Their protest began 15 years ago. The Cruise missiles and Americans have left, the Cold War is over, but there are still women encamped at Greenham Common. What keeps them there?
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The soldiers have all gone, and so have the Cruise missiles. The watchtowers of the former airbase are empty and silent. Inside the squat concrete silos, private salvage firms rip out miles of copper wiring and demolish nuclear command desks. Outside, weeds crack the concrete path. Yet the sight of those bunkers - once home to a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out most of civilisation - is still enough to set the pulse racing.

"We used to be so scared," recalls Katrina Howse, with a gesture at the four high-security wire fences. "The British Army was there behind the fences, but you couldn't see where the Americans were with their submachine- guns, because they stayed hidden. Somebody said an American soldier was sent home for not shooting us when we got right in."

Katrina is a tall, assertive woman in her late thirties. We have come through the woods to the back of the base, scene of some of the fiercest battles between protesters and the military. Katrina and other women used to cut their way through these intimidating fences, crawling under barbed wire and razor-wire in the middle of the night, dodging spotlights and guards on patrol, to try to reach the silos themselves. Sometimes they actually made it, singing songs of peace, dancing and spray-painting messages on the walls. They usually ended up under arrest, often at gunpoint. Katrina has been to prison 19 times.

As we talk, a jeep pulls up; not an army jeep, but the sporty sort popular in Home Counties suburbs. A middle-aged security guard gets out of the passenger door, checks the state of the fence and murmurs a greeting. As the jeep leaves again, its smirking driver, with a nod at Katrina, asks the guard a question. We can tell what he is saying: it is the question that is always asked when the subject of Greenham Common arises. The answer is yes - the Greenham Women are still there, living in tents and caravans by what used to be the main gate of the airbase, 15 years after they first came, and more than five years after the Cruise missiles they were opposing left. A more interesting question is: why?

"There is a period in every resistance movement which catches the world's attention," according to Beth Junor, author, peace campaigner and Greenham historian. For Greenham, that moment came on 12 December 1982, when 30,000 women encircled the nine miles of perimeter fence at RAF Greenham Common to protest against the plans to site Cruise nuclear missiles there. Women had been camped at the site for more than a year beforehand, the remnants of a march from Cardiff by around 150 protesters which arrived at Greenham on 5 September 1981, but this was the moment when they caught the world's imagination.

The tabloids sent female reporters "undercover" to join the peace camps rapidly being established around the outskirts of the base. If you believed what they wrote, the Greenham "wimmin" were subversive Commie dykes with serious drug and personal hygiene problems. If you believed the peace movement's counter-mythology, the Greenham heroines' non-hierarchical, non-violent, leaderless groups were society's only hope for the future - models of a new form of democracy. Neither account was entirely accurate. What was true was that the women annoyed the hell out of a lot of people, including Margaret Thatcher, who vowed to break them; and Michael Heseltine, her defence minister, who confronted protesters in a flak jacket and warned that these "intruders" risked being shot.

Despite such threats, the women stayed through the winter of 1982 and beyond, initially at the main gate ("Yellow Gate") and subsequently at other gates too. They endured evictions, arrests, protests from local residents and violent attacks from vigilante groups armed with buckets and maggots, blood, pig manure and fireworks. When their tents and caravans were removed, they slept on the ground.

The women did everything they could to disrupt preparations for Cruise. They pulled down fences, broke into the base, occupied sentry boxes and even painted peace symbols on a Blackbird spy plane, causing damage estimated at pounds 250,000. Very early in the life of the camp, it was decided that even the friendliest males should visit only in the hours of daylight. Nappies, tampons and knitting needles were used as symbolic weapons of resistance. The women dressed up as teddy bears, wove themselves together with wool to make arrest more difficult, or held children's parties on forbidden ground. One woman brought her 12-year-old daughter and her 82-year-old, wheelchair-bound grandmother along to protest. Another gave birth by the main gate. Women around the world were inspired. The massed ranks of police and servicemen, more used to violent demonstrations, were bemused.

Cruise finally arrived in November 1983, flown in by transporter aircraft over the heads of the protesters. In response, 50,000 women gathered to encircle the base again, this time holding up mirrors in a symbolic action meant to reflect back its horror. By now the world was growing used to the sight of Greenham women lying in the road in their hundreds, singing and holding hands, in front of massive green USAF trucks and missile launchers. And, in growing numbers, ordinary women of many backgrounds and political persuasions were caught up by the exhilarating collective belief that they could, after all, make a difference.

There are not even any road signs for Greenham Common now. History - or at least geography - has been rewritten. Take the A339 for Newbury, heading towards Basingstoke, and you will drive past rows of trees; through them can be seen the perimeter fence of what was once the jewel in the crown of NATO, a US airbase with the longest runway in Europe. They call it New Greenham Park these days, as if that will shake off the ghosts.

The guards on the gate are private ones, and the aircraft hangars are now occupied by small businesses. Where the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes once flew from a pole near the main gate, there is now a dull grey flag bearing the name of a printing company. What used to be the chapel houses a martial arts centre, running t'ai chi lessons. Across the road, a low prefabricated building with smoked-glass doors is the leisure centre. Once a symbol of the special relationship between Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's global superpower, the site could now stand for Major's Middle England, land of the light industrial unit.

No travelling salesman could fail to notice the peace camp, however, sprawled beside the slip road to the business park entrance like some unwanted settlement of New Age travellers. Katrina Howse was there from almost the beginning. She had become heavily involved in the peace and women's movements while studying art at Sheffield University. After graduating, she stayed in Sheffield to work as a community mural artist, but also helped to set up a women's peace camp, outside RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, to protest against the Falklands War. Soon after it closed, in 1982, she went to live at Yellow Gate, the camp by the main entrance to Greenham. She had not been there long before bailiffs cleared away all the tents, caravans and other shelters around the camp. "I remember thinking: 'How are we going to survive?' We stood in the rain and sang 'You can't kill the spirit' for hours. We had absolutely nothing. We ended up sleeping in a black plastic tunnel roped between two trees. It rained for 30 days and 30 nights, or it felt like that. It was horrendous, and I didn't know how we were going to survive, but we did."

In those early days, Katrina wrote in a diary that a woman's culture was growing at the camp. "It's brightly coloured, confident and new. We spin webs across the gates, singing out with new songs, learn to juggle and blockade the main gates for two weeks. There is a hotchpotch of activity. Lesbians are confident there, and this is a sign of our growing stronger. The atmosphere is excitable, like shedding a dowdy skin and emerging vividly painted. The sense of power is intoxicating."

Her intoxication was widely shared. Yet faith in the transforming power of this new culture proved exaggerated. Time and chance took their toll, and, like countless idealists before them, the Greenham women found the clarity of their original hopes gradually muddied by experience. Tens of thousands of women visited Greenham in the first few years. Most, having made their protest - and been changed - went away again. Only a hard core of protesters stayed. By 1985, after another mass eviction, press coverage was dying away. That winter was a hard one. A woman from Blue Gate, on the other side of the base, was murdered by a travelling salesman who had given her a lift; CND's annual conference offered "negligible" support for Greenham (according to a public statement by the remaining women); the Greenham Common Peace Camp campaign office in London closed down.

The momentum never really returned. In 1987, Yoko Ono visited the base and helped the women to buy land nearby in which to rest and recuperate. But by then the women were falling out with one another. It is hard to establish precisely why the Yellow Gate women fell out with the rest of the peace movement, but all parties agree that "the split" began then. The simplest interpretation is that they were the hard core, who believed in continuing the Greenham camp come hell or high water. The "moderates", who remain on friendly terms with CND, believe in a more flexible approach to continuing the struggle, which includes returning to careers, homes and families elsewhere; hence the name of the network to which many of them now belong: Greenham Women Everywhere. Both factions see themselves as guardians of the original Greenham spirit; neither can pretend that the quarrel has been helpful to the cause.

Nor, on the face of it, was the thawing of the Cold War. In the early Eighties, when East and West had missiles primed and trained on one another, fear of a nuclear holocaust was strong enough to attract 150,000 people to a CND rally in Hyde Park. Then treaties were signed, the Soviet Union fell apart, and - despite any number of remaining nuclear threats from criminals, terrorists and other power blocs - everyone seemed to stop worrying. As Katrina says: "Once a lot of women started thinking that there was no longer the danger of a nuclear war tomorrow, they stopped acting." When, in 1989, a 22-year-old Welsh woman called Helen Thomas - one of a handful of new recruits to the Yellow Gate camp since the split - was hit by a police horse-box and killed during a protest in 1989, many people thought the Greenham dream was approaching its bitter end.

But it wasn't. Even when the Americans and the Cruise missiles left Greenham in September 1992, the women remained, simply turning their attention to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, eight miles down the road at Aldermaston and Burghfield, where warheads for the Trident nuclear system are made. And there they are still, a curious, almost anachronistic reproach not only to warmongering males but also, one suspects, to the many women who were once with them but have now gone back - or on - to more normal lives.

Sarah Hipperson was a middle-class CND supporter living in a big house in the leafy London suburb of Wanstead when her desire to "live the protest" drew her towards the camp. It was 1982. For a year she visited and supported the protest from a distance, but always returned to her husband and five children, who were either just finishing school or at university. Even then, she was aware that some people would see her involvement as conflicting with her duty as a wife and mother. She saw several women accused of being cruel and hard-hearted for leaving their families to go to the camp. One of them said at the time: "It's exactly for my children that I'm doing this. In the past, men have left home to go to war. Now women are leaving to go to peace."

Brought up in Glasgow, Sarah had spent several years in Canada before settling down as a housewife in the London commuter-belt. She had worked as a nurse and a midwife, and even served as a magistrate for three years in the Seventies. Her first tentative steps towards the peace movement involved pushing CND leaflets through letterboxes in her resolutely Conservative area. Soon she was daubing blood and ashes on the walls of the Ministry of Defence, as a founder member of Catholic Peace Action.

Then, in 1983, Sarah was one of a group of supporters at the High Court when orders were made banning several key Greenham women from the camp. Fresh volunteers were required. "I phoned my family from the court to tell them I was going down to live there for a few days to see what needed to be done," she remembers. "I went down, and I was absolutely horrified. It was so raw. Living under a piece of black plastic on the ground, absolutely frozen stiff." She has lived there for most of the time ever since.

Now 68, Sarah still has a home in Wanstead but spends much of her time living and working at what remains of Yellow Gate camp. She is a neat and attractive woman, with long silver hair; warm and humorous, with a sharp-witted and confident manner. Members of the legal profession are often surprised to encounter a "Greenham woman" so respectable they could imagine inviting her home to dinner.

She never went back to her husband. "To be fair, my marriage was coming to an end in any case. It had nothing to do with Greenham, but a lot to do with the changing ways one was starting to think about life. A lot of women came to Greenham looking to make change, not only in the world in the nuclear sense, but in themselves as well."

Presumably that is one reason why some of them remain, although they give short shrift to any suggestion that we are not in imminent danger of nuclear disaster. Katrina dismisses such arguments as "wrong thinking". For her the threat is as real as ever. She has just read a book on the Chernobyl disaster: "I wanted to run outside screaming. That is the reality, which has been known ever since Hiroshima. Then you have all the nuclear explosions in the Pacific and the uranium-tipped shells used on Iraq, which caused dreadful birth defects."

There is still Trident to be fought against, she says, and Greenham is a good place to do it from. It is also her home, with its own post code and mail service, and an entry in the electoral register (concessions won years ago after a legal battle with local residents, many of whom have objected vigorously to the camp). Even after all this time, living conditions are harsh. Water must be gathered in plastic containers from a standpipe across the busy main road, and heated on small gas stoves or the open fire, for which wood must be gathered.

The camp is run as a collective, although every woman is financially self-supporting (some work, some claim benefit). What little money is donated from outside goes towards the running costs of "the struggle". The camp itself is little more than two battered caravans by the road, with an open fire between them. There is also an old shopping trolley containing blackened pots and pans; a scuffed armchair; some garden furniture; two more caravans; and some tents. Hand-painted sheets hang from a washing- line, their slogans protesting against Trident and sanctions on Iraq. Off to one side is a fir tree, surrounded by flowers; at the base there is a tea mug, and a sign saying "Helen's Garden".

There are rarely more than half a dozen women living on site at any one time, but another 30 or so can be called on at short notice to provide cover while others are in court, or to take part in protests. These usually involve cutting the fences at Aldermaston and Burghfield, a method of action which is direct, physical and impossible for the authorities to ignore, but which is also non-violent. They climb trees to see over the walls around the bases, and whenever an unmarked convoy leaves to carry nuclear warheads up to submarines based in Scotland, the women attempt to pursue in their battered cars, covered in banners that say things like "Danger: nuclear weapons in transit".

These activities bring the Yellow Gate women into occasional contact with the other Greenham factions, some of whose members gather once a month in a women's peace camp at Aldermaston - and make their own attempts to disrupt the convoys. According to one participant, this camp has only "a polite working relationship" with the women of Yellow Gate. The thinly disguised hostility with which each group privately refers to the other suggests that this is putting it politely.

There are not supposed to be any leaders at Yellow Gate, but Katrina's personality appears to make her the centre of gravity. Now 38, she is a tall, powerful and articulate woman whose regular defences of herself in court are accomplished. She is also an artist, most of whose bright, bold triptychs have been painted in appalling conditions. Ferociously intense, she answers nearly every personal question with a reference to the nuclear threat and scorns any idea that she sacrificed the chance of a good career to live at Greenham. "What I've done here is more worthwhile, has taught me more, and has been more important - in terms of stopping nuclear weapons - than whatever I could have done with my degree. I think we're in a crisis. What's the point of working into some kind of career structure when the world's on the brink of a nuclear holocaust?"

Fifteen years ago, the choices did not seem quite so awesome. "None of us knew at the time how far it would take us ... and, of course, once you're on that road there's no going back." For Katrina, that meant months behind bars for trespass, criminal damage and other offences. She has no regrets. "Even in the prisons, you are mentally free.

"I have to take action," she adds, "or I'm in a state of mental torment about it the whole time." Checking herself, she stresses that this is more about practical opposition than about merely "achieving inner peace by fighting the military". None the less, it can clearly be a hard habit to break.

Jean Hutchinson came to Greenham in the first three weeks of the protest. She experienced "vicious and dangerous" evictions, being lashed with ropes and thrown in a ditch, and slept in a plastic bag tied to a tree, anchored down by the shopping trolley. Jean recounts with obvious pride how both her husband and sons have been to prison for peace activism, and remembers what happened when she tried to give up protesting. "When I reached 60, I mistakenly thought that I could retire or something. I worked all my cases through to the end. The morning I woke up without a case in court, I had never felt so miserable. I was helping to look after my grandson, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was making a really big mistake. Putting his nappy on was all very well, but I wasn't really looking after him by allowing Aldermaston to still be there. They have to be stopped, for the sake of all of us, present and future generations. We're sitting here eight miles from Aldermaston: one mistake there and we'd all be gone."

Jean is a large, friendly-looking woman with an open face, who wears the jeans, boots and chunky sweater of a veteran protester. She now lives mainly in Wales with her husband, an artist, but still goes down to Greenham two or three times a month. Others living full-time at the camp joined rather later, like Aniko Jones. After visiting for two years, Aniko finally moved there in 1987, living in a tent for seven years before graduating to one of the two caravans by the road. Hers is the one with the "cat corner" behind it. The cat is a vegetarian. Aniko is a sparky, witty woman in her early thirties, who earns money by driving heavy goods vehicles to the Continent. "I enjoy the shock people get when they see a woman coming all the way from England driving a 38-ton vehicle."

The daughter of a policeman from Nottingham, she remembers her first action, when gates were blockaded and women sat in the road in front of vehicles. "There was a tremendous sense of awe and power that these women dared to challenge this institution which I'd always believed was all- powerful. I was just bowled over."

Of the women who live at the camp, Aniko is the most willing to confess to interests beyond the anti-nuclear struggle, although they are fairly predictable: driving, the garden, company, good books, visiting her family and going on holiday. She describes herself as a television addict but admits it would not go down well to have one at the camp, so consoles herself with Radio 4. There are personality disputes, she admits, but the official line is that the cause comes first. The weather can get her down, though. "When you're waking up and you have to chip your way out of the caravan because it's frozen solid ... it can be very draining." Aniko expresses the cause in personal terms more than the other women, muttering "bastards" at the sight of armed Aldermaston guards.

There is no question of her giving up now. "The military is the epitome of evil," she says. "Once my eyes have been opened to that, I cannot close them. If I left the camp and walked into another life, I would always know in the back of my mind that there were Trident warheads on the roads. I would know that the money going into those weapons could have gone to that charity I see down the street or that homeless person I see under those arches. If I want to stay sane and continue to be true to my own moral standards, then I have to be always involved in resisting. If I sit back and accept it, I become part of a system I hate."

