Olympics Massacre: Munich - The real story; With the release of Steven Spielberg's controversial film 'Munich', Simon Reeve revisits the events of 1972 - and reveals how they shaped the terror age - article here
Sunday Times - The joys of travelling in Gabon
Sunday Times - Small hairy orange muggers in Borneo
Observer - Surfing a giant wave after crossing the Amazon basin
A journey through Somaliland and unrecognised countries
Sunday Telegraph Travel section: Central Asia - a journey around an extraordinary region
Central Asia - the highs and lows
Unrecognised countries - states of confusion
Somaliland's missing identity
The 'War on Terror' - five years on
Iraq: What have we done?
Iraq: A long hard guerrilla war is inevitable
Terror: bin laden and Saddam were never friends
Iraq: the war will provoke terrorism
Torture and Guantanamo
Syndicated interview before Iraq War
Munich 1972: the German way with terror
Ramzi Yousef: the most dangerous terrorist in the world
The Sunday Times Travel Section
August 20, 2006
Drunks with trunks - Alcoholic elephants, naked
cyclists, lethal kites and £1,000-a-day car hire:
getting to grips with Gabon isn't easy, but it's worth
AS AN excuse for a late train, it was certainly more imaginative than blaming leaves on the line.
A herd of drunken elephants had wandered in front of the train heading towards Lopé, in the middle of the Gabonese jungle. Four of the elephants had been killed, and the engine and two carriages had been derailed. The line was completely blocked.
The stationmaster sweated profusely in the equatorial heat as he explained the problem to our small group waiting on the Lopé station platform. “It’s the iboga fruit they keep eating,” he grumbled, apparently annoyed at the herd’s failure to obey railway regulations. “They get intoxicated and stagger around on our lines.”
I had been in Gabon with a BBC film crew for less than a week, at the beginning of a journey around the equator. We were all expecting endless problems while traversing the warm waistband of the planet. After all, the equatorial zone is home not only to the greatest natural biodiversity, but also perhaps the greatest human suffering.
Beyond Gabon, months of travel would take me through the Democratic Republic of Congo, scene of extreme violence, then across Uganda and Kenya to the lawless border with anarchic Somalia. Religious conflicts in Indonesia, fighting fishermen in the Galapagos, Colombia’s interminable civil war and the vast Amazon all beckoned ahead.
But thanks to the drunken elephants and a brush with a nasty disease, I nearly didn’t make it out of the starting blocks.
The trip had begun promisingly enough. French soldiers have helped keep Gabon relatively stable, while oil has made a few well-connected locals extremely rich. At one point in the 1980s, Gabon had the highest per-capita consumption of champagne, and the capital, Libreville, boasts casinos, musty hotels, busy beaches and a handful of handsome seafront buildings with a passing resemblance to those of Miami’s South Beach.
But the party is coming to an end. Supplies of black gold are dwindling, and Gabon’s President Bongo has decided to tap tourist dollars by exploiting other national assets. With gorillas, chimpanzees, hippos splashing in the sea, pristine rainforest and nearly 700 species of birds, Gabon is a paradise for naturalists.
Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1967, and Castro’s death will make him the world’s longest-serving leader. Absolute power clearly speeds decision-making. The president recently ordered that 11% of Gabon should be converted into national parks — almost overnight. It was a bold move: voilà! — Gabon is now being touted and promoted as the “Costa Rica of Africa”, an unspoilt high-end destination for wealthy ecotourists.
But Costa Rica has been welcoming visitors for years, and has been carefully building hotels and a tourism infrastructure. Gabon has a long way to go before it can claim to be African competition.
It’s not the basic tourist facilities that are the problem. Authentic travel experiences have their own charm. The main problem with Gabon — if my experience is anything to go by — is that visitors to the country risk endless bad luck.
I was desperate to get into the fabled Gabonese rainforest and find some gorillas for an Attenborough moment, but events continually conspired against me.
My troubles began before I even left Libreville. My phone, which had seen faithful service in the most demanding countries in the world, packed up. So did my producer's. One of our cameras and our backup phone went haywire. Money disappeared. I had a comedy moment stuck in a dilapidated hotel lift while metal groaned in a way I didn’t think possible outside Hollywood movies (how I laughed).
After two days in Gabon, I wandered out of my beachside hotel and a battered Citroën suddenly turned sharply and slammed into the thick wall right next to me, demolishing the front of the car — and the wall. The driver slid out of his seat, dusted himself off with a dramatic flourish and calmly walked into the hotel. “I’m fine, thank you, there is nothing to worry about,” he said.
I gave the car a wide berth as it began to smoulder, and hailed a taxi. We drove 40 metres before clipping another car. My driver had been distracted by a completely naked man carrying a bicycle into a shop. A kite-flyer later managed virtually to garrotte me as I strolled along the beach. I hope you get the picture. Weird things can happen in Gabon. Or, at least, they did to me.
I was relieved when we finally left Libreville and headed east, parallel with the equator, on the Transgabonais railway towards Lopé National Park, home to a large population of mandrills and several thousand western lowland gorillas. Surely my luck would improve.
After leaving the train at Lopé, we clambered into 4WDs for a journey into the rainforest, but were then turfed out and abandoned in the jungle when we refused to pay an extra £1,000 a day. Travellers in Africa are never immune to corruption or outright blackmail, but we naively believed a car-hire firm connected to the presidential family would be slightly more reliable.
Shrugging off another setback, we tried to view our resulting trek to the Mikongo camp, deep in the Lopé forest, as a bracing stroll. Researchers based at Mikongo are habituating lowland gorillas with the help of funding from visiting tourists. Finally, it was my chance to get into the jungle. We plunged into the forest, led by wiry tracker Donald Ndongo, and began to explore.
Lowland gorillas can wander several miles a day, so, in the dense forest, the odds of a sighting are not great. I didn’t even see their droppings. Between June and November, more than a thousand mandrills can congregate in the jungle, the largest non-human gatherings of primates anywhere. Unfortunately, we were there in April.
Gabon clearly offers both more and less than a standard safari. More, in the sense that, after trekking and sweating through the rainforest, there is the chance of genuine and spontaneous wildlife discoveries. Compare that with a traditional safari in South or East Africa, where you watch a bored cheetah on the open savannah, while sitting in a 4WD with honeymooners from Texas and Bavaria.
And Gabon offers less, in that most of the country is thick, green jungle, and you might only catch an arse-end glimpse of a mandrill or a gorilla heading in the wrong direction. In the rainforest there are no wildlife guarantees.
But tracking in the jungle is endless fun. Donald was a mine of information on trees that bled red, and plants used for fighting fever, while he clucked away noisily to alert gorillas to our presence. Pushing through the jungle was a challenge, but when we finally spotted and followed putty-nosed monkeys, it made the reward only sweeter.
