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

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. 

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)

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

0800 7318496