A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.