Donald, whose father was a proud hunter (“Never a poacher,” he added quickly), explained how life was changing since the president decided to target wealthy tourists. Villagers who live in and around national parks have suddenly been banned from hunting in the forests. “It’s been a big shock for them,” he said. “We try to explain that it’s for the benefit of the country, but they need to eat, so they need to see the benefits of tourism quickly.”
Donald took us to the village of Makoghé, on the outskirts of the forest, where Jean Jacques, the energetic headman, has been struggling to hold his village together since the hunting ban. Jean Jacques has started organising traditional dances for paying foreigners and is appealing for tourists to visit. His message is clear: if you want us to stop hunting the wildlife, someone needs to provide us with an alternative means of putting food on the table. We paid a modest sum and thoroughly enjoyed their fourth performance.
After watching the dancing, I wanted to head back into the rainforest in search of wildlife, but I started to feel a little unwell and we decided to aim for the capital. The returning train was derailed by the drunken pachyderms, and by the time the line was cleared and we arrived back in the capital, I was feeling spectacularly rough.
Perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of Casualty, but when I awoke during the night with a temperature of 40C and started vomiting blood, I suspected something was wrong. Diagnosed with malaria, I was treated with medicine derived from Vietnamese sweet wormwood, and was forced to halt my journey to recover.
I felt lucky to make it out of the country alive and would rather boil my testicles than risk returning. But Jean Jacques wants you to visit.
So go to the Costa Rica of Africa: trek, sweat and, with luck, you will spot some extraordinary wildlife before spending your money in the villages. Don’t let my bad luck put you off. After all, the people of Makoghé need you.
The author and broadcaster Simon Reeve presents Equator, a three-part journey around the world, starting on August 27 on BBC2 at 9pm
TRAVEL DETAILS: Gabon is best attempted with a specialist tour operator. Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982, www.wildlifeworldwide.com) has a 19-day Best of Gabon tour, for about £4,395pp, ticking off Libreville, Lopé and Loango National Park. The price includes flights, accommodation, meals, guiding and all transport and transfers. It can also tailor-make shorter trips. Or try World Primate Safaris (020 8740 3350, www.worldprimatesafaris.com) or Green Tours (01298 83563, www.greentours.co.uk).
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The Sunday Times Travel Section
August 27, 2006
Tough monkey love in Borneo
They’re fearsomely strong, endlessly gentle — and they’re kleptomaniacs. Borneo’s endangered orang-utans will steal your lunch, your canoe... and your heart, says Simon Reeve
The mugger was short, agile and covered in thick red hair. As he sidled towards my guide, Zacky, and me in the depths of the Tanjung Puting National Park, in southern Borneo, I realised we were about to become the latest hapless victims of a mischievous orang-utan called Pan.
“Don’t worry,” said Zacky, a zoologist with the Orangutan Foundation International, “I can handle him. You go on.” With his arms outstretched, Zacky valiantly tried to shield me from Pan as he passed us by, but our assailant was too fast. Pan lunged to nab my bag of supplies, and I watched in awe as he sat down, examined the contents and took a long drink of my water. Then he let out a satisfied burp, had a quick pick of his nose and wandered off towards the river in search of more loot.
Pan had heard us coming. The wily local often hangs around near the 200-metre iron boardwalk that runs between a river landing jetty and the Camp Leakey research and conservation centre in the park. When a boat arrives, he heads down to the river to see if the new arrivals have anything worth pinching. Pan was not, I was soon to discover, the only orang-utan in Tanjung Puting with a streak of kleptomania.
The mugging was an unexpected but refreshing welcome to the park, a vast expanse of forest and coastal swamp stuffed with wildlife. I was visiting the Indonesian region of southern Borneo, on the second leg of a trip around the equator with a series of crack BBC film crews, and we had feared that a close encounter with wild primates would require hours of fruitless tracking through thick rainforest.
But Tanjung Puting has become the best place in the world to see wild orang-utans, the largest arboreal animals on earth and the only great apes found outside Africa. The chances of a meeting are high simply because most of their habitat outside the park has been destroyed, and thousands of threatened orang-utans are now crammed inside the protected sanctuary.
Destruction is everywhere in southern Borneo. After arriving on the island by plane, I drove for six hours in the direction of Tanjung Puting without seeing much more than a small copse. The area used to be a verdant paradise and one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet. While there are just over 30 native species of trees in the UK, Borneo has at least 5,000. But vast tracts of forest have completely vanished. Over the past few decades, Indonesia as a whole has lost about 80% of its original forest habitat.
Illegal logging for lumber is still partly to blame, but expanding plantations producing palm oil, a wonder crop found in 1 in 10 western consumer goods, are now the main culprits. Roads across Borneo are lined by the remnants of once mighty rainforests. By the time the BBC crew and I arrived for an overnight stop in the town of Pangkalan Bun, close to the national park, the devastation had become thoroughly depressing.
FORTUNATELY, there was some light relief in the bar of the Blue Kecubung hotel, where the local singer — nicknamed Camp Freddy — gave a stellar performance that raised our spirits. Stroking his thin moustache and strutting the stage in leather trousers, Freddy gave a unique Indonesian interpretation of Queen’s greatest hits. I doubt Simon Cowell would have been impressed, but what Freddy lacked in talent, he compensated for with bags of enthusiasm.
The next morning, Zacky whisked us towards Tanjung Puting in a couple of speedboats, and we skirted the park boundary on the Sungai Sekonyer river. On our right was the protected national park, with thick forest containing some 220 bird species, 17 kinds of reptile and 29 types of mammal, including orang-utans and proboscis monkeys with six-inch bulbous hooters. On the left was a 20- to 50-metre patch of trees, then endless acres of deforested land.
Zacky had assured us that we would see orang-utans inside the park, and we were not disappointed. After watching Pan disappearing towards the river, we walked to the research centre at Camp Leakey as the rainforest on either side squawked and screeched. “You’re in luck,” said Zacky. “The King is here!”
The King, a huge dominant male orang-utan called Kusasi, was sprawled on the grass within the Camp, fiddling with his dark cheek pads and watching to see if workers would leave the kitchen door open long enough for him to grab a free lunch. As we slipped inside the kitchen hut for a welcome chat and bowl of rice, Kusasi leapt towards the closing door, trapping us in the kitchen while his black leathery fingers curled through the mesh over the windows. But there was no sense of aggression. The King was just trying his luck.
Doors to the large huts that comprise Camp Leakey have a series of ingenious latches and locks designed to prevent burglary by inquisitive orang-utans. The primates will pinch almost anything not nailed to the ground. Watches have been snatched from wrists and pockets have been picked. Pan uses his speed, Kusasi uses his size and strength, and Princess, another local resident, uses her brains, pinching boats at Camp Leakey and paddling downriver to get to her favourite riverbank foods. When workers submerge canoes to discourage joyrides, Princess works with other orang-utans to tip the water out and right the boats.
Solitary, thoughtful and immensely strong, orang-utans are quite simply some of the most extraordinary animals roaming the planet. Their declining numbers are a tragedy, caused largely by our desire for palm oil and consumer goods. A large tree from the Borneo rainforest can be worth more than £5,000 in finished products when shipped to China and converted into venetian blinds or a sofa frame. Some of the loggers are villagers using a shared chain saw, others are international firms with vast factories, expensive machinery and better road-building equipment than the government.
Adult orang-utans who get in their way are usually trapped and clubbed, shot, stabbed or burnt to death, while baby orang-utans are kept and sold as pets. The Orangutan Foundation now cares for about 120 young orphans rescued from villages and animal-traffickers.
ZACKY WAS rightly proud of the large, spotless orphanage. The residents are given love and plenty of food, but they clearly long for their parents. As we went on a short tour, arms were thrust out of cages in a hunt for the touch and warmth of another mammal.
So I was delighted to help Zacky and workers from the orphanage carry a group of the young orangs on a training trip into the rainforest. Without their parents, orangs can find the rainforest intimidating, and need to be taught how to forage in preparation for eventual release into the wild. Osbourne, a hefty young infant, grabbed me around the neck, while his feet gripped me tightly around the waist. As we plunged into the forest, he was restless and glanced around nervously.
“He’s scared,” I said to Zacky, who was struggling with two other youngsters, “what should I do?”
“Try stroking his head,” came the response. “He’s pretty similar to a human baby.”
The advice worked. When I stroked his head, Osbourne became calmer, and at one point even started scratching my chin. Just as I was getting broody, it was time for him to climb into the forest canopy and start practising a few essential life skills. I introduced him to a likely tree and lifted him onto the lower branches. But the poor thing didn’t want to go, and climbed back into my arms. I tried again, lifting him onto a branch, patting the tree and making encouraging noises, as if taking the stabilisers off his bicycle. Osbourne looked up at the tree, looked back at me for reassurance, and began to climb. It was food for the soul.
Conservationists have battled bravely on behalf of Osbourne and his friends, but some experts believe orang-utan numbers have fallen by two-thirds since 1990. Wild females have a birthing interval of roughly eight years, the longest of any animal, which dims their chances of survival, and a palm-oil plantation half the size of the Isle of Wight is now encroaching on Tanjung Puting.
As their habitat vanishes, many orangs are unable to find enough fruit. Zacky took us on a rainforest walk to a feeding platform and cupped his hands to his mouth to call hungry locals. There were crashing noises in the forest as 20 mouths came swinging down from the trees. I felt a strong, sticky hand grabbing my arm, and looked down into a young pair of mournful eyes that melted my heart.
Borneo is a spectacular destination, but much of the rainforest has already been logged, and the sound of chain saws may soon be heard inside the national park. Visit before the forest disappears, but don’t complain if an orang-utan pinches your backpack. After all, humans have been stealing their land for years, and it’s about time they got their own back.
Simon Reeve’s series Equator starts tonight on BBC2 at 9pm. His journey across Indonesia will be shown at 8pm on September 3
Spotting orang-utans is best organised with a specialist tour operator such as World Primate Safaris (0870 850 9092, www.worldprimatesafaris.com).
A tailor-made five-day tour of the Tanjung Puting National Park starts at about £1,300pp, including flights from Jakarta, accommodation and transfers, but not international flights. Expect to pay about £450 for flights from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester to Jakarta, through Airline Network (0870 700 0543, www.airline-network.co.uk), or Trailfinders (0845 058 5858, www.trailfinders.com). For more information on the Tanjung Puting National Park and the work of the Orangutan Foundation International, visit www.orangutan.org.
FOR GUARANTEED up-close orang-utan encounters, there are four other rehabilitation centres in the region: Wanariset (also in Kalimantan); Semenggok (near Kuching) and Sepilok (near Sandakan), both in Malaysian Borneo; and the Bohorok Centre, a couple of hours’ drive from Medan in Sumatra, which sees huge numbers of tourists.
The most affordable and accessible all-round experience is the Sepilok Centre: there are direct flights from Malaysian Borneo’s regional hub, Kota Kinabalu, and you get the chance to see wild orang-utans in the nearby forests. With Naturetrek (01962 733051, www.naturetrek.co.uk), an 11-day tour, visiting the Sepilok Centre and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, starts at £2,195pp. Accommodation is at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge (www.sukau.com) and the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (www.borneorainforestlodge.com), and the price includes flights from Heathrow, local connecting flights and transfers.
Other operators include Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982, www.wildlifeworldwide.com), Explore Worldwide (0870 333 4001, www.explore.co.uk), Audley Travel (01869 276360, www.audleytravel.com) and Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.com).
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The Observer - Face to face with a monster from the
Filming around the globe for his BBC series Equator, Simon Reeve survived malaria, jungle guerrillas and tarantulas in the boat. But nothing prepared him for the grand finale: attempting to surf an Amazonian tidal wave
Sunday September 3, 2006
By Simon Reeve
As the tidal wall of water surged and boiled behind our small boat, I began to have serious doubts about the planned finale to my journey across the Amazon basin: surfing one of the longest waves in the world.
For a start, the tidal wave, known locally as the pororoca, was hurtling up the Amazon tributary at 20mph and a height of around four metres, tearing at the riverbanks and sweeping all manner of dangerous wildlife along in the current. I had also just been told one of the world's best surfers had broken his back trying to ride the tidal bore. Most important, my earlier enthusiasm for the challenge could not mask the crucial fact that I was a complete novice who had never stood on a surfboard.
'Just start by holding tight to the board, grip it with both hands,' said my guide Stanley, an experienced pororoca surfer. Perhaps I could try to bodyboard for a moment before struggling on to my knees. With my heart in my mouth, I leapt out of our speedboat into the river in front of the wave and the roaring pororoca raced towards me.
Damn those Brazilian beers. I would never have volunteered to be in the firing line if Stanley hadn't produced bottle after bottle as we chatted on our hired riverboat the previous night. At the time, attempting to ride the pororoca, on Brazil's Atlantic Coast, had seemed like a fitting climax to months of travel on a long, hot trip around the world. With a series of BBC TV crews, I had followed the equator across Africa, Indonesia and finally Latin America. Pursuing the imaginary line had taken us through the area of the world with the greatest concentration of both natural biodiversity and human suffering.
On the final leg, with producer Steven Grandison and cameraman Guillermo Galdos, I had entered the Amazon basin in southern Colombia and headed for La Paya National Park, home to woolly and red howler monkeys, giant anteaters and hundreds of bird species. Freshwater river dolphins, idly searching for food, popped their heads out of the water to keep an eye on the strange two-legged mammals invading their home.
The park was idyllic, but there was no escaping the political troubles of Colombia. More than 250,000 people have died in the country during decades of fighting between the government, left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug barons. As we put up our hammocks and prepared to go fishing for piranha directly on the equator, our Colombian guide Carlos, the head warden of La Paya, told us fighters from the Farc organisation were active in large areas of the park. Guerrillas in the jungle and piranhas in the water were soon joined by crocodiles on the riverbank, and tarantulas crawling around inside our little boat. The Colombian rainforest was a risky place to be.
