When I tasted fear
Robert Fisk – The Independent October 4, 2005
The Fish Lake was a stretch of desert west of Shalamcheh - the Iran-Iraq border post where I had been partially deafened by the Iraqi gun batteries shelling Khorramshahr more than six years earlier - but now Shalamcheh was back in Iranian hands and its vast army was moving towards the Shatt al-Arab river and the city of Basra.
Once more, I was in "Iranian-occupied Iraq", but in a desert that the Iraqis had flooded as they retreated. The Iranians were now advancing on a series of dykes above the waterlogged desert, under intense and constant shellfire from Iraqi artillery whose gunners quickly worked out their trajectories to hit the dykes.
The Iranians provided another army truck for the press, a Japanese open-top lorry with a pile of old steel helmets in one corner that we could wear when we reached the battlefield. Between earthworks and dugouts and lines of trenches we drove, the marching soldiery of the Islamic Republic walking beside us, grinning and making victory signs and holding up their rifles like conquering heroes. I suppose that's what they were, the victims at last overcoming their aggressors, the winners - or so they thought - after so many years of pain and loss.
Over to my left, as we climbed on to a plateau of rock and sand, I suddenly saw the shining white warheads and fuselages of a battery of Hawk missiles, gifts from Oliver North, along with the spare parts which had now turned them into a new and formidable air defence for the victorious Iranian army.
And then we were on the causeway, a long, narrow, crumbling embankment of sand surrounded by lagoons of water filled with still-burning Iraqi tanks, overturned missile launchers, half-submerged Iraqi personnel carriers and dozens of bodies, some with only their feet protruding above the mire. Far more fearful, however, were the whine and crash of incoming shells as the Iraqis directed their artillery on to the dykes. I squeezed the old Russian helmet the Iranians had given me on to my head.
In front of us, an Iranian truck burst into pink fire, its occupants hurling themselves - some with flames curling round their bodies - into the water. The convoy backed up and our lorry came to a halt. We would hear the splosh in the water beside us as the next shell hit the lagoon, sending a plume of water into the sky, cascading us with mud and wet sand. Ian Black of The Guardian, one of the sanest reporters with whom one could go to war, was sitting opposite me on the truck, looking at me meaningfully through his big spectacles. "This," he said, "is bloody dangerous." I agreed.
Around us, on little hillocks amid the great green-blue lakes of water, Iranian gunners fired 155mm shells towards Basra, shouting their excitement, throwing their arms around each other. The young Iranian boys did not even bother to keep their helmets on amid the shellfire. They lounged around the earthworks of the captured Iraqi front lines, smoking cigarettes, hanging out their washing, waving good-naturedly at us as the Iraqi artillery rounds hissed overhead. The explosions even made them laugh. Was it contempt for death or merely their reaction to our fear.
Another big splosh and Black and I hunched our shoulders, and sure enough there was an eruption of water and earth behind me and a downpour of muck and brackish liquid descended on us. The shells came five at a time, zipping over the breakwaters. On a similar trip a few hours earlier, the British correspondent of US News and World Report had summed up his feelings under fire along the dykes with eloquent understatement. "I don't think," he said, "that I could take more than a day of this."
The road surface was only a few feet above the water but the causeway seemed to stretch out to the crack of doom, a dwindling taper of sand that reached a horizon of fire and smoke. The strap of my helmet suddenly snapped and it slid off my head and bounced onto the floor of the truck. I picked it up and stuck it back on my head, holding it on with my left hand. But what was the point? If I was hit on the head, my fingers would be chopped off.
Black was frowning. We were all concentrating. The idea of instant death was indeed a concentrating experience. And all the while, the army of boys and elderly volunteers and Revolutionary Guard commanders tramped past us in the sun as we ground slowly towards the battle front. "War till victory," they kept screaming at us from the mud. Would I never hear the end of this? And when we had driven for perhaps three kilometres along those earthworks and reached and passed Shalamcheh, the ghastly Mazinan suddenly appeared beside our truck, pointing in a demented way towards the north-west. " Basra," he kept shouting. "BASRA! BASRA! BASRA!"
Black and I peered through the smoke and flames and the waterspouts that were now rising eerily around us, volcanic eruptions that would carry the dark-brown mud high into the sky, where it would hover for a second before collapsing on us. Black was looking at me again. A bit like The Cruel Sea, I said stupidly. "Much worse," he replied. Mazinan was obsessed. " Come, come," he kept ordering us, and we crawled up to an embankment of mud that physically shook as the Iranians fired off their 155s from the waterlogged pits behind me.
I peered over the lip and could see across an expanse of bright water the towers and factory buildings of Basra's suburban industrial complex, grey on the horizon, silhouetted for the gunners by the morning sun. A mob of boys stood around us, all laughing.
"Why be afraid?" one asked. "Look, we are protected. Saddam will die." A few hours earlier, Saddam Hussein had declared that the causeway here would be turned into a "furnace" - Black and I had a shrewd suspicion he meant what he said - in which the Iranians would perish. Yet this boy's protection consisted of just one red bandanna wound tightly round his head upon which was inscribed in yellow God's supposed invocation to destroy the Iraqi regime. Good God, said God, I remembered God saying in John Squire's poem, "I've got my work cut out."
Nor was the First World War a cliché here. With at least a million dead, the battle of Fish Lake was the Somme and Passchendaele rolled into one but with the sacrifice turned maniacally cheerful by Mazinan and his comrades.
Last updated 06/10/2005