Rose Gentle: Some mother's son
Her fight to bring Tony Blair to justice over the Iraq war has taken her to the High Court, the Court of Appeal, and now she awaits the law lords' verdict. Behind it all, though, is the grief of a woman who has lost her boy
Five years ago, Gordon Gentle was a big, friendly teenager who played football with his mates on the streets of their housing estate in Pollok, Glasgow. He loved Celtic FC and cars. The invasion of Iraq, which has its fifth anniversary on Thursday, passed him by. "Gordon never watched the news," says his mother, Rose. "He didn't know where Iraq was. Not a clue."
It had nothing to do with him, anyway. Not then. Gordon just wanted to be a mechanic – or anything that would get him out of Pollok. He was a waiter, briefly, and a shelf stacker for even less time. So when his best friend suggested they talk to an army recruiting officer, he agreed.
"The soldiers turned up at the DSS where Gordon signed on," says Mrs Gentle. "Gordon never wanted to be in the Army. I said, 'Don't be stupid! Don't do this.'" But he was persuaded by the thought of returning after a short service with money in his pocket, a driving licence and the training to be what was his dream, a mechanic.
"He would have been coming out about now," says Mrs Gentle, sitting under an oil painting of her son in the uniform of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. He was blown up by a roadside bomb in Basra in the summer of 2004, after six months of training and three weeks in Iraq. Fusilier Gentle was killed by the lack of an electronic scrambler that should have been fitted to his Land Rover and which would have stopped the bomb going off.
In five years of war, 175 servicemen and women have lost their lives. Repetition has made their stories almost ordinary – the family man killed on his last tour of duty, the teenager dead within months of signing up – but extraordinary things have happened to the Gentles.
Grief and rage turned Rose, a shop cleaner who had never made a speech in her life, into one of the best-known campaigners against the war. She has fought a long legal battle trying to prove that it was illegal, and is waiting for a ruling by nine law lords later this month. Military Families Against the War, the campaign group she runs from Gordon's old bedroom in their pebbledashed council house, has more than 3,000 members. But what marks her out from almost all of the mothers who have been bereaved over the past five years is that Rose Gentle has seen the faces of her son's killers.
Or so she believes. The photos of an Iraqi father and son accused of making the explosive device that took his life appear in Eight Lives Down, a book by Chris Hunter, a bomb disposal expert. Last November, on Remembrance Day, his story appeared under the headline, "I caught Gordon Gentle killers". The pair were arrested in August 2004. "I can't go into details," said the former soldier, "but we found enough to secure a conviction."
That is not true. Last week, in response to Mrs Gentle's typically persistent questioning, the armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth wrote to her, revealing that Iraqi courts decided there was not enough evidence. The two were released after six months. "It just doesn't sound right to me at all," says Rose Gentle. "I feel so angry that they are walking the streets, because they are likely to kill someone else's kid."
Actually, she is beyond anger. The flat tone of her voice suggests nothing could hurt her any more than she has been already.
She last saw her son alive in May 2004, on the morning of her 40th birthday. The training had changed him. "When he came home on leave, everything had to be perfect. Trousers had to be ironed right. The room had to be tidy." She tries to laugh, but it becomes a sigh. "Before, Gordon would have just laid in his bed." Six foot four, he ate everything in sight. "We called him the Fridge." So she weighed him down with "sandwiches, crisps, Snickers, you name it" for the journey back to barracks and on to war. One last act of caring by a mother.
Gordon put his bags on the train, then got off again. "He gave me a kiss and said, 'I love you, Mum.' I said, 'I love you, too.' I said to his dad that night, 'Gordon'll not be back.' I had a horrible feeling."
Fusileer Gentle was travelling with a convoy of Snatch Land Rovers as it left Basra Palace at 8.30 on the morning of Monday 28 June. Fusileer Sean Gill, next to him, told the inquest he was dazzled by a huge flash as the bomb exploded. "I was disorientated for a few seconds. He was lying on his back with his eyes open."
Shrapnel had pierced Gordon's upper back, cutting an artery and stopping the flow of blood to his brain. A camera crew with the convoy filmed the efforts of his colleagues to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Within hours, a censored version of the footage appeared on the breakfast news – and was seen by Rose Gentle as she drank a morning coffee. "I thought, 'God, some poor mammy's going to see her son lying on the ground.'" She did think for one awful moment that she recognised Gordon, but thought, "It can't be, I would have been told."
Three hours later, two soldiers came to the shop where she worked. They asked her to sit in their car, and then they told her. "All I can remember is running out the car, screaming.'"
Her husband, George, a construction ground worker, collapsed from the shock when she rang to tell him. "I just says, 'The wee man's been killed.'" George has not worked since. He supports his wife's campaigning, but plays no public part in it. While we talk, he stays out of the way in Gordon's room, on the computer.
Their youngest child, Maxine, kept screaming that it was a lie. Then she went and sat outside on the pavement with Gordon's friends for hours. She is 19 years old now, Gordon's age, and still suffering. "He was her hero," says Rose. "I wouldn't say she deals with it good. She is afraid to cry, in case she upsets me."
Pamela, their eldest daughter, has become more and more angry over the years, joining her mother at demos. Last year she was married. "It was a lovely day, she looked gorgeous," says Mrs Gentle. But it was hard, too. "There was a soldier who came, somebody's son, in his regimental kilt. You were thinking, 'That should have been Gordon.'"
His best friend, the one who persuaded him to talk to the recruiting officer, did not join the Army. He had asthma. "Even to this day," says Mrs Gentle, "he blames himself for what happened." These five years have been full of trouble. "He didn't get a job for a long long time, and he started hitting the drink. For a young boy he was dead depressed. We got hold of him and said, 'Look, it's not your fault, son.'" Recently he has started to turn his life around, with his own gardening business.
As for Rose herself, the other bereaved mothers in the campaign have helped. "If we didn't have each other and we just sat back and took it, I think a lot of us would have hit rock bottom. They don't phone a helpline in the early hours of the morning, they phone me." It sounds like she's up all night. "Aye, sometimes."
We are in the room where she sat up all night with the body of her son before his funeral. She rubbed gel into his hair, the way Gordon liked it. Then she laid five red roses in the coffin, and let him go. He is buried nearby, under a gravestone that says: "To the world, a soldier. To us, the world." She still sprays his room with Joop! aftershave to bring back his smell.
It took 40 months to get an inquest. The coroner heard that the scrambler was in storage half a mile from where the explosion happened, because of a "communication breakdown". The supply chain was "chaotic and lacking in clarity", she said.
Mrs Gentle has been accused of being naive, or of being used by activists in the Stop the War movement, but says that she has never been a member of any political organisation. "I only speak at meetings where they support Gordon directly."
She doesn't accept payment for speaking. "I don't think it's right. I'd feel terrible." She and George live on benefits of £70 a week between them. "It's a struggle." They have received £10,000 compensation from the MoD and £10,000 from insurance, but Gordon wasn't entitled to a pension. "I brought him up for 19 years, fed and kept him going and gave him to the Army, but no, nothing."
She blames one man, above all. "My son didn't die for Queen and country. He died for Blair's lies." Mr Blair, of course, is earning a fortune these days. "He's away making millions, conning everybody. And now he wants to go to Yale and teach religion. Oh God!"
Her biggest fight is still in the courts. Her lawyers argue that the Blair administration broke the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life, by failing to ensure that the invasion of Iraq was lawful and justified. The case was rejected in the High Court and failed in the Court of Appeal, but the law lords are expected to rule by the end of the month. "The next step, which would probably be the last step, would be the European Court of Human Rights." And after that? Her doctor says she has not given herself time to grieve properly. Her daughters call her a "walking time bomb" because they are afraid of the emotions that will hit her when she stops campaigning. "Aye, they're probably right," she says. "But see, I'll not give up. Anniversaries mean nothing. The Government would rather we just go away and stop asking questions. No way. I won't let them break me. I'll get to them before I let them get to me."
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