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Libya — Battle of the Arab Spring

If Gaddafi is defeated, it will be through the kind of fighting now raging on the streets of Misurat

It is 2 May, my twelfth full day in Misurata, and I'll start with a man I met at a private clinic that had been turned into the city's main trauma hos­pital. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was two months old. Loyalist forces surrounded Misurata and controlled parts of the city centre, but the thowar - or revolutionaries - were putting up fierce resistance despite being outgunned. The battle crackled and boomed day and night.

Dr Tahar Alkesa, a surgeon, was sitting on the curb outside one of the white tents erected in front of the clinic to serve as a makeshift emergency ward. He is 31 years old and undoubtedly handsome, but the hours and stress had marked and changed him. He was sallow and unshaven, with dark rings under his puffy eyes. The evening light was soft and fading fast as we chatted. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

I had seen Alkesa at work earlier in the day, when fresh casualties were arriving at the hospital every few minutes. An ambulance or pick-up truck would screech to a halt outside the tent, amid cries of "Allahu akbar". If the victim was a thowar, he usually had a bullet wound, having been picked off by a sniper. Civilian casualties generally had shrapnel injuries caused by shells or missiles, the most vicious of which was a Grad, a long, tubular projectile fired out of a 40-barrelled launcher known as "Stalin's organ". When they were fired into Misurata, you heard a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and then bang, bang, bang.

One Grad victim arrived in the back of a blue sedan. Both his legs had been blown off at the knee. A crimson stream of blood trailed on to the tarmac as he was carried into the tent. Within a few minutes he was wheeled out, covered by a blanket. People gathered outside and launched into an anguished but beautiful refrain: La ilaha illa Allah,/La ilaha illa Allah,/ al-shaheed habib Allah. ("There is no God but Allah, there is no God but Allah, the martyr is dear to Allah.")

Alkesa worked without interruption, stitching, cleaning, talking softly to the patients, offering words of reassurance. His expression changed little, even when a grimacing man in his mid-twenties was rushed in. The man's face was blackened by smoke and his eyes were white and wide with pain and terror. His filthy khaki pants were bloodstained and torn. His forearms were shredded. He was a tank driver. The thowar did not have tanks.

His first request was for a lethal injection, because he was convinced that he would be tortured or beaten for fighting for Gaddafi. Alkesa politely said no, assuring him that he would be looked after. He cleaned the man's leg and groin wounds and sewed up the strips of flesh on his arms. The tank driver said he was from Tripoli, and that his commanders had told him that Misurata was under the control of foreign-ers and terrorists who had been destroying mosques. He said he felt he had been cheated, and was sorry.

Now, sitting on the curb, Alkesa told me: "Inside me, I really did not want to look after that man. I did not enjoy treating him. But it was my duty to look after a human being."

It pained him even more that the tank driver was a Libyan, unlike those of Gaddafi's forces, a minority, who are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, usually Mauritania, Chad or Sudan. "I just ask myself, what has Gaddafi done with their brains to make them fight us like this? He is not a human being. He is evil. Satan."

Until a few days earlier, he had not seen his wife, his four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for a month. So intense was the workload at the hospital that he had been sleeping there; his family had become trapped after government troops overran his neighbourhood. Because the mobile-phone networks in the city had been cut, he had no way of reaching his family. "For two or three days I was completely dissociated from this world," the doctor said. "Even though I was working, I was asking myself: 'Is this real? Am I even real?' Then I came round and started feeling myself again."

Still, he said, every night when his shift ended, he would walk to his car, open the door and sit in the driver's seat. He had nowhere to go. He just needed a private place to weep.

Misurata is Libya's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, where the Mediterranean coastline dips south in the Gulf of Sirte. In better times, if Gaddafi's rule in peacetime could be described that way, you would drive there from the capital with a government-approved guide by your side. But since the beginning of the revolution, the only way in to Misurata has been by boat. First, you fly to Cairo and drive west for 14 hours, crossing the Libyan border roughly halfway. That gets you to Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya's revolution began in mid-February.

From there, you travel on a local fishing boat, carrying emergency supplies and most likely weapons for the rebels. The voyage takes over 40 hours.
Another way in is on the Ionian Spirit, a Greek ferry chartered by the International Organisation for Migration to pick up foreign workers stranded in Misurata. That journey takes just under a day, assuming loyalist forces are not bombing the port - as they often were.

Misurata has a proud history. An important trading post since ancient times, it provided determined resistance to Italian occupation a century ago, prompting one commander to declare that Libya was a snake and Misurata its head - something local people love to tell you. In modern times it became Libya's industrial hub, with its port and one of Africa's largest steel factories. Low-slung and sprinkled with palm trees, the city is well laid out and mildly prosperous. Most of the 300,000-plus residents had enough food to eat and many had cars and decent houses, too. Yet, given the country's vast oil reserves and small population, Libya should be much wealthier, more akin to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, in the view of many people you meet.

Since seizing power in a coup d'état in 1969, Gaddafi has squandered tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects and misadventures, such as sponsoring international terrorism. Meanwhile, countless public works projects, such as the renovation of Misurata's main hospital, were allowed to drag on for years. Yet that was not the main reason Gaddafi was so despised here, Alkesa told me. He explained that by the time he was born, in 1979, Gaddafi had come up with his "Third Universal Theory" of government, which he claimed was superior to democracy and communism and would lead to "a state of the masses". Its principles were laid out in his Green Book, which became required reading in schools and universities.

Most Libyans thought it was quackery, but very few dared question it openly. Those who did so were hanged. As a public service, Gaddafi ensured that the executions were shown on state television. "I remember watching them as a child," Alkesa said. "Some loyalists would run up to the bodies as they hung and jerk them downwards, to make it more violent. My father would have tears in his eyes when he saw that. That is why we have always hated Gaddafi. Not because we lacked money or food, but because we had no freedom . . . We also believed that nobody could destroy him. We were resigned to waiting for God to take his life."

Then, in January this year, there was a revolution in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. And then the turmoil in Egypt, to the east. The despotic leaders of both countries were toppled by people power. Libyans were inspired, especially the youth, but still they had no idea how they could emulate their Arab neighbours, Alkesa said. Compared to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia had seemed like liberal democracies even before their revolutions. “Despite our dreams, nobody could imagine that this could happen in Libya," he said. "No one. Really, no one."

On 15 February, there was a small protest in Benghazi over the arrest of a lawyer representing victims of a prison massacre. Two days later, a protest had become a city-wide uprising. The ripples reached Misurata. Nothing had happened yet, but people sensed it might. Alkesa's two brothers, who sell gold jewellery, removed all the stock from their shops and brought it home. Something was about to happen.

On my arrival at the port in Misurata on 20 April, I was taken to a girls' school that had been turned into a media centre for local journalists, some of whom accompany the thowar to the front line each day. They post video footage on YouTube, or send it to al-Jazeera, to which every television set in the city appears to be tuned.

At the media centre, I met a 23-year-old man whom I'll call Ahmed Ali. He worked in the graphic arts and he spoke good English. He was one of Misurata's first revolutionaries. He told me that, on 17 February, he and a few dozen other young men, most of them in their early twenties, held a demonstration in support of the people of Benghazi.

They were arrested by the security forces, who beat them before hauling them away. "During interrogation they showed us our Facebook pages, where we had been talking about plans for a protest. They had been watching us even before," Ali told me.

Some of those arrested, including Ali, were held overnight, others for two days. It was the spark that Misurata needed. The editor of a newspaper where Ali sometimes worked announced he would not publish again until all the men were released. On 19 February, some of their families and friends went on to the streets to demand the same. “We were 30 people, and then in a few minutes we were 100. Soon we were 5,000," Ali said. "It was incredible."

The security forces opened fire. The first martyr of the revolution, Khalid Boshahma, was shot dead. For his funeral the next day, tens of thousands of people turned out in the city centre. Tear gas was used. Snipers who had been positioned in nearby buildings began firing in the air. People in the crowd started hugging each other, believing the army had taken their side by refusing to shoot at them. But then the snipers started picking people off. Dozens were shot in the head or chest. None of the protesters had guns - keeping a weapon was prohibited in Libya under Gaddafi - but their rage was enough to shake the army. As demonstrators began setting fire to buildings associated with the regime, state security hastily left Misurata, perhaps having been ordered to, or maybe out of fear. Tension was mounting in Tripoli, and so the government was unable to spare troops to mount a counterattack for two weeks. For many people in Misurata, it was the best fortnight of their lives, Ali told me. But they knew Gaddafi would be back.

Under the guidance of a hastily assembled judicial council, the people of Misurata prepared to defend their city. By looting the local armoury, they had acquired some AK-47s and grenade launchers but most of their weapons were home-made. Young men were instructed to prepare thousands of Molotov cocktails as well as fist-sized bombs known as gelatina, made from TNT.

When Gaddafi's forces finally attacked on 6 March, they met no resistance and were allowed to drive into Tripoli Street, the main boulevard, a few miles long, with its smart shops, coffee houses, banks and office blocks. Then, when the order came, hundreds of young men positioned on the rooftops along the street started hurling their bombs. The thowar joined in with their light weapons. Taken by surprise, the loyalist forces battled
for four hours to fight their way forward, but could not. Many of Gaddafi's soldiers were killed, and the survivors were driven back to the edge of the city.

The next attack, on 19 March, was on a different scale. Troops entered the city from several sides, Russian-made tanks leading the way. This time they forced their way into Tripoli Street. Out of armoured personnel carriers poured many hundreds of snipers, who raced up into Misurata's office buildings and residential apartment blocks.

Other units took over the city's vegetable market, the college of medical technology and the unfinished hospital. The urban conflict had begun: terrifying, old-fashioned war where men fired at each other at close quarters. The daily casualty count rose remorselessly. Ali's maternal uncle was shot in the leg by a sniper. One paternal uncle was killed. Another was kidnapped from his home and has not been seen since.

Like thousands of other men, many of them students or workers in their early twenties, Ali volunteered to join the fight. His father gave him an old hunting rifle that he had kept hidden in the house for years. Others in Ali's unit joked that while Gaddafi's forces were pounding the city with anti-aircraft guns, Ali was fighting back with an anti-duck gun. "We were at the front line, but I never wanted to be right at the front. It was really scary, as we did not have a leader yet and the situation was very confused," Ali told me as we drove around the city one day. "I don't have a strong heart like some of the guys."

Nor was he sustained by faith. "You probably think that I am a Muslim, because of this," he said, pointing to a Quran on his dashboard.

“I did shout Allahu akbar when we fought, but I don't believe in God and that virgins for the martyrs stuff, and neither do many of my friends. We like to listen to music, get drunk on the beach on home-made alcohol. I just can't tell my family how I feel, because my uncle is the head of a mosque."
After a few days at the front, Ali's colleagues suggested he might be more useful working in the media centre. He agreed, and gave his hunting rifle to another member of his unit. Two days later, that man was shot in the stomach. “I never found out where my father's gun went," Ali said.

By the time I arrived in Misurata, the street battle had been raging for weeks. Most of Tripoli Street was controlled by snipers, but Ali agreed to drive me and two other journalists to the side roads that intersected it, where units of thowar were in combat with the snipers.

The car belonged to his brother and was a mess, cigarette boxes, shoes, biscuit wrappers and a few tins of sardines littering the floor. The boot was filled with tins of canned food. Ali slipped a CD titled Alternative Ballads into the car stereo: soft rock for a hard war.

We passed bakeries where men and boys were queuing for rations of bread. Despite the scarcity of goods, supermarkets had kept most of their prices stable. A shop manager told me: "This is a war, not a time to make money."

