The city of Ar Raqqa – 15th February 2018
Major Paul Halward was a man who felt like he had the troubles of the world on his shoulders that morning. They had been in Al Raqqah for eight weeks and he felt as though they were achieving nothing. There had been no new orders since the beginning of January, so he had continued with the last directive, which was to give all aid and assistance required to the Coalition forces that now controlled the city. He would go out into the countryside to mop up any remaining ISIL pockets of resistance with a patrol, but the nature of this work was not what they were there for. He felt that bored soldiers were bad soldiers, but the truth was, there was just not enough for them to do. He noticed that discipline was becoming more lax and the seven men and one woman had begun to form factions. Mr Hogan was a rock, who often told him not to worry but Halward did worry, he worried a lot.
The Thompson Twins were a natural team grouping because of their medical expertise. They were constantly busy, helping the local population and the American Special Forces give aid to the civil population. But unlike the Americans, the British medics had barely enough medical equipment and supplies to look after their own troops, let alone an extremely needy population. They cadged so much kit off the Americans, they were known as the Borrowers. But they were learning a great deal about paediatric and obstetric care and if the truth were known, they loved it more than going out on patrol and Banjoing some ISIL stragglers.
Cohen had teamed up with “Larry” Grayson and they were as thick as thieves. Unfortunately, the problem child was “Frank” Carson. As a signaller he had very little to do, and he had upset Cohen with a silly, unthoughtful “Yid” Joke. There was obvious tension between the two of them, which had descended to a shouting match one mealtime when Cohen had complained about the monotony of the food Carson was cooking.
And that left Ripley and James, or love’s young dream as he called them. They were very discreet in their relationship, but it was clear that their non rumpy-pumpy pact was proving difficult. Halward was convinced that James slipped into Ripley’s room after his stags and one sleepless night, the Major was sure he heard a low moan of female passion. But James Ellis was one of the patrol’s cornerstones. He acted as a good, steady NCO, stamping on any bickering and he was eternally optimistic, cheerful and lifted the morale with his stupid impressions. He was exceptionally good at doing an impression of Mr Hogan. And no wonder he was so cheerful. He was cuddling up with Ripley and this time, she wasn’t even sick. Far from it.
And then there was Ripley. The outsider who was the patrol’s soul. She was ubiquitous, cheerful, and seemed to understand all of them. The bitter, hate-filled woman who vomited after every interrogation of the prisoners had gone. Halward was convinced she had become a comely woman who relished her feminism. He could have sworn that she was wearing discreet make up and that she appreciated wearing the mufti of the Syrian women. She was still pestered by the kids, but the Americans had started to pester her as well, constantly asking her to interpret for them. He slightly resented that, because she was their Ripley, and Halward remembered sitting in the back of the Supacat in Iraq with her, waiting for the air strike. It seemed such a long time ago now.
He acutely felt the loneliness of leadership and the nagging worry that goes with it. He was solely responsible for their lives, morale and wellbeing and knew that as long as they sat on their arses in Raqqa, the unit was being degraded as a fighting entity. The officer was deeply concerned that his command was unravelling. Halward sighed and looked towards the east. It was still dark but he could hear Ripley singing softly in the showers they had rigged up by the ruined and empty swimming pool. They had told her to sing so none of them would “accidently” blunder in on her morning’s ablutions. He would get it off his chest at breakfast during the morning O-group.
Their daily routine was fairly straightforward. The patrol was under the OPCOM of the local American forces, until such time as other orders were received from the UK. Halward would visit the Coalition headquarters in the city at 20:00 and receive his orders for the following day. He would brief the troops at breakfast and stand by with the satellite comms at 13:00 local for the daily sitrep from the DSF. He would notify home of his daily mission and intent and hope that he had orders for a new mission or better still, a recall. Sometimes one of the vehicles would be away, but for whoever was left he insisted on maintaining a stag and a dawn and dusk stand-to. Resupply wasn’t a problem as the Americans had plenty and Ripley would return from whatever she had been tasked with, bringing fresh food. It was almost idyllic and soul destroying at the same time.
After stand-to and breakfast, Halward was briefing them over tea, “Mr Hogan, Manny, Mengele and Larry, I’d like you to do a DI on the vehicles today. Make sure they’re top line, oiled and fuelled at the airstrip and that all equipment and support weapons are ready for immediate move.”
