The Macedonian Tendency: Ilford Recorder - 'Rifles' feel the heat in Macedonia

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ilford Recorder - 'Rifles' feel the heat in Macedonia

"Rifles' feel the heat in Macedonia"
Ilford Record
KAREN BURKE 05 July 2007

A CLOUD of dust coughs into the back of the Army convoy heading towards base camp.

The temperature creeps over 45 degrees and the sun beats down relentlessly on the Macedonian hills.

There is a war on.

On the harsh, rocky terrain behind the small, eastern European town of Krivolak, Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham Territorial Army soldiers from Seven Rifles are closing in on the enemy.

A training exercise this may be, but the tension slicing through the stifling heat is utterly real.

Suddenly, the four-tonner grinds to a halt as soldiers emerge from the undergrowth. The back of the vehicle swings open.

"Who are you?" asks a rifleman armed with an AK-47.

"We're journalists," I reply.

"We have to search you," he tells us, signalling with his Kalashnikov to the side of the convoy.

I empty my rucksack on to the track and stand spreadeagled by the truck while I am searched - a rifle pointed towards me the entire time.

Another reporter a few metres away is also being grilled - a soldier has found a belt of 7.62 millimetre blank link rounds in his bag.

"How did these get here?" he asks.

"I have no idea," the gobsmacked reporter eventually manages to stutter.

There is talk of him being arrested and detained until intelligence comes through that the rounds were planted as part of the exercise, and we are soon on our way again.

We stop when we see a company of soldiers near the top of the hill taking shelter under a canopy strung between two convoys.

Soldiers have been ordered to rest and hydrate for a couple of hours as the seventh heatstroke casualty is airlifted to hospital in Skopje - Macedonia's capital city.

I rest in the shade with 47-year-old Colour Sgt Steve Kibble from Dagenham.

"The biggest hazard out here is the heat," he tells me. "Snakes and spiders lie low in the day and come out at night. But they are more afraid of us and tend to stay away."

Colour Sgt Kibble's job out here - and in Afghanistan where he will be deployed for six months from October - is to make sure the lads have everything they need.

If they run out of equipment or ammunition - weighing up to 30 kilograms on their backs - he is in charge of getting it out to them.

A TA veteran, Colour Sgt Kibble has been a member of G Company, based in West Ham Park, for 20 years.

He used to work as a mechanist in Luton alongside his job in the TA. Now he is a full-time soldier.

"I have been to Canada, France, Germany, Cyprus and Gibraltar with the TA," he says. "I have done things I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do otherwise and the team spirit you build up is just great."

Braving the burning sun again, I track down rifleman Dave Warren, a 33-year-old printer from Woodford, who is working with Macedonian Army soldiers on machine guns.

"These can shoot up to three kilometres away," he explains. "This morning I fired 5,000 blank rounds and next week I will be doing the same again but with live ammunition.

"I am carrying about 50 kilos, not including the gun."

This is the first time the British Army has trained with the Macedonian Army in a joint operation.

Operation Macedonia Flash enables British soldiers to experience conditions similar to Afghanistan and Macedonian troops to gain the required military standard essential for membership of NATO, which the country hopes to join next year.

After downing a few more bottles of water, we leave the hills and head back to the barracks, where 41-year-old Lance Corporal Terry Duffield is busy loading convoys with ration packs and water bottles for the boys in the field.

Lance Corporal Duffield, a driver for East London buses with family living in Hainault and Dagenham, tells me mosquitoes are also a problem.

"I got attacked in my tent last night," he says. "I have a mosquito net and I don't know how they manage to get in there but they do. They make a real noise."

At last, the sun gives up its fight and begins to sink below the horizon.

But for the soldiers out in the hills behind Krivolak, the hunt for the enemy in hiding goes on.

NEXT WEEK: Karen joins the Rifles as they spend five days refurbishing a rundown Macedonian pre-school.

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