Lindsey Hilsum: “Apprehension and excitement at being back in Iraq is eclipsed by fury”

Channel 4 News’s international editor returns to a country where she has strong memories and friendships but finds her movements hampered by customs officials. 

Life goes on, for now: the famous Shahbandar café in Baghdad, 27 June. Photo: Getty
Life goes on, for now: the famous Shahbandar café in Baghdad, 27 June. Photo: Getty

I landed at Baghdad airport feeling apprehensive and excited – this could be a dangerous assignment, but I have strong memories and friendships here. These emotions were soon eclipsed by another: fury. 

After two hours in the dingy baggage area, during which customs officials examined every cable, microphone and computer in our luggage, we were told we could not bring any of our TV equipment into the country. The intelligence chief was unhappy and was demanding a piece of paper stamped by someone or other. Arguing proved futile, so we got a slip for the equipment, which they locked in a store, and drove down what the Americans used to call Route Irish.

As we crossed the bridge over the River Tigris I saw a group of half a dozen men in uniform taking photographs of each other with an iPhone. “They’re Shia militia,” the driver explained. “They’ve just come back from fighting in Syria and now they’re going to fight here in their own country.”

 

Syria, that old safe haven

As we checked into our hotel – which every­one still calls the Sheraton, even though the chain cut links during sanctions in the 1990s – I caught sight of a familiar face. Karim was the bureau manager for ITV and Channel 4 News during the long years of Saddam’s rule and through the 2003 war. As we hugged I found I was crying. I could see tears on his cheeks, too. You form a special bond with people when you work together under dictatorship and bombardment.

In those days Karim and his family reassured my colleagues and me that they would look after us come what may – we were family, too. But after the US invasion, when civil war between Shias and Sunnis erupted and foreigners became a target for kidnappers, Karim was forced to confess that his traditional Iraqi hospitality and paternal pride would no longer afford us protection. A few months later he asked us to stop coming to Baghdad because our presence was putting his family in danger. Any association with foreigners could be seen as suspect. Karim and his family fled to Syria for a while – and how strange it sounds now to say anyone thought of Syria as a haven. A few years ago they came back: Iraq was still dangerous but it was home.

 

Weekend woes

Why do I always arrive in Muslim countries on a Friday? There was no chance of even starting the process of liberating our gear until Sunday, the first day of the week. We hired a small camera; not that we could do much because filming permits aren’t issued on the weekend, either. Today in Baghdad there are even more bureaucratic hoops and hurdles than under Saddam – more pieces of paper, more rubber stamps, more corrupt and lazy officials. Luckily we are working with an Iraqi media company that seems to know how to work the system.

 

A message for Her Maj

It’s Monday and miraculously we have our filming permit, so we head south to meet a Sunni sheikh. Driving through an area that used to be controlled by al-Qaeda, we pass a flattened industrial unit. It was, I’m told, a car bomb factory until the Americans hit it from the air. I sit with Sheikh Mustafa Jboori under a linden tree in his garden. His white djellaba robe is belted so he can carry a revolver at all times. He explains that while he and his men fought al-Qaeda in 2006/2007, he understands why other Sunnis are now fighting alongside the jihadis in places such as Mosul and Fallujah. It is, in his opinion, the fault of the government of the Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which has alienated Sunnis. “We need the British and the Americans to stand by us!” he says. “Please give this message to the Queen.”

 

Disaster averted

Back to the Sheraton. In the car park we glimpse a sight we had scarcely dared hope for – a pick-up with our gear in the back. Camera, edit pack, tripod, everything we need. Our brilliant local team has sorted the problem. Iraq is a terrible mess, but some things work out in the end. 

Lindsey Hilsum is the international editor of “Channel 4 News” and the author of “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Tags:Iraq