to have him.
Sitting next to Rob was a bloke about 15 years older. Both had the same wiry, very fit build—not surprising, really, given that they shared a similar background. Andy was also an ex Royal Marine—45 Commando—but then he had gone in for selection with another unit. Yes indeed, also in the party we had a former member of the SBS!
Andy was around my age, so it turned out we had plenty of mates in common from both Hereford and Poole, headquarters of the two UKSF outfits. Andy was there with us each time a television crew deployed to any hostile environment or a combat zone, as they have to have a specially trained security operator with them. It was the sort of job that many of us have done in the past and I could have easily done myself.
But I kept forgetting one thing: I was the bloody presenter now. The talent! The star of the show!
Despite the close camaraderie, there was the inevitable friendly rivalry, and I never missed the opportunity to explain the difference between Andy’s and my respective units whenever we were introduced.
“Andy was in the Special Boat Service, where they train you to fight underwater. I’m from the SAS, and we walk on water.”
I never get bored repeating that one!
And then I looked back down the aisle at the fourth and final member of the party. There he was, nose stuck in one of his pointy-headed political magazines, Mr. Toby “Don’t worry Phil, I’ll think of something” Sculthorp.
In many ways, Toby was, of course, the most important member of the party, the coach who would make sure all the key elements came together in the making of the film. But I couldn’t help thinking—in the same way as I was finding it hard to think of myself as a journalist—that he might at some point become a liability. If it all got seriously noisy, me, Rob, and Andy could all look after ourselves. Toby may have been a good filmmaker, but he was still a civilian.
The plane touched down with the usual bump, and we started our long, slow taxi down to the airport proper. We had a fair way to go; Erbil airport has the longest runway in the world, something I had learned from my extensive research before deployment. (OK, I read it in the in-flight magazine.)
Clearing customs was the usual nightmare, made worse by the all the camera kit we were carrying. Everything had to be unpacked, poked, prodded, pulled to pieces, and X-rayed more times than a ballerina with a broken backside before we were all given the all clear.
It was a relatively short drive to the hotel. The Rotana in Erbil is one fancy five-star setup, but it was five-star living at bargain-basement prices. Built during the oil boom years, the Rotana had once been the number one choice for multi-millionaire movers and shakers from all over the world.
ISIS had put a stop to all that.
So we stood in the almost empty reception, going through the formalities of checking in. It felt very strange, flying in to cover a war story from the safety of an upmarket hotel, and as I sat on the edge of my big double bed in my room, I felt somewhat uneasy about the whole thing.
I was here to cover a brutal and bloody conflict, not sit around on my arse. And as much as I like life’s little luxuries as much as anyone else, there was only one thing on my mind: I wanted to get on with the job. Right then and there.
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