‘Have you ever used a pistol?’
“Have you ever used a pistol?” yelled Sergeant-Major Mick Bolton amid the Kalashnikov fire and bursts from a machinegun as we ran across a baked-mud field and dived for cover. “If it comes down to it, everyone’s going to have to fight.”
Round after round fizzed past our ears, sending up clouds of dust. My heart was thudding crazily against my flak jacket, my breath coming in short, rasping pants.
The whoosh of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) close enough to lift the hairs on the back of my neck was followed by an orange blaze of flame as it landed nearby.
I hurled myself into an irrigation ditch and crouched amid the tall reeds, the soil just above me flying up as bullets landed all around. Then firing started coming from behind too. The Taliban had us from three sides.
It was late last Tuesday afternoon. Justin Sutcliffe, the photographer, and I were with the elite of the British Army, 48 men of C company, the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment – with an attachment of airborne troops of the Royal Irish Regiment – facing a bunch of Afghans in rubber sandals.
We could not see them, but we knew they were less than 100 yards away.
The silver-haired sergeant-major had kept us amused for days with his wisecracks, behind which was a touching concern for his soldiers and adoration for the girlfriend he was due to marry in November, whose photo he had shown me.
Now this veteran of two tours in Iraq and six in Northern Ireland was telling us we were the closest he had ever come to being “rolled up”.
“If we get overrun I’ll save the last bullet for myself,” said Private Kyle Deerans, a handsome South African of 23. With his black floppy hair, I was sure had broken a string of hearts.
In horror, it dawned on me what had been wrong about Zumbelay, the village we had just visited on a hearts and minds mission with soft hats and offers of development projects. I should have noticed there were no children around.
“I felt terrifyingly exposed as I climbed over the mound and rolled down the other side. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ came another shout. As I flattened myself, a mortar landed just where I had been crouching”
There was no more time to think about that as a mortar landed nearby. “Get out of the ditch!” screamed someone.
I wanted to stay in hiding. “No, no, it’s not safe,” said Lee, a military policeman attached to the unit, tugging me away.
I clawed my way up the slippery bank, oblivious to the thorns ripping my hands. I felt terrifyingly exposed as I climbed over the mound and rolled down the other side. “Keep down! Keep down!” came another shout. As I flattened myself, a mortar landed just where I had been crouching.
For the next two hours we were trapped under such relentless fire we thought we would be killed. The ambush of our lightly armed patrol not only was unexpected but also brought into question the entire strategy being pursued by the British in Helmand, the huge province they have taken on.
The paras had been in lively mood earlier that day when we left Camp Price, the British base at Gereshk, a sprawling town of walled compounds, two bridges and a bazaar. C company is a close-knit group and the trip was the furthest east they had ventured since arriving in Gereshk two months ago.
The plan was to go to Zumbelay, meet villagers, then camp before stopping at another village on the way back.
Some of the soldiers had not been out of the camp before and none had experienced a “contact” with Taliban, unlike their fellow paras in A company who have had what they describe as a “fruity” time and were engaged alongside British special forces further north.
To keep the men occupied, Major Paul Blair, C company’s wiry Irish commander, had organised an “iron man” contest the day before involving ordeals such as flipping a giant tyre and sprinting round the camp carrying boxes of ammunition.
As we set off with cold drinks and Pringles, we joked about going on a picnic.
“Aggressive camping is what I call it,” said Colour Sergeant Michael Whordley.
They laughed at me in my local dress of shalwar kameez worn with desert boots and a flak jacket.
We were in a convoy of 15 vehicles, an assortment of Snatches – the lightly armoured Land Rovers that have caused such controversy over their vulnerability to roadside bombs in Iraq – open troop-carriers and Wmiks, open Land Rovers that look a bit like safari vehicles except for the machinegun on the front and heavy guns mounted on top. Their firepower would save us.
As we drove out of Gereshk we noticed a man in a black turban pull out on a motorbike and follow alongside for a while. But we could hardly hide our intentions, sending up clouds of dust visible for miles as we travelled east through the desert.
Long ago, when the Russians occupied Afghanistan, I travelled around on the backs of motorbikes of anti-Soviet mujaheddin who went on to become Taliban. Even back in 1989 they regarded them as the best transport against a fixed army.
The journey east took about 90 minutes through a landscape of undulating sand and gullies in temperatures close to 55C.
We were close to Zumbelay by late afternoon – that special time of day when fingers of fading sunlight trap the dust being churned up by men returning to the village with herds of goats.