Now that the world has turned its face away, the courtrooms appear to have replaced the camp gates as the forum for the Greenham women's most important activities. Having been arrested for an action, women can be sure of a platform on which to argue their cause. The Establishment, in the form of judges, magistrates and occasionally government ministers, has to listen. Usually the women lose, but they have had one morale-boosting victory, involving Jean Hutchinson. Arrested inside the base, she and another woman were charged with trespass under byelaws to the Military Lands Act introduced by Michael Heseltine in April 1985. After a four- and-a-half-year legal battle that took them to the House of Lords, the two women were told that the byelaws were invalid, because a proviso in the Act said the Minister for Defence did not have the right to take away any rights of common. This meant, a judge at Reading Crown Court discovered, that planes transporting Cruise missiles could be held up by registered commoners exercising their ancient rights to graze 17 goats, six cows, four pigs and a number of other animals on land around the runway. It effectively removed all legal justification for the perimeter fence, although the women had no right to cut it down as they were not commoners. By the time the case closed, in 1991, the base was on the verge of doing the same; but it was still a famous legal victory. The women fought almost the whole case on their own, without legal help, as they usually do. They won it by raising every argument they could think of until something stuck, and appealing wherever possible. This scattergun approach is being employed in a number of current cases, including one defence under the Genocide Act in which they claim that criminal action against nuclear weapons (in this case, cutting the fence at Aldermaston on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1993) is justified because it prevents the greater crime of genocide. A similar argument is being used by the East Timor Ploughshare group, four women currently being tried at Liverpool Crown Court for using household hammers to disarm a Hawk fighter plane being built by British Aerospace. In the Aldermaston case, Sarah Hipperson and other women were found guilty by magistrates of criminal damage but have lodged an appeal with the House of Lords. They intend to take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Earlier this month, the International Court of Justice declared that the use of nuclear weapons was contrary to international law and established humanitarian standards. It stopped short of banning the bomb, but the decision showed how far the world has come since the Cold War arms race picked up speed again in the late Seventies. "Everybody's on our side, but they don't do anything," says Sarah. "They prefer not to think about it. But we think about the unthinkable. That's what keeps us here.

"I've brought life into this world," she continues. "I was a midwife. I've sat at the bedside of people who have been leaving the earth. And I have had children of my own. That has brought me to the way I think today. You can't have these experiences and know that's there" - she nods at a poster depicting a Trident nuclear submarine - "ready to exterminate millions of people, and think that's normal behaviour. It's against everything that it means to be human."

What keeps the women going is the belief that such weapons will eventually be outlawed and dismantled. There are two important foundations for that belief, one of which is the long-held Greenham philosophy that the individual is more powerful than she thinks - that three women, on their own, can, for a while, stop a Cruise missile convoy. The other is the women's unshakeable confidence that it was their efforts that got rid of Cruise. History may record that it was negotiation between the superpowers and a thaw in the Cold War that led to the signing of the INF treaty, but "herstory" is different. "Our actions mounted up on each other, and this place shook," says Jean Hutchinson. "Wasn't it strange that Mrs Thatcher, who loved nuclear weapons, never raised a murmur about Cruise being cancelled under the INF? I believe it was because she knew they were not maintainable here - pounds 3 million had to be paid in one year to police the place. We defeated them. I know it was signed somewhere away in Europe - Gorbachev and Reagan signed things and Mrs Thatcher was silent - but we know that we brought that about."

Such self-belief may seem faintly absurd. Yet it keeps the women of Yellow Gate going even when so many former friends have lost the faith. "They look down the road and see more of this struggle every day," said Sarah. "They look at us and think: 'You get up and you live in this primitive way. Nobody gives a damn how you are. Nobody gives a damn that you're out there trying to do this. You're struggling, you're going to the courts, you're going to prison. I don't want a steady diet of this, thank you.' It's easier to go back into the system and get a career."

Katrina, Sarah and the rest may comfort themselves with the thought that their 15-year sacrifice has made Britain a safer place. But the average Briton - or at least the average Middle Englander - remains more interested in the early stereotypes of Greenham "wimmin" than in what they may or may not have achieved politically. Some of the residents of Newbury and villages around Greenham once chartered a plane to fly over their heads towing the slogan "Girls Go Home". The women were banned from most shops, pubs and cafes in Newbury, betrayed by their scruffy appearance and the smell of woodsmoke. "Even today," says Sarah, "as the train pulls in there, my stomach goes."

Yet things may finally be changing. It is now three years since Newbury District Council last tried to evict the women. Instead, the council seems preoccupied with wrangling with the Ministry of Defence about what will happen to the Common. The plan for a peace museum in the silos was rejected by the women, who saw it as a "pay-off" for leaving Yellow Gate. Instead, they are claiming squatters' rights.

It used to be vigilantes and bailiffs that kept them awake at night. More recently, it was rowdy drunks from a night-club that had opened in one of the hangars. Extra guards were drafted in, only this time it was to protect the peace camp. Katrina laughs at the thought, as we enter the main gate and go to the less-than-sensitively named Cruise Inn Bar in the leisure centre, to buy an ice-cream. As the barman takes her money, a creeping grin betrays his amusement with her. I notice that others in the bar are exchanging knowing looks. She's still a novelty, after all this time. Finally, he can contain himself no longer. "Have you heard what they say about the difference between one of your lot and a pit-bull terrier?" She shakes her head, half smiling. "A pit-bull knows when to give up." !