The Sunday Telegraph’s Olga Craig, the first British journalist into Umm Qasr and Basra, is a veteran of the first Gulf War. This war has been very different, she told Press Gazette, totally unexpected for troops and journalists alike.
A non-embedded journalist, she and Swedish photographer Jens Munch have been living out of a 4×4 vehicle for the past four weeks.
Four days before the war started, they camped out in the demilitarised zone. “Then we had the massive bombardment that was the beginning of the war. That really was shock and awe. The entire desert shook.
“Then very early in the morning, when the coalition forces went across the border, we trailed in behind in a convoy heading for Umm Qasr.”
It was then Craig began to realise this war was outside her previous experience, when she reported for Today. “The coalition forces and the reporters had thought this was going to be a quick, incisive war. The soldiers were saying to me, ‘Oh, it’ll be a beer in Basra by teatime’ and it was not so. The fighting in Umm Qasr was fierce, very, very fierce.
“What took me aback most was the amount of snipers and Fedayeen who were just roaming around, firing at anything passing. The British and American forces had expected this would be rather an old-fashioned war, where our troops wore uniforms and their troops wore uniforms and everyone knew who everyone was. Instead, we had Iraqis in civilian clothes, carrying a white flag, and they would just open up with a Kalashnikov.” At one point, driving behind a column of British tanks, Craig and Munch saw Fedayeen firing on escaping Iraqi soldiers. “That sort of thing was happening in among the ordinary fighting.”
The journalists were carrying their own food and water, but the townspeople began to rob the reporters: “Several people had their four-wheel drives either shot up or bricks put through their window. There was a lot of ill-feeling towards coalition forces and journalists alike.
“You could never relax. You always had to be on the look-out for mortars, bombing or fighting and if you weren’t in the thick of that, you always had to be on your guard about locals. We got robbed. I stupidly left the back of the van unlocked and within moments there was a crowd of about 100 around it. They took medical supplies, water and food.”
Going into Basra was something Craig thought long and hard about.
“I did think it was important that we saw something of what the conditions were like because no one had any information.”
Her 45-minute foray ended abruptly when “suddenly we saw a group of four Iraqi soldiers sitting in a shop doorway and they had their guns stacked up beside them. At that stage I yelled, ‘Reverse!’.
“It was an astonishing second when we saw them and they were looking incredulously at us. Jens did a massive U-turn. The surreal thing was that when we got back to the Irish Guards, they debriefed us.”
‘UNILATERALS FEND FOR THEMSELVES’
Olga Craig is the first of the media pack’s “walking wounded” to return from covering the war.
She is back in the UK for hospital treatment having picked up a virus in the insanitary conditions in which she has been living for the past month. Her first wash came the night before she left when an Iraqi rigged up a “shower” – his wife trickled water down a pipe.
The virus, probably picked up from an insect, has led to acute erosion of the cornea.
“I look like Sinbad the sailor with a big patch over my eye,” Craig said. “It wasn’t easy to keep clean. Most of the time we would park at night somewhere near British or US forces. Embedded reporters have protection, food, everything from the army, whereas we unilaterals just have to look out for ourselves.”
She added: “I will be going back in. I hope it will be no more than a few days.”
By Jean Morgan