Most of Helmand is desert but Zumbelay seemed a small oasis. Bedouin tents and mud-walled houses, some with courtyards of flowers, were scattered amid a patchwork of fields of tall green grass and dried poppy stalks. A wide canal ran through one side, with deep irrigation ditches leading off between fields.
The convoy stopped about a mile from Zumbelay. A fire support group (FSG) drove off in the Wmiks with a mortar team to take up a secure position beyond a ridge to protect us in the event of trouble.
The rest of us downed helmets and walked in, crossing a field where a few scrawny camels gazed at us. I caused hilarity by falling into a ditch.
Everyone commented how quiet and bucolic the village seemed. “All it needs is a nice pub where we could enjoy a cold pint,” joked Major Blair as we watched a kingfisher swoop low over the water in a flash of bright green.
Even the name had a nice ring to it: Zumbelay made me think of Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Of course Manderley had a sinister secret and in retrospect the quiet of Zumbelay was suspicious. The one thing we should have noticed was the lack of children, who usually come running up demanding pens or baksheesh.
We sat on a raised bank at the edge of the field under a mulberry tree along with a few other men, one of whom seemed to be glaring at us from under his sparkly prayer cap.
“We are British not Americans,” explained the major through an interpreter. “We come at the invitation of your government as friends and brothers to help you and find out what you need.”
“Within seconds we heard the staccato crack of Kalashnikovs. I threw myself into a ditch as bullets whizzed overhead. ‘Helmets on!’ shouted someone. ‘Put your f****** helmets on!’”
An old man with a white beard said the other elders were at the mosque for prayers. (Later we would realise it was not prayer time.) He said the village had no problems and suggested we come back for tea two days later on Thursday at 10am when everyone would be around.
As we took our leave, he pointed in the opposite direction to the way we had come.
“If you go that way there is a bridge,” he said.
Afghans are the most hospitable people on earth, offering everything when they have nothing. I was thinking it was unlike them not to offer tea to visitors; but Major Blair seemed happy. “I think that went well – they seemed quite friendly,” he said to me as we walked away.
Almost immediately a burst of gunfire rang out from the ridge to the left where the FSG was deployed.
“We’ve had a contact,” came the message over the radio.
They had spotted a gathering of 12-14 men dressed in black and armed. Two of the support group’s vehicles had peeled off to try to intercept them; but as they did so RPGs started to rain in on the support base – followed by small arms fire.
For a moment we stood staring up at the ridge listening to the gunfire and explosions. Then we started walking again through a field, looking for the bridge.
Within seconds we heard the staccato crack of Kalashnikovs. I threw myself into a ditch as bullets whizzed overhead. “Helmets on!” shouted someone. “Put your f****** helmets on!”
I followed the paratroopers, running for our lives across the fields. The ground had been ploughed weeks before and had baked hard into dry, treacherous ridges. We stumbled over the furrows, with bullets and loud explosions all around us. I wished I was wearing camouflage instead of the blue press flak jacket and helmet that made me so visible.
I did not see Justin fall as we ran. “I lost my footing and managed to turn onto my back as I ploughed into the ground, my body armour taking the impact of the fall,” he said later.
“Looking up, a rocket- propelled grenade flew over our heads about 10ft above, bursting in the field near a group of paras who had made the sprint in better time.
“I struggled back to my knees in time to see the first mortar round land exactly where we had been only half a minute earlier. The troops returned fire. A prolonged burst of rapid machinegun and rifle fire. Then, using white phosphorus grenades as cover, they moved left to take up firing positions behind the ridge.
“Again we were diving to the ground to avoid incoming fire, but this time it was to our left flank as well as the original direction. Feeling very exposed, we returned fire and ran back to a ridge along the field at right angles to our position.
“Once again we took incoming fire, this time from behind us. Their mortars seemed mercifully slow at retargeting and they fell where we had just left.”
All around me was shouting and screaming. The two platoons had been scattered by the ferocity of the ambush. In the deep ditches their radios were not working. The soldiers were releasing canisters of red or green smoke to show each other their positions, even though this would reveal them to the Taliban too.
The firing came again and again, with hardly any break in between. The 8ft deep irrigation ditches which crisscrossed the fields had turned into trenches. In and out of them we climbed, slipping in the muddy water as the paras tried to regroup, yelling instructions I did not understand, such as “Go firm!”, which means stay still.
