A new British movie lays bare the horrors of the Afghanistan conflict and the selfless heroism of a Yorkshire soldier. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw reports on Kajaki.
The events that form the basis of Kajaki have rightly become the stuff of legend. Some within the Parachute Regiment refer to September 6, 2006 as “the day of days”. It is the stuff that makes prime fodder for a movie. Too far-fetched to be believed, it just has to be true.
Kajaki is the true story of a British army patrol stationed in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province which unwittingly wanders into an unmarked minefield left over from the Russian occupation.
First one soldier detonates a mine, which blows off his leg.
Then, over the course of the next few hours as his comrades attempt a rescue mission, three other men suffer similar injuries and still more are injured. Seven casualties in all.
Lance Corporal Paul “Tug” Hartley was a day shy of his 26th birthday when he was thrust into a scenario beyond his worst nightmares. As the only medic still capable of offering assistance – his partner was among the injured – he faced a stark choice.
“It was carnage,” he recalls. “I don’t think there’s any other word to describe it. I remember looking down at my feet and there was a rifle. I bent down and I grabbed hold of it.
“Even with the soaring temperatures that we had I could feel the cold of the metal. I was going to shoot all three of them, to put them out of their misery.”
Of course, he didn’t. Training kicked in and Hartley found himself leap-frogging across the minefield on his backpack, using it to clear a route to the injured men.
“The only way I knew to clear a path was to throw something heavy. And the heaviest thing we had was my empty bergen. So I threw it. It didn’t go bang. I jumped onto it.
“I got about halfway across. I paused. Again, it seemed like a lifetime. It was only a few seconds in reality. And I thought, ‘It’s my son’s first birthday tomorrow. It’s my birthday tomorrow. I’m halfway across a minefield. What am I doing?’”
He glanced back to where he’d been and forward to where he was heading. Sod’s law told him he was probably a goner.
So he carried on. When another mine went off Tug was injured, dazed and deafened. He was in pain. But he was still alive.
“I was sitting there with the dust and the ringing and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m dead.’ I was bleeding from my shoulder.
“Then all of a sudden I got a horrendous breath, and it hurt. If you’re feeling pain, you’re alive. I thought, ‘Sod this.
“I might as well walk the rest of it.’ I sort of resigned myself at that point to not getting out of it. We were all gonna die that day.”
One man did die that day, succumbing to his wounds on the helicopter flight back to Camp Bastion.
The others may have died, too, had it not been for Hartley’s expertise as a medic and that lonely walk into a minefield in the hills above the Kajaki Dam.
He puts his survival down to dumb luck. When he and his squad were rescued he had to warn his rescuers that there was a mine two feet away from him.
“You could see the tip of a mine. I’d probably walked over it. “I’d walked over the mines that one of the guys detonated. It was more luck than judgement or skill or training. Just a terrible day.”
Four men were decorated for bravery that day, among them Hartley and his friend Mark Wright, who sadly died. Hartley, now 34, a soldier’s son born in Germany and raised in Kirkburton, Huddersfield, believes every man present should have been recognised.
He describes as “massively surreal” the experience of seeing part of his life played out on screen.
When the film was first mooted he expected the end result to be a 30-minute TV documentary. On seeing the finished movie his wife, Dawn, broke down in the cinema.
“I had no conception of how big it was gonna go,” he admits. “I was nervous, and it’s still hard to get your head around that.
“I’m from Huddersfield and people don’t make films about us. I still think it’ll take another 12 months before I can actually sit back and say, ‘That’s my story. It happened to us’.”
It is accepted that filmmakers use artistic license when adapting true-life stories. In terms of Kajaki first-time director Paul Katis and screenwriter Tom Williams sought out those involved and involved them from the beginning.
The Paras’ story was well known. Doing it accurately was a challenge.
“When they approached me with it I was taken aback,” says Tug. “I didn’t realise it would go as far as it’s gone. I was mega nervous.
“I watched it at home the first time with my wife and I think I’d psyched myself up too much to enjoy it. But they’ve done real well.
“I never thought it would be in a cinema. I never thought it would be on DVD. I thought ‘If it does go on DVD it’ll be in a £3 bargain bucket in Morrison’s’. I had no preconceptions. The last 18 months… this has just gone phenomenal. It’s snowballed,
“They’re 99.9 per cent spot on with the content. Unless you were there you’re never going to get 100 per cent but they’re as close as anybody could ever be.
“There were certain things said and done that no one will ever know unless you were there. I don’t think I did anything heroic or anything above what any other bloke would have done that day.
“It’s for your mates, for your brothers. If they’re gonna bleed you’re gonna bleed with them.”
• Kajaki: The True Story (15) is on general release and out in cinemas today.