Sunday, 18 May 2014

A year in Iraq after the Gulf War

I have recently been reflecting on my experiences of trauma and how these have shaped my life.  I am hugely grateful for the relative stability of my current life whilst recognising the inevitable long-term impact that trauma can have.

In April 1991, aged 24, I had returned home from two years working with mothers and children in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and had just completed a course at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.  I had secured a place to study midwifery and was looking forward to a few months off to recharge my batteries and reconnect with friends and family.  I went away to 'Spring Harvest' (a Christian conference held at Butlins) and, whilst watching TV in our freezing cold Butlins' chalet I was confronted with heart-breaking images of Kurdish refugees literally freezing to death on the mountains in Iraq, casualties from the recent Gulf War but also from years of ethnic cleansing by Saddam Hussein's regime.  At that time I felt emotionally and physically exhausted with very few reserves but couldn't escape the realisation that I had qualifications in nursing and tropical medicine and two years' experience of working with refugees. I knew that I had the ability to respond where so many did not. Without wishing to sound pious, I also felt a strong spiritual 'nudge' and having shared this at my church I felt compelled to contact the charity I had been working for in Thailand, to ask whether they were planning a response. Six days later I left London Heathrow bound for Iraq, as part of a three-way collaboration between three different agencies. Two members of the team (Seonaid and Mel) had also been working in Thailand so it was a reunion of sorts!
Leaving Heathrow, May 1991. Me, Dr. Paul Richardson, Mel Ringland (now Latteur) and Seonaid Robertson (now Clarke)

We travelled through Turkey, picking up our Dutch counterparts in Ankara then flying onto Diyabikir before finally arriving in Zakho, an Iraqi town on the Turkish border, in a US army Black Hawk helicopter.  Seonaid was almost obliterated by an enormous Chinook helicopter coming in seconds after we had hit the tarmac.   She was saved by a US marine jumping on top of her and pinning her to the ground!

Just arrived in the Black Hawk helicopter, moments before the Chinook descended!
As civilians in a huge military operation we stood out amidst the khaki and beige like a sore thumb in our Millet's best pink, purple and green ski jackets and tents.  It was my first experience of a war zone.  Helicopters flew overhead constantly. We travelled everywhere in convoy with security radios attached to our belts and our cars - no mobile phones back in the day. The area had been heavily mined so we never left the path.  We were met by Phil Chester, another Thailand veteran, and taken directly to a field where Mel, Seonaid and I were to set up a mother and child health feeding station.  Military tents and camouflage netting were air-dropped by helicopter and a platoon of Italian soldiers arrived to help erect the clinic.  The refugees were yet to arrive so it was all rather surreal.
Camp 3 Team just before the refugees arrived: Joy (AKA Andy Pandy), Mel, Seonaid
The platoon of Italian soldiers building our clinic
We camped with the US military reserves, sharing their meals and washing facilities.  We got up early to use the shower but there were still long queues.  When I realised there were two showers in my cubicle I called out, inviting someone else to use the other shower if they didn't mind sharing  I was answered by a deep male southern US voice saying 'OK lady, ah'm a-comin' in!'  Eventually the army built a separate shower block for the civilians.  The individual cubicles in the mixed-gender block had suspended canvas shower buckets that had to be filled from above then were turned on and off with a shower head like the top of a tin of talcum powder.  You first had to climb stairs behind the cubicles and walk along a platform, peering over the top to find your shower bucket and fill it up.  We got used to showering with a constant stream of men and women walking past at shoulder height!  The loos were shared and we avoided drinking too much in the daytime so we could use the toilet at night in the dark, shining our torches at people's feet to identify the occupied long-drops.

Our clinic was soon over-run and we worked hard to rehydrate babies dying from dehydration and feed up the malnourished with a mix of dried skimmed milk powder, sugar and oil. Sometimes our intervention had come too late and a few babies died whilst waiting in the queue.  Some team members left and others joined from the charity MEDAIR, including Bill, an Australian doctor, and some Aussie Nurses . Yvonne (Vonny) was one of these nurses and she stayed for several months. Together we set up a field hospital, taking over from the Dutch Army.  There I learned  about inappropriate aid as I spent hours sorting through out of date and unusable drugs sent by well-meaning donors.  One day a huge lorry turned up in the camp with a renal dialysis machine for our hospital from an anonymous donor - we didn't even have electricity!  We had to send it away.
Camp 3 medical team with our Kurdish staff

Camp 3 with the tents up and refugees arriving

After three months many refugees moved on and so did we, to Penjwin in the east of the country on the Iranian border.  We had heard of a worse refugee crisis here and there were far fewer resources and agencies on the ground. We camped this time with UNHCR, in a minefield that had been cleared prior to our arrival.  There was a roped-off 'safe' area but we banged in our tent-pegs with some trepidation.  We lost many balls and frisbees across the rope, never to be reclaimed.
Arriving in Penjwin after a long drive and pitching tents in a minefield

Penjwin, high up in the mountains above Suleimaniya, was far more isolated than Zakho and we were often cut off for days at a time with fighting in the valley.  Water and food were scarce.  Unable to reach any markets, my team-mates made me a 25th birthday cake with Weetabix, cocoa powder and British Army ration-pack custard, topped with grapes and night lights!  The various military ration packs we had been donated were a life-saver though I could never stomach the American 'tuna a la King' MRE pouch that was just like cat food with tabasco.  We ate a lot of tinned sardines and cracked wheat with cucumbers and tomato, the only things available locally.  We had a local cook but later found out he was a Hepatitis carrier. Mel was medivac'd out sick and many of the team spent weeks with diarrhoea, continuing to work unless we physically couldn't.  The heat was scorching and we scoured the area for branches and leaves to build shaded areas in the camp. We had some wonderful staff including Cheeman, a young woman who became a firm friend as well as our translator and spent lunchtimes teaching us how to thread our hairy legs!  When the crisis settled and her family returned to the city, we spent some weekends at their house, sleeping on the roof top in middle-eastern style.
Cheeman, our Kurdish friend and translator, threading Seonaid's legs.  Cheeman is wearing my trousers. She had no washing facilities in her camp so she showered at our camp and wore my clothes whilst her own were drying!
Julia, me, Seonaid and Geeske, dressed in Kurish clothes for a party in Zakho
Penjwin had been blown up by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s but the shells of buildings remained and the UN provided building materials for reconstruction.  We helped to re-build the local hospital and worked alongside Kurdish doctors and nurses to run clinics for the local population, recently returned to their home villages after years in Kurdish 'Collectives' (one of Saddam's tools for ethnic and urban control).  Unfortunately there were many hidden unexploded mines in the ruins and the casualties were often children who liked (as always) to play in building sites.  I will never forget a truck turning up at the clinic as we were just closing for lunch with the dismembered bodies of two small children in the back, women wailing and pleading with us to help.  Seonaid and I felt for pulses but were powerless to reconnect heads, torsos and limbs with their wellie boots still attached.  We consoled the parents as best we could then drove back to camp and ate our lunch, not talking about that incident with each other until years later, back in the UK.  There were always guns everywhere; every man and many children had an AK47 and they were fired in anger and joy - and at the clouds to bring the rain.  Mercifully none of us was ever shot at but we were caught in the middle of a riot one morning whilst driving to work, hundreds of people with guns pressing our car from every side, urging us to put political pressure on America to remove Saddam from power.  I remember, in the midst of my fear in the crowd, laughing at a banner saying 'George Bosh No. 1'.  I am still unable to handle crowds and prefer to travel by bus in London rather than the tube in the rush hour, despite the longer journey.  One on trip across Turkey for R&R, Geeske (a Dutch Team mate) and I took a taxi to the airport before dawn.  It was a 4 hour drive through the mountains and our taxi drivers (a man an his brother) thought we might like some 'alternative entetrainment'.  They stopped the taxi and one of them got in the back with me, touching me up, whilst forcing Geeske to drive the car.  Thankfully we hit out at them and they got the message, leaving us alone.  I think they genuinely thought that all Western women were as overly sexualised as those on the TV and were deeply apologetic when they realised we not interest.  A sobering lesson that could have ended so differently.

As summer turned to autumn we found a new campsite up a hill by a stream and the two engineers on our team, Richard and Wes, showed their true colours by capping the stream and building hot and cold water systems with running showers.  A litre water bottle with holes punched in the base made an excellent shower head and Wes found a second hand mixer tap by the side of the road.  They buried the water pipes deep in the ground so the shower even worked throughout the snowy winter.  Genius.  Romance blossomed between Vonny and Nate.  The rest of us flirted like crazy with the UN staff who wooed us with alcohol brought in by diplomatic privilege!  Kathy Carter and I both had guitars and we spent our evenings composing songs and poems and writing letters home to send with the next person travelling out of the country. We told and re-told jokes, getting more silly as the evening progressed.  Our favourites were the 'what do you call a...' jokes, the best one being: Q'What do you call a man with rabbits up his bottom?' A 'Warren'.  Imagine our response when MEDAIR introduced us to their new country director.... Warren.  I couldn't look at the poor man for weeks without laughing and he never knew why!
Lunch at UNHCR's Camp Bravo

