Iraq: Did My Son Die in Vain?

10 years ago I was sitting in the back of an army land rover with a cameraman, sound recordist and a mountain of equipment driving over the Kuwait border into Iraq (writes director and producer Janet Harris).

We were there to make a documentary for the BBC and were filming the Black Watch regiment, who were part of the front line of the British invasion force.

In November 2012 I was back in Iraq. I was standing in an immigration queue at Basra Airport with what seemed like the same mountain of equipment but the difference this time was that I was I going through the normal procedures for entering a country which was no longer at war. More importantly I was travelling with Geoff Dunsmore, the father of Chris, an RAF reservist killed in Basra in 2007.

Evidence of the past war and of the unsettled security situation was immediate. We travelled to the hotel in armoured vehicles, with an AK47 besides the gear stick. We experienced frequent road blocks on the way. Geoff began recognising bridges and landmarks that his son had written about in his letters. When we arrived at the hotel, our mountain of equipment was checked for bombs and we checked in. The hotel was comfortable and like any other you might stay at in a big city.

Militia member

Geoff’s guide was a local journalist Mazin Altayar. He had lived and worked in Basra all his life. He was going to take Geoff to various parts of the city and introduce him to people who might help him understand what life is like now for normal Iraqis. Geoff knew that some of the meetings might be very difficult for him but he also understood that being in the country would be a chance to hear the Iraqis’ side of the story of the British occupation. To Geoff’s credit he never shied away from anyone that Mazin suggested he meet.

On one occasion Geoff was going to talk to a member of the Jayish Al Mahdi, one of the militias that has fought the British and although Geoff was nervous, he was extremely open-minded and wanted to hear all sides of the Iraqi story. Unfortunately, at the last minute the militia member phoned to say he wanted $500 to do the interview so the whole thing was cancelled.

Tremendous hospitality

What struck the whole team while we were there was the tremendous hospitality of the Basrawis. Despite what had happened to their country, they were very grateful that the British had helped get rid of Saddam Hussein. Even when Geoff talked to a father who claimed he had lost 12 members of his family in a coalition attack he invited Geoff to stay for a meal after the filming.

Making such a programme often requires quick thinking when people fail to materialise, or things get lost in translation, but the great joy of documentaries is that you find people or situations that you never expect. Geoff had wanted to find the school that his son Chris had visited while serving in Iraq in 2007. We found a school with the right name and in roughly the right location, but when we arrived it was the wrong school. However, the headmistresses were great and they became important to the film. It was clear to Geoff that although the British forces had wanted to help rebuild the infrastructure of the region, the militia attacks meant that it became extremely hard for much to be done.

Geoff never doubted that his son played a small but important role in Iraq and one that he is proud of. I don’t know if there is a clear answer to the question posed in the title of this film. But what is certain is that ordinary Iraqis had no choice about the invasion 10 years ago and this was an opportunity to give their view of the answer.