They looked at the Major with intense expectation.
“Relax fellers, we don’t have any orders yet, but we live in hope. Ripley. The Septics have asked if you would mind accompanying a UN “fact finding” team around the city. A Humvee will pick you up at 09:00 and you’d better take Frank with you for some protection and to stop him getting cabin fever. Make sure you show them the mass graves and the execution sites and don’t take any bullsit from them about coalition atrocities. Make sure they speak with the locals. Sorry, but it’s another hand-holding exercise for you.”
Ripley shrugged, “I didn’t have any other plans for the day. Maybe Frank and me could have an ice cream.”
“Is that a euphemism for some girl-on-girl action?” Cohen asked. Ripley gave him a ladylike finger.
“Now for some items of personal admin,” Halward continued impatiently, “I don’t want to see the vehicles festooned with drying clothes. It looks an eyesore and it’s frankly unmilitary. Use the bloody park. There are still enough trees.”
“The kids nick the clothes boss,”
“Especially Ripley’s.” Cohen said with a snicker, “Except it’s not the kids.”
“Well guard them when they’re drying. Secondly, some bloody halfwit is feeding the cats. There are cats and kittens all over the sodding place. They are little better than vermin. Is it you, Ripley?”
“It’s me, Boss,” Carson said quietly.
“Oh, so you naturally assume it’s me, Major Halward! Like I’m some fucking mad cat woman!”
“It was me, Boss. Sorry,” Carson said slightly louder. There was an embarrassed silence. They all knew why he fed and played with the cats. Because he was lonely.
“Oh, Frank. For God’s sake.”
“Frank, a lot of the animals carry rabies,” Mengele explained gently, “Even the ones that aren’t mental or foaming at the mouth. Have you been scratched or bitten?”
“No I haven’t. Look, I won’t do it again.”
Ripley felt choked. Cohen looked away in shame. Halward wished the floor would open up and swallow him.
After the meeting, James Ellis took Cohen to one side, “Right, this feud with Frank stops now! We all say stupid things from time to time that can be hurtful. Maybe Ripley gets upset when you accuse her of being a dyke. I don’t ever want to sit in another O-group like that one, so knock it on the head! Apologise, kiss and make up and move on.”
Later that morning, James and Shippers were enjoying the morning sun. It was still cold but out of the wind, the sunlight was pleasant. Shippers was on stag and James was accompanying him so he could keep an eye of the washing. All of their clothes had seen better days and the camouflage was faded by the sun and many washes in chlorinated water. There were numerous signs of darning, particularly on the knees of trousers. Ripley was IC darning and patching.
“Do you reckon the Boss has PMT?” James asked.
They both looked up as a Russian SU 25 rumbled overhead, “Cheeky bastard,” said James.
“No James,” Corporal Roberts, the person watcher par excellence said slowly, “I think that the strain of leading our motley crew is getting to him. Not enough is happening. We’re bored and fractious, like kids. You have Ripley. I’m a bit of a loner but I like watching people, particularly you, whenever Ripley’s around. Oh you hide it well, but we all love Ripley in our own way. Besides, I can compare notes with Dr Mengele in our medical trade union. Manny has Larry Grayson.” Mr H has his love of the job and keeps us in line. Frank had his cats. The bickering is a symptom of our boredom.
“The Boss has all of us to worry about. By the way, James. You might not realise it, but the patrol revolves around you. The Boss is our Captain, Mr H is Jimmy the One, but you’re the Master’s Mate that keeps us together. You’re playing a blinder when you could so easily wrap yourself up in Ripley and say fuck it. It was inevitable that you would fall in love, because you’re both so different. And I’ll tell you one thing. You are one lucky, lucky man.”
James really didn’t know what to say after that. He would never have considered himself to be a lynch pin, but he would take the compliment. Shippers was a very intelligent person and despite his hypochondria, he was a thoroughly good medic and all-round nice guy. James closed his eyes and thought of Ripley. His lustful reverie was interrupted by a cat meowing for food.
“You’d better bugger off, sunshine. Your mob has caused enough trouble.”
