Northern Iraq, November-December 2017
The Kurds were ostensibly Sunni Muslims although they seemed to display a rather more developed attitude towards the practice of their faith. The women generally covered their heads with either a hijab whilst off-duty or a bandana tied behind the head in combat. Few wore body armour, preferring a quick death to being found by the Jihadists, alive and seriously wounded. The AK 47 was their weapon of choice due to its inherent ruggedness and simplicity, not to mention the stopping-power of the short 7.62mm rounds. The Dragunov sniper rifle was very popular and the Kurds were excellent shots with the patience to match it. They would often leave one or two snipers concealed after a withdrawal from contact, wait for ISIL to appear from their tunnels and then take them out.
The men and women tended to fight separately, but with a synergy to achieve a common goal. They were so in tune with each other’s thoughts that it seemed the best way for them to operate. By fighting separately, the men could ignore the natural distress and distraction if a female fighter went down and vice-versa. Death was their constant companion and they lived with it, rather than embracing it as did the death cult of the Jihadists.
The Kurdish fighters tended to ignore the slavish call to prayer five times a day and worshiped in private and when possible. They were most active during the ISIL calls to prayer, having no compunction in killing their barbaric enemy while their arses were in the air. But they did follow the Islamic restrictions on food and never consumed alcohol. And unlike the Wasabis, the Kurdish men and women were discreetly affectionate towards one-another. If a woman fighter fell pregnant she would disappear back to her family, sometimes re-appearing months later, as though she had simply taken a career break.
The Brits became accepted slowly, although the men were always rather stand-offish and tended to be cautiously friendly towards the troopers. Whereas Ripley was immediately accepted as one of the Womens’ Defence Unit, although her role did not involve fighting as she was there to gather intelligence. The women had one communal bath a week with the luxury of hot water and despite Ripley having a solar shower kit, they insisted that she joined them.
“Why do you cut your hair so short, Ripley?” Medya asked her one bath day, “You are a woman. Do you not like men? That’s OK.”
She had blushed despite her olive complexion, “No I like men. It’s just that… Well it makes it easier to take care of.”
“Would you grow it for your man? Like Major Halward. He is very nice to look at.”
“Ripley was mortified at the suggestion, “Oh no, never. Not him.”
“Why not? I would.”
Ripley groped for the translation. The best she could come up with is having a shit too close to the house.
Medya’s eyes were a perfect circle of shock and then she giggled, understanding, “Do you have a man somewhere else?”
“No, Medya. I did once, but…”
“Ahh he died. I am so sorry, Ripley.”
“No our lives went separate ways. But I miss him so much.”
The Kurdish woman looked at her with her dark, sad eyes. She could have drowned in Ripley’s violet-flecked pupils. It was as though she were being drawn in then she gave a sudden shudder, “Then I don’t know which of you is more stupid. You or he.”
Whatever they thought about the nine, British strangers in their midst, they very much appreciated the technology they had brought with them. The British SF troops never told the Kurds how to fight, because they did things their own way. But the fighters appreciated the Brit’s ability to call in air strikes and laser designate pinpoint targets. If a pocket of ISIL fighters proved difficult to dislodge, as if by magic a coalition aircraft was overhead and the pocket of resistance became a pall of dirty smoke. But it was frustrating and pitiless fighting, almost a throwback to conflicts like the Spanish Civil War. No sooner had the Kurds captured a village, ISIL would appear again behind them in a village that had been captured days previously. They would have to go back and re-take it. They seldom took prisoners the second time.
When they had prisoners, before moving them back to the secret holding camps, Ripley would interrogate them, which was why she was there. The troopers were more than a little surprised and slightly shocked at her harshness of dealing with them. She felt no compunction at humiliating them or forcing them to maintain stress positions for hours before beginning to question them. There was no “Good Ripley, Bad Ripley.” Just Ripley the hateful bitch. But it was with the captured British fighters that her harshness bordered on brutality.
Halward had once voiced his concerns to her: “For God’s sake, Ripley. You carry on as though this is personal.”
“That’s because it is bloody personal! You have no idea of my background, what I’ve seen and done. What has happened to me in the past, so don’t bloody judge me, Mr Halward!”
As she stalked off, he watched her and felt a swirl of conflicting emotions. She could be so kind and thoughtful, almost a sister to the troopers. But it was like she was suffering with demonic possession when faced with the captured Jihadists. They may have swaggered in when dragged from their holes and tunnels, but they never swaggered again after a few hours with Ripley. Even the Kurdish women would keep clear. God she was a contradiction, thought Halward. He so much wanted to get inside her, in more ways than one.
They were about 10km east of Rabia, near the Iraq/Syria border. To their right was a fresh water aqueduct and ahead, almost lost in the shimmering Haze was the water pumping station. Their objective. The Kurdish plans were quite simple, capture the pumping station and turn off the water supplies to Rabia and by default, to Al-Ya’rubiya, the larger town across the Syrian border. Al-Ya’rubiya was an ISIL stronghold and the Jihadists knew the importance of the pumping station and of Rabia, a tripwire town on their flanks. The area around the pumping station was reinforced by heavily dug-in fighters. Although the Coalition wanted to capture the station, they didn’t want it destroyed.
The Kurds were strung out in two groups to the north and south of the pumping station, using the water channels to move into position. One of the SF Supacats was pushed forward with most of the troopers to support the Kurds with anti-tank guided missiles and mortars. The second vehicle with Halward and Ripley on radio watch, was about 500 metres to the east, hull down behind a bund. They were waiting for the fighter bombers to come on station as the Kurds had been pinned down by a heavy machine gun in one of the buildings. Halward had one of the headphones strapped to his ear, waiting for their call sign. Ripley was on the personnel role radio they were using to communicate with the Kurds. It came with a single headphone and the radio set was small enough to fit inside a pouch on the body armour.
The vehicle mounted radio crackled into life and Halward leaned forward.
Tram-Stop from Spare-Key, Tram-Stop from Spare-Key.
Go ahead, Spare-Key.
Sorry fellas, there’s a queue on the tanker We are holding.
Ahh roger, Spare-Key. How long? Over.
Minutes twenty. Will let you know when we’re inbound. Over.
Roger, Spare-Key. Tram-Stop listening, out.
“Twenty minutes delay on our air.”
Ripley passed the radio message to the Peshmergas then the other Supacat and leaned back. She stared up at the deep blue sky through her sunglasses. There were circular vapour trails and somewhere up there to the north, two F16s were waiting for their turn to refuel from the tanker.
“Noon and a hazy heat;
a single silver sliver and a dull drone;
the gloved finger poised, pressed:
a second’s silence and
Halward stared at her, “Where did that come from, Ripley?”
“GCSE English. I think it’s about Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or just nuking anywhere,” she paused and took of her sunglasses to stare at him, “In fact let’s nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
He laughed and prodded her with his boot. Ripley stretched and pulled out a battered packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her trouser cargo pocket. She lit one and inhaled deeply.
“You really shouldn’t be doing that. They’re bad for you,” he told her solemnly.
“Bloody hell, you sound like someone I used to know,” She turned away as a sudden wave of sadness swept over her.
Halward looked at her profile, “Ripley, how old are you?”
“None of your business Mr Halward.”
“It’s Paul, you know it is.”
“I would prefer to keep our relationship on a purely professional level, Paul.” She smiled to show she was being playful.
“How long have you been in this line of business?”
She thought before answering the question, she didn’t want him past her defences just yet, “Fourteen years on and off.”
“My God, fourteen years on ops!” He shook his head, “No wonder you’re nuts.”
“No, not constantly. Sometimes I do jobs for the Spooks back in dear old Blighty.”
“What kind of jobs?”
She wrapped her hijab round her head and face until only her eyes showed, “Guess.”
He was stunned into silence. Ripley flicked the cigarette away into the reeds.
“All right, Paul. Your turn. Are you married?”
“Ahha,” Ripley said cynically, “Too many distractions.”
He looked down at his boots and spoke quietly without looking up, “In a manner of speaking. My wife and I had a little girl. She died of Meningitis. I’m afraid that I can’t bear to even say her name. It’s too painful, still. We never got over it and it tore us apart. Things like that often do.”
Ripley put her head in her hands and felt her throat tightening, “Oh I’m so sorry, Paul. That was a crass and awful thing for me to say.”
She moved across and sat next to him, “Please forgive me. Why ever did you tell me this? You must think I’m a complete bitch.”
“It did cross my mind, but you weren’t to know. I really don’t know why I told you. I think I’ve been wanting to tell someone for a long time. You happened to be in the blast area and you don’t always have to beat the living shit out of someone to get them to open up. But all of us carry scars. It’s just that yours are buried under all of that keratin shell of scar tissue. Mine are still raw.”
The scream of the F16s reverberated in their diaphragms as the two aircraft made an intimidating, medium altitude pass over the pumping station. The Jihadists were left in no doubt what was coming down on them. As the F16s climbed back to their operating altitude, the ISIL fighters released smoke to try and disrupt the laser designator. They were wasting their time. Halward was on the net, talking to the pilots and Ripley was talking to the other SF vehicle.
Spare-Key from Tram-Stop, we will designate, Halward said over the radio. He sounded almost laconic.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, Ripley said into the personnel role radio.
The two fighter bombers were loud grumble above as they turned in. She scanned the distance with binoculars and saw the Peshmerga waiting in a water course, well-spaced and irregular. They could have been the women, but it was impossible to say.
“Keep your heads down, girls,” she muttered.
“You too, Ripley!”
The first F16 released a Paveway III GBU-27, 2,000lb of high capacity explosives designed to penetrate into the tunnels and conduits before exploding. The bomb fell slowly at first but was soon dropping almost faster than the eye could follow. The sensor on the nose of the bomb picked up the pulses of laser light reflecting off the target, the bomb’s fins steering it towards the corner of the building. The bomb went in with a thump and a disappointingly small amount of smoke and dust was thrown up. But then the ground heaved upwards and a thud shook their vehicle. Ripley crouched down as a solid column of fire, smoke and debris was blasted upwards. The blast wave rippled the reeds and enveloped them with dust.