From La Paya we headed east into Brazil, travelling on small boats along the Uapes river through remote areas of the Amazon rainforest. While much of the equatorial environment has endured extensive deforestation, the rainforest on the equator in north eastern Brazil was untouched. Verdant fauna was clinging to every patch of land, right down to the waterline; loggers had not yet reached this pristine wilderness.
As we left the remoter reaches, we passed tiny indigenous communities living in fragile riverbank huts. We stopped in several villages and discovered most of the younger adults had left, lured to small jungle towns in search of work, leaving grandparents behind to look after scattered groups of children.
None of the kids had ever seen foreigners before, let alone a sweaty television technical crew loaded down with shiny gadgets. To avoid infecting isolated communities with dangerous Western viruses, we had been carefully tested and inoculated, so felt safe allowing the little bundles of fun to pull our hair and tug at our cameras.
The presence of tiny Catholic churches along the riverbanks showed the tribes were not completely isolated from the Western world. Yet the greatest threat from the outside world to life in this part of Brazil is from alcohol. Although booze is banned throughout indigenous communities, it is available around the clock in towns like Sao Gabriel, causing endless social problems and rampant alcoholism among the indigenous population.
Eventually, we reached the north-eastern city of Macapa, where we attempted to dance the samba at a carnival stadium built on the equator, then went in search of a boat that would take us to see the pororoca.
Captain Albert's cattle boat was empty below decks when we boarded it at a village port on a tributary of the Amazon, four bone-juddering hours by 4x4 from Macapa, but there was still a lingering earthy smell of livestock. Stanley and his hyperactive surfer buddy Edjiman managed to ignore the stink. I tied my hammock to two posts on the exposed upper deck and hoped the river breeze would provide fumigation. We made good progress as we headed down the Rio Araguari towards the Atlantic. Stanley had brought enough beer to supply a rugby team, so as evening fell we moored up, opened a few bottles and discussed his love of the wave.
Tidal bores occur across the world, with a spectacular example happening more than 250 times a year on the river Severn. The largest, the Qiantang river tidal bore in China, known locally as the Silver Dragon, can reach a height of nine metres. But the pororoca in Brazil, which happens once a day at certain times of the year, is fast becoming the tidal bore of choice for surfers. 'They come here from all over the world,' Stanley told me. 'While on the sea, a wave will last a maximum of 15 seconds. With the pororoca wave you can surf for about 30 minutes. That's why it's considered the longest wave in the world.'
Stanley and Edjiman explained that as the wave hurtles back up the river, it rakes the riverbank, carrying wild animals, snakes, anacondas and alligators in the water, while sharks lurk behind the main wave ready to snack on anything or anyone pulled into the surf.
As if that were not bad enough, surfers are also at risk from the nasty little candiru, also known as the Brazilian vampire fish, a tiny translucent parasite that swims into fish gills, anchors itself with a spike and feeds on the blood of its host. Human bathers risk having the candiru swim right up their urethras; not surprisingly, this can be more than mildly uncomfortable.
Early the next morning we all climbed into two small speedboats and raced towards the mouth of the river, ready to meet the pororoca at dawn.
Our boat skimmed along choppy waves, the river broadened and eventually we cleared a bend to see the riverbanks disappearing in the far distance and the Atlantic beyond. After thousands of miles of travel, it was an exhilarating feeling to be approaching the end of our long journey. But between us and home was a wild wave.
Edjiman spotted it first. The slight blur on the horizon sharpened and widened and the low growl of the pororoca gradually became a roar. From one side of the river to the other, across more than a kilometre of water, a wave of wild horses, between three and five metres high, was clawing its way up the river. It was one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena I have ever witnessed. Our small boats let the torrent draw close, then just as we were about to be swallowed, we turned tail and the boiling, seething mass of water gave chase.
As they prepared to jump into the water, Stanley and Edjiman seemed surprisingly calm. 'All or nothing,' said Edjiman, 'if you miss it the dream is over.' Both surfers gripped their boards, leapt out of each boat and began to paddle away from the wave. Within seconds the surf had caught and swallowed them whole, but then I spotted Edjiman's head at the base of the wave, clinging desperately to his surfboard as the wave raged around him. Then Stanley appeared 50 metres away, also wrapped around his board as it rocketed along. The two of them were clinging on for dear life. They couldn't get to their knees on the boards, let alone on to their feet.
Edjiman held on bravely for five minutes before vanishing into the surf. Despite the force of the water, Stanley skilfully moved his board to a calmer patch of wave and then clambered to his feet. We cheered and hollered as Stanley made a few flash moves, then slipped backwards off his board to be devoured by the wave. Then it was my turn. After leaping into the water I turned away from the wave, then tried to paddle quickly to build up some speed. But I was too slow: I glanced over my shoulder to see the huge wave engulfing me from behind. As I took a deep breath and kicked my legs hard, the muddy wave roared over the top of me and sucked me backwards into darkness. I rolled over and over in the water, something hit me on the leg, then the angry wave ejected me and I floated to the surface.
'Congratulations, you surfed the pororoca!' said Stanley, after hauling me into the rescue boat. I looked at him in amazement. How could anyone describe my moment in the water as 'surfing'? But when Edjiman was rescued by our other boat, after being whacked on the head by a branch and pushed towards crocodiles on the riverbank, he was also given a hero's reception. I realised surfing the pororoca was less about standing up, and more about being prepared to surrender control to a vicious wave and take a chance in the dark waters of the Araguari.
That night I was happy to sink a few more ropey Brazilian beers and celebrate the end of our equator adventure. But as bottles clinked, one of the crew leapt to his feet and ran to the back of the boat, pulling at the anchor rope. 'What's happening?' I said to Stanley. There was confusion as Albert raced to the wheelhouse. 'The pororoca is coming again!' someone shouted.
Suddenly a giant hand picked the boat out of the water and turned it on its side. We had all forgotten the pororoca happens once during the day and once at night. I grabbed a pole running overhead as my feet left the floor and plates and glasses smashed to the side. The dark river water beckoned, then the giant wave passed and the boat steadied.
Steve, our producer, trod on some broken glass, and a few bags and Stanley's inflatable mattress went overboard, but nobody drowned. It was our final night of adventure. We had been swallowed by the pororoca, but we had survived the equator.
· Simon Reeve presents 'Equator' on Sunday nights on BBC2. His journey across Asia is screened tonight and Latin America on 17 September (see www.bbc.co.uk/equator for details)
Take the easy, surf-free option
Watch river life unfold from the comfort of your whirlpool on the deck of the Amazon Clipper, which has 16 air-conditioned cabins with private bathrooms. The three-night cruise forms part of a 13-night tour with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk). Prices from £3,395 include flights from London Heathrow and a helicopter ride over Rio.
