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My solo arrival in Kabul mirrored my last departure. In early 2002 I spent a month covering the aftermath of the war and the search for Bin Laden. Kabul was slowly getting used to a life where coalition troops had replaced Taliban rule. The UN had reinstated its flights into Kabul airport and so it was now possible to fly direct to Islamabad with its direct flights back to London. Even with lots of equipment, this was relatively easy for the lone traveller albeit with the help of porters. And so here I was doing the same trip in reverse. I was coming to Afghanistan to film a World Olympic Dreams documentary with Matthew Pinsent. He and the production team of Eric McFarland, Tahir Qadiry and Security Adviser/Medic Graham Hill had arrived a few days earlier to set things up and do a recce. This wasn’t usually needed, or even possible for most News assignments however this was a half hour programme so we had the luxury of a bit more time. Never the less we had a busy week ahead of us.

Return to Kabul

The main focus of our film was Taekwondo player Rohullah Nikpai, who won Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medal (bronze) at the 2008 Games. He had become a national hero and was awarded a house, car and other luxuries by Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai. His aim for London 2012 was to better that medal although in the end he had to settle for another bronze. We also filmed other sports including the all women football team whose members had been threatened by the Taliban. And the water polo team who were so shambolic during training that they didn’t even have a proper ball, a football was all they could find. Obviously driving around Kabul was quite interesting so we used the car as a location for interviews and PTC’s (pieces to camera). I had to be careful though, there were so many checkpoints and the soldiers manning them hate being filmed. Our driver quickly learnt to tip me off as we approached which usually gave me enough time to drop the camera to the floor.

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Another stunning location was Swimming Pool Hill which offered amazing views of Kabul, especially at sunset but also had a rather gruesome history. An Olympic size pool had been built up there by the Russians but was never used. 

In the mid-1990s the Taliban used to take blindfolded criminals to the highest diving board, gave them a push and then watch them crash to the ground. If they survived then they were allowed to live but not many did. We thought we should explain the diving boards alternative use to our viewers so Matthew did a PTC looking up at it from below. However we needed more shots for editing so we asked Matthew to climb up to the top board. It was quite high but he seemed happy to oblige. I got some great shots across the half filled pool with the sun setting behind him but then realised we would need some POV (point of view) shots as well. There was no other way apart from climbing up myself.

Eric, our Director passed the camera to me at each level but as we got higher the wind felt stronger and there was a definite swaying motion to the structure. I steadied myself at the top and then inched my way out to the edge. I stopped well short, realising the health and safety implications, filmed a 10 second shot looking down and then quickly reversed back to the stepladder. None of us were comfortable up there so we didn’t hang around.

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The week of filming went by very quickly and I was pleased with what we had got. Everything had gone very smoothly thanks to the excellent organisational skills of Eric and Tahir. And so the end was in sight, or so I thought. On the final day, at the final location beside the football stadium, we were filming the last sequence when we heard gunfire from the centre of town. That in itself was not unusual, many people in Middle Eastern countries fire off a gun for all sorts of reasons. 

We carried on filming and then a couple of minutes later there was a huge explosion and then what sounded like machine gun fire.

 


Now that was unusual! Graham immediately got on the phone to the BBC bureau to see what they knew. A car bomb had exploded and an attack on a foreign compound was underway. There were also rumours of attacks in other parts of the city.

 

Matthew was scheduled to fly home that afternoon so Graham suggested we head for the airport and see if his flight was still leaving.  As we set of in our two-car convoy Graham got another phone call, there were unconfirmed reports of an explosion at the airport. We pulled over onto the side of the road and waited. Graham kept bashing the phone and eventually got confirmation that the airport was clear. On the roads approaching the airport the usual wall of security checks were still operational. This was reassuring and offered us a bit of protection once on the other side. It was busy in the departure hall; everyone had the same idea as us.

 

Graham gives us a quick safety briefing and showed us were to run and take cover if a shell came through the roof. Matthew’s flight was still scheduled to leave but there was an hour delay. Still at least he was getting the hell out of here, lucky bugger!   By this time I had received a call from Rachel, the BBC News Bureau chief asking if I could join them and help cover the story for the News bulletin’s. The Kabul correspondent and cameraman were away on a military embed, the earliest they could get back was in two days. In the meantime she had asked Andrew North, the Delhi correspondent to get to Kabul asap.

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The next few hours were spent glued to the TV in the departure hall. The newsreader was now reporting intense fighting in multiple locations as well as in other cities around Afghanistan. The attack was bigger than we thought and almost definitely Taliban lead. Finally Matthew’s flight was announced and we said our goodbyes. It was particularly poignant given the situation and especially now that I knew my own departure date was so uncertain.   As darkness fell the airport grew quiet. A sense of unease started to grow so we discussed our options. Graham was in constant contact with Stuart, the security adviser based at the bureau. 

They came up with a plan for us to get back to the heavily guarded and secure Serena Hotel during a lull in the fighting and for Stuart to then pick me up in the BBC armoured 4x4.

 

We drove out of the airport, nervous of what lay ahead. Thankfully it was an uneventful trip although I had noticed how much quicker everyone was driving, including us. Once back inside the hotel, I had one hour to pack up my stuff and get everything ready for the pickup. Stuart arrived early so my goodbyes to Eric and Graham were ridiculously short. I could see the look in Eric’s eyes; he knew what the next few days would be like for me and was genuinely concerned…bless him. The drive to the bureau was quite quick with only the occasional sound of gunfire. I dumped my gear in the entrance hall and then joined Rachel outside in the courtyard. It was still quiet which had us believing that the attack was over now. I headed for bed, knowing the demands from London the next day would be intense.

 

My head had only just touched the pillow when BANG!