As winter arrived some of the team stayed camping in the mountains but others moved to the city of Suleimaniya, 2 hours drive down the mountain through some breathtaking scenery, to reach out to other areas. By this stage our team had mainly moved away from health programmes to school and clinic building, though we continued to do vaccine campaigns in far villages. The local contractors were paid in Iraqi Dinars which had hugely devalued since the war.  Julia, our administrator, paid the bills with used notes in black bin bags!  The security situation in town was tight and we had to check under the cars each day for bombs. Wes, from Northern Ireland, was used to it and trained our guards. Saddam reputedly had spies everywhere.  We never went anywhere, not even to the loo, without our radios.  Rachel Lavy, a midwife, joined the team and I was so impressed with her knowledge.  She and I ran a training programme for health workers undertaking antenatal care and we improvised teaching materials, making dolls and pelves out of balloons, papier mache and coathangers.  Rachel shared my bedroom and we discovered she loved ironing so everyone had beautifully creased clothes!

Making babies with Rachel
Rachel and I in John's Landrover, visiting a remote clinic in the snow
We had sacked our cook, as so many people had been sick, so I took over the role of chef, trying to make marvellous meals out of the meagre supplies available locally, topped up with occasional supplies from a Turkey-run and the various military rations left over from the war. It was interesting to see how the different armies fed their soldiers: the British rations were full of tinned processed cheese, tinned beef and carrots, mashed potato and tinned strawberry jam. The Americans had great 'sundries' such as compressed toilet paper, hot chocolate and powdered grape cordial, as well as tiny bottles of Tabasco.  The French had tins of cassoulet, the Dutch had strong coffee and the Italians had wine plus a little tot of spirits in every ready-to-eat meal!  We ate surprisingly well and even tried to honour special requests such as doughnuts and lemon meringue pie, one of John Adlam's favourites.  John was a UNHCR water engineer who had previously worked with our charity in Sudan.  He rented a room in our house and was great to have around.  He also had a landrover and contacts so got us out of many scrapes!
Snowball fights with John Adlam
Supper with the team in Suleimaniya

One evening, whilst cooking dinner, I bent down to light the oven and was engulfed by a fireball.  The gas had been left on and had slowly built up. Thankfully my heavy winter clothes did not ignite and protected me from serious burns but I lost 1/3 of my hair and my eyebrows and had a very sore face and arms for a week. News of my accident reached the UN radio operators who radioed 'Juliet Charlie' (my call sign) to offer me Tango Lima Charlie (work it out!)

Towards the end of my time in Iraq I became country director for the charity at the grand age of 25, representing them at UN meetings and taking care of the team's security and well-being.  Honestly, the responsibility was too much for me and I began to feel unwell.  I flew home being investigated for typhoid and Gulf-War Syndrome which was the popular diagnosis at the time. I now know I was traumatised from living in a war zone and suffered from panic attacks for the following year.  I couldn't get into a car in the UK without checking under it for a bomb.  If I heard a helicopter or a loud bang I ran for the ditch.  I couldn't drive in the dark or walk across grass - not leaving the path had been our mantra for a year. I couldn't cope with the choice in supermarkets and I couldn't be alone.  We had lived as a team, sharing tents and bedrooms, never travelling alone and always alert for danger.  I moved back to London to stay with my parents and asked them if I could share their room, upset when they said no!  We compromised by leaving the bedroom door open.  In addition to having mild PTSD I missed the team.  My parents were wonderful but no one in the UK could really appreciate the year I had experienced.  Society expected me to come home and get on with life.  People asked me if I had had a 'nice time'.  How could I respond to that?  I decided I need a change of scene and applied for midwifery training in Nottingham, moving up there to do agency work in the meantime and share a flat with a friend of a friend, student midwife Emma Hime.

Seonaid and I with our security radios in our bedroom in Suleimaniya as she flew home and Rachel arrived
Emma was my saviour.  She had spent a year working in Africa and understood some of my re-entry stress. She didn't mind me sleeping in her room on the camp-bed when I was having nightmares.   After  a while she gently encouraged me to stop starting every sentence with 'when I was in Iraq'.  I went along with her to St. Andrew's church and found a community of people to help me through. The church was in the middle of the Nottinghams' red light district and the people were very real from all walks of life.  No one was shocked by anything.  Emma was great fun to live with and when I decided to buy a house in Nottingham she moved in as one of my lodgers.

PTSD was not well understood then, even as recently at the 1990s.  The charity realised I was struggling when I turned up on the CEO's doorstep at 1am in the middle of a panic attack.  They sent me on a re-entry course which was lovely but full of septogenarian missionaries returning from 40 years in the tropics and needing pension advice!  Thankfully I gradually recovered and started midwifery training in Nottingham in July 1992 after working for the summer as the occupational health nurse for Pork Farms Pork Pie Factory!