Cigarettes were the one exception. Rothmans, Ali's brand of choice, had quadrupled in price to ten dinars (about £4). There were thowar checkpoints every few hundred metres, reinforced with huge berms of sand brought from the beach, or large pieces of concrete pipe. At one roadblock, twisted remnants of missiles and shells fired by Gaddafi's soldiers into Misurata had been placed on top of one pipe. Next to it, with an arrow pointing towards the display, was a sign that read, "These are his weapons." Poking out of the pipe was a rake and spade: "These are our weapons."

Closer to the city centre, the tactics used by the thowar in the guerrilla war became evident. Giant shipping containers filled with wet sand and metal filings had been used to block off streets to prevent armoured columns getting through. Petrol-soaked blankets lay on the road, thrown there in the hope they would get caught in the tanks' tracks, allowing a Molotov cocktail or rocket-propelled grenade to set one of them on fire.

Leaving the car, we walked carefully down a side road to the main street, where several destroyed tanks hinted that the strategy had been successful. There had been an almighty battle; all the buildings were pockmarked by bullets. In places whole walls had been blown away. Splinters of glass and chunks of metal littered the street. A mosque had sustained heavy damage. There were burnt-out cars everywhere.

Closer to Tripoli Street, the damage had extended to residential homes, long abandoned by their occupants. Some of the side streets were within sight of the snipers, so Ali drove along new roads that been created by the thowar by punching holes in garden walls.

We were now very close to the vegetable market, where Gaddafi's troops had a base, protected by seven tanks. A group of about 20 fighters was having a breakfast of tuna and bread. They had been slowly clearing Gaddafi soldiers out of the neighbourhood, fighting house-to-house battles.
The leader of the unit was the only one wearing a uniform, which he'd taken from a captured Gaddafi soldier. He was a cartoonist's image of a rebel fighter - muscular, with a trim beard, a knife tucked into his belt at the back. Most thowar commanders had nicknames, but he was a replacement and new to the job; the previous leader had been killed by a sniper the day before. Ali suggested that we call him Mr Smile. He liked it.

He had been working in construction in Malta before the revolution, but had quit his job and taken a boat to Benghazi, where he received three weeks' basic training in light weapons. Now, as the leader of his group in Misurata, Mr Smile had control of a battle wagon that looked like something out of the Mad Max movies. A heavy machine-gun had been fixed on the back of a pick-up. Two giant rectangles of 12-millimetre-thick steel had been welded on to the front and rear of the vehicle. Mr Smile walked quickly towards Tripoli Street, waving his arm for us to join him. Coming to a crossing, he lowered his head and charged across.

“Snipers," he said. With gunfire zipping nearby, we bid Mr Smile goodbye. "Please come back and visit tomorrow," he said.

In this city, the abnormal quickly became normal. After a few nights sleeping on the AstroTurf floor of a basement gymnasium where journalists were put up, I no longer jumped at the rat-a-tat of gunfire, or the explosions or the ambulance sirens that pierced the night. Ordinary people in Misurata, who in January could barely tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring, were - in their own minds at least - aural experts on heavy weapons.

Boom. "That's a Grad." Bang. "That's a mortar." Boom. "A tank shell."

Bang. "Katyusha rocket." Boom. "Nato must be bombing again."

War became normal for children, too. The schools were all closed, and for a while parents kept their children inside, but after a few weeks they were let out again to play. Ali's ten-year-old cousin started a game with his friends where they tried to find a full set of bullet shells, from a 7.62mm AK-47 round to a 50-calibre heavy-machine-gun round. Inevitably, there were accidents. One afternoon, on a visit to a clinic on the western outskirts of Misurata, I saw a 14-year-old boy, Abdishakur. He was sitting in a wheelchair because of his osteoporosis. It looked like he had measles, but in fact his face had been blasted with tiny fragments of shrapnel. His 11-year-old brother, Ibrahim, had even more severe injuries, sustaining damage to both eyes. His father, a local imam, explained what had happened.

“The boys were looking after my sheep when Ibrahim found a bullet still in its shell," he said. "They did not realise it was dangerous. They took it home. Ibrahim was hitting it when it exploded."

Family life had acquired a strange new reality. Neighbourhoods close to Tripoli Street or in other areas controlled by Gaddafi forces quickly emptied out. Families moved in with relatives or friends. If they had nowhere to go,

a stranger might offer up his house, and move his own family in with somebody else. One evening, I visited the home of Mohamed Tag­ouri, a 50-year-old who owned two water tankers. It was a large, well-maintained house with four bedrooms, ideal for Tagouri, his wife and their five children. Now, there were 11 families living in the house, 62 people in all. Tagouri's sister and her three children, all under five, were among them. Her house, near Tripoli Street, was now "junk", Tagouri said. Her husband was dead, killed on the front line a few days earlier. "Every family in Misurata has lost a relative," Tagouri told me as he sat on the floor, drinking coffee. "But we cannot stop resisting. We have to finish the situation. We have no regrets."

Most days, the shelling was not too heavy and he would drive one of his tankers to the desalination plant near the port, which had become the city's main supply after Gaddafi had cut the water mains. He would then sell the water in town, or give it away if someone was low on cash. Many were, as no salaries were being paid and no banks were open, although neighbourhood committees were handing out small sums of money to all families. They were handing out food parcels, too, but Tagouri said they lacked a crucial item. “There is no macaroni in Misurata."

Despite the best efforts of Mr Smile's team and other bands of thowar, the snipers of Tripoli Street were still causing havoc. No target was off limits: not the mosques, which broadcast "Allahu akbar" over and over to give the thowar strength, and not ambulances. Children, too, were seen as fair game.

At the hospital, I saw a ten-year-old boy who had been shot in the head while stepping outside to play with his friends. Such was the fear of snipers that some people had been too terrified to risk fleeing the city centre when the snipers came in. These included 101 orphans housed close to Tripoli Street. After huddling together in the basement of their orphanage for weeks, they had nearly run out of food. The power and water had been cut.