 

A massive explosion went off about four blocks away but it sounded really close. Then gunfire, more gunfire, another explosion. It went on and on. My bedroom I was on the second floor with a ceiling to floor sliding patio door. My bed was in the middle of the room but still too close for comfort. I got up and pushed the bed all the way to the other side of the room, if a bullet shattered the glass then at least I wouldn’t get completely cut to shreds. The fighting continued well into the night. At one point a Blackhawk helicopter flew low over the house. As my bed vibrated, my heart started to thump in my chest. I started to wonder if this was what Saigon had been like? By about 5am, the sun was starting to rise. The gunfire was sporadic now but I still hadn’t slept at all. Suddenly I heard Rachel yelling from upstairs. I leapt out of bed and opened the door. ‘Rocket, Rocket’ she shouted, although not in as urgent a voice as I would have expected. “Rachel, are you ok” I yelled back.

 

She then appeared on the stairs and casually wandered down. “Yeh, I’m just looking for Rocket, have you seen her”.  Rocket, it turns out is the named of the BBC Bureau cat and Rachel is her adopted mother. Well, what a stupid name for a cat,  I thought especially in these parts. I went back to bed desperate for even 40 winks.

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By morning my orders were to get out to the building where most of the fighting had happened. It was definitely over now and the whole of Kabul’s media descended onto the street corner a few blocks away.  Bilal, the BBC Kabul producer/reporter, Stuart, our security adviser and myself waited patiently until we were finally allowed into the street. The assorted photographers and camera crews gathered outside the corrugated iron gate that protects the partially built tower block. American soldiers turned up and we attempted to ask them a few questions. “We’re not able to say at this time, Madam”, the customary straight talking but polite reply. Then I spot a huddle gathering around a guard post. As I get closer the growing smell warns me of what to expect.

 

An Afghan male is slumped on the ground, blood splattered over his clothes, his face hidden. I film the scene quickly, to linger would appear ghoulish although that didn’t seem to bother the locals.  Back at the gate pressure mounts on the Afghan police to allow the cameras inside. Eventually they give in and the media start to filter through a narrow gap they had created. I stand back and let them pile in. If the building is bobby trapped then I’ll soon find out from the safety of the road outside. The building was just a shell, concrete floors, stairwells and some walls but no windows frames. I could see heads and arms with cameras attached scurrying up each level, like a pack of hounds sensing they were nearing their prey.

 

I waited 10 minutes before I even attempted to enter. I knew I had to go in, I could hardly return to the office without shots from inside when everyone else would have them. After a brief argument with the police, my BBC press card gained me access. Bilal, Stuart and myself head straight upstairs to the first floor, which is covered in debris and empty bullet shells. We can see a group of photographers in a corner room, flashes popping from their equipment. Stuart heads that way so Bilal and I follow. In the corner of the room there are two dead Taliban fighters slumped over each other. They are covered in blood stains. The man on the floor has a bullet wound right in the middle of his temple. The other man is on his side, again a bullet wound to the temple but also visible is the large exit wound at the back of his head. Brain tissue can be seen amongst the blood splattered across the floor and walls. It was clear that the Special Forces who eventually entered this building in the early hours wanted to make sure the enemy fighters were definitely dead.

 

I film the bodies as a matter of procedure. The scene is far too gruesome to show but it’s important that the absent correspondent see’s exactly what has happened here. Back in the open area American soldiers are sweeping the ground with sniffer dogs. A separate group of soldiers were standing still and telling people to tread carefully. He pointed to the ground below him were an unexploded grenade lay almost unseen amongst the debris. I said to him I was surprised they had let the media in, “if it was down to me madam, you wouldn’t be” was his reply. He continued to tell everyone to keep clear. At that point, fearful we might be asked to leave, Bilal decided we should record a ‘rant’. This is an extended PTC but done in a more casual and natural way. The idea is that it can be sent to London ahead of an edited package and gives the viewer a rough understanding of what has happened.

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We started filming with the Americans in the background. Unfortunately it took a few takes for Bilal to get his words right and during that time the soldiers slowly moved away. At this point our security adviser had gone back into the corner room were the bodies were. I guess when you’re in his line of work there’s a certain ‘professional curiosity’ involved!   We continued filming, keen to get one useable take in the bag. Eventually Bilal was word perfect so we moved on up to the next floor. More bodies lay on the stairs, all with a single shot to the temple.

I filmed the scene but then also got a shot of a hand and a foot. The corpses were so messed up that this was all I felt we could show. We then headed up to the top floor. Earlier footage showed that this was where the Special Forces had been concentrating their fire and where they finally gained entry using a ladder. The floor was covered in bullet cartridges, the walls riddled with holes and yet more Taliban corpses. We counted a total of eight in the end. This was clearly ground zero where the fighters had fought to the death. The others were probably shot as they tried to get away, a futile attempt given that the building was completely surrounded.

 

Back in the edit suite I reviewed the various versions of Bilal’s ‘rant’ and noticed something horrific in the background. As Bilal spoke to camera, a local man walked behind and then stopped suddenly. He froze and then appeared to hop forward. It was obvious he had nearly kicked the grenade that was still on the floor.   I couldn’t believe it. Had the American soldiers just walked off and left it there?

 

If that man hadn’t seen it we could have all been blown to kingdom come! And equally I can’t believe that none of us noticed that the grenade was still lying there.   It just goes to show how easy it is to get distracted or have tunnel vision when you’re filming. Surrounded by dead bodies you might feel that the danger has passed but this incident showed that my initial gut reaction right.  In any other country the media would have been kept well clear of that building…. but then this was Afghanistan.

Matthew watching the Taliban attack unfold on local TV at airport

Matthew Pinsent and I holding our end credits for 'World Olympic Dreams'

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