I have recently been re-watching the classic 1980s Prisoner of War drama 'Tenko'.  In the last series, the liberated prisoners try to re-build their lives but find it can never return to what it was before. The camp is a reference point for everything and the friendships made there are deeper than any other relationships.  It strikes me my experiences in Iraq, though they could never be compared to a Japanese Prison Camp, were nonetheless a defining point in my life where I realised both how strong I was but also how vulnerable. As I have been writing these memoirs I have been shaking and have found it exhausting but also therapeutic. I hope you enjoy reading them. If you were part of the team in Iraq, please also share your memories and photos and let me know if I have distorted the truth over time!


  1. Re the gas explosion story:
    Yvonne Westerman I remember that
    18 May at 22:51 · Unlike · 1

  2. Gail M. Buxton Smith Oh, guess this answers my question from a different post.
    18 May at 02:23 · Unlike · 1

    Linda Thomas It takes great courage to put pen to paper on this topic Joy xxx
    18 May at 08:29 · Unlike · 1

    Helen Tidy Wow Joy - this is powerful stuff. Thank you xxx
    18 May at 09:07 · Unlike · 1

    Tracy Ann Miller Joy that is amazing! It's so hard for people to understand what you went through but that gives us an insight. What a truly incredible woman you are, brave and courageous and inspiration to me. I'm so delighted that I have met you. Xx
    18 May at 10:56 · Unlike · 3

    Joy Kemp Aw thanks everyone x
    18 May at 12:16 · Like

    Nickie Sutton You have lead a truly amazing life Joy Kemp, the embodiment of courage, love and Christian values in action. This was a very powerful piece indeed. I do hope you write your memoirs for publication in the future when you slow down a bit x
    18 May at 12:24 · Unlike · 1

    Patrice M. White Joy, thanks for sharing this. I never knew! PTSD is probably much more common amongst those of us who've jumped into live in 'interesting' places than we ever imagined. How many never have processed all you have and continue to live with it? Blessings on you, my friend!
    18 May at 15:45 · Unlike · 1

    Joy Kemp Lovely responses. Thanks everyone x
    18 May at 16:01 · Like

    Ruth Fraser Inspiring
    18 May at 16:04 · Unlike · 1

    Ruth Fryer Wow Joy, I find it very inspiring reading. Thanks for sharing. God bless. x
    18 May at 21:47 · Unlike · 1

    Philip Chester Hey Joy, I had the pleasure of working later with Emma when she was the admin support for the team working in Goma. If I remember correctly, she was the instigator of a certain series of letter between one Steve Kemp and yourself. Maybe this can be the topic of another blog entry?

    I remember the times in Northern Iraq with great fondness, You've been extremely good at selecting stories that give a rounded picture of what it was like both in Iraq and when returning home. Maybe in a few years we can put together a blog of all the other stories? How about starting with the story about the evening radio check in's (Juliet Charlie)
    19 May at 00:04 · Like

    Joy Kemp Brilliant Philip Chester. Yes Emma did introduce me to Stephen Kemp and I'll get to that story in due course! Thanks for reading x
    19 May at 00:14 · Like

    Joy Kemp Sorry Philip Chester should have called you Papa Charlie of course! X
    19 May at 00:15 · Like

    Rachel Kessler Well written Joy. I have kept all my diaries of those days and other experiences with the view that one day I would write but I don't know if that will ever happen. For now I relive the memories vicariously through your writing and that of others. Keep it up!
    19 May at 11:38 · Unlike · 1

    Joy Kemp wow, you have diaries! What a goldmine of information. I have them from Cambodia but not from Iraq. One day we should get together, the book is at our fingertips!
    19 May at 16:02 · Like · 1

  3. Joy Kemp
    17 May
    I'm writing my memories of Iraq in 1991-1992. Goodness, I can't stop shaking!
    Like · · Promote · Share
    Laura Franchi, Gail M. Buxton Smith, Ruth Salvanou and 7 others like this.

    Julia Brothwell In case you have forgotten any embarrassing incidences you were involved in, let me know ... I'll be happy to remind you!
    Julia Brothwell's photo.
    17 May at 16:41 · Unlike · 5

    Joy Kemp Ha ha Julia I'd forgotten all about that outfit. That was my post gas-explosion hair!
    17 May at 22:32 · Like · 1

    Yvonne Westerman Bahahahaha
    18 May at 00:44 · Unlike · 1

    Gail M. Buxton Smith Are you shaking because the memories are so traumatic, Joy?
    18 May at 01:56 · Like


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