Selima al-Teer was one of two social workers trapped with the children. "My colleague and I were so afraid of snipers, but we decided we had to run to try and find food," she told me. "We took a hammer, ran about 500 metres to a supply store, and broke the door down. We put food in a wheelbarrow and ran back to the orphanage."

They made the journey three times. “Each time we just said to each other: 'May God help us,' and then ran," she said. Eventually, with the help of the thowar, all the children escaped and found refuge in a Quranic school in a safer suburb of the city.

As the days passed, it was clear that the thowar were gaining the upper hand on the snipers. By blocking the streets, they had managed to cut Gaddafi's resupply lines and began clearing buildings along Tripoli Street one by one. To identify the snipers' hideouts, the revolutionaries crept along side roads and then held out small pieces of mirror to look up the street, examining the reflection for the tell-tale puff of smoke whenever a shot was fired. Then they attacked the buildings with their Kalashni­kovs, heavy machine-guns and RPGs. Finally, they sent fighters into the buildings. They worked through the floors, sometimes tossing burning tyres into rooms to smoke out the last of the snipers.

One night, at the media centre, Ali told me that the eight-storey insurance building, the tallest in Misurata, which stood at the very centre of the city at the top of Tripoli Street, had been declared clear. We drove there early the next morning. For the first time the extent of the war here became obvious. Many of the buildings near the insurance tower resembled those of Mogadishu, in Somalia, where bullets have flown freely for 20 years. There were four destroyed tanks. A handful of local people wandered around in a near daze, struggling to grasp what had happened.
With Ali leading the way, we entered the darkened reception area of the insurance building, picking our way up the rubble-strewn stairs. We soon came upon some mattresses where a few snipers had been sleeping, and empty tuna and tomato paste tins. Spent shells lay in heaps on the floor. There was graffiti on the wall, which Ali translated. “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misurata. We will fuck your daughters and your wives."

On the roof of the building, snipers had been sleeping in the elevator maintenance room, mattresses packed tightly together. Outside, there were thousands of spent shells on the terrace, along with several cases that had held anti-tank missile launchers. The roof had a panoramic view of the city and of the epic destruction below. To be up here with a gun was to be a master of downtown Misurata. However, after weeks of starving the snipers of food and ammunition, and hitting the buildings with gunfire, the thowar had cleared all the snipers from Tripoli Street.

And yet the death toll mounted. One day, I saw Mr Smile at the hospital, looking harried. He had lost a few men, he told me. The war had entered a new phase as the revolutionaries tried to push Gaddafi's soldiers out of their bases in the vegetable market and other locations. On the back foot - Gaddafi's minions called it a strategic retreat - the loyalist forces had increased their long-distance shelling of the city.

“Do you think this is over?" asked Hassan Mohamed, a 51-year-old man who was showing me around a destroyed house where 16 of Gaddafi's troops had been killed. He had already lost several family members in the conflict. He expected to lose more. Then he answered his own question: "This is not over. Gaddafi will send more soldiers. He is much bigger than the devil himself."

As the thowar pushed forward, there were terrible battles on the southern and western outskirts of the city. The scale of the missile and mortar attacks by the pro-Gaddafi troops increased, loyalist shells often falling on civilian neighbourhoods, whether intentionally or not. On one night of particularly heavy bombardment, Ali frantically searched the internet for information on the best place to take shelter in a house when bombs were falling. He then took the microphone at Radio Free Libya, which had become the voice of Misurata's revolution, and told people what he had learned.

As the first uncensored medium in the city in 42 years, the station offered an insight into some of the challenges that Libya might face once Gaddafi was gone. People of Ali's father's generation had pushed for Radio Free Libya to adhere to conservative values, with a strong focus on religion. But Ali and his friends, of the generation that had started the revolution and was dying on the front lines, wanted something more progressive. "Look, us young guys don't just know about camels or how to fix a car," he told me. "We have the internet. We know about the world."

I saw Tahar Alkesa in the emergency tent two nights before I left Misurata on 3 May. His stubble had turned into a beard, with patches of grey. He looked even more fatigued than when we had first met. The casualties had not slowed - ten to 20 killed most days and dozens of others injured. We could hear the boom, boom, boom of Grad missiles being launched by Gaddafi's troops in the distance. As they were slowly being pushed back outside the city, government forces had trained much of their attention on the port, determined to cut off Misurata's lifeline. A few days earlier, a small naval team sent by Gaddafi had been intercepted as it laid floating sea-mines outside the harbour.

Inside the hospital, while trying to ascertain the day's casualty figures, I bumped into Suleiman Ibrahim, a prominent businessman in Misurata who had been helping out around the hospital for weeks with Haythem, his younger brother. Haythem had left for Malta that morning on a boat - one of the very few able to enter the harbour in days - to sort out business in China. The men's two younger brothers, twins in their early twenties, were both working for the hospital, one as an ambulance paramedic, the other as a doctor. "This war is disastrous. Misurata has paid a big, big price," Suleiman said.

He was desperate to get his parents out of the country, but his mother had refused to leave unless all her sons did, too. They would not.

I had heard the reason many times from different people: we win, or we die.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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The New Statesman’s ultimate Christmas lunchbreak guide 2016

What to eat and what not to eat while working during the festive season.