Sleep in hammocks, tents, hostels and hotels during a 27-night trip through the heart of Brazil with overland adventure specialist Dragoman (01728 861133; www.dragoman.com). Seven days are spent on boats exploring the Amazon and its tributaries during the tour, which begins from either Rio or Manaus. From £945pp.
Journey Latin America (020 8622 8491; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a seven-night Amazon cruise as part of a 10-night trip also taking in Rio and Sao Paulo. Make morning forays into the rainforest and spend evenings looking for caymans - South American alligators - by torchlight. Prices from £2,198pp including flights.
Great river journeys of the world
The Mekong river is the longest in south east Asia, and flows through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. See it from the small, converted rice barge Wat Phou on a two-night trip which begins in Pakse in southern Laos and includes visits to Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, and a trip to Khong Pha Peng waterfall, 'the Niagara of the East', close to the Cambodian border. A two-week holiday in Laos featuring the trip on the 12-cabin barge starts from £1,950 per person including international flights with Audley Travel (01869 276222, www.audleytravel.com).
Whitewater rafting down the 280-mile-long Colorado river is the perfect way to see the USA's most famous natural attraction - the Grand Canyon. Ride ominously named rapids such as Satan's Gut and Little Niagara in Cataract Canyon where you can also visit ancient Indian sites and go hiking. Sleep under the stars amid the roar of the rapids. Most trips last between three to 15 days and run April to October, although if you want the whitest of white-knuckle rides, the best time is June. American Round-Up (01798 865946; www.americanroundup.com) offers five-day trips down Cataract and Westwater Canyons from £730.
If you want cultural diversity, this is the river for you. Starting in the mountains of the Black Forest in Germany, the 1,767-mile-long Danube spans 10 countries including Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, ending its journey in the Black Sea. En route you can visit medieval towns, romantic castles and forests, but bear in mind that most cruises operate only between March and October. Explore some of the most scenic parts of the river visiting Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna during a seven-night cruise with Great Rail Journeys (01904 521980; www.greatrail.co.uk). Prices start from £1,990pp and include rail travel from London and five nights' half-board accommodation.
Murray River, South Australia
Before roads and railways crossed Australia, the Murray River - the world's third longest navigable river - was an antipodean Mississippi with paddle steamers carrying supplies to and carting wool from remote sheep stations and homesteads. Today you can visit historic aboriginal sites and view lots of wildlife from the comfort of the Odyssey, a boat sleeping eight people. You can also pretend you're roughing it by having campfires on the riverbank. Prices start from £611pp based on two sharing and include all meals and shore excursions. Bridge & Wickers (020 7483 6555; www.bridgeandwickers.com).
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7 October 2006
AND YOU CALL THIS WINNING, MR PRESIDENT?
WAR ON TERROR FIVE YEARS ON 50,000 civilians dead... 3, 092 UK and US forces killed.. 25,000 more Taliban heading to Afghanistan.. 2,625 bombs in one month in Iraq.. £445bn spent..
By Simon Reeve
FIVE years ago today, President Bush went on television to tell America and the watching world that US and British bombs had just started falling on Afghanistan.
The rubble of the World Trade Center was still smouldering in New York, and America was hitting back against the terrorists responsible for an extraordinary atrocity.
It was the beginning of the so-called "war on terror". The American military were leading strikes on the terror training camps of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the fanatical Taliban regime which was sheltering them. At the time, America had the backing of most of the world against the Islamist terrorists.
"We will not waiver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail," President Bush reassured his people.
But half a decade and £445billion later, when tens of thousands have been killed, and tens of millions more have been directly affected, where are we now?
It used to be easy for the Bush administration to stick to a simple script when asked how the war on terror was going. Look at our successes, the White House would say.
With the help of Britain and a few other countries, the American military had quickly destroyed al-Qaeda's camps and toppled the Taliban.
Hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects had been captured and imprisoned. In Iraq, the coalition forces kicked out Saddam Hussein's regime and put the mass murderer on trial.
More importantly for American voters, there has been no major al-Qaeda terror attack on US soil since 9/11.
Speaking in the past few weeks, President Bush stated that: "America is safer, and America is winning the war on terror," the enemies of freedom defeated by "American vigilance, determination and courage."
YET even the most fanatical Bush supporter can't help noticing the war on terror is not now going entirely to plan.
Outside of America, al-Qaeda or its supporters have launched 30 major attacks since 9/11. The few positive victories against militants have been overshadowed by a series of extraordinary mistakes, poor leadership and utter incompetence.
The global toll has been devastating. In the past five years at least 50,000 civilians (probably many more) have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have been badly maimed.
In July alone in Iraq, 2,625 bombs brought incalculable suffering.
America started its war on terror in Afghanistan, where the Taliban were driven from power within weeks.
Bush said they had been defeated - but tell that to the British troops who have been fighting wave after wave of fresh Taliban recruits in the south of Afghanistan.
Far from being annihilated, the Taliban simply melted away to regroup.
Large areas of Afghanistan have again fallen under their control, and it is not impossible to imagine them retaking the country.
The reason for this is a series of colossal failings by the Bush administration and its Western allies. The main screw-ups include a pathetic unwillingness to provide funds for reconstruction and development for Afghanistan after the Taliban were kicked out.
The West has tried to transform Afghanistan on the cheap, giving far less money (the equivalent of £35 per Afghan) than to other countries where the international community has helped build new governments, such as Bosnia (£130 per Bosnian).
America and its allies also left huge areas of the country empty of coalition soldiers, and Taliban fighters flooded in.
The result is deteriorating security, which in turn makes it extremely dangerous for international aid agencies to work there.
The West has also failed to control opium production in Afghanistan, which supplies 90 per cent of the heroin in Europe.
The 2006 harvest is up an incredible 40 per cent on 2005.
Now the Taliban have started refining heroin themselves, and are using the earnings to buy bigger, better weapons.
They also pay their recruits £3 a day - twice what the 30,000 soldiers in the Afghan army earn - and compensate the families of suicide bombers.
Furthermore, the West has been unable to prevent border regions in neighbouring Pakistan from becoming sanctuaries for both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
Sources in Pakistani intelligence say that in recent months al-Qaeda and the Taliban have established new camps, providing terror training to hundreds of young recruits. The sources claim more than 25,000 Taliban militants will be sent to fight in Afghanistan from next spring.
President Bush insists that many of the most significant al-Qaeda members have been captured or killed...
But what the US government cannot grasp is that there is not a single brigade of, say, 10,000 al-Qaeda terrorists that it needs to hunt down and eliminate.
Instead, the numbers are growing daily, every fatality replaced by a new fanatic.
American foreign policies - and decisions that have been taken by the US government since 9/11 - encourage ever more young men to join al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
This denial of the connection between US foreign policies and terrorism is perhaps the single greatest failing of the war on terror.
Nowhere is the mistake more obvious than in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's downfall is to be welcomed, but the complete failure of the US to plan for the aftermath was criminally incompetent.
