Diana and the paparazzi

Jun 29, 2007 11:14 UTC

diana.jpgA Channel 4 documentary screened earlier this year on Princess Diana’s last moments in a Paris tunnel 10 years ago caused controversy because photographs taken by the chasing paparazzi were aired.

The princess’ sons William and Harry unsuccessfully appealed to the channel not to show them.

Channel 4 defended its programme, saying the photos shown were an important and accurate eyewitness record of how events unfolded after the crash, and that the identities of those in the car had been blacked out.

The programme, “Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel”, looked at the role of the paparazzi who have been blamed for their part in the high-speed chase.

It showed that the paparazzi were hundreds of metres behind the car when it crashed into a pillar, and contrary to reports, they did not impede an off-duty doctor attending the princess.

Leaving Kabul

Jun 17, 2007 09:53 UTC

 Forget the day off and the good news. We were back in Kabul and it may as well have been Baghdad.
 A suicide bomber had completely hollowed out a bus that was carrying police trainers into a compound. Officials said more than 35 people died.
 I was being jostled by a crowd in front of the Jamuriat hospital in the centre of the Afghan capital, pressed up against an iron fence. Eighteen bodies and ten wounded patients had arrived here. Doctors had run out of room inside and were handling the wounded and the dead at a makeshift triage station in the courtyard. Ambulances were pushing through the crowd.
 Through the bars, I saw a corpse under a sheet, next to a pair of bloody shoes. All I could see of the body was his feet, with cuffs of a police uniform. A male relative was wailing into a mobile phone, being restrained and consoled by friends.
 Sundays bomb was the deadliest such strike in the Afghan capital since the Taliban fell in 2001. The attack played out the greatest fear of Afghans, that the tactics that have caused such mayhem in Iraq would be imported here.
 The Taliban claimed responsibility for a very, very successful suicide attack and announced plans for more. In four smaller suicide attacks over the past two days, they killed at least 14 other people. At the scene of one of those strikes, American troops opened fire and shot one civilian dead.
 I had finished my embed and returned to Kabul on Saturday in a Hercules military cargo plane, a solemn flight accompanied by three coffins draped with Afghan flags containing the bodies of Afghan soldiers killed in the south.
 I had missed my flight back to London, but was initially secretly glad. It would mean two extra days in Kabul. Local resident Masood had offered to host me in the Panjsher valley for a barbecue, and I was looking forward to a relaxing day in that beautiful mountain valley, breathing fresh air and eating roast goat by the river.
 I also wanted to get there to write a “good news” story. Whatever else has happened over the past five years, the Panjsher and neighbouring Salang valleys are areas that have dramatically improved since the fall of the Taliban. The valleys had been cut-off from the capital by an impenetrable frontline during the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and when I first visited them they were packed with desperately poor refugees, many hungry. Today, Masood explained to me, life in those valleys is much easier, with a newly paved road allowing people to bring goods to market in Kabul and move there for work. I hoped to write a simple, good story, while enjoying my own relaxing day out.
 Sunday morning I was drinking coffee in the Reuters office when I heard of the bombing. Instead of heading out into the countryside, I hit the streets of the capital to report.
 Speeding through the town, rushing to the hospital with our Kabul TV camera crew, I could see the contradictions of contemporary Kabul. We raced through a wealthy street where endless rows of enormous, brightly coloured marble-clad palaces are being built. At a nearby corner, a tiny beggar girl wiped our window with a dirty cloth.
 For now, much of Afghanistan is still at peace, or the closest thing to peace the country has seen since the 1970s. But the war in the south has escalated sharply over the past year. And the Taliban are now bringing the sort of carnage to the city streets that caused the meltdown of Iraq. At the end of our trip, I remain hopeful, just, that improvements will still come faster than the violence worsens. But Ill have to wait until my next trip for that chance to relax in Afghanistans quiet valleys.

“Turned out nice”

Jun 15, 2007 16:06 UTC

 The Englishman and the weather are intertwined. Wherever he goes, whatever he is doing, the weather is both all important and irrelevant. Task Force Helmand, NATOs fighting force in the southern Afghan province of the same name, sees many nationalities living in tents in the desert in the baking heat of the summer. But it is the Englishman who talks most about the weather.
 The British call their soldiers the salt of the earth, and one young Royal Engineers attitude to temperatures of nearly 50 degrees Celsius, seemed to deserve the title. His platoon had been called into action the night before to help mount a fighting patrol in Sangin, in the Helmand valley, looking for members of the Taliban responsible for planting an IED which had killed a fellow British soldier. Hours later in the midday sun after very little sleep our paths crossed. The sky was a brilliant blue and the heat oppressive but his greeting had me laughing for days.

 Turned out nice, he said of the broiling heat.



 Journalists embedded with the military are able to move around a war zone with surprising ease. You simply tell your minder, the Media Operations Officer tasked to looked after you, where you want to go next and then you are told if you can and if so how quickly. The move itself will normally be by helicopter — a very different experience from flying with a civilian airline. A Royal Air Force Hercules plane brought us from Kabul to Helmand Province but once here most movement was by Chinook, the RAFs workhorse helicopter. It is an impressive machine that can carry dozens of troops and heavy payloads at the same time. Over urban areas in a conflict zone pilots fly it low and fast, weaving from side to side to make it a harder target to hit. It is a fantastic feeling — with rear door lowered to allow cool air in and the desert sweeping below at 200 miles an hour. Today flying from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion it was standing room only. Buzzard Airways, as the RAF are sometimes known — or Maybe Airways by soldiers bumped off a flight by someone or something more important than them — run a simple check-in process that today saved our bacon. We forgot about the time and nearly missed the flight, only becoming aware of the roar of two jet engines driving two massive rotors once the chopper was already on the ground just a few hundred metres from our room. We sprang into action — grabbing suitcases and bumping into each other and the furniture — and ran to the helicopter landing site. We headed straight for the Chinook, leaving RAF ground staff looking aghast at the prospect of our heads being lopped off by the rotars. Some aggressive hand waving later and the three of us, looking like tourists with shopping bags, were running away from the helicopter looking for check-in. We found it — a clip board hanging on a wall where you jot down your name and blood group. It is called the perish list, so they know whos dead if the helicopter crashes. I think I prefer the term manifest.

 We were eventually assured another helicopter was on its way and caught our breath. Not the best example of the foreign correspondent at home in the war zone, but a very quick check-in process. I recommend it to Heathrow.

So, what makes you think you know about Afghanistan?

Jun 14, 2007 15:19 UTC

 We went out into town today to meet local Afghan journalists attending a training course run by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting a wonderful, serious organisation that supports and trains journalists in war zones around the world. I recommend the blog of its Afghanistan country director, Jean MacKenzie. The IWPR programme in Afghanistan is partly funded by Britain, and James, the spokesman for the British Foreign Office here, warned us with some pride: Ever since we set up these courses for journalists, its made our lives much harder, frankly. We used to just read out our press releases. Now they ask all kinds of difficult questions.
 When we arrived at the classroom, the local reporters were having a discussion about an American majors outburst at a council of elders that I happened to have written about last week in Sangin. As predicted, the journalists did indeed ask me all kinds of difficult questions.
 When I covered the elders council meeting why didnt I talk to more people in the town? Why did I think I knew enough to write about Afghanistan on a short trip with British troops? How do I know that the British arent hiding the truth? They kept at me for about an hour. I did my best. If this is the future of Afghanistans media, Im impressed.

Heat and Dust

Jun 14, 2007 10:23 UTC

  Operating in a desert poses some logistical challenges that a reporter must overcome on a daily basis. I am gathering material for Reuters TV, so I brought a mountain of TV and transmission equipment with me to Helmand province, most of which is not happy being engulfed in the clouds of dust that are created by the slightest breeze or movement by a vehicle or a helicopter. Im ever conscious of an embed with the U.S. Marines in Iraqs Anbar province in 2005 when my Iraqi cameraman was unable to protect his camera from the dust, and we ended up with no means of filming. Not fun. On this trip I am the cameraman and, with Anbar in mind, I spend a fair proportion of my day, uncovering, cleaning, recovering and checking the camera. So far, so good.

    Our first filming location in Helmand was the town of Sangin, where we stayed with members of the British Royal Anglian Regiment. They had just taken the town from the Taliban, and set up a district centre based around the home of a suspected former drug baron. He is now living nearby and trying to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for his trouble.

    Our billet was the concrete shell of a house with no electricity (camera and laptop battery management can take up quite a lot of your day) and no running water although, as Peter explained in his blog, we were right next to a fast-flowing irrigation canal. The Royal Engineers had rigged up a water purification plant that provided an endless supply of drinking water stored in black plastic 25-gallon jerry cans. The relentless heat in this part of the world means the water emerging from these cans is almost hot enough to throw a tea bag into but my U.S. Marine experience had taught me a clever trick: how to cook up a cool drink in the dessert. Ingredients: Drinking water, one wet sock and one plastic bottle. Fill the bottle with hot water, slip bottle into the sock and dip sock into the canal, repeating regularly to keep the sock wet. The sock immediately becomes a heat exchanger, evaporating the water immediately and cooling the contents of the bottle at the same time. Thirty minutes, later youre a sipping a cool, fruit flavoured drink, courtesy of the British Army ration pack. I prefer the blackcurrant it makes your urine change colour, but its worth the surprise.

Out of my comfort zone

Jun 12, 2007 13:57 UTC

After three days in the Spartan field conditions at the outpost in Sangin, we said goodbye to the soldiers of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Forester Regiment and were flown in a Chinook helicopter to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of
Helmand Province.

Suddenly we found ourselves inside the heavily fortified diplomatic and military compound in the centre of the city, in the luxury of an air-conditioned dormitory room. The
soldiers shop was having a 20-percent-off sale, so I found a bargain on a set of ipod speakers and switched on some jazz.

Decent showers and a cooked meal. Ah. This compound has come quite a long way in the year since I first visited, when it was still mainly tents. Theres a gym, a volleyball court and high-speed internet in the rooms. Many of the military and
civilian people who work here do get out into the field often, but I wonder if the comfortable compound will inexorably produce the sort of “Emerald City” isolation of the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Helmand River revisited

Jun 12, 2007 13:11 UTC

 A few days ago I wrote in this blog about how the Helmand
River valley was rendered fertile by an ancient irrigation
system built by the Pashtun tribes in the area. As diplomats
here have pointed out to me, thats only part of the story.

 A look at a map of Lashkar Gah shows the extent to which the
contemporary geography of the entire province is a far more
recent creation. The provincial capital was in fact designed and
built by the Americans in the 1960s, complete with an
American-style grid layout of streets, about 20 kilometres from
the mediaeval commercial centre Gereshk. At the height of the
Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were competing for
influence in Afghanistan, U.S. engineers built one of the
biggest overseas development projects in history, the giant
Kajaki dam at the top of the Sangin valley, and the Helmand
River Valley Project below, which extended the ancient
irrigation system with a vast network of modern canals and

    Thirty years later, securing the dam and the road leading to
it are now the main objectives of U.S. and British forces in the
area. Theres a lesson about the extent to which massive
aid projects and military interventions, since the British and Russians
first plotted and counterplotted here in the Great Game of the
19th Century, have never yet succeeded in buying the long-term
political influence that planners in foreign capitals intended.

“There’s been a fatality.”

Jun 10, 2007 16:03 UTC

Those words, spoken by Captain Jim Bewley, our British Army media operations chaperone, are the worst you can expect to hear when embedded with forces in the field. This was the third time I have heard such words while out with British troops.

Deaths are part of war, and soldiers are trained to accept them. But for a reporter, they can test your relationship with the men and women around you.

Perceptions matter. Suddenly, some of the people who may have tolerated a journalist as a harmless civilian in their midst are bound to see you as a pest, or worse: a ghoul out to
make a fast buck off a widows tears. (For the record, I get paid a salary, not by the story. I earn just as much if everyone comes home safely.)

Cooling off

Jun 8, 2007 14:46 UTC

Stewart shook me awake around dawn in the small room where they barracked us on the base in Sangin. The squaddies had made fresh porridge, a rare break from rations. It was in the headquarters building across the canal that runs right through the compound. You arent supposed to go more than 20 metres on the base without helmet and body rmour, so I suited up and hurried over.

Bellies full of oatmeal, we were given a briefing by the company commander, Major Jamie Nowell, and his staff, then sent out into the ruined town on a patrol with a young captain and a group of Afghan police. The battles fought here by British paratroops last summer have become legendary, and the first few hundred metres outside the base were lined with ruined buildings blown to smithereens in the months of fighting. But when we turned a corner onto the main road, we saw the largely intact bazaar coming back to life in the few weeks since peace has returned.

In all we marched just a few kilometres over three hours, but it was gruelling work in the hot noonday sun. On our way back, we saw most of the shops shut and the shopkeepers sleeping in the shade: no one works in such heat. Masood bought a dozen cold sodas and we gave some to the soldiers on our patrol.swimming1.jpg

Back to the Land

Jun 7, 2007 21:26 UTC

Before I joined Reuters I worked in Africa for a while, where I developed a strong sense of how geography shapes civilisation. The quality of land, access to water, distance from markets — all these can sow the seeds of conflict. Nowhere is a better example of this than Afghanistan, and I often try to throw a little geography lesson into my stories.

Afghanistan, and Helmand Province in particular, has some of the most extreme geography on the planet, and a quick helicopter flight over the area, like we had this morning, tells quite a tale.

The desert and mountains are utterly incapable of sustaining life. Except for the Helmand River itself and its scattered mountain tributaries, there is simply no water. All along the
river is an intensely fertile, heavily populated crescent where centuries ago the local Pashtun tribes carved immense networks of irrigation canals. Truly, these are wonders of engineering. The canals need to be constantly maintained in order to make the land arable, which is backbreaking and expensive labour. That means most people have access only to very small plots of usable land, and to survive they need to grow the crop that produces
the most value out of the smallest possible plots. That, of course, is opium. Other crops may be cheaper or easier to grow, and many people say they are opposed to opium on principle. But few other crops can produce enough income to feed a large family with only a tiny plot of fertile land.   soldiers2.jpg