We all know the best thing about the festive season is working all the way up to Christmas Eve, so here’s a list of the best (and worst) high street Christmas lunch food my colleagues and I have painstakingly chewed up and spat out for your delectation:

Lunchbreak failsafes

Pret

Pret’s Christmas Lunch Sandwich, £3.60

Very much a Christmas sandwich by numbers this one – all the key ingredients of a traditional Christmas lunch, plus the inexplicable addition of mayonnaise. It’s a little too full, bits kept falling out, and while it’s not the best Christmas sandwich out there, it’s a solid midtable effort. Stephen Bush

Melvin the Melting Gingerbread Snowman, £1.25

If you take a morbid pleasure in melting a snowman, then Melvin is the gingerbread character for you. His marshmallow head wobbles above his dripping white icing body, but it’s only when you dunk Melvin in your tea that he truly crumbles into nothing but hot water. A festive treat. Julia Rampen

French Brie & Cranberry Toastie, £4.25 

Major disappointment. Tasted like feet, and not in the great cheese kind of way (more like Rachel from Friends’ traditional English trifle/shepherd’s pie way). I didn’t know it was possible to ruin brie. Pinja Saarikoski

Very Merry Christmas Lunch Vegan Baguette, £3.75

Great vegan sandwich, although the Christmas bells weren’t really a-ringing. Tasted more like a Moroccan feast, with the spicy, peppery veggies and pistachios. But I guess Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not always with turkey and stuffing. Pinja

Ham Hock & Sprout Macaroni Cheese, £5.50

We have reached peak comfort. Macaroni cheese: officially the world’s most comforting comfort food according to an extensive survey of all tastebuds and dopamine receptors. And Pret: the high street’s strong arms cradling you when you’re weak and vulnerable on a hungover mid-week lunchbreak, gently extracting a fiver in exchange for your regular dose of deliciously predictable flavours. This is what you get: a thick, creamy sauce with sprouts so cheese-drenched you’d never guess they were sprouts at all, and some unnecessary ham hock just to make it a bit Christmassy. Anoosh Chakelian

EAT

Festive Full Works Bloomer, £3.95

The texture of the bread is excellent and the serving of turkey and rocket is more than generous. But something about the after-taste doesn’t sit well. A potentially related disappointment is the failure of the press team to establish the meat’s exact provenance. While the ham has been procured “from the EU, with pigs raised in barns with natural sunlight”, the turkey “is cooked in the UK but is sourced from overseas”. India Bourke

Christmas Cheeseboard Bloomer, £3.96

This Eat sandwich takes its inspiration from a classic Christmas cheeseboard. As someone who is more excited by the abundance of yuletide cheese than Christmas presents, this was already right up my street. But cheese-filled Christmas sandwiches can often be bland, stodgy and – the greatest sin any festive meal can commit – boring. That’s not the case here. The cheddar is robust and nicely paired with soft, almost ricotta-like wensleydale, the multiseed bloomer pleasingly rustic, and the whole affair is well-seasoned with lemon and black pepper. But the inspired addition of slow-roasted figs and figgy pudding chutney are what turns a good, solid sandwich into a brilliant one. All in all, it leads to an unusual, irresistible taste and texture combo that is decidedly cheeseboard-esque. Anna Leszkiewicz

Brie and Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, £6.50 for large portion

Hello! Is it brie you’re looking for? Well, this mac 'n' cheese has a lot of it. Loads. Tons. But it’s not the best brie in town – mild to the point of flavourlessness, but incredibly thick, this often felt more like an overly stodgy carbonara.  As for the alleged truffle – I couldn’t get so much as a whiff of it. Dull and heavy, for the price and whopping 1,000+ calories, this feels conspicuously lacking in luxury, despite the rumoured posh ingredients. (NB: This comes with an option of cranberry sauce, which I turned down. It’s possible that makes all the difference… but I’d be surprised.) Anna

Paul

Dinde de Noël baguette, £4.50

Paul’s “Dinde de Noel” is another sandwich suffering from the curse of the Christmas Cranberry. Once invisible in the UK at yuletide, the cranberry has gradually invaded the festivities, a culinary equivalent of  the green parakeet. In this case they are embedded in the baguette like war journalists, immovable and advancing on all the other flavours. Which is a shame as the turkey is nice, the spinach admirable in its attempts to get us to eat our greens on the sly and the baguette itself a vast improvement on yet another supermarket sandwich. Pretty good value too. I did find the horseradish isolated in one corner, but having it as well as the cream cheese is another case of excess. One or the other but not both. Stephen Brasher

Greggs

Greggs Festive Bake, £1.50

As my colleague ever so astutely observed last year, the Greggs Festive Bake is not actually a Christmas sandwich. A year on, that is still the case, but it remains a deliciously good value handful of crispy pastry and well-spiced turkey filling. The dusting of oniony-sagey crumbs on top of the pastry really improves what is a complex and satisfying flavour profile. If you’re already a fan of the versatile foodstuff that is the Greggs bake (and you should be: what other treat is always piping hot, can be eaten with one hand on the bus and costs less than £2?) you will love this Christmassy twist on a well-loved format. Caroline Crampton

Greggs Turkey Bacon and Cranberry Roll, £1.50

It’s like a sausage roll but with turkey, bacon and little cranberries instead of sausagemeat. My love of Greggs has spiralled out of control since they introduced their £2 coffee and bacon roll deal, and I love the sausage roll, but this didn’t quite work – the flavours don’t really blend, you just have a lot of turkey, the odd bit of bacon and a cranberry every now and then. It felt unnervingly like eating catfood. Stephen Bush

Benugo

Honey roast pulled ham and smoked cheddar bloomer, £3.75

A great sandwich, this manages to taste weirdly healthy yet also delicious, perhaps down to its deep brown bread. The cheese is plasticky and thin, in that perfect sliced way, contrasting nicely with the texture of the pulled pork. Token rocket adds to the virtue factor; the chutney takes it away again. Hearty. Helen Lewis

As someone who is not an enthusiastic meat-eater, I approached the ham sandwich with trepidation and no little guilt, but found it unexpectedly delicious – the combination of the bread, the cheese, the high-quality ham, and the chutney, if indeed it was chutney, made it a very pleasurable experience – even if I did feel a little bit guilty about eating ham. Jason Cowley

Brie, pistachio, spiced apple and chutney baguette, £3.75​

I feel about this sandwich the way I felt about my first love – though it would do me no wrong, it lacks true passion. The acidic tang of the chutney overpowers the brie, leaving me with the sensation of eating a chutney sandwich. If that’s what you want, go forth. If it isn’t, go elsewhere. Amelia Tait

