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Shadows over the rural idyll

The dream of a life in the country is turning into a nightmare for those who are struggling to find

Photograph by local photographer James Swan, who is based in Rookhope. For more examples of his work visit www.cygnetimages.com

Rookhope sits some 20 miles west of Durham. High up, it has its own freezing microclimate, and snow covers the ground. Tumbledown cottages in overgrown fields sit next to privately renovated houses. Fragments of the mineral that used to be mined here - fluorspar - lie on windowsills, the pieces scattered by residents as emblems of a time when the population was ten times the 250 or so it is today. There is now just one shop and it's open for three hours a day. The local primary school has 14 pupils. The nearest jobcentre is 15 miles away.

Around the back of the main street, a man sits on a doorstep with his hood up and a dog by his side. Known as Beardy Karl to local people and suffering from severe back problems, he is on jobseeker's allowance of £65 a week. On winter mornings, Karl tells me, he thinks of only one thing: "Fuel is my main concern. I wake up, I have a few cigs and see if I'm fit enough to go and collect sticks. I took the dog this morning for a couple of hours and I've got three loads, but they're soaking wet and they'll have to stand. Luckily I'm able to do it at the moment, but if I have a bad turn I won't be able to."

In rural areas, poverty comes with a premium. According to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), it costs between 10 and 20 per cent more to have a basic standard of living in rural areas than it does in urban areas, largely because of the extra energy and transport costs. With almost 40 per cent of village households in the north-east living in fuel poverty (spending over 10 per cent of their income on fuel), Karl and his neighbours are some of the worst affected in the country.

According to the JRF, this poverty premium increases the more sparsely populated an area becomes. It costs £30,000 a year to raise a family with four children in an urban area, £38,000 in a rural area. In a remote village such as Rook­hope, the figure rockets to £42,000. National research indicates that a quarter of all people living in areas of low population live below the poverty line.

“These are not frivolous costs," says Chris Goulden, policy and research manager at the JRF. "We're looking at the basic costs people need to meet to participate in society - going to school, buying food, accessing services. All these things add up because of the isolation."

Old king coal

There are many reasons why costs are higher in rural areas. Half of remote areas don't have access to mains gas supplies - the cheapest form of energy in most urban areas - so families have to rely on coal or electricity. On top of that, rural areas tend to be colder, the wages tend to be lower and their older houses are harder to insulate. In Rookhope, coal costs £11.50 a bag and it takes three bags a week to heat a small house. For Karl, that's over half of his weekly benefits.

Public transport is also problematic. Outside the school term, the first bus out of the village is 11am, and the last one back is 4pm; before and after these hours, it's lockdown. Karl has been told that, to continue withdrawing his benefits, he needs to complete compulsory work experience in the next town. These shifts won't just cost him money in travel; they will also cost him precious time he needs to collect firewood.

“They seem determined to make things more difficult for us," Karl says. "In this particular village there is none [no work], or what's there's already taken. There's a garage over there, but they have a few boys already, then there's the pub and they've already got people. There's a few others - but I ask them if they want help and they say no."

Not everyone in the village is in the same position as Karl. Walk inside the Rookhope Inn and you get a sense of the range of the place. There are the Rookhopians - drystone wallers and former workers at the cement factory until it closed down in 2002; and the "incomers" - new people who have moved to the village and commute or work from home. A man known as Ra-Ra James, a photographer who lives in a five-bedroomed house and likes to talk about his skiing trips, sits next to a young couple who moved here a few years ago to run their own internet start-up. The variety can create tension. Older villagers who have lived in Rookhope for generations don't think there's enough room for "plants": social housing tenants moved into the village by the council.

“There are two big stereotypes about rural areas that we need to dispose of," says Sarah McAdam, chief executive of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC). "The first is that rural areas are all chocolate-box villages where everyone has expensive homes and pleasant lives. Of course there are some very affluent homes, but they mask the smaller families that live in poverty next door.

“The second misconception is that the rural economy is all farming, forestry and tourism. Contrary to the stereotypes, there's a high level of entrepreneurship, microbusinesses and home-working."

Spot checks

Whatever their income level, all villagers in Rookhope are affected by poor communications infrastructure. According to the CRC, just 12 per cent of households in the village and the surrounding area have broadband, compared to 64 per cent of households on average in England, and the coverage that is available is often poor. "Not-spots" - areas where there is little or no mobile-phone coverage and broadband access - almost always occur in such sparsely populated areas, deterring incomers who might otherwise bring in new hi-tech industries and further isolating those who cannot afford to move elsewhere.

This isolation is likely to get worse with government spending cuts. In a swift cull by the coalition, the CRC has already been shut and swallowed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. McAdam is afraid that other rural providers will follow suit. "There is a concern that services will become even more centralised in the drive for efficiency," she says. "A lot of services are moving online instead, but for many rural communities that's just not possible. Poor transport links mean that sick or elderly patients can spend most of the day getting to and from a half-hour appointment."

Can't local volunteers step in - the "big society" in action? "There is generally a high level of volunteering in rural areas, which are providing some strong examples of how communities can pull together with the help of an inspiring voluntary sector," McAdam says, "but the problem is that these communities rely on these services already. There's a concern about how much more they can do."

At the Rookhope Inn, the locals seem more confident. Crink is a stonemason and builder born and bred in the Dales. "You've got to remember where you came from," he tells me, putting down his drink. "When you needed your guttering done, I did it. When you need your plumbing done, I'll do it for you. If I need some extra wood, you'll give me some offcuts from the job. It doesn't matter who's in government - we've survived many times over, and we'll do it again."

Research for this article was conducted with the help of Local Futures, which provides holistic data and intelligence on local areas. For more info visit: www.localfutures.com

A shifting population

The latest report from the soon-to-be-scrapped Commission for Rural Communities, State of the Countryside 2010, shows a heat map of England indicating which areas 18-to-25-year-olds are migrating from and to. Rural areas in the north are haemorrhaging young people.

Young people make up a fifth of urban populations, but roughly one-tenth of those in rural areas. To compound this, the number of old people living in rural areas increased by half a million between 2001 and 2008. Despite the youth exodus, the net trend is away from cities and towards the countryside. From 2007 to 2008, net internal migration to rural areas was 64,000.

Internal migration is still the biggest mover of people in England, but immigration grabs the headlines. Rural communities enjoy a higher proportion of immigrants from EU accession countries - such as Poland and the Baltic states - than the rest of England. The stereotype that rural areas are hostile to immigration does not hold up, however. Eighty per cent of people from rural areas agreed that people from different backgrounds get on well, against 75 per cent in metropolitan areas.

And overall, countryside-dwellers are more content: 87 per cent of those living in rural locales declared themselves satisfied with their area, but just 75 per cent of city-dwellers agreed.

Duncan Robinson

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain