Survivor's tale

IT STARTED in the left leg, the tingle creeping slowly through the whole limb leaving numbness in its wake.

Scots-born Ashby was only 30 but it wasn’t his first encounter with death. The Royal Marine had just returned from a United Nations mission to Sierra Leone that had gone horribly wrong. "I came to terms with my own mortality in Sierra Leone. I had sussed that already," he says. Out there, under the heat of the tropical sun at Makeni, he had watched colleagues being tortured and dismembered by rebels. He thought he was next. But his friends always said Ashby was the original cat of nine lives. He escaped, as he always did, right from under the rebels’ noses.

Already weak from days without food and water, he and three colleagues had sneaked past a cordon of armed guards in the dead of night. With no weapons and no supplies, they trekked 80 kilometres for five days through remorseless jungle, hallucinating badly with dehydration as they went. They had faced certain death and they had lived. During his training, Ashby had been awarded the commando medal for "cheerfulness in the face of adversity". Even now, lying paralysed in bed, he permitted himself a quiet smile. You had to laugh at the irony of it. Here he was, dying in a sanitised hospital room with starched white sheets and the Olympics on the television. After surviving everything he had been through...

SIERRA LEONE, April 2000. Even in the ugliness of war, there was fantastic beauty. The original ‘taste of paradise’ Bounty adverts were filmed on the Sierra Leone beaches with their soft white sands and water that sparkled like the diamonds embedded in the country’s rich mines. With its natural resources, it should have been one of the richest countries in the world. Instead, civil war had made it one of the poorest. It has the biggest diamond reserves in the world, but if you drop a scrap of paper a child will snatch it up to draw on. It’s a country of irony. Poverty amid wealth. Beauty amid ugliness.

Civil war had been raging for 10 years when the UN was invited in to oversee an uneasy peace process. Once, there may have been good reason why rebel forces rose up against the country’s army. Corruption was obvious. Someone was getting rich on Sierra Leone’s diamonds but it wasn’t the people. "The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) started up to try and ensure some of the people of the country shared the wealth, but they became as corrupt as some of the politicians," explains Ashby. Eventually they ruled by terror, replying to a government campaign, ‘The Future Is In Your Hands’, with a campaign of amputation.

The average age of the rebel soldiers was around 13. Male life expectancy was just 26. "Every day, two five-year-olds walked past our house armed with AK47 Russian assault rifles to man their check point," recalls Ashby. "Their daily routine consisted of extorting money or food from passing civilians at gun-point, smoking cheap and readily available drugs, and drinking palm wine." Some of the young rebels had even killed their own families. "The rebels would invade a village, kill the parents, get the kids to join in with the massacre then say, ‘You’ve got no family now. If you don’t join up, we’ll kill you’. Sometimes the rebels got the kids to do the killing, usually after giving them palm wine or cocaine."

The RUF cut their initials into the children’s skin to show they belonged to them. "When you look from afar," says Ashby, "Sierra Leone looks beautiful. But then you land on the beach and go 20 metres behind the tree line and there’s a rehabilitation centre for child combatants, and you realise how, hidden within the paradise, there is real ugliness."

Emotionally, it didn’t take long to respond to the rebels as soldiers rather than children. "At first you saw these cute, good looking kids with big eyes and you thought, ‘these kids are just innocent little victims’. Then one points a bayonet in your ribs and says, ‘Give me drugs, give me food’. And you say, ‘How old are you?’ And they say, ‘I don’t f***ing care how old I am. My name is Captain Blood; give me drugs’. Believe me, your sympathy starts to go. When you see them killing your friends in cold blood they cease to be kids."

Ashby was an Unarmed Observer with the United Nations whose job was to persuade rebel forces to disarm. He only had one weapon: talking. "I did have reservations about the wisdom of being unarmed," he admits, "but UN observers are accepted precisely because they are not seen as a threat." The Unarmed Observers were backed by a battalion of armed Kenyan soldiers, and Ashby and his team collected 25,000 weapons. But the signs of rebel brutality were never far from the surface.

Keen to establish good rebel contacts, Ashby befriended Sherif, a young commander, and found himself fascinated by the psychology of rebel atrocities. It was almost like rugby club bonding, where each outdoes the last with ever more outrageous acts. Any sense of morality became warped. Had Sherif ever been involved in cannibalism? Ashby asked, chilled by tales of rebels eating their victims. Sherif had. "Is it true," Ashby continued curiously, "that human flesh tastes like pork?" "I don’t know," Sheriff told him seriously, "I am a Muslim."

Ashby knew it was important to work with the local commanders. So, on his 30th birthday, when 10 rebels came to him and asked to disarm without the consent of their superiors, Ashby warned HQ it was dangerous to proceed. He was over-ruled. The men’s weapons were accepted and they were each given 300 amnesty, the equivalent of three years’ wages. In response, the disarmament camp was surrounded by rebels. The UN was harbouring "deserters". And they had stolen RUF weapons. The rebels attacked. Elsewhere in the country, violence erupted. Another civil war had been sparked.

OUTSIDE THE United Nations compound, several hundred rebels gathered. The steady thump of drums beat a deadly rhythm in the stifling heat. Inside, in 100F, Phil Ashby and his colleagues sweated, both from lack of water and from fear. When the rebels attacked the disarmament camp Ashby had been elsewhere, had managed to escape to the compound armed by the UN Kenyan soldiers. He had thought he would be safe here. Now he knew different.

One of his colleagues was being raped and tortured outside. He had flicked his radio switch on and from inside, Ashby could hear every agonising scream. Ashby knew what to expect; he had even watched the rebels skin a man alive, like a stag being separated from its hide. With a sharp knife the rebels had pulled up the skin at the nape of the neck then peeled it down his back. Halfway through, the man was dead. "It may sound selfish," says Ashby, "but the worst thing is thinking, ‘I’m next’."

Ashby was one of only four white men. "Brother Africans," read a rebel message sent to the Kenyans, "we have no quarrel with you. Give us the white men and you will go free. Refuse and we will kill you all." It tried to exploit a UN weakness. Armed by different nationalities, where does the loyalty of UN troops lie? To the abstract UN? Or to their own country? Or continent? Or colour? "I trusted the Kenyans completely not to hand us over but some of the other nationalities, I didn’t trust," explains Ashby. "I think they would have handed us over to save their own skins. Who can blame them? If they could have saved 70 people by handing over four, it would have been a pretty hard decision but it could have been the right decision and I realise that."

Escape was essential. And the attempt had to be secret because not everyone would sit back and watch the best bargaining tools walk out the door. Ironically, Ashby had used a satellite phone to seek permission to break out on the first day but was refused. Diplomatic efforts to rescue them were ongoing, he was told. Now, diplomatic efforts had broken down. And a Zambian battalion sent to rescue them had been beaten by the rebels. HQ finally recognised they faced death and sanctioned the escape. But by now they were physically weak from four days without food and water.

They were also defenceless. Arming themselves would mean stealing a weapon from one of the Kenyans. They couldn’t do it. Their only equipment was the satphone. Ashby was determined to use it to say goodbye to his family. "I don’t know what it’s like to die. But I imagine in the few seconds before the light goes out you are aware of what’s happening, and for me the thought of not saying goodbye would have been worse than the dying itself."

He phoned his father first. "My dad and I have one of those relationships where if either of us said we loved one another it would be followed by a punch." So what did he say? He smiles. "I think I said, ‘pass my love to my mother’." And his father? "He said something like, ‘We both love you’, turning it from him to him and mum." It was the only time Ashby lost it. "I think precisely because we weren’t using particularly emotional language. And literally, for a few minutes I was just sobbing."

He composed himself for his wife Anna, talked about practicalities. "But then I had to say, ‘look Anna, I don’t think I’m going to make it here so if I don’t, I really love you and look after yourself’, and all that stuff. The only time you hear people talking like that is in s***e Hollywood movies," he laughs, "and Anna is a tough nut from Edinburgh." Anna gave him some tough nut Edinburgh advice. Steal a weapon. Save yourself, not your friends.

His final call was to his best friend Dan Bailey who had trained with him. Ashby wanted him to organise his funeral and look after Anna. "The call came out of the blue," recalls Bailey. "He sounded very frightened and I could tell he was struggling to maintain sanity. He’d obviously been in dire straits for a long time but he wasn’t going, ‘oh help, help’. He was speaking rationally. He thought he had a 20% chance of living, which means he thought he was going to die."

As he slipped down over the compound wall, Ashby nearly did, almost running straight into one of the rebels. They stared directly into each other’s eyes. Inexplicably, the rebel did nothing. Ashby still doesn’t understand why. The four fled into the jungle but progress was painfully slow. They could hardly talk for dehydration. And days without sleep had skewed their sense of reality. "In the jungle at night it’s very dark so it’s quite hard to tell the difference between your eyes being open and shut," explains Ashby. "You don’t know what’s really there and what’s in your mind’s eye. Every single shadow turns from being a shadow to being a person. A person you can deal with but then it becomes a snake or an elephant or a ghost or a tank."

Physically, six-foot-four-inch Ashby was the strongest. He had completed the mountain leader’s course, regarded as the toughest in the forces. It made sense for him to take charge. Andy, one of his colleagues, was weak from a recent typhoid attack and collapsed. "Leave me here," he insisted. They had agreed at the start if one became a burden the others would go on without him. Ashby deliberated. If he had to abandon Andy, he decided, he would kill him with a boulder first. Much kinder than leaving him to the rebels. But he was desperate to avoid abandoning his mate. "If you stay, we all stay," he told Andy. And if we all stay we’re f***ing dead. I don’t want to die so get on your feet now." Andy got on his feet.

They had to find water or they were dead anyway. Ashby had an old map that indicated a seasonal river. "We were continually collapsing, in and out of consciousness, but we got to the point where the river should have been and there was nothing. We collapsed back. It was a beautiful night, big moon, big stars. I looked up and thought, ‘This is it’. As we lay there in the dark feeling sorry for ourselves we heard the noise of the jungle. In particular, frogs croaking. Where there were frogs, there had to be water."

The took a compass bearing for the direction of the croaking and eventually reached stagnant, muddy pools, thick with a scum of dead insects. They put powerful chlorine tablets in and drank thirstily. By the second night, they believed they had come far enough for a helicopter to reach them. Eagerly, they took out the satphone they had lugged. Dead. Now they had to gamble. Progress at night was too slow. They would have to approach a friendly village and seek a guide to lead them through jungle paths away from rebel-held territories.

With the help of a teenage guide who had suffered badly at the hands of rebels, they reached a UN-held peninsula. Ashby charged the phone and contacted his UK boss. The marines had been hastily deployed to evacuate British nationals from the anarchy. A helicopter would be with them in 15 minutes.

AFTER HIS RESCUE, Ashby chose to stay on in Sierra Leone to complete his six-month tour of duty. He had only been back at the Directorate of Naval Manning in Portsmouth for a few weeks when doctors discovered a tropical parasite was living in his spinal cord, attacking his nervous system. Perhaps it was those stagnant pools that brought him to this hospital bed. Surely he was bitter? To come through all those life-changing events and find there would be no life to change. Hadn’t this all been about UN incompetence? "If I’d used my satphone and the voice at the other end said you’re on your own pal, I’d have felt disillusioned. But when they said we’ll pick you up in 15 minutes, I felt the opposite."

But he had been left unarmed in a dangerous situation. He’d been refused permission to break out when he had the best chance of success. And when a battalion of 500 UN Zambian soldiers were sent in to rescue the Kenyan compound, the rebels divided the Zambians, tortured them, stole their weapons and uniforms. What did that say about UN efficiency?

"When push comes to shove, the UN is not a particularly effective fighting force," admits Ashby. "The UN could talk a good talk but it couldn’t fight a good fight. But," he adds pointedly, "it is only as good as the people who contribute to it and at least the Third World nations have the guts to supply troops. In the UK we do provide troops but it tends only to be in Europe. We had 14 unarmed observers in Sierra Leone out of a force of 10,000. When we did send troops, after things got messy, they still weren’t working for the UN. Lots of other countries, the most famous being the US, don’t pay financial dues to the UN. In Afghanistan they are quite happy to attack people but they are not much good at keeping the peace afterwards. So perhaps it’s a shame that some of the richer countries aren’t prepared to help out in tricky situations."

The peace process is now back on track in Sierra Leone. Ask the once physically-elite Ashby if it has been hard coming to terms with what he saw and he says honestly that it has been more challenging facing illness than atrocity. The parasite didn’t kill him but he doesn’t yet know if the famous Ashby luck has quietly run out. He is mobile again, he still has numbness below the knee and, long term, he may have a degenerative illness of the nervous system. He has written a book, is discussing film rights and is studying defence technology for a master’s degree. But he’d rather be a proper soldier. He wants to be back in Sierra Leone. Or even in Afghanistan. "I feel," he says frustratedly, "like Captain Darling in Blackadder. Too busy counting paper clips to join the war in the trenches."

Phil Ashby’s book Unscathed is published on Friday by Macmillan, 16.99. Major Ashby will be giving a talk at Ottakar’s in Aberdeen on May 14 at 7pm and at Border’s in Glasgow on May 20 at 7pm.