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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 00:57 GMT 01:57 UK
Diplomat talks of surviving Basra
Sir Hilary Synott in Basra
Sir Hilary and his team wore body armour when out and about
Security problems for British civilian staff in Basra have made headlines in recent weeks, with consulate staff reportedly forced to wear body armour inside their own compound.

But for many civilians in Iraq's second city, living and working behind a wall of security has become a normal way of life.

Sir Hilary Synott headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Southern Iraq until January this year, before retiring.

He has been speaking to BBC News Online about what daily life was like for staff working to establish order and win the trust of the Iraqi people, while living under the constant threat of attack.

When his mission began in July 2003, his team was based in a former Basra government building, sleeping four or five people to a room in temperatures as high as 49C (120F) indoors.

If certain parts of town were regarded as threatening or dangerous, they were regarded as no-go areas
Sir Hilary Synott

The security situation was "not good", with crowds gathering outside the offices demanding payment and throwing stones until they were dispersed, usually through negotiation.

By August 2003, this building was deemed unsafe and the CPA moved to new premises next to the military base, inside a walled compound which had formerly been one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.

The same compound is nowadays home to both the US and British diplomatic missions to Basra.

'Primitive hygiene'

Here, living conditions improved, with staff given their own rooms in mobile homes and a central canteen serving "mostly hamburgers and chips".

There was not much scope for leisure, with most working 16-hour days.

Sir Hilary Synott
Armoured boats were also used for getting about

Sir Hilary described hygiene arrangements as "primitive", with "converted squat loos" and showers consisting of pipes leading from tanks on the roof, where the water would get so hot that staff had to wait until nightfall for it to be cool enough to use. Meanwhile, the security situation was worsening.

He said: "We very quickly had to step up our security arrangements. All civilians had to travel in armoured vehicles, which were escorted by civilian security guards with weapons.

"We never went out with just one vehicle, always with at least two, so that if something happened to one, then we could all pile into the other.

"We found it better to use civilian cars with civilian escorts rather than military ones, because that tended to make us targets."

No-go areas

The main risk was from improvised explosive devices - usually bombs detonated by remote control.

Sir Hilary estimates the armoured vehicles saved several civilian lives from such attacks.

But there were times when even these were not considered safe.

He said: "From time to time, helicopter was the only way to travel - if, for instance, it looked as if a crowd was approaching the compound and it was unsafe to use road."

Even helicopter travel carried its risks, including missile attack.

He said: "There were rules everyone had to obey. If certain parts of town were regarded as threatening or dangerous, they were regarded as no-go areas."

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the military, because they did the street patrols, they went out there every day and we relied on them to tell us where to go and where not to
Sir Hilary Synott
At some times of particular threat, all civilians were confined to the compound for extended periods of time.

Even in the compound, safety was not guaranteed and staff often wore body armour and helmets to protect them from mortars being fired over the walls.

Like so many other unsettling aspects of Basra life, avoiding mortar fire soon became part of the daily routine, though Sir Hilary says the chances of actually being hit were slim.

He said: "In the six months I was there, there were no casualties of civilians working for the CPA, though of course there were among the military.

"We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the military, because they did the street patrols, they went out there every day and we really relied on them to tell us where to go and where not to."

Hearts and minds

Compound life might seem restricted to most Britons but for many ex-pats in developing countries it is increasingly familiar.

Before moving to Basra. Sir Hilary had lived in a compound in Islamabad, where he was British High Commissioner.

He said: "I became used to very severe security restrictions. It is becoming less unusual nowadays to live in highly restricted compounds and travel in armoured vehicles.

"I've spent half my career in developing countries and the other half in some very comfortable places such as Paris and Bonn - it's a very different way of life."

Iraqi children
Sir Hilary's team were often welcomed by local Iraqis

Though the streets were dangerous, Sir Hilary says his delegation had a good relationship with the local Basra authorities.

This was vital for their work - trying to restore order in the wake of the conflict and establish trust between the coalition and the Iraqi people.

And it was not a job which could be done from the relative safety of the compound. Sir Hilary said: "If we were to win Iraqi hearts and minds, we needed to work closely with them, which meant going to see them in their offices and to show we were producing results.

"We had to be visible and mobile, to go and open schools, make speeches and open water pumping facilities.

"The main dangers were in transportation. When we actually arrived at a site, the people were usually very grateful."

We were too busy to be scared
Sir Hilary Synott
He said press coverage of Basra tended to focus more on conflict, bombs and attacks on troops than on the progress being made.

He said: "The impression conveyed to the families of my colleagues was of a situation more dangerous than it seemed to us on the ground.

Shots fired

"One time I was doing a live interview with BBC World and I was asked about the security situation and I said it wasn't too bad and at that moment a few shots rang out.

"The interviewer said that must mean it was bad but I said it was just Friday night and people were celebrating and they celebrate weddings and so on by letting off firearms.

"You can hear this in many developing countries."

Despite the constant proximity of danger in Basra, Sir Hilary said he was never afraid.

He said: "We were too busy to be scared. Also, everyone working there had volunteered. If you were of a temperament that you were, then you probably wouldn't be there in he first place."


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