From the vicinity of the other vehicle came a thwock, thwock sound as the mortars fired smoke towards the buildings and the Peshmerga rose up from cover and steadily advanced towards the pumping station. There was some desultory fire, but it was ineffective to begin with then became heavier. The ISIL fighters may have been shaken, but they weren’t stirred and they weren’t giving up without a fight. The Peshmerga went to ground.
Spare-Key from Tram-Stop. Make your second run please, over.
Debris from the first bomb was beginning to come down on them and Ripley hunched down and put on her helmet. She handed Halward’s to him.
The second aircraft’s Paveway III exploded with a less spectacular result, probably because most of the tunnels had been destroyed and once again the Kurds moved forward. The Supacat laid down covering fire with its .50 Cal and within a few minutes the Peshmerga had moved in using the cover of the water channels and were getting close and personal in what was left of the buildings. The women fighters had swung around to the south behind the pumping station. They were gleefully cutting down any of the Jihadists who were trying to retreat west towards Rabia.
The fighting was totally unlike anything portrayed in war films. There were long periods of silence while the fighters stealthily moved into position. The aircraft had gone, running low on fuel and it was pointless their moving rubble from one spot to another. Fighting would flare up and be quashed with the Coalition superior firepower. Some hours later the Peshmerga were clearing the destroyed tunnels with phosphorous grenades and checking that the dead Jihadists were dead by shooting them in the head from outside of grenade blast range. The Peshmerga had lost a male fighter, killed by a snipers and a man and woman were wounded. There were only two prisoners. Ripley looked at them as they squatted on the road, covered by an armed guard. Both of the prisoners were bleeding from the ears, the result of being in close proximity to the exploding bombs.
“A Chechen and a Saudi,” Ripley said as they drove the Supacat past the pumping station to where they would laager for the night.
“You can tell that just by their appearance?” Asked Halward.
“Yep. You get a feel for these things. The Saudi won’t want to talk to me. Particularly if I shake my baps at him.”
Halward stared at her in a mixture of shock and intrigue, “You’re going to start on them this evening?”
“It’s the best time, while they’re disorientated. Dislocation of expectation they call it.”
“Sometimes, you scare the hell out of me, Ripley.”
She was exhausted. Interrogation is an exhausting business for both parties. While the women fighters were happy to strip off and bathe in the water channels, Ripley didn’t fancy taking her chances with Hepatitis A or typhoid. She was using her solar shower at the side of one of the Supacats, behind a screen they had rigged up for her. It was nearly dark and getting very cold. The water was just above brackish and she was shivering. The trooper with the Private Hudson party trick sauntered past and remarked: “Hey, Velasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
She turned round to look at him, knowing the correct response, “No. Have you?”
He sniggered. She really was one of the lads, well almost.
“James, could you do me a favour?”
His eyes shone with delight, “Wash your back? Or better still, your front?”
“Nice try. Can you ask if Major Halward would speak with me please?”
No, when I’m decent. Five minutes.”
Halward received the request and followed the cigarette smoke to where Ripley was standing, about 100 metres from the laager. Tonight they would be eating and sleeping, hard routine.
“Hi, Ripley. Look if this is about what I said earlier…”
“Forget it, Paul. We’ll never speak of it again. At least I won’t. To anyone. No it’s about one of the prisoners, the Chechen. He was terrified.”
“You have that effect on people, Ripley.”
“The Saudi couldn’t tell me anything. The poor sod is mentally retarded. They were just going to use him later as a suicide bomber, the bastards! No it was the reaction of the Chechen guy when he found out we were Brits. He’s more frightened of us that the Kurdish women.”
“He kept saying over and over: I know why you have come. You will do to me what the Russians would do. The British aircraft. I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t even in Ash Shaddadi. It was the Englishmen.”
Halward frowned, “Well he was on the receiving end of 4,000lbs of Mr Paveway’s finest. Perhaps he thinks because we’re Brits, the aircraft were British.”
“Perhaps, but what about: it was the Englishmen and Ash Shaddadi?”
“Dunno. Interrogate him again tomorrow before they ship them out, but play nicely, OK?”
That night, Halward pondered on what she had told him. He had been economical with the truth, because he knew far more than he had let on. He went on stag at 04:00 and went to the command vehicle, where he set up the satellite comms and the dish, well out of sight of the others. Ensuring the encryption was activated, the Major tapped out a message on the ruggedized key board.
Authenticate Halward TIC BLA NOK.
Re Directive 717 Alpha. Chechen prisoner has revealed information on aircraft, possible ZV352.
Location Ash Shaddadi. Mentioned inverted commas Englishmen.
Prisoner onward move to holding location X-Ray in four hours.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file