“When we shout ‘rapid fire’, run!” yelled Corporal Matt D’Arcy as we crouched in yet another ditch. “Rapid fire!” he screamed and, ears ringing amid a clatter of heavy fire that I could not identify as ours or theirs, I forced myself to climb out of the trench.
One of the Afghan interpreters stayed praying and moaning in the ditch until Private Deerans, the handsome South African, grabbed him by the collar and kicked him out.
I thought about my husband Paulo and our six-year-old son Lourenço back home in East Sheen, southwest London; of the World Cup birthday party Lourenço was due to have this afternoon; and how stupid it would be to die in this Helmand field from a Taliban bullet.
In my belt purse were some of Lourenço’s toy cars and pens he had given me for the “poor children of Afghanistan”. I had taken them to the village but never got a chance to give them out. I had to survive and the image of my son’s face kept me running and jumping into yet another trench.
Frantically, I looked around for Justin. We have worked together on and off for years, surviving everything from arrest in west Africa to abduction in Pakistan and regard each other as a kind of talisman. In the confusion we had split up and I had no idea if he was all right.
In fact he was with Major Blair, a usually charming man, who was very angry indeed.
“Where’s the f****** air support?” the major was yelling on the radio to British headquarters at Camp Bastion, reading off a GPS position.
“Two A10s 10 minutes away can be with you for 20 minutes,” came the reply. Nothing arrived.
“We need air support. Where’s the air support?” Major Blair radioed again after sliding on his back in another trench, pulled down by the weight of the kit on the mud.
The message came back that the A10s had been called off to Sangin, a village to the north where two British special forces had been killed. No other planes were available because fighting was still going on.
Why they were more important than us was unclear.
“We’re going to have to get out of this alone,” Blair said. He checked the grenades on his belt. Later he explained: “I was counting them because I thought the fight would get down to 25 yards.”
I was in a group led by Corporal D’Arcy. At one point we ran one way back towards the village only to be fired on from that direction.
“They’re playing with us like chess pieces,” shouted the corporal. The Taliban clearly had someone on the ridge to the right of us directing movements, for they were constantly changing position.
I ran again and found myself in a trench with the platoon snipers, including Private Deerans. Some used .338 Magnum rifles, which sounded like a cannon. Others were armed with Minimi 5.56s, the army’s lightweight machinegun.
“Look, two over there behind that white mound!” shouted Sergeant Whordley, who at 39 is in his last year in the army.
Known as the Buzzard, the sergeant usually controls the helicopters in and out of camp, but he had begged to go along on the patrol. “In 22 years of service I’ve never been in anything like that,” he said later.
“Got him!” shouted Private Deerans as a man in a blue shalwar kameez and short beard popped out from behind the mound and straight into his sights to be hit in the chest. “I f****** killed him!”
The day before I had learnt that a private like him earns just over Pounds 1,000 a month, and that the British Army is the only one in the world whose soldiers pay tax while overseas.
“Happy days!” shouted someone back. I looked at him incredulously. This was the worst day of my life by an awfully long way.
In the 19th century thousands of Englishmen spilt their blood on fields like this and I didn’t want to join them. I thought about John Reid, the former defence secretary, glibly saying he hoped to complete the three-year British mission to Helmand without a shot being fired.
Why were we there? Why had we thought the Afghans would not fight – they defeated the Russians after all. And why did everyone in Kabul and London keep insisting nobody in Helmand really wanted to support the Taliban but were being forced to?
What if they were wrong? After all, almost everyone in the province now depends on growing poppies. Whatever the British commanders might say, villagers must see the presence of British troops as threatening the opium trade.
I thought back to a conversation with Captain Alex McKenzie, commander of the FSG, before the patrol began. “We’ve never been out to these villages and want to see what kind of reaction we get,” he had said, adding that, according to US intelligence, there were between six and eight medium-level Taliban commanders in the valley less than a mile to the north.
“If you ask me, what we get is a Taliban attack,” I had said to Justin.
“How much ammo have you got left?” Corporal D’Arcy called to his snipers. Were we running out? And where was the promised air support? What about Britain’s new Apache helicopters that we had all heard so much about?
“Targets at 10 o’clock! Targets at 10 o’clock!” shouted someone.
“No, don’t shoot, they’re civvies!” yelled Corporal D’Arcy.
“How can we f****** tell?” screamed someone else.