Ripley was talking to two Kurdish women fighters, asking them to explain what they had found when they first went into Raqqa. The tensions were apparent between the Kurds and the Arab population of Raqqa, because many of the Arab population stood accused of collaborating with ISIL. Ripley could feel and understand these tensions, as the Kurds saw the liberation of Raqqa as just another step on the road to their Marxist revolution. But whether they liked it or not, the Kurds had fought a long and bitter struggle in the city, and their fighting with the Coalition made them feel entitled to a seat at the table in the post-ISIL Syria. The graves of fallen Kurdish fighters were marked with a sign of black writing on a red field. Most bizarrely, clear Plexiglas boxes had been set into the sidewalks and inside the boxes were the remains of fallen Kurdish fighters, mainly the women. It was as though they were telling the Arab population that they had fallen for this land and it was as much theirs now.
And there was the dimension of Assad’s forces. At the end of October 2017, the government of Syria issued a statement that said: ″Syria considers the claims of the United States and its so-called alliance about the liberation of Raqqa city from ISIS to be lies aiming to divert international public opinion from the crimes committed by this alliance in Raqqa province…. more than 90% of Raqqa city has been levelled due to the deliberate and barbaric bombardment of the city and the towns near it by the alliance, which also destroyed all services and infrastructures and forced tens of thousands of locals to leave the city and become refugees. Syria still considers Raqqa to be an occupied city, and it can only be considered liberated when the Syrian Arab Army enters it.” Ripley fervently hoped that they would soon be leaving Raqqa.
The Arabs in the city were getting fed up. Just like the empty promises of Blair’s government to the inhabitants of Basra, the Coalition was not delivering aid fast enough and many parts of the city still remained without power and sewerage. The National Hospital in Raqqa would only reopen after rehabilitation work in May 2019. No wonder the Thompson Twins were kept so busy.
And there was no doubt that the Kurds had witnessed many examples of ISIL atrocities as they advanced into the city. From the crucifixions in the park where James was tending the washing, to the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot, who had been murdered in the southern part of the city near the river. Women who transgressed the sharia modesty laws or even breastfed their babies in public were tortured with a medieval zeal and brutality, in many cases publicly Pour encourager les autres.
But this lot weren’t interested in what ISIL had been up to. They wanted to see bomb damage caused by American air strikes. There were six crammed in the Humvee, the US SF driver, Frank and Ripley, plus an Indonesian woman from Amnesty International, a middle aged man from the Cote d’Ivorie with a phlegm problem representing the UNHCR and a female reporter from the New Yorker. At least the latter was more honest, if journalists could ever be regarded as honest.
“Ma’am we’ve done ISIS to death. The people at home want to find out what our government’s been doing in our name.”
James was chatting with the American driver, the Indonesian woman was playing on her sat phone and looking bored, the black UN representative was smoking (perhaps he wouldn’t hawk and spit so much if he laid off the fags), Ripley thought and the journalist was taking a few discreet photographs of Ripley talking to the Kurds. It was against the background of an Al Jazeera report that Ripley was fighting a losing battle:
A report by Amnesty International said there is strong evidence the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Raqqa violated international law and may have committed war crimes.
Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands wounded by air strikes described as “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate”, it said. British and French forces were also involved, but the US was responsible for more than 90 percent of attacks.
Amnesty called on the coalition to investigate claims of violations, publicly acknowledge the scale of devastation, and compensate victims.
“Why should we talk to them? They are not interested in what we have to say.”
“To put across your side of the story. To make sure that your struggle is not misrepresented.”
“We know what our struggle was and what it will continue to be. They will write what they want and we don’t care what the west thinks of us, or the United Nations. They think the white helmets are fearless saviours, while we know they were just a bunch of stuntmen and film directors. We have proof they were involved with the murders of Kurds and the Yazidi. Tell them to get back on their plane and get out of our country.”
Ripley sighed in frustration. She held no romanticised notion that the Kurds were all heroic and in some ways their customs repelled her. Female genital mutilation and honour killings were at their highest in the Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq, especially around Kirkuk where the rate of FGM was around twenty per-cent. To Ripley the female Kurdish fighters were well-balanced with chips on each shoulder, “Fine, I’ll take them to see some fucking bomb damage.”
Ripley went back to the vehicle with a sense of resignation, “They don’t want to talk to you.”
The reporter shrugged and the Indonesian woman from Amnesty International looked back at them, “So they must have something to hide.”
