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The Reporter's Life: Assaulted by Heads of State, Risking His Skin in Afghanistan

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-06-02

John Simpson is a reporter who has been all over the world, risking his life almost as a matter of routine. Both the British Prime Minister and the President of Austria have been punching lesser hazards.

John Simpson, the BBC's senior foreign correspondent has had an amazingly adventurous life as a reporter. Not content to sit safely in an office, he maintains that journalists are divided into two categories.

There are the sub-editors (who lay out and trim the reporters' stories to fit the column sizes). These are the sober types, he maintains, who lead ordered lives, have houses in respectable suburbs and work steadily towards their pensions.

Reporters, on the other hand, tend to have stains on their ties, they never quite get round to taking out that life insurance policy they know is important. They work irregular hours, they often drink too much and divorce rates are famously high in the profession.

Simpson sees sub-editing as a sort of living death. When he started as a radio reporter in 1966, the rules of the game were different. Politicians particularly, had a formal relationship with the media that does not exist today. On his first day out as a reporter he was waiting at a London railway station, microphone in hand, with the rest of the press, for the appearance of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

As the Prime Minister appeared, Simpson saw no reason why he should stay penned with the rest of the reporters in their restricted area. He bounded forward, thrust his microphone within inches of Wilson's face and asked his question. Wilson's response to this unprecedented, unbelievable cheek was to punch him hard in the stomach. As Simpson doubled up, gasping for breath, an aide hissed "you'll hear more of this!" and the entourage swept past the astounded hack pack and climbed aboard the train.

Convinced he would be fired his first day on the job, the reporter prepared for the worst. But the directive never came. None of the London papers, television or radio stations mentioned the incident, despite most of the cities media representatives witnessing it. How different things are today. This would be the biggest tabloid splash of the year. As I said, the rules of the game were different then.

Simpson went on to cover with distinction most of the wars, revolutions and trouble spots around the globe for the rest of the century. He's doing it still. He thinks he's put his life on the line 26 or 27 times.

These incidents have included being forced to the ground with a pistol rammed into the back of his neck, as a punishment for photographing an Israeli-Palestinian demarcation line. He was extremely surprised to find himself alive a few seconds later, when the man relented, having emptied Simpson's camera of film, and was being snarled at to make himself scarce in a few seconds, unless he wanted a bullet in his back.

A political leader assaulted him once again, when information was surfacing about President Kurt Waldheim's past as an officer in Hitler's Waffen SS. "Are you a Nazi?" he called out. The Presidential response was to dash over and hit him, which presumably could be taken as a "yes" in answer to the question.

Perhaps John Simpson's most daring exploit was the award winning film he made in Kabul, when Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviets. In order to get into the capital it was necessary to make contact with one of the guerrilla factions that were waging war against the Russians at the time.

This was difficult as alliances were constantly shifting, there was much treachery and it was hard to know whom to trust. Eventually the BBC team made their choice and negotiated with one of the fighting factions. This group had two agents working inside the headquarters of the Soviet trained secret police, the Khad, in Kabul.

They met Simpson, his cameraman and an ex-British army officer, living near the Afghan border, who now made films for the BBC. They were in a cave which Simpson said reminded him of a story from his boyhood reading.

Its walls were stacked with ammunition. The agents bound their heads with cloth turbans, so that only their eyes showed. They explained on camera that they had access to a car belonging to the Khad, in which the secret police chief was normally driven around the capital. They would allow the journalists to ride around in the car and film it, as a gesture of defiance to the authorities. The agents knew they were risking their lives by doing so, but considered it worth it, in terms of furthering the aims of their movement.

Kabul is ringed by sentry boxes, each within hailing distance of another. During the night a weird wailing is heard from the guards in the boxes. Each minute one guard calls to the man in the next box and he calls back, telling each other all is well, there have been no attacks and neither has deserted his post. Desertions are frequent in the faction ridden military politics of Afghanistan.

The journalists and their Afghan guides rose before dawn one morning, trekked through the rocky, mountainous terrain until they were in sight of two of the pillboxes. Very gingerly they crawled between them in the semi-darkness, hardly daring to breathe. At the exact moment Simpson was equidistant from both, his digital watch started beeping. He frantically struggled to turn it off. The sentry stopped wailing, there was an eerie silence but no shots rang out. The group continued its crawl and got safely into Kabul.

The BBC crew filmed themselves riding around Kabul in the secret police chief's car and once ensconced in a safe house, had explained to them the aims of the movement.

Later as the journalists watched their hosts prepare a shoulder-launched rocket, they were told it was going to be fired at the secret police headquarters.

They didn't have much success explaining to the Afghans that journalists were not combatants; that they were interested in filming the attack but not taking part in it. When they all got into a taxi Simpson was disquieted to find the rocket dumped in his lap. The taxi drove to an area of open ground in front of a large building, the secret police headquarters, where some local youth were playing a soccer game.

The Afghans and reporters got out of the taxi marched a short way across the ground, about 50 meters from the Khad building. The rocket was aimed at the hated symbol of foreign, godless oppression towards Islam, fired and it fizzed up and over the building, detonating the other side.

The group ran back to the taxi, jumped in and drove to another safe house. Some hours later, when they had not been picked up as arranged, they realized something had gone badly wrong. They had been compromised and their contact was not coming.

As they were debating the options and the former army man was trying, by observing the angle and distance of incoming Soviet transport planes, to calculate exactly where in Kabul they were, a man was spotted outside the house. He was a uniformed Khad colonel and he was speaking urgently into a walkie talkie. A second later the Afghani who had acted as the BBC men's main guide, ran up behind the colonel and shot him in the back of the head.

The group then had a nerve-jangling ride in another taxi, knowing every soldier and policeman in Kabul would soon be looking for them. They thought they didn't have much chance of escaping arrest and execution.

Somehow they managed to avoid military and police patrols and found themselves once again on foot, after dark , creeping past one of the sentry boxes that ringed the city. Just as they got past it and enormous explosion lit the sky. The biggest fireworks display on earth seemed to have been let off in one great burst.

"Could that have anything to do with us?" wondered Simpson. "No" replied the ex-soldier. "It must be some sort of celebration in memory of a past victory". The Afghan guide said nothing.

They trekked for some hours and once again found themselves in the ammunition cave. They collapsed into a exhausted sleep, glad to be alive. Some hours later again, an Afghani soldier appeared at the cave mouth. He was a sentry who had deserted his post.

"It was you," he said with respect and awe in his voice. He revealed that all sentries in Kabul had been ordered to fire their every flare and tracer bullet at once in order to light up the city and catch those responsible for the dead colonel and damaged secret police headquarters.

The team made it make to London with their film, which won an award. It was one of the best documentaries made about life and war in Afghanistan, while the country still had client status with the Soviet Union.

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