Middle East

Diary: Following the mission to remove Syria's chemical weapons

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Media captionThe first consignment of materials has left Syria on a Danish ship.

An unprecedented international effort is under way to remove and destroy Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons.

The operation involves transporting the weapons from facilities in Syria and carrying them out on Norwegian and Danish vessels to be disposed of on a specially adapted US ship.

The BBC's Anna Holligan, was on board the Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad for several days, until foreign journalists were all suddenly told on Monday that they had to leave the ship. She is writing this special diary on events and you can follow her journey on Twitter @annaholligan.

Tuesday 7 January

Less than 24 hours after our eviction, the historic removal job began.

It happened under the cover of a media blackout. As soon as the BBC team and one Norwegian reporter left the Helge Ingstad, the whole ship went into a public information lockdown.

Only those organisations running the joint mission - the UN and the OPCW - would be allowed to deliver the news.

But it was Arabic television that broke it first.

Ensuring that an internationally anticipated arrival of a vast cargo vessel - accompanied by a fleet of Chinese, Russian and Scandinavian warships - was kept a secret had sounded to us tweeting journalists a little like mission impossible.

Eventually, the UN team in Damascus confirmed that the first containers had been stowed inside the Danish Ark Futura and were "heading towards international waters as we speak".

In terms of a country's chemical stockpile, size matters. And this first consignment was just a fraction of the total declared by the Syrian government.

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Media caption"It's hard for people outside to really understand what's going on here" - crew member of the Norwegian warship, Helge Ingstad

A source close to the mission told the BBC that this first shipment consisted of 16 tonnes. If correct, that would be 16 out of 630 tonnes destined for destruction beyond Syrian borders.

For the OPCW, it represented an encouraging sign that things were moving. Later, in a press release announcing the news we had been reporting on from Limassol, the UN urged the Syrian government to keep the momentum going.

This relatively minor delivery, has been viewed by some military experts in chemical warfare as a largely symbolic gesture - one that we should not assume is reflective of a process that's approaching any form of imminent conclusion.

We know that the containers came from two sites, but nobody from the mission will confirm the location of those sites.

This makes it impossible to know if the problems associated with transporting the chemicals along the main highway between Damascus and Homs have been resolved. Or whether the 'constantly changing frontlines' remain a threat to the removal process.

Ultimately, the most significant part of this operation is not that it has started, but how it will end.

Monday 6 January

We were given one hour's notice to pack our rucksacks.

The Norwegian Navy media officer Lars Hovtun told us we were being thrown off the warship, before he had even sat down for lunch. A sure sign this unexpected order was being enforced with some urgency.

Image caption It was a speedy departure from the HNoMS Helge Ingstad

Why was this happening? Who instigated the decision? What does this mean? Are Russian and Chinese journalists also being removed from their nations' respective vessels?

But in response, Lars offered only a composed but frustrating silence. All further questions must be directed to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN.

We were preparing to record the final sections of a feature about everyday life on board a warship with 24-year-old Eirik Jensen.

All our plans were abandoned.

BBC producer Naomi Scherbel-Ball and I dashed through the heavy duty air-locking doors and onto the helipad to try to get a phone signal.

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Media captionBBC's Anna Holligan reports on China joining the international fleet

Fortunately, or perhaps deliberately thanks to a considerate captain, we were anchored close enough to the Cypriot mainland to pick up a 3G network.

We simultaneously called the BBC's Foreign Editor Andrew Roy, Deployments Editor Jonathan Paterson and the OPCW's media officer in The Hague.

As the BBC's Hague correspondent, I have reported on the work of the OPCW ever since the sarin nerve agent attacks were launched in the suburbs of Damascus.

I was told the decision was final, that it was taken due to the sensitivity of the operation. And that it was a joint agreement between the OPCW, the UN and the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Image caption Anna's team were preparing to record the final sections of a feature about everyday life on board a warship

Within an hour, having done everything within our power to overturn the decision, we emerged as ordered on the boat deck, ready to be lowered down into the speedboats that would ship us back to shore.

The cluster of crew members who had congregated to wave us off were stunned by what they saw as an incomprehensible decision. "I just don't get it," one shook his head. "Your reports were like a little pill of happiness every day."

Saturday 4 January

"Your little face is a problem."

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Media captionThe BBC's Anna Holligan is measured up for a gas mask

It's not the most encouraging observation to hear from a Navy officer fitting your gas mask.

Unfortunately, Oystein Boga Ellingsen's assessment was correct. His diligent checks could help to save our lives if anything goes wrong on Syrian shores.

Every person on the frigate has a personalised gas mask, adjusted and tested to ensure no toxic substances can penetrate. Today was testing day.

I failed. Badly. The results of the rigorous gas mask tests were so abysmal, Oystein pulled me out early.

They are waiting for a new batch of small size 3 gas masks to be delivered.

But there is never any sense of waiting aboard this ship - it's whirring with activity, day and night.

"We're on a lean manning mission," Lt Cdr Geir Christian Lie explained. "Minimum staff, multiple roles."

As we were chatting, a team of Navy divers came down the corridor - blindfolded.

Image caption A Super-Duper Lynx

If there is a fire, the "Smoke Divers" must be able to navigate the warren-like interior of the ship, in conditions of zero visibility.

Earlier the Coastal Rangers - similar to US Navy Seals - were practising winching.

If there is a chemical leak, attack or accident when the cargo is being loaded onto Taiko - the huge Norwegian cargo ship the HNoMS Helge Ingstad is escorting - the helicopters will evacuate the casualty.

The Danish-Norwegian taskforce use a Super Lynx (or as one Norwegian Navy Officer jokingly described it to me, a "Super-Duper Lynx").

Norwegians have an exceptional sense of humour, especially at sea.

Later, over lasagne, I asked someone if he knew where we were.

"We're going round in circles," he responded. He meant it literally, but the longer the wait for the chemicals to arrive at the port of Latakia, the greater the danger people may start to apply the phrase metaphorically too.

But it's not even a week since deadline day.

And there have been signs of progress in the chemical removal plan jigsaw. Earlier one of China's finest guided missile frigates, Yan Cheng, arrived at the port of Limassol.

But less encouraging news was simultaneously emerging on the other side of the Mediterranean. Five staff members from the aid group Doctors Without Borders have been seized and detained, reportedly by a group linked to al-Qaeda affiliate Isis in Latakia.

People on the Helge Ingstad are quietly aware of the volatile situation on land. But their focus remains on the mission at sea.

Tuesday 31 December

It's deadline day.

Image caption The Norwegian coast guard out on patrol

But the Nordic naval vessels have abandoned their strategic position on the edge of Syrian territorial waters.

We are now on course for Limassol not Latakia. The ambitious target for getting Syria's most toxic chemicals out of the country was fading into the distance.

Being embedded allows us to share these updates first and receive them directly from the source.

We found out the flotilla was returning to Cyprus the night before. A 21:00 update in the officers' mess. Jackets were off.

On day one of the mission I discovered that a penalty is incurred for those caught wearing coats in the designated chill-out zone. The culprit must supply a meter of beer for the rest of the crew. Fortunately at sea the ship's bar is dry.

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Media captionThe BBC's Anna Holligan with the safety equipment necessary to transport chemical weapons

New Year's Eve started with a live report on the Today Programme. We've just commandeered an Ethernet connection on the bridge. It allows us to report live from the buzzing heart of the warship's navigation room and provides a panoramic position.

The technology means that when the ships eventually reach Syrian shores we should be able to broadcast the historic collection live on the BBC. That's the plan.

But like everything in this operation, our movements will partly be determined by factors beyond our control.

Seconds after sharing the news with Today, we were strapped into buoyancy vests, lowered down into the water in one of the coastal rangers rubber boats and bounced across the Mediterranean Sea to board Taiko, one of the world's largest cargo vessels.

When we reach the port of Latakia, the plan is to roll the chemical containers from the quayside onto Taiko via a huge ramp. It's slightly more complicated procedure for humans at sea.

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Media captionAnna Holligan is the only foreign journalist travelling on board the Norwegian frigate

Back in the port of Limassol, a tangerine glow is descending behind the harbour.

The serenity of the setting sun is a contrast to the tense removal job that was supposed to be happening in Syria tonight.

Monday 30 December

We awoke to white lights. Living on a warship, day can feel like night.

There are no windows below deck, so the crew has alternative ways to distinguish between an otherwise unrelenting 24-hour duty.

Image caption Boarding one of the world's largest cargo vessels, Taiko

Red light signals night; white represents daylight.

One of the subtle but sanity-preserving details, to help the 150 naval officers living on board HNoMS Helge Ingstad maintain a sense of time, is the menu in the warship's canteen - an edible calendar.

"What did I have for breakfast? Pancakes! Ah, then it must be Sunday."

Every day is associated with a different dish. Each week at sea the pattern is repeated.

Image caption Preparing to board the Helge Ingstad for its international mission

Today it's fish. Sticky orange sweet-and-sour king prawns, freshly sculpted tuna cakes and herb-sprinkled slithers of oil-rich salmon.

"The chef is the most popular guy on board," a fellow diner informs me. "He doesn't have a huge budget but he makes sure we get the most nutritious food."

On a mission like this, everyone must be properly fuelled.

The crew is on high alert. Ready to go into Syria as soon as the order comes that the chemical containers have arrived at the harbour in Latakia.

Mealtimes provide an interval.

But time is something on all our minds. Every thought seems consumed by it. Time. And timings.

Image caption Those on board the Helge Ingstad sense they are on a historic mission

How far are we from Syria now? How long will it take to reach Latakia from this point, pacing the periphery of Syrian Territorial Waters? Where exactly is the convoy of Russian armoured trucks, transporting the chemical cargo from Damascus?

Journalists morph into impatient children, especially those embarking on a journey with such an internationally anticipated destination.

The Norwegian vessels are on a historic and unprecedented but politically sensitive mission.

Every officer on board is proud to be part of it - even the guy we shared a table with at lunchtime. He received the Syria call-up two days before boarding a flight destined for the Bahamas.

Few people get the chance to conduct an internationally supported and potentially life-saving operation.

In the coming days, and possibly weeks, we will be living alongside this elite team, witnessing developments at the heart of the Syria chemical collection mission, as the red light turns to white.

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