I just stepped outside before dawn this morning. It is a drizzling London– warm rain on melting snow. It’s in these moments alone, when all others seem asleep, that I think of those on the frontline: creeping about in the darkness before some attack, the sound of boots crunching on gravel, or faces that glow orange in the reflected light of the twisting flames of a paraffin stove at some campsite in the desert.
Just over two years ago I saw Rupert Hamer again for the first time after some years. With photographer Nick Cornish, I was resting on the dirty floor of a garage in an empty opium market in the centre of newly-captured Musa Qala in Helmand, Afghanistan. We were both reporting for Sunday newspapers.
The last few days had been a shock: our first time under ambush in open ground, witnessing the tragedy of the mistaken killing by NATO soldiers of some Afghan villagers, and then being close by when a British soldier was killed when his armoured vehicle struck a suspected mine. Nick and I were glad to be among old friends, just for a couple of days, when Rupert and photographer Phil Coburn came out of the desert to join us. We bitched and traded stories, as you do. Phil was, as ever, full of rib-crackingly funny stories. After a week of living rough, we were all marvellously un-shaven and un-washed and we laid out our sleeping mats in this filthy hovel like it was the Ritz. No-one was there to tell us you couldn’t smoke in bed.
We swapped a lot of stories from the past. Phil and Nick are old friends from the ‘snapper’s’ circuit. Rupert and I talked about when we had been cub reporters together on the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk. He was in Thetford and King’s Lynn. I drew Lowestoft and then Wisbech. Often cut off in remote district offices, all of us trainees used to drive miles at night past endless startled rabbits just so to meet up in some ancient public house and to share the miseries of the sometimes rather dull diet of golden weddings or disputes over fish prices, the tyranny of our news desk, or perhaps just our unjust lack of sex.
After a while in Musa Qala a reporter from a daily paper arrived on the scene, all freshly laundered. He had already filed a piece about being the first reporter into the town. We bitched a little about that. After these last few days we also had some strange concerns: we all got mad when the reporter kept throwing into the trash bag the brown plastic spoons that came with the American MRE ration packs. Didn’t he know how precious these were?
Rupert and Phil had been through quite a bit. They’d started their trip to Helmand with a few days on board a flight of RAF Chinook helicopters. One lost a wheel and as they came returned to base, there was the hair-raising experience of being beneath these churning twin rotors as the aircraft attempted to land on what sounded like little more than a pile of bricks.
Then came the operation to recapture Musa Qala: about the biggest battle yet undertaken in the war in Helmand so far. Thrown among the thousands of British and Afghan troops and US special forces for this raid from the desert, we felt lucky to have drawn the straw to be embedded on this. We knew this would be something important and one that would make the risk-taking worthwhile. As we arrived, we crossed paths with one luckless reporter for the Daily Mail who’d spent three weeks in Helmand and got the sum total of nothing in his newspaper, despite all his endeavours.
Rupert and Phil were sent in with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, a marvellous bunch of dusty warriors who had already been living rough for weeks – out on one of the longest desert patrols in living memory. They’d arrived, though, at a miserable moment: just the day after the BRF had lost their first casualty. Jack Sadler, a keen-as-mustard territorial soldier fresh out of university, had been blown up and killed by an IED. It wasn’t exactly the ideal moment for a newspaper reporter to be foisted on these men and to make friends. But then that was a testament to Rupert and Phil. I think they just sat quietly in their assigned wagons and just waited for the right moment for the soldiers to come and talk to them.
Judging by all the tales that emerged, Rupert did obviously get on famously with the men. He arrived in Musa Qala full of the strange tales of the desert and the cat and mouse games of the British and the Taliban and the nomadic locals caught in between. Rupert mentioned the story of one local who the BRF kept coming across in the rocky wadis, wandering around in a pair of trainers. They would ask him if he had seen the Taliban. “You come asking for the Taliban,” he replied. “The Taliban come and ask me if I’ve seen the British. And I’m still just looking for my sheep!”
One friend made by Rupert and Phil was Darryl ‘Daz’ Gardiner, the armourer of the BRF and the driver of the only thinly-armoured Pinzgauer truck in which they were travelling. Sadly, in the weeks that followed, Daz was killed by a double mine-strike. Daz had been driving the wounded from one mine strike to the landing strip of a rescue helicopter when his vehicle struck a second mine, killing him at once.
I know this was to hit Rupert and Phil hard. They remained firm friends with so many they met in the desert and, what they’d experienced, drew them into the friendship with many others. Going up to the medals parade of the 2 Yorks battalion, he got himself invited into the sergeant’s mess to share drinks with the soldiers – that was until some bureaucrat got to hear of this, and arranged for him and Phil to be slung out. Still, no-one could stop him making friend after friend amongst these soldiers.
His job was not too easy. Coming to the Sunday Mirror after the debacle of the Piers Morgan’s editorship and publication of faked photographs of abuse by soldiers in the sister daily paper, he started at a moment when the Mirror was something of a pariah among military folk. But, though as sly a weasel as any national newspaper reporter when dealing with his competition (he was very much the lovable rogue), Rupert did not compromise with facts and fairness and the thing valued by those he interviewed was that he came with no pre-conceived agenda. So he was a reporter of the old school. He wrote about what he heard and saw. He did a great deal to repair his newspaper group’s relationships with the military.
So Rupert knew well all the risks. Since that Musa Qala trip he was back again last year in Sangin, in a base locked by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and being driven around the town in the woefully unprotected Snatch Land Rover, just when there were public statements they were being phased out.
I suppose noticing these kind of frontline realities – and the contrast been the public statements back home – might be one reason why I think the job we do was worthwhile, and the reason why some in power try to restrict these kind of forays. But, then again, it is hard to make a judge on the work we do. It’s too easy to try to aggrandise it and clutch at justifications to try to make it sound all too important. The reality is that this kind of work is exciting, rewarding and addictive. Not every risk-taking trip yields result. There is luck involved. And the biggest burden of what we do is born by our families who worry at home and must shoulder the cost if we were injured or never returned. But there is something too about this kind of other parallel world – so far from the routine of daily experience back home and where so many are giving so much – that not only creates a bond, a camaraderie, with those who shared it but also seems to cry out to be told, to be shared with those never see it or understand its rewards, its failures and its complexities. So long as what we write is actually published or broadcast, and doesn’t languish on the copy-editor’s ‘spike’, it feels like the right risk to take. Worst of all is to witness something important but fail to record it, fail to pass it on.
Was his death worthwhile? The same question gets asked about soldiers who died. Same answer. OF COURSE NOT. No one seeks their death and, though they take calculated risks, no rational person goes out expecting to die. Death happens when things go wrong. End of story. But the mission was the right one. He was bound to go, he needed to go, he chose to go, and he was a professional. No editor, friend, soldier or member of his family should blame themselves for anything that happened.
Another good man down. Another friend down.