President Bush's interest in what would happen after the invasion is limited to a question he asked his adviser Condoleezza Rice in January, 2003...
"A humanitarian army is going to follow our army into Iraq, right?"
But there was no humanitarian army and instead the US stupidly decided to purge Iraq of Saddam's junior officials and sack hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. Without officials, there was anarchy. Many of the unemployed soldiers promptly joined guerrilla groups, crime gangs or death squads.
The result has been slaughter. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed, stuck in the middle between fanatics hell-bent on massacring shoppers and school-kids, and scared US soldiers who shoot first and often don't even bother to ask questions later.
At least 3,000 civilians are now dying in Iraq every month in an extraordinary flood of suicide bombings.
By July this year there were roughly 1,000 attacks - of all types - each week in Iraq. At 3,092, more US and UK military personnel have died in Iraq than civilians on 9/11.
A Pentagon report notes: "The proportion of those attacks directed against civilians has increased substantially... death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife."
The security situation in Iraq is getting worse and the country is descending into civil war.
Apart from the extraordinary loss of life inside Iraq, the carnage has huge consequences for the wider "war on terror".
The crisis has become the main global engine driving young Muslims into the arms of Islamic groups and the pool of militants outraged at Western foreign policies keeps growing.
Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, another huge mistake has been the decision by the Bush administration to tell the world that we all had to choose a side in the war on terror: You are either with the US, or against the US.
So anyone who does not regularly raise a glass of Coca-Cola to the Stars & Stripes is, in the eyes of the Bush administration, with the enemy. Combined with the Iraq war, the recent Western-backed Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the huge failings by Muslim leaders are all driving a wedge between the Christian world and the Islamic world.
Anger at America, Britain and the West in the Islamic world is now running at greater levels than ever.
The Bush administration has helped to push the West and Islam further apart and made a long, slow, bitter, global conflict between the two sides far more likely.
During the first five years of the war on terror, the US government has made a series of bad decisions costing countless lives.
The result of the carnage, and the mistakes made by the Bush administration, is a growing political catastrophe that will affect the lives of most people on the planet for decades to come.
SIMON Reeve is the author of the first book on
al-Qaeda, the New York Times bestseller The New
Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden And The Future
The Sunday Telegraph
May 1st 2005
By Simon Reeve
SOMALILAND’S government Minister for Tourism was elated he finally had a rare foreign visitor he could take to see his country’s national treasures.
“Don’t worry!” said the enthusiastic Minister, as I reluctantly agreed to accompany him to some rock etchings recently discovered at Laas Ga'al outside Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. “The drawings are beautiful, and it will just be a small detour from the road!”
After bumping along potholed dirt tracks through the parched African bush for long enough for my bones to separate, I started to think my scepticism was justified. But we crested a hill, dodged wiry bushes on a wide plain, and scrambled over vast boulders to find exquisite rock paintings dating back thousands of years.
Even under the scorching sun, the paintings had strong, vibrant colours and stark outlines, showing the ancient inhabitants of the area worshipping cattle and venerating a pregnant cow. In a low cave further up the hill I found human figures dancing along the rock.
Laas Ga'al is probably the most significant Neolithic rock painting site in the whole of Africa, and for a brief moment I felt like an explorer finding hidden treasures, at a time when the entire world seems easy to reach on package holidays.
But there are still areas of the world off the beaten track which can excite and amaze. Somaliland is not on many tourist maps. In fact, it is not on any maps at all. According to the international community, Somaliland does not even exist.
Although there are almost 200 official countries in the world there are also dozens more unrecognised states like Somaliland which are determined to be separate and independent. These countries are home to millions of people, they have their own rulers, armies, police forces, and issue passports and even postage stamps, but they are not officially recognised as proper countries by the rest of the world.
I wanted to highlight the risks of leaving unrecognised countries isolated, and was visiting Somaliland as part of a journey to and through a group of these unofficial states for the five-part BBC2 series ‘Places That Don’t Exist’, which starts on Wednesday.
It was a chance to visit some of the most obscure and forgotten parts of the world. A series of trips took me to Somaliland, Transniestria (between Moldova and Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and three regions of Georgia which broke away after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lack of recognition is not limited to poor nations. No major power recognises Taiwan as a proper country. It has one of the largest economies in the world but no seat at the UN.
Taiwan was welcoming, but visiting other unrecognised nations was often tricky. Getting in was difficult, and there were no foreign embassies to turn to in an emergency. But the very fact most are isolated and untouched by tourism made them intriguing places to visit.
All of the unrecognised nations on my list declared independence after bloody conflicts with a neighbouring state, which I also wanted to visit. In the case of Somaliland, that’s Somalia. So with a BBC film-crew I began several months of travel by flying into a dusty airstrip just outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital, on a tiny UN flight from Nairobi.
Years of fighting have destroyed once-beautiful Mogadishu, which is now the most dangerous city on the planet for foreigners. The BBC crew and I had to pay a dozen gunmen to keep us alive. Corpses lie in the streets for days, and locals eke out a living in a state of utter chaos. I went to the main market and bought myself a Somali passport from a man called Mr Big Beard.
Despite the chaos, and although Somalia has no real government, the rest of the world recognises it as an official country. By contrast Somaliland, in the north of Somalia, has a government, police, democracy and traffic lights, but no recognition, making it extremely difficult for the country to attract aid, investment, or visitors.
A UN cargo flight stopped briefly in Mogadishu to lift us out of chaos and take us north. The chirpy Afrikaans pilot casually warned the flight might be a bit rough. As the plane was battered I closed my eyes and gripped the armrests, while my producer Iain calmly cooked himself a bean curry.
The flight was so bad I could have kissed the ground after landing in Somaliland. A smartly-dressed immigration official stamped our passports. His presence and uniform were an immediate sign of order.
Britain is the former colonial power in Somaliland, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Locals went to Britain’s aid during the Second World War, and Somalilanders still feel a strong attachment to Britain. They struggle to understand why the UK has not recognised their country and politely quiz visitors about the reasons.
As we drove into the sweltering capital Hargeisa, Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, my towering local guide, explained Somaliland voluntarily joined with Somalia after independence from Britain, but when the relationship soured in the 1980s Somalilanders fought a war for independence.
Visiting Somaliland is to receive a humbling lesson in survival and self-determination. Hargeisa, where 50,000 died during the conflict, is being rebuilt with little help from the outside world, and refugees are returning from camps in Ethiopia. A Somali MiG jet which bombed the city sits atop a poignant war memorial.
Outside Hargeisa there are ancient rock paintings and stunning journeys into the mountains and up to the port of Berbera, home to a runway once hired by NASA as an emergency space shuttle landing strip. Tracks run along the coast west from Berbera towards Djibouti, and mangroves, gorgeous islands and coral reef.
But Somaliland’s main attraction is its determined and inspirational people. Without aid or loans and largely ignored by the world, they are building a state from scratch and seemed determined to keep their independence.
