Home thoughts that hurt as the black snow falls

Home thoughts that hurt as the black snow falls

Gethin Chamberlain of The Scotsman, with the Black Watch on the outskirts of Basra, Iraq. For the BBC, 31 March 2003

When the soldiers awoke it was everywhere; the oily cinders coating every surface, falling like tiny flakes of black snow.On their sleeping bags, on their skin, in their hair, breathing it in, impossible to brush off, melting into diesel-dark streaks, seeping into their pores.

 

Overnight the wind had changed and the black clouds from the burning oil pipelines and the fire pits lit by the Iraqis, which had darkened the skyline to the north and east for days, had drifted over the camp, leaving a trail of ash and soot in its wake.

Now the cloud had passed, but the black dust continued to fall, creeping into the vehicles, into the food, into the early morning cups of tea and coffee freshly brewed on the stoves dug into little pits outside every clump of tents.

Everything it touched turned black, hands washed moments earlier now flecked with oily spots like some strange skin condition, the clothes already smeared with grime where the soldiers had tried to knock it off. A little souvenir of Iraq no-one had planned to take home.

Some older hands who remembered the first Gulf War recalled how the ash had coated their lungs and how the doctors had told them later of the damage it had done, but most took it with the usual resigned dismay, another inconvenience to make life a little more uncomfortable in a country full of little inconveniences.

And anyway, it was a small thing compared to the broken sleep. The artillery that had opened up in the middle of the night, rocking the camp, their own guns pounding away at an enemy somewhere in the distance, the shells soaring overhead, burning red in the night sky.

Even as their tents were buffeted by the blast from the firing, they thanked whoever they prayed to that they were not the ones underneath that onslaught.

 

The gun line, somewhere to the rear but close enough to sound as if it was sitting outside their tents, had been firing for days.

Their AS 90 self-propelled howitzers hurling the 90lbs-155mm shells, 25km forward on to the Iraqi positions. The roar of the guns deafening, shaking everyone from their sleep.

In their tents or in their sleeping bags perched on the back of trailers or in the back of trucks, they lay awake feeling the blast wave roll through them, the whistling scream of the shell soaring far overhead. A dull thud as it broke the sound barrier, then a few seconds later the rumble of the air disturbed by its passage.

Another explosion, another shell, each one sending shock waves through the camp.

Those who had gone through the mortar attacks of the last few days were jumpy, not sure whether each blast signalled the start of a new raid to send them scurrying for shelter.

Shell after shell – disorientating and disconcerting. In the darkness, the sound seeming to come from all directions at once.

Sometimes they could hear the distant sound of the explosion, sometimes just see the flash away to the north or east.

If it sounded like that from here, they wondered, how must it be to be on the receiving end, sitting trembling in the dark, waiting for the next shell to fall?

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