Askance founder and author of A Better Basra, Caroline Jaine has recently written a piece on the World Bank blog titled A Better Baghdad following a short visit to the city. Here she reflects on where her feelings during the invasion of Iraq.
“A Better Basra was my story of life in Iraq in 2006 as Head of Press & Public Affairs at the British Embassy Office in Basra. The book is about the personal struggles of a mother and a woman in a war zone, but also the challenges of forming a communications strategy and fire-fighting with the media. On the tenth anniversary of the invasion I choose to share a short extract from the book that discloses how it felt being a British diplomat in Sri Lanka during the invasion. Where were you when Iraq was invaded?” – Caroline Jaine.
I was still living in Sri Lanka when Britain joined America’s attack on Iraq on 20th March 2003. The build up to the invasion was uncomfortable. Everyone at the High Commission was told to buckle-down on security and we learned how to check our vehicles for car bombs and varied our routes to work, whilst we saw many of our US colleagues in the Embassy next door simply fly home back to America. Two days before the invasion I wrote in my diary: “We all wait with baited breath to see if Saddam & Sons leave Iraq in 48 hours. I think I know the answer already”.
The signal that the war in Iraq had started came at 3am on 20th March 2003, with the arrival of the Sri Lankan Special Task Force outside our home. Two of them were asleep across the barrels of their loaded weapons in the garage the next morning. That day we were told to keep the children away from school and although I went to work at the High Commission, as soon as we learned there was a large demonstration planned outside the US Embassy that day, all staff were sent home early.
Our regular guards were two Tamil cousins who argued day and night, but we liked them very much and they played cricket with the children in the garage and on the street outside our house. Unarmed as they were, they suddenly found themselves redundant as guards and were demoted to making tea for the new soldiers who shared their space. The addition of the soldiers was unwelcome all round as they made us feel more vulnerable not less. Dotted around the wealthy suburbs of Colombo the additional “security” flagged up every British and American diplomatic household in town – good information for any potential enemy. My assignment on the tropical island of Serendipity was about to change – and all because of the War on Terror that was happening many miles away.
On my birthday 11 days later, with a tongue firmly in my cheek, I wrote: We haven’t taken Baghdad yet. The Visa Section at work remains closed in case someone brings a pile of Semtex cunningly disguised as a visa application form.
Twenty-two days after the invasion, whilst taking a break with my family in India, we heard news that the war in Iraq appeared to have come to an end. Peter, to whom I was married at the time, had been growing a beard in protest since the war began, and enjoyed having a roadside bucket-and-blade shave in Jaipur to mark the occasion. Once we arrived in Delhi after a hot trek across Rajasthan in a jeep, we soaked up some air conditioning and cable news channels. On Indian TV, we snatched our first glimpses of the scenes of jubilation in Iraq as Saddam’s face was torn down and torn up. I remember there were green parrots on the window ledge as I looked out across the city of Delhi. I flopped onto the bed in the hotel room and wrote something in my notebook that makes me smile (or is that grimace?) when I read it over today: “I hope things will start to improve for the Iraqi people. I am sure that not all of them are terribly impressed with the UK/US occupation of Iraq, but our propaganda is reliably informing us that the British troops are especially lovely to the locals”.
Back in Sri Lanka, back at work, it became apparent that the British were not exactly flavour of the month in Colombo. Pressure was mounting, not least because my health was failing, but also because one of my colleagues was under investigation for corruption and visa fraud which was making big news in the Sri Lankan press. My tendency to mingle with Sri Lankans rather than other ex-pats, meant that things got pretty tough socially. Not only was I being asked about my colleague and his sex-for-visas scandal exposé (the tabloid take on it), but I was being put on the spot over British action in Iraq, especially by my Muslim friends. One friend, an eminent peace-loving intellectual and a great artist who had recently taken up wearing the hijab, I felt hardly able to look in the eye. As a diplomat I was obliged to toe the line. Well, quite clearly I couldn’t be seen to be criticizing the government I represented, but frankly I was often lost for words, so I began to slink back into the safe ex-pat zones of places like the Hilton and Colombo Swimming Club and hide amongst the fair-skinned folk. Hell, I even went to the American Marine Ball in search of allies – a mistake not to be repeated – we sat with a Netherlands crowd and nearly got thrown out for sniggering during the American National Anthem.
My mood was not cheered any by a man named Perera, who somehow got hold of my government email address and sent me obscene photos of dead Iraqi children. Not once or twice, but every single day for weeks. Finally our IT people were able to block him, but not before the disturbing images of the charred and mutilated little bodies had left an imprint on my mind.
Where were you when Iraq was invaded and how did it leave you feeling? Read more about Caroline Jaine’s decision three years later to volunteer to work in Iraq with what she thought was the reconstruction effort.