The firing had been going on for almost two hours and I was finding it harder and harder to run. I had thrown off everything, even dropping my notebook – something I have never done in 19 years as a foreign reporter – and, less wisely in Helmand’s infernal heat, my water bottle.
I was gasping from thirst. Lee, the military policeman, saw my plight, thrusting the straw from his camel pack into my mouth and urging “Drink!” before pushing me to run again. My helmet was almost falling off because of the broken strap I had never got round to fixing.
I have been in some hairy situations, not least in Afghanistan, a country that I love, where at the age of 22 I was trapped in trenches by Russian tanks with a group of mujaheddin. But this was the first time in my life that I thought I would not survive.
Worse, I looked at the taut faces around me and could see the soldiers thought that too.
I thought about all the things left undone in my life, words left unsaid or unwritten, but most of all, my little boy’s big blue eyes and curly hair, and I just wanted it to stop.
We were under relentless fire from AK- 47s, RPGs, mortars and a Dushka, a Russian-made heavy machinegun.
Justin – separated in a trench with a group led by Major Blair – was under attack from all sides, but witnessed the turning of the battle.
“We were ordered out of the ditch and, under heavy covering fire, scrambled up the sides. Breaking towards the river, we came under fire again. This time there was a massive burst of fire from the FSG on the ridge directed at the Taliban.”
The paras had managed to regroup impressively. The men of the FSG beat off their own ambushers, drove their vehicles to the south where they were more secure and then moved back along the ridge to our aid – with devastating effect.
“We could see the group of 10 to 15 men who engaged us moving towards the houses down below,” said Captain McKenzie later, “so we let rip with the four 50-cal heavy guns.
“The force of the blast from those guns is so powerful it can rip off your arm without even hitting you. All that was left of those guys was a pink mist.”
Down below we managed to get away from the fields of trenches and onto open ground, where I felt even less secure but the paras were much happier because they could see. They assured me it was all right to run across the exposed hillside.
“Single file with good spaces between! Single file!” barked Sergeant-Major Bolton.
“This is not Club Med!”
By that time it was 8.30pm and light was fading. Only then came the reassuring sound of the Apaches, almost two hours after they had been requested. With those overhead, we reached the vehicles and withdrew.
The battle was not over. There was only one way back to Camp Price and only one bridge back over the Helmand river. Major Blair was convinced the Taliban would lay an improvised explosive device (IED) or ambush us there. We could not go back to Zumbelay.
Instead we drove south through the desert. At last we had air support. I was in Major Blair’s Land Rover and all the time his radio operator was in touch with the planes overhead.
On and on we drove through the bumpy sand until the pilots assured us there were no ACMs (anti-coalition militia) within a mile or so and we pulled the vehicles into a herringbone formation, where we would stay for the next few hours.
We all tumbled out of the vehicles and started talking, pumped up with adrenaline at having survived. Veterans of conflicts all over the world said they had never experienced such a battle, and none of us could believe we had survived unscathed.
“I’ve never been in anything as intense as that,” said Major Blair. “That was a 360-degree battle.”
Everyone was stunned at how quickly the Taliban had organised themselves and how co-ordinated they had been. From the time we had walked into the village to the start of the ambush was less than an hour and they had been undeterred by our array of hardware.
“That’s as bold as it comes,” said Captain McKenzie, shaking his head in awe. “The Taliban are quite ingenious but they’ve probably got 25 dead blokes and we’ve got none, and that speaks volumes.”
Private Deerans said: “We don’t tend to think the Taliban can fight as well as us, but they’re fighting for something they really believe in and they have the advantage of local terrain. They’re world class at getting rounds down but fortunately their shooting was crap.
“Still, it was close enough for me. They had the advantage from the beginning and I don’t know how none of us got shot.”
Some of the men realised they had forgotten to wear their wedding rings that day.
“I have my fiancée’s ring on a string and it’s the first time I’ve gone on an operation without it,” said Sergeant-Major Bolton.
I looked at my own bare finger, remembering how while checking in for my flight at Heathrow 20 days earlier I had realised the two rings I always wear were in an oyster shell by the side of my bed.
The big question was whether the villagers were in on the ambush. It seemed clear to me they had directed us straight into it, and there must have been locals fighting for them to organise so quickly.
“Maybe they were coerced by the Taliban,” said Major Blair. The official British line is that 80% of the population of Helmand are “floating voters” stuck between a rock and a hard place of an evil Taliban and a government in Kabul that does nothing for them.
It seemed more likely to me that they feared the British had come to take away their source of income, the poppy.
While we were discussing this, another burst of gunfire rang out. Surely we were not under attack again? “Hush,” warned the sergeant-major. “Everyone still and quiet. It’s not over yet.”
We still had to get back across the bridge into Gereshk, and we needed air support.
I lay on the warm sand staring up at the stars that covered the sky. In the distance were flashes I first thought were shooting stars until someone told me it was from the fighting at Sangin.
I looked at my watch. It was after midnight Afghan time, mid-evening in Britain. I realised that had I been in England I would have been at a summer party on the roof of New Zealand House in Haymarket, central London.
For the next two hours Camp Bastion kept telling us that “all assets” were tied up in Sangin where the snatch raid on four Taliban commanders had succeeded in getting two of them before descending into a bloody firefight where Harriers, Apaches and A10s had all been called in.
Surely they weren’t going to leave us to go back on our own?
In between his radio pleas for air support, Captain McKenzie and I discovered we grew up near each other, although I had done so a good 10 years before him, and knew the same pubs.
It was after 1.30am when we finally got the nod for air support – only to find three of our Snatches had got bogged down in the sand. Amid all the stars we could just see the lights of two American A10s, anti-tank aircraft of awesome firepower.
“How long have we got air for?” asked Major Blair as spades were used to dig the vehicles out. “Forty more minutes,” came back the pilot’s American accent. After that they would have to refuel.
Major Blair checked his watch. It was going to take a good half an hour to get to the bridge and some of the Snatches were still stuck.
I remembered Corporal Robert Jones, an American Humvee driver I had met, who had expressed horror at how exposed the British vehicles were. He had told me that if any American vehicles got bogged down for more than five minutes in Helmand they abandoned them.
“We just hate going west from Kandahar,” he said. “It’s all IEDs, RPGS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda. We call it Hell-man.”
Eventually the vehicles were pulled out and we were on the road to the bridge. We reached it just before the planes had to refuel.
“Please don’t let there be an IED,” I prayed.
“Do you want me to give a show of force?” came the pilot’s drawl over the radio.
“Could drop to 5,000ft and drop some flares.”
“Many thanks,” replied our controller and we laughed in relief at his very British reply as we crossed the bridge safely, white flares dropping all around.
It was first light as we drove into Camp Price to be met by those who had been left behind, half-anxious and half-envious. It was clear there was now a big question mark over the British hearts and minds operation.
“I’m going to have to review our approach to villages,” said Major Blair. “We’re going to have to go in with far more security. It’s very annoying to think we were sitting there offering things and having a laugh and a joke with villagers who knew that five minutes later we’d be attacked.”
More and more senior military officers are saying it has been an enormous mistake for British troops to move out of the main urban centres of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and into outlying areas.
They blame the Americans – and some over-enthusiastic British generals – for dragging British forces into Operation Mountain Thrust, a large offensive against the Taliban in which some 500 people have died across the south, creating much local resentment.
What some have described as “military and developmental anarchy” may change when Lieutenant-General David Richards, Nato commander in Afghanistan, takes control of the Helmand operation on July 31.
On the military front, the general wants more fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and the British government is seeking more military support from its European allies. But General Richards has also been bashing heads together on the need to make some improvements in the lives of the Afghans.
Five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan still remains bottom of the list for almost every significant indicator from infant mortality to lack of access to water or electricity.
“We’ve got to stop talking and start doing,” he said last week. “Otherwise we’re in danger of losing this.”
It may be just too late. Disillusion with the government of President Hamid Karzai has never been so high. The Taliban have reorganised, possibly with the help of both the Pakistani military intelligence and Al-Qaeda, to use the sophisticated tactics I experienced firsthand in Zumbelay.
No longer are they just a few dozen ragtag fighters here and there. Now groups often include hundreds of heavily armed men equipped with motorbikes, cars and radios.
All over the south they have set up shadow administrations and kill any Afghan who is even indirectly associated with the government, such as teachers. About 1,500 Afghan security guards and civilians were killed by the Taliban last year and some 900 already this year.
The Taliban are also winning the propaganda game. Within hours of our return to Camp Price, the Afghan Islamic Press in Peshawar had put out a statement claiming the Taliban had killed seven British soldiers in Zumbelay.
Far from losing any men, the brave paras from C company had killed about 20 Taliban. Yet the Ministry of Defence put out nothing. If Justin and I had not been there, you would probably never have read about it.
Picture credits: Justin Sutcliffe