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Iraq became ‘a war too far’ for Indy reporter Justin Huggler

PUBLISHED: 11:02 05 April 2013 | UPDATED: 17:02 05 April 2013

US Marines 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Charlie Company, from California, cover each other with 5.56 mm M16A2 assault rifles as they enter one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad

US Marines 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Charlie Company, from California, cover each other with 5.56 mm M16A2 assault rifles as they enter one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad

United States Marine Corps

Open up a war front and Justin Huggler was always right there, witnessing history as it was happening.

His first novel... Burden of the DesertHis first novel... Burden of the Desert

He had been dodging bullets, tank shells, kidnap attempts and even assassination for 12 years, until finally hanging up his reporter’s notebook covering wars from the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It finally got to him on the streets of Bagdad when he dodged a kidnap attempt in a car chase at 120mph.

The 37-year-old correspondent for The Independent brought his war memories back to London to settle in his new home in Spitalfields.

He wrote up his recollections as the background for a romantic thriller, his first novel, which has just been published to mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Back from the wars... Justin at home in SpitalfieldsBack from the wars... Justin at home in Spitalfields

Justin’s obsession to be on the spot wherever trouble breaks out began with the overthrow of the Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000 in the aftermath of the genocides during the civil war that tore the country apart in the closing years of the 20th century.

“I flew down to Montenegro to see history being made,” Justin said proudly.

“I couldn’t get into Serbia with the border closed. But guys were selling forged visas—it was pretty dodgy, but I had to get in and paid £500 for one.

“You don’t know what dangers you’ll face stealing across the border in the dead of night. You take a chance.”

But that was nothing compared to his next assignment in 2001, the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York. His newsdesk in London needed reporters in Afghanistan.

“I was in a gun battle between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, both facing each other with rusting Russian tanks,” her recalls.

“The Taliban were firing shells at us—they don’t play nice or care if you’re a journalist.

“I wasn’t wearing any bulletproof protection. There’s no point as it won’t stop a shell. You want to be mobile.

“You certainly don’t wear protective armour that locals don’t have. That would alienate you from the people you depended on to keep you alive.”

He witnessed the fall of the Taliban and the last stand of Al Qaida volunteers at Kunduz when it fell and saw at least 100 bodies, many with the back of their heads missing.

“Then I heard shooting in a basement,” Justin added. “If I had gone into the basement, Afghans would have shot me. It was a near thing.”

His next posting was covering the end of the war in Iraq—his most dangerous assignment.

“As soon as I crossed the border it was clear the place wasn’t under control,” he remembers.

“Bagdad was unbelievably dangerous with a total breakdown of law and order—everyone was in danger.

“Carjackers would get into your vehicle if you stopped and would just shoot you and drive off in your car. That’s how bad it was.”

Things went from bad to worse, with danger on every corner.

“It became too dangerous once the kidnapping started,” Justin continued. “I was often threatened. They were taking westerners off the street, out of cars, anywhere they could—and beheading them on video.

“I was in a car chase on a dodgy road known for kidnapping.

“A car behind drew up right on our tail, headlights flashing, driven by men with their faces covered in chequered headscarves trying to get us to stop.

“So we drove like a lunatic. The driver ‘floored’ it doing 120mph in this beaten-up old Merc, nothing flashy, but fast, the sort of thing you want in these situations.”

It was the last straw that persuaded Justin to stop doing wars. Iraq was now too perilous for a western journalist.

He finally quit after 12 years and made his way back to Britain and the comfort of his new home in up-and-coming Spitalfields in London’s East End. Iraq had become a war too far.

Now he has written his first novel, a work of fiction, but set in Iraq during the hostile time he was there.

‘Burden of the Desert’, which is published to mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is pure fiction, the story of different characters whose lives interweave, but against the background of Saddam Hussain’s overthrow.

The main character is a western correspondent in danger of being kidnapped and murdered, who Justin casts as a woman to avoid subconsciously sliding into an autobiography.

The story came to him when he became afraid of the constant danger and started thinking that there was someone in the city, an American, perhaps his age, a soldier facing his own version of events, of knowing his mission is going horribly wrong and he’s trying to get out alive.

Somewhere else in the city is an Iraqi trying to stay alive, trying to keep his family safe, and an insurgent out to kill the correspondent in a society dissolving into inhumanity.

Of course no novel is complete without romantic entanglements. The heroine gets involved with two people while on her first assignment in a war zone—with others hunting her, trying to kidnap her. Her driver is a Muslim secretly in love with a Christian girl from a minority community stuck in the middle, trying to keep her alive and wondering how they can be together.

Justin’s next sortie into the world of fiction will take him back to his tranquil Channel Island roots where he was born. It is set in Jersey—but with a connection to a correspondent covering war in Afghanistan.

Life in a war zone is never really far from Justin in spirit.

Burden of the Desert, by Justin Huggler, is £12.99 from amazon.co.uk.


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