Turkey, bacon and cranberry baguette, £4.25 

Another where the bread is the star – yeasty and wholesome. A good balance of flavours between the turkey and bacon, and a generous helping of cranberry sauce, plus the inevitable token rocket. Not too salty, not too sweety, and there’s even a cheeky bit of stuffing in there. The mayonnaise is possibly OTT, but really, who cares? Helen

This is slightly sweet, slightly salty and very Christmassy. Its cranberry, sage and horseradish flavourings are well-balanced. And while it’s no River Cottage in the wholesome stakes, it feels satisfyingly nutritious – a sensation backed-up by the later revelation (from their press team) that all their “turkey farms adhere to ISO901:2008 standard.” (That’s a good thing.) Plus, “the turkey is produced in South Yorkshire using exclusively British birds. The bacon is produced in Scotland using pork form the UK and EU. The pork in the stuffing is of UK origin and is also produced in Scotland.” You can taste it. India

Leon

Leon Christmas Wrap, £5.45​

“It would be Rudolph not to,” says the blurb for Leon’s hot wrap, featuring turkey, stuffing and ham hock. While I’m willing to award points for the triple meatiness, there is overall something a little generic about this wrap. Because it’s served hot, all the flavours smudge together, and the fresh spinach barely intrudes on the mix. Still, the cranberry and port sauce lifts the experience, adding sweetness what could otherwise be a weighty proposition. Helen

The Leon x Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry, £6.45

Always a little bit afraid to find out who Gizzi Erskine actually is for fear of becoming an adult, I approached Leon’s Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry with some apprehension. Everything from Leon is so wholesome and grainy and aspirational, it puts my usual eating habits in unflattering, baked bean-flavoured contrast. But this curry was delicious. The creamy, lightly spiced sauce was a lovely accompaniment to the juicy hunks of carrot and parsnip. Unusually, the turkey had some flavour too – lifted valiantly by the generous sprinkling of crispy onions. Apparently the Erskine family has this recipe on Boxing Day – a far cry from the customary stale crisps and backwash-addled Baileys, but almost as tasty. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Pistachio & Pomegranate Sprout Salad, £2.25 out/£2.70 in

Even stalwart vegetarian colleagues were a little appalled at the idea of this pistachio and pomegranate sprout salad. And they were right not to let me palm it off on them. Although each of the flavours work on their own, the jarring mixture gives the impression of a salad that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. The pomegranate dressing is tart and sweet, the pistachio crunchy and earthy, and the mint and dill sort of pointless. Maybe it’s all just to cover up the flavour of the one actually festive ingredient: sprouts. But even uniting against this common enemy doesn’t give the salad’s component parts much cohesion. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Mince Pie, £1.60 out/£1.90 in

Apparently this mince pie is wheat-free and infused with orange zest and earl grey. But what isn’t these days? I think I had a bikini wax of that description the other week. Anyway, regardless of its special features, this simply tasted like a very nice, very compact, very regular mince pie. Anoosh

Supermarket sweep

Tesco

Tesco Wensleydale & Spiced Carrot Chutney, £2.00

As soon as you open this sandwich, it smells like Christmas. The chutney to cheese ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with equal servings of both making for the perfect consistency and taste. The fact it is carrot (carrot!) barely registers, and the overall sensation is extremely pleasant. That said, the perforated edges of the sandwich box were not properly perforated and thus it was difficult to open, something you might want to consider if you like an easy life. Amelia

Hovering somewhere between your standard cheese and pickle and the festive staple brie and cranberry, there isn’t much flourish to this Tesco sandwich. It’s what it says on the tin – cheese, chutney, plus a bit of spinach thrown into the mix. There are no hidden surprises, but what’s there is pretty good – the full-bodied wensleydale actually tastes of something (unlike a lot of the brie offerings) and the carrot chutney suits. If this sandwich was a date, it would probably be the right level of friendly towards your parents. Not a love match, but nice enough. Anna

Tesco Pigs Under Blankets, £2.35

There was gristle in the mini sausages which was exceptionally off-putting and I’m too traumatised to finish this sentence. Other than that, flavours were good. Amelia

Tesco Finest Turkey Feast, £3.00

According to this sandwich, vegetables are something that happens to other people. I thoroughly approve. The flavours here aren’t subtle – meat, meat and more meat – but they are clean and more-ish. The malted brown bread is quite posh, but could be posher. Some might find the egg mayonnaise texture jarring alongside the crisp bacon, moist turkey and doughy chestnut stuffing. Helen

Aldi

Festive Feast sandwich, £1.59

Aldi’s “Festive Feast” is no worse and a bit better than some other turkey/bacon/cranberry/stuffing combinations from rival supermarkets and no-one could complain about the price as it is only £1.59. Strangely, Aldi itself seems a bit shy about it with its logo hidden on the reverse of the carton underneath the recycling information. The brand seems to be “Just Tasty”, though whether this is to make it look more upmarket or downmarket against other sandwiches isn’t clear. Santa Claus is coming to town but he doesn’t want you to know about it. Stephen Brasher

Brie and Cranberry sandwich, £1.29

There are no shortages of brie and cranberry sandwiches at this time of year – only one or two will separate themselves from the pack to impress your tastebuds. This sandwich doesn’t. It’s a perfectly fine offering, not horrible, but forgettable. The word I’d use to describe it is “functional”. For those who think Christmas food should be about so much more than mere survival, this is not the one for you – but at £1.29 we can’t complain. Anna

Waitrose

Waitrose Christmas Roast beef, stilton and quince with crispy onions, £3.95 

Waitrose is so good at being Waitrose isn’t it? It just really owns it. And nowhere does it lean further in to its status as lord of the supermarket manor than its roast beef, stilton and quince sandwich. It comes in a little box the shape of a house, for god’s sake. You basically buy property when you buy this sandwich. And it is a sophisticated affair – succulent beef, fiery stilton, the sweet hit of quince on your saliva-drenched tongue. You will never quite be able to look Tesco in the eye again. Also, thrillingly, it comes with a mini add-your-own bag of crispy onions. The bourgeois equivalent of the salt ‘n’ shake crisps sachet. Crunch ‘n’ class. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Clementine Juice, £1.40

A shameless hasty seasonal rebrand of, uh, some orange juice. But a little weaker and without bits in. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Sandwich, £3.20

I can't work out why this sandwich was terrible, but it was. Despite the fact that it has everything you'd want, the essentials of a good Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, cranberry), it doesn't work. The ingredients were poor – the bacon sharp and flavourless, as if a piece of plastic had been left in, the stuffing dry, the turkey forgettable – the bread dry, the mayonnaise overpowering. Avoid. Stephen Bush

Heston Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmond, £3.60

This is a really posh bagel. First of all, it’s black. Way classier than your standard beige, or flashy Instagram-courting rainbow. And it has a picture of an opulently-robed salmon on the front of the packet, tempting you in with its knowing gaze. The dill and “caraway pickled cucumber” (ie. a bit of gherkin) lift the flavour of the classic cream cheese and salmon combo. The only real Christmassy element is the lump of coal (ok, charcoal). It all tastes delicious, but there are far too many chia seeds on the bagel. They drop off everywhere and get stuck in your teeth. A middle-class nightmare. Anoosh

Sainsbury’s

Brie and Cranberry, £2.60

Tasty, not too sweet, but also could have been a little bit more robustly stuffed with ingredients. Julia

Taste the Difference Crab, King Prawn & Avocado Sandwich, £3

This seafood smorgasbord is the most delicious lunchtime snack I’ve had in some time. Like a kiss from the sea, or, more accurately, a snog with a mermaid. The avocado was a perfect creamy bed for the tangy but sweet meat. But if crab, prawn and avo mean festive flavours to you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to come to yours for Christmas dinner. It’s all about chewy and bland poultry, not poncey sea beasts. Anoosh

M&S

Scorched Squash with Beetroot & Pomegranate Relish wrap, £2.80

This sandwich is trying too hard. Yes, there’s parsnip mayonnaise. Yes, the sage and thyme wrap has a slight stuffing aftertaste. Yes, 5 per cent of the £2.80 cost goes to charity. But, no it is not remotely festive. Finding interesting veggie options at Christmas can be tough, I admit, but the best idea is often to keep it simple. What even is “scorched squash”? Serena Kutchinsky

Festive Feast Trio, £3.30

Trios are very Christmassy. The three wise men. Seeing three ships. The number of days you stick to your New Year’s resolution. So M&S gets points for its “Festive Feast Trio” just for that. But it’s also a passable seasonal platter, spread between three rolls. The “posh” prawn cocktail sandwich is only really posh by Seventies starter standards – the slimy prawns are lent an all-important crunch by the cucumber and lettuce, but it’s nothing special. Then there’s the turkey feast and brie, which doesn’t have much flavour at all – but that’s probably because it’s turkey and brie. The third wise sandwich, cheddar and grape chutney, is more moist and punchy. Basic dry, unflashy bread all round. It’s an ok selection if you can’t decide which sandwich to buy, but honestly, you should be able to decide this far down this article. Anoosh

Venison & Sour Cherry Chutney, £4.50

With the sale of Sir Edward Landseer’s most famous painting in the news, what better to accompany a viewing than a M&S Venison and Sour Cherry Chutney sandwich? It’s a winner but a little less filling would allow you to taste the venison properly and the sandwich would be more Monarch of the Glen and less “The Stag at Bay”. Stephen Brasher

Morrisons

Turkey Dinner Sandwich, £2.30

The full-works supermarket sandwiches tend to all merge into one, but this one is slightly better than the others – the cranberry sauce is a bit tarter and less pointless. Anoosh

The ghost of Christmas future

HUEL

Christmas Pudding Huel, £28 for 1.7kg (14 meals), £45 for two

“Nutritionally complete meals in a couple of minutes.” This is the message from techy flour merchants Huel (“human fuel”, not “gruel”, despite appearances). Yes, once climate change destroys all the Big Macs, the food of the future will come in varying sizes of clinical sealed white pouches, complete with a helvetica font. Its mission? To make whole meals “with minimal impact on animals and the environment”. If you’re an eco-friendly health fadder, this will be just your cup of powder.

As it’s Christmas, I tried the Christmas Pudding flavour. I mixed one scoop (38g, 152 calories – nearly a packet of Walker’s crisps, I wistfully discovered) in my special giant space beaker with the required amount of cold water. Then I drank a little bit of it. Then I shuddered. It tastes of over-diluted, grainy powdered milk, with a sprinkling of grated cardboard. It has the consistency (but none of the sugary flavour) of leftover cereal milk. The aftertaste is a sort of woody processed spice, like really cold tiny fragments of clove coating your tongue. The vanilla flavour is more palatable, but I reckon the best thing to do with this Christmas pudding is to set fire to it and leave it at that… Anoosh

Coffee shop pitstops

Costa

Turkey & All the Trimmings Toastie, £3.95

Quite pleasant but the overwhelming taste is of a wet turkey struggling to get out of a vat of cranberries and ultimately drowning. Stephen Brasher

Pigs in Blankets Panini, £4.25

I will admit I consumed this in sub-optimal conditions – heated in the office microwave, rather than grilled. But that doesn’t really excuse its blandness. I mean, come on. There are two types of pork here, plus “herby stuffing” and cranberry sauce, and the damn thing is 559 calories. How do you make anything 559 calories and not be nice? By this point, the conscientious dieter will already have mentally rejected this in favour of a chicken salad, so why not go the whole hog and put some more cheese in it? And yet nothing in here really tasted of anything more than “vague meat”.

Also, because the ciabatta hadn’t been stamped flat in a grill, it was difficult to keep the sausages – which were unpleasantly flaccid – under control. They slid out and nearly landed in my lap. (I should have taken this as a sign and abandoned them.) On a bitterly cold day, I can see this being a tempting option when it emerges toasty fresh from a grill, but it isn’t to be contemplated under any other circumstances. Helen

Gluten Free Turkey, Bacon and Cranberry Wrap, £3.20

There are two things you need in a successful wrap, whatever the time of year: an even spread of tasty ingredients and enough structural integrity that it won’t leak in your hands. Sadly, this offering from Costa could provide neither of these things in full measure. The turkey was more flavourful than in your average shop sandwich (ie, it had a slight poultry taste) but it, as well as the lettuce and bacon, had bunched at the top, meaning that after a couple of bites I was just eating wrap and sauce. And that sauce – the sweet cranberry jam had leaked out the bottom of both halves of my wrap, leaving me with unpleasantly sticky fingers. The wrap itself is slightly chalky in texture, as is usual with gluten free products (it’s made mostly from tapioca starch, according to the list of ingredients). The flavour combination is reassuringly Christmassy, but unfortunately the starchy wrap rather dampens any festive spirit this contender might have evoked. Caroline

Starbucks

Starbucks Turkey Feast baguette, £3.99

This one really is a feast: bacon AND turkey in a harmonious conversation with each other. Surprisingly the turkey tastes like what your momma makes at home, and there really is some smoky maple in the bacon. Some more cranberry chutney would perk it up to perfection, but all in all I’m left happy. Right until I remember it came from Starbucks, and start thinking about America. Pinja

Festive Veggie Feast baguette, £3.99

A Starbucks food sceptic, I did not expect to be won over by their Veggie Feast Baguette. But it was a triumph. The baguette is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the squash full of autumnal flavour, the sage and onion stuffing ensuring this is decidedly Christmas fare. But it’s the cheese that really makes the sandwich – there is absolutely tons of rich brie, thoroughly melted and paired with a delicious real ale chutney. While other festive veggie options can feel far too healthy to really count as Christmas food, this is indulgent in the best way. Anna

High street treat

Pizza Express

Porchetta Natale Romana Pizza, £13.20

Before going further, I must admit to being an unpicky Pizza Express fan. Give me anything on a Romana base and I’m yours. So it’s unsurprising that I loved the seasonal special “Porcetta Natale Romana”, which is apparently a “delectable twist on the classic Christmas roast dinner” – or “pigging delicious”, according to a more straightforward bit of the press release. It is a juicy and delicious meat feast: pulled pork, herby stuffing, glistening scrunches of pancetta. Its triumph is also its downfall, however. By bypassing the dull flavours of turkey it also ducks being an authentic Christmas dinner on a pizza. Anoosh

Snowball Dough Balls, £3.85

The only thing more delicious than fluffy balls of dough are fluffy balls of dough with wordplay attached. So it was with disappointment that I learned Pizza Express’ seasonal rebrand of its classic dough balls starter aren’t called snow balls. Not even snough balls. No, they’re called Snowball Dough Balls. Which is silly. Still, piping hot, dusted with cinnamon and dipped in rich vanilla cream, their sheer tastiness almost makes you forget the missed opportunity to pun. Almost. Anoosh

Cauliflower Cheese Romana Pizza, £12.50

Have you ever eaten a delicious pizza, dripping with cheese, smothered in garlic, and thought, “Nice, but what would make this really amazing is some cauliflower?” No? Well, Pizza Express assumes you have with its veggie Christmas special, Cauliflower Cheese. It always slightly amazes me what meat-eaters think will get vegetarians salivating – hint: not cauliflower! But this pizza is actually really nice, mostly because of its other winning ingredients: pecorino, “pink” onion, and pine kernals. It loses points for me for having no tomato. There’s nothing that draws me to this pizza over the chain’s other (brilliant, in my humble opinion) offerings, but it’s not bad either. Anna

The artisan choice

Forman & Field

Traditional Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Bagel, the “Boris Bagel”,​ £5.95 for two

It’s the “Boris Bagel”, from the people who brought you the Boris Bike and the Boris Bus... Except this is not double-decker and you can open it, unlike a Boris Bus window. Actually H Forman & Son are the oldest remaining salmon smokery on Fish Island in the East End, an area once home to London’s largest Jewish population and still several legendary bagel shops. This bagel has definitely got that authentic chewy, glossy quality familiar to regulars at Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake, and a world away from crumby supermarket fare. You know when you have top-quality smoked salmon, and this is it: a classy shade of pink, and you can taste that swirling oak smoke. It’s offset by some nice creamy cream cheese, and elevated with chopped chives and lemon juice. Not exactly a Christmassy choice – perhaps one for Hannukah. What makes it Boris-y? It seems it was named after him after he sang the praises of Forman’s, and opened their new factory. But that was back when he was Mayor of London. Does Brexit mean bagels too? Oh and where’s the Sadiq Sarnie? Tom Calvocoressi

Letterbox lunch

Graze

Merry Mince Pie Flapjacks, £1.19

It is arguably against the very spirit of baby Jesus to eat something that tastes like a mince pie but is not a mince pie. This, however, is good news for mail-order desk snack connoisseurs Graze’s Mince Pie Flapjack, as – despite the name – it tastes nothing like the traditional festive offering at all. What it does taste like, however, is gingerbread, which is fine, really. Better for everyone. As a spicy, Christmas flapjack, this will warm your bellies. As a mince pie? It is nought. Amelia

Posh crisps

Fairfield’s Farm

Kelly Bronze Turkey, Sage & Onion crisps, 80p

These high-quality crisps have a satisfying thickness, reminiscent of Kettle Chips and other similarly posh potato-based snacks. The simple, stylish black packaging is eye-catching. And you can assuage waistline guilt safe in the knowledge that this is a product with strong eco-credentials – the crisps are hand-cooked on a family-run farm in Essex using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The only problem is the flavour. The turkey taste is weak, and the sage and punchy onion is overwhelming. The overall effect is that on the first bite they seem flavour-free, only for a salty aftertaste to hit seconds later. Definitely one for sharing, rather than solitary scoffing. Serena

All images are publicity shots from the respective outlets, apart from those used to illustrate Waitrose and HUEL, which are the author's own.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.