“It isn’t that,” Ripley tried to explain patiently, “They lost a lot of their fighters re-taking this city and while the Kurds don’t exactly expect gratitude, they want their struggle to be recognised. It is all a means to an end for them. And then, with due respect, you pitch up now while the conditions on the ground are relatively safe and make accusations that they committed atrocities on the Arabs…”
“Which they almost certainly did,” said the woman from Amnesty.
“I won’t deny that atrocities may have been committed by the Kurds. But try and see it from their point of view. Nobody from Amnesty International, the UN or even the New Yorker bothered to come when it was the Kurds or the Yazidis having atrocities committed on them by ISIL.”
The Indonesian woman gave Ripley a sideways glance, “But you’re a Kurd aren’t you?”
“No my family roots are in the mountainous borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area known as Rigestan, south of Lashkar Gar.”
“So you’re an Afghan. Did you fight for ISIS?”
Ripley could have put the butt of her M8 carbine through the woman’s face, “No, Ma’am, I am a military interpreter. And now since the Kurds don’t want to have anything to do with you, why don’t we go and see some holes in the ground and piles of rubble? We can even go and see the destroyed wing of the National Hospital. The wing that ISIL were using as an arms dump and was blown up by White Helmets Productions, when the Coalition were moving in. I can think of no better way of spending my day.”
Back at the hotel she went and sought out James, “Don’t even think about asking me what kind of morning I’ve had. They went and sat behind a wall in the sun, thigh to thigh, her half leaning on him.
“Has Frank been rescuing more cats?”
“Oh don’t say that, James. I could have cried this morning,” she delved into the inner pocket of her Jilbab and pulled out a battered packet of Marlboro Lights, “Last one. I’ll share it with you.”
“So you had a bad day.”
“Well apart from being told to piss off by the Peshmerga and being accused of being an ISIL fighter by some bitch from Amnesty International, my day was just fine. James, I want to go home with you. I’ve had enough.”
“Me too,” he agreed, “I have an itch that needs scratching.”
She handed him the cigarette, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
“What about the pact?”
“There are other ways and means, James.”
“At this rate I’ll be walking around like John Wayne for the rest of the day.”
She pressed her leg up against his and enjoyed the feeling of his muscles and sinews against her thigh, “I love you, Sir Tristan, the bravest and most chaste of the knights.”
“And I Plight Thee My Troth, Scheherazade, and tonight we will be as kings, for tomorrow we die.” He said in his best Kevin Costner voice.
She shivered, “Don’t say things like that, besides I don’t think that line comes from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.”
They watched Major Halward setting up the satellite comms dish, “Please let it be a recall,” he said.
Halward encrypted the ruggedized laptop and squatted down on the ground.
Authenticate Halward TIC BLA NOK.
He was in and there was a message waiting in the inbox.
Authenticate Directorate SF WIC NAN POW.
Re Directive 717 Alpha.
For Halward Essential and Absolute Priority. Immediate Action.
Halward readied his notebook and pen, then started to read, copying notes as he went.
You are to relocate all assets to location Airfield at Ad Dumayr 33°36’53.4″N 36°44’56.0″E. Latest intelligence reports on ISIL held areas suggest routing at map. Essential you avoid Homs and Palmyra as ISIL forces resurgent in these areas. Route choice is at your discretion. See enclosed map at enclosure.
Airfield at Ad Dumayr in Russian control and they will be expecting you. Prepare for augmentation with numbers eight Blades, four comms team and two specialists. Insertion will be by numbers two CH 47.
Babel Fish is to make a close reconnaissance inside Ad Dumayr in order to pinpoint the location of Daffi Hashmi.
Mission: You are to plan for a smash and grab on Hashmi who must be taken alive and flown with all personnel to Zarka, Jordan.
Repeat: You are to plan for a smash and grab on Hashmi who must be taken alive and flown with all personnel to Zarka, Jordan.
Casualties are acceptable. Your mission is to take priority over all other considerations. The Americans have been notified and will provide service support for your initial move to Ad Dumayr. You will receive intelligence updates via this medium at 10:00 Z daily. On arrival Ad Dumayr Russian Federation will provide limited service support.
God Speed, Halward
© Blown Periphery 2020
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