Five years ago this week I was evacuated along with several others, from the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on a Hercules aircraft. I had been there 100 days as Head of Press and Public Affairs at the British Embassy Office. It had become too dangerous.

The motivations behind writing a book about my Iraq experiences were many - some of which I explained recently in an interview with Faisal Qureshi.

The first reason for sharing my story was an understanding that the time I spent in Iraq was an extraordinary moment during the British occupation. It wasn’t until I found myself at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in central London a few years after my return, giving evidence to Britain’s Iraq Inquiry, that I realised how perilous our mission was.

Between July and November 2006 the British were closing down their bases in southern Iraq and regrouping at the Air Station just outside the city of Al-Basrah.  One of Britain’s main obstacles was the Jaish al-Mahdi – who, despite the re-grouping having long been Britain’s plan, read the closure of bases as a victory.  The militia group were pounding British bases with rockets and mortars every day – and the camp at Uday Hussein’s former palace, where I lived, inside Basra city, was a popular target and one the last satellite bases to close. On the day I left Al-Basrah, 21 rockets landed within the palace compound.  These were our darkest days in the battle for hearts and minds in southern Iraq.

The second reason I wrote my story, was because of the volume of tales of daring-do from former soldiers and military officers who have been stationed in Iraq – many of them men. I thought it was about time a woman, a civilian, and a mother, wrote about Iraq. And although one reviewer has called me “brave”, I would argue that it is just as much a story about cowardice and naivety than bravado.

Finally, the third motivation behind writing my story, is in some way to prepare those who are minded to go to a “dangerous place” in order to “do good” (as I misguidedly thought I was doing). The book is not to put people off, but to help the human understand what he or she might expect from him or herself. We are tremendously good at healing ourselves – and very few of us – less than 10 per cent in fact – when exposed to traumatic situations go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

There are, however, behaviours, which I describe in my book, that are short term – such as becoming hyper-vigilant, suffering bad dreams, or jumping at the bang of a door – that are quite normal and will pass with time. I have also learned from my role on the Development & Advisory Board of an organisaton called Achilles, that understanding and learning physical coping strategies in advance of such a mission, can be of huge benefit.  I hope my book provides some understanding in this area.

The title of the book “A Better Basra” is a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to the then British Prime Minister, Tony’s Blair’s “Better Basra Plan” – a highly ambitious and underfunded attempt to win hearts and minds and focus on reconstructing a place that had suffered so much under Saddam Hussein. In a seminar at the House of Lords to launch my story, I asked guests and speakers to consider whether Basra was in fact “Better”. The conclusion seems to have been that it is better than it was in 2006, but still lags behind its pre-invasion 2003 self.  Draw your own conclusions.

Something else seems to have emerged from the book – something that is today so crucial to everything that I think about, write about and make. And that is the well-worn adage that what one sees in the media is not ever the whole truth. I was delighted that the first two readers – who are neither government, military nor have they been to Iraq – said the most powerful revelation on reading my story, was that they had seen the war in Iraq in newspapers and on TV screens and thought they knew a fair amount about it. But having read my book, they now understand that there is no single truth to Iraq – but a multitude of truths.

Every player has an agenda whether personal or political: the journalist; the interviewee; diplomat; the soldier; the Iranian militant; the American; the Basrawi; the translator. The story that media consumers receive is likely to be a result of either a single view, or at best a handful of views being expressed. In a conflict zone, single truths are even less likely, largely because of access, security, and an increased strength in a desire to push a single agenda (sometimes called “propaganda”).

So whilst I am proud of my tale of a unique time in Iraq, spoken by a woman, in an attempt to prepare others for danger zones – I am most proud that “A Better Basra” provides a strong overriding message – one that I have been attempting to spread through my words and images about Pakistan – that there is never a single truth to anything, anyone, any place. Life is complex – and we should resist from rushing to accept the simple face to things that is presented to us in the media. To do so, can be as dangerous as rockets and mortars.

A Better Basra is available in print, ebook, Kindle from the publisher at www.askance-publishing.com

 

 

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on www.jaine.info and facebook.

 

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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