I was sad to leave, but we headed back to the edge of Europe, to Transniestria, a nation of 700,000 people which split from Moldova to become an extraordinary Soviet-era theme park. The hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union still adorns many buildings, while Lenin looms over the streets and stands proud outside the House of Soviets in the capital Tiraspol.
Our route to Transniestria took us through Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. Ruritanian-style villages were empty of all but children and the elderly. Everyone else had fled abroad in search of work. I met a villager who sold a kidney to buy a cow, and the hospitable President kindly taught me to fish, got me drunk, and claimed Transniestria is a black-hole for arms-smuggling and crime.
Moldovans had warned me hungry armed men roam the streets of Transniestria, but although the border is tense, the leafy lanes of Tiraspol were full of cafes and restaurants. Fighting talk was limited to thoughts on political strife in neighbouring Ukraine and the impact on the price of salo, pig fat, a major Ukrainian export. Transniestrians eat it covered with chocolate, which is as unappetising as it sounds.
Transniestrians celebrated their National Independence Day while we visited, an event which bore a striking resemblance to old Soviet May Day parades. The army goose-stepped past a platform of officers awarded medals by the kilo. Having always wanted to visit Red Russia, I watched goggle-eyed. They still have the KGB in Transniestria, a fact we discovered when they detained us for spying. It was tense in their cells, but after a while the KGB agents softened, gave us KGB cap-badges as souvenirs, and allowed us to leave.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the cue for a number of smaller regions to declare independence. In the Caucuses, never the most stable part of the world, I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and three breakaway regions of Georgia: Ajaria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Karabakh sits high in snowy mountains, which locals believe gives them the highest rate of longevity in the world. The scenery and churches were impressive, but it is difficult to visit without asking awkward questions. Before Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan its population was evenly split between Azeris and Armenians. After a bloody war only a handful of Azeris remain.
To the north, Georgia gave the world a Golden Fleece and Stalin, who they commemorate with a museum. When guides vanished I sat on Stalin’s personal toilet and struck my own small blow against the veneration of a murdering madman.
Georgia rarely failed to impress. There were ancient monasteries to explore, old sulphur baths, trendy new bars in the capital Tbilisi, and a population which delights in drinking more toasts than eating mouthfuls.
We headed towards South Ossetia, and crossed yet another tense border to be told the government would only allow us to linger for a few hours. It was time enough to learn the people are Ossetes, who speak a different language to Georgians, share birthday toasts with young Ossetian soldiers, and realise the locals are prepared to fight and die for their independence. But it was an uncomfortable visit, and we were shadowed everywhere by the secret police.
Heading west across Georgia an overnight train took us to Ajaria, a summer paradise with beaches that attracted tourists from across the former Soviet Union. Ajaria was formerly a breakaway region headed by a strongman whose son closed roads to race a Lambourghini along the seafront. Strangely this did not go down well with locals (average monthly wage £20). They kicked-out the strongman and were welcomed back into Georgia.
Further north, the government of Abkhazia reneged on an offer of entry, so we left the Caucuses and headed east to Taiwan. When Mao’s Communists defeated Chinese Nationalists they fled to Taiwan and took over. China says it wants Taiwan back, and will use force if necessary.
For decades Nationalists in Taiwan claimed they were the rightful rulers of China and wallowed in heritage, protecting buildings the Chinese destroyed during their economic boom. There are ancient temples and chic hotels nestling beside mountain lakes. In the capital Taipei visitors can trek to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, to watch as planes fly beneath them.
But of all the unofficial and official countries I was lucky enough to visit while filming Places That Don’t Exist Somaliland had the greatest impact. War between Somalia and Somaliland could erupt again, but there is also a much more optimistic future for the country. Perhaps one day Somaliland will have its own seat at the United Nations, and tourists will flock to its stunning beaches to swim at the mouth of the Red Sea. It is nothing less than Somalilanders deserve.
Copyright Simon Reeve 2005
Simon Reeve is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, and the writer and presenter of the five-part series Places That Don’t Exist, which starts on BBC2 on Wednesday May 4th at 7.30pm with a journey to and through Somaliland. More information is at www.shootandscribble.com
Flights to Somaliland are available from Dallo airlines (www.daallo.com) via Djibouti. Several airlines fly to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, from where buses and taxis will happily take visitors to Transniestria, or at least the border, where more taxis wait on the other side.
Major airlines also fly to Tiblisi in Georgia, from where visitors can take a train to Ajaria (tickets are around £5). Entry to Abkhazia and South Ossetia is more difficult, but is best attempted via Russia. BA flies to Yerevan in Armenia, from where you can take the long road south-east to Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. Check the Internet before travel, and make sure relevant permissions are obtained. Remember the Foreign Office advises against travelling to many unrecognised nations, so most personal travel insurance policies will be invalid.
Although Taiwan has plenty of good-quality hotels, tourist facilities in most unrecognised nations are not of conventional Western standards. Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, has a couple of surprisingly good hotels, including the Ambassador (www.ambassadorhotelhargeisa.com), which has comfortable rooms and friendly staff. Outside Hargeisa locals are so pleased anyone is visiting Somaliland they make up for poor facilities with a warm welcome.
When to go:
Climates vary widely. Taiwan is good from spring to summer. Nagorno-Karabkh and the breakaway areas of Georgia are shockingly cold in winter. Transniestria has a warmer climate than the UK. Somaliland is warm in winter and among the hottest parts of the world in summer. Check guidebooks.
Taiwan can boast excellent food, but beware amphetamine betel nuts sold by the side of the road by scantily-clad women. In Transniestria it helps to have a local speaking guide who knows the restaurants and can book your meal several hours before you arrive. I repeatedly waited literally hours for food to arrive at restaurants in the Transniestrian capital, by which time my stomach had started consuming my internal organs. Good hearty organic produce is plentiful in Nagorno-Karabkh, otherwise why does everyone there live so long?
Lonely Planet produces an excellent Taiwan guidebook (£12.99), and guides to several of the countries from which breakaway states have split (Romania & Moldova £10.99; Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan £14.99), although they only mention the breakaway countries I visited in passing. The Stone Garden Guide to Armenia & Karabagh [sic] is a celebratory tome produced by Armenian-Americans and sold for $24.95. The otherwise excellent Lonely Planet guide Africa on a Shoestring (£19.99) has just a brief mention of Somalia, basically telling people not to go there, and just a few paragraphs on Somaliland.
Unless war breaks-out with China, Taiwan is and will be safe. I cannot encourage anyone to visit Mogadishu in Somalia, but by contrast Somaliland is relatively safe, although visitors must always remember they are a long way from a Western embassy. Likewise Transniestria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh also fall into a diplomatic no-mans land: Western governments don’t recognise the existence of these breakaway nations, so it will be harder for them to help if you get into trouble.
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THE two armed Kazakh policemen on the train were
curious. “So what is your impression of Central
Asia, and is it what you expected?” they asked,
surprised to see a Westerner making the slow journey
across the endless flat steppes of Kazakhstan.
The previous day I had missed the train heading east from Aktobe, in the far north-west of Kazakhstan, to Almaty, the main city, when it left half an hour early. Now I was on a train which did not appear on any official rail timetable. I only managed to get a ticket when Bayan, my tenacious Kazakh guide, ejected the local mayor from his bed and forced him to call on the rail commissar while wearing his pyjamas.
I stumbled a reply to my new friends, unsure how to tell them I was already finding Central Asia wonderfully eccentric. So instead we swapped stories about growing-up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and I settled back on the first leg of a trip I was taking through ‘the Stans’ (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) with a BBC television crew for the documentary series ‘Meet the Stans’.
Since writing a book on al Qaeda in the late 1990s, I have been fascinated by this forgotten corner of the world, which I fear could be a potential future flashpoint in the ‘war on terror’. But Central Asia, a vast region bigger than Western Europe, has much more to offer than a problem with Islamic militancy.
Apart from some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world, the ancient Silk Road wound its way through the Stans, lending an extra air of mystery to magical cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand. Nature also blesses the region with spectacular scenery untouched by tourism or development.
Nowhere is this more true than the Charyn Canyon, a few hours east of Almaty, which I finally reached after travelling by plane, train, horse and helicopter across Kazakhstan.
Marat, our driver, a former Soviet police Captain and winner of the Kazakh ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ TV show, took us to the floor of the canyon in his 4WD, past mansion-sized chunks of rock perched so precariously over the track I held my breath as we passed. Second only to the Grand Canyon in scale, I found Charyn infinitely more impressive due to the absence of other visitors.
The Canyon is a perfect metaphor for the entire region: vast, unspoilt and completely unknown. Before 1991 the Stans were a backwater of the Soviet Union, and the Canyon’s proximity to the Chinese border rendered it off-limits even to Kazakhs. It did not appear on maps, and many Kazakhs still remain unaware it even exists.
Our plan was to head south from the Canyon, but the road took us back to Almaty, and a night on the tiles which again confounded expectations. Late dinner was followed by a bar called Heaven, which shared the design aesthetics of a counterpart in London or New York, but was empty when I arrived at 11.30 with the BBC’s Will Daws and Dimitri Collingridge. The only other foreigners were a couple of young Australians in town to sell tennis nets, and together we bemoaned the $10 entry fee, a month’s wage for most in Central Asia, until the upstairs dance-floor opened at midnight, and the club began to fill with a collection of the most glamorous women (and men) I have ever seen.
With sore heads we took the road south from Almaty into Kyrgyzstan, a land of gorgeous meadows and jagged peaks. The Kyrgyz government hopes to attract adventure tourists seeking whitewater rafting and mountain trekking, but the country has barely a notion of a tourist infrastructure.
At Lake Issy-Kul, the second largest and highest mountain lake after Latin America’s Lake Titicaca, a scattering of resort hotels which used to cater for Soviet leaders have plenty of spare rooms. “Who comes here now?” I asked one manager.
“Diplomats, VIPs, and beezneez elite,” he replied.
“What exactly does business elite mean?” I asked naively.
“Beezneez elite…means… beezneez elite,” he replied with a euphemistic smile. Organised crime is certainly a problem in Central Asia, but not for visitors. Local criminals are more interested in the rich pickings garnered from shipping heroin from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia and Europe.
We drove to Bishkek, the sleepy Kyrgyz capital, and a Hyatt hotel full of American Special Forces on leave from Afghanistan. While they lounged in the hotel’s day-glo casino, we headed for the national museum, an eccentric celebration of the Soviet past.
The casino now happily accepts the US dollar, but murals in the museum portrayed evil Americans, one of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to George Bush, sitting astride nuclear missiles and laying waste to legions of defenceless women and children. Outside teenagers asked me in English if I liked ganja and roller-bladed around the base of a statue of Lenin, still standing proudly in the main square. “We’re quite tolerant of Soviet history,” said Kadyr, my young guide. “Many people think life was better under Communism.”
It was easy to understand why when I headed south again, and crossed into Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s mountainous northern neighbour, on a donkey cart. Now the poorest and most lawless of the countries in Central Asia, Tajikistan’s economy is still reeling after civil war in the 1990s killed up to 150,000. At least 80 per cent of the population live in poverty and wages are as low as $5 a month. Burned-out Soviet factories litter the landscape, and gasoline is sold in jars by the side of the road. “Life was never this bad under the Soviets,” was a constant refrain.
The bizniz elite were much in evidence on the streets of Dushanbe, the capital, where former warlords, corrupt politicians and mafia bosses drive around in expensive Western cars. An 800 mile border with Afghanistan, the source of 90 per cent of European heroin, has made Tajikistan a major drug transit route.
Tourism is virtually non-existent in Tajikistan. The only foreigners I saw were aid workers or businessmen investing in high-risk ventures. But the country is getting back on its feet, and streets that resounded with gunfire just a few years ago now host outdoor cafes and promenading couples. Tajikistan has a long way to go, but personally I loved the place. The Tajiks were friendly, generous, hospitable and devoid of obvious envy, even when a couple of them debating our salaries asked us, wide-eyed, whether we earned more than $10,000 a day.
Of course for tourists seeking an entirely different cultural experience, the isolation of Central Asia is part of the appeal. Almaty and Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, now host a few Western shops, but the rest of the region has been forgotten by Western businesses. Yet we ignore Central Asia at our peril. Economic growth would be a useful bulwark against growing political discontent and emerging militant groups which agitate against both the authoritarian regimes in the Stans and the West for supporting their oppressive leaders.
Geographically the Stans are closer to India and the east, to which they look for cultural leadership just as much as they look to Mother Russia or the West. At a celebration of the end of the civil war in Dushanbe, teenagers queued to take photographs with ancient cameras next to cardboard cut-outs of Bollywood stars, not the icons of Hollywood.
Music is also largely free of Western influences in the Stans, and most people seem to prefer traditional songs. In Dushanbe, Gurminj Zawkibekov, a wizened former Soviet actor who tops the Tajik charts, gave me a recital of the haunting sounds of the remote Pamir region. His band has seen record sales soar since the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajiks began to rediscover their heritage.
With Gurminj’s CD playing in my ears, we drove south through glorious countryside to the Afghan border, a route best avoided unless accompanied by an armed Colonel from the Tajik Secret Police and a detachment of border guards. The border is still bandit country. We lingered briefly, before heading west into Uzbekistan.
Since throwing his lot in with the US ‘war on terror’, Islam Karimov, the despotic ruler of Uzbekistan, has been embraced by the West. But there was a nasty feeling of oppression in Uzbekistan. People disappear, and we were careful who we spoke to and what questions we asked, more for their security than ours. Yet Uzbekistan understands the benefits of tourism and has the biggest attractions in the whole of Central Asia: the legendary cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
Samarkand, graced by the breathtaking Registan, a three-sided square which is perhaps the finest built space in the Islamic world, