Benson’s farewell despatch from Bagdad

For 23 days, the Daily Mail's Ross Benson has sent dramatic and poignant reports from the heart of Baghdad. Now, in a highly personal farewell dispatch, he tells of the awesome power and terrible pity of war 

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By ROSS BENSON 

STRANGELY, it was the birdsong that made me realise how far down the mental road to perdition war can lead you. We were deep into the second week and the bombardment of Baghdad had moved from the incisive to the spectacular and on to the constant. 

The noise was overpowering, disturbing and sometimes painful. It numbed the eardrums, and the shock waves sent me rocking back on my heels and cricked my neck. 

Sleep could be taken only in snatches, and only until another series of explosions wrenched the mind back into a sweating, shaking consciousness. 

And there you lay, cowering and worn out, trying to stop yourself retreating into a foetal position, wondering if the end was ever going to come; and if it ever did, whether you would be alive to witness it. 

Talking a war is one thing: living it is quite another. I have reported from many battle zones, but never one on such a brutal and intense and overwhelming scale as this - and it shreds the nerves.

That is where the birds played their part. One day, the morning chorus of screaming jets and exploding bombs was late arriving and I was awakened instead by the sound of birds singing. 

There are herons on the Tigris river and, somewhat incongruously, white doves that are supposed to symbolise peace in the air above. But these chirps came from nothing more exotic than a family of house sparrows nesting above my balcony.

In Britain, I would not have paid them the slightest attention. That morning in Baghdad, however, they were the most glorious creatures in the city. 

That was when it dawned on me that the hardened veneer of upbringing and experience was being stripped away, and that I was falling back on atavistic instinct and observation. As long as the sparrows sang, the air was clear of poison. And as long as they kept singing, I would carry on living. 

Other dormant mechanisms that I hardly knew were there have been activated. Eyes that once focused on the goods in the shop windows now scan the doorways to see what dangers might be lurking. The moment I enter a room, I check to see if there is another exit. 

I am constantly on the move, almost to the point of neurosis, to avoid being picked off by a sniper. I have grown distrustful of any grouping of people I do not know. 

I take no pride in this. If you accept that we all owe God a death, it makes the living easier. But it is how we act in the time allotted us that makes the living worthwhile, and I resent being consumed by the effort of mere survival, of having to conduct myself as if each day was going to be my last. 

NINE thousand years ago, the first civilisations emerged on these flat alluvial plains between the Tigris and Euphrates. Thirteen hundred years ago, Baghdad was the most cultured and prosperous metropolis in the world. It had libraries and gardens, poets, and mathematicians who developed algebra, the concept of zero and the system of hours and minutes we now all use. 

As recently as 20 years ago, it was one of the wealthiest places in the Middle East, with vast oil reserves that promised to make it one of the richest countries on Earth. Now it is a bombed-out ruin on the cusp of anarchy, whose population is living in terror of its past and dread of its future. 

The carnage is heartbreaking, and it saps the spirit and digs deep into the soul. In my head, I can still hear the screams of the wounded children, shouting for their mothers, pleading for the pain to go away. 
It is carnage of a kind that takes you back deep into yourself. 

I have tried not to think of home: of my own family, of woodlands blossoming into spring and walks across the Downs, leisurely lunches with friends, clean sheets, a night's sleep that was not interrupted by gunfire. To do so would only lead to self-pity, loneliness and despondency. The only way to keep going is to focus on survival - and that is what everyone here is doing. 

There are moments, though, when the dam gives way and the very emotions I have been trying to contain flood in. I thought of home: of being back in a country where the values of human decency are so entrenched that we take them for granted. 

But now Saddam has been toppled and his regime has been put to the sword. As if in welcome, the sun has broken through at last to brighten this city in a clear, crisp light which holds the promise of a better future to come. 

And the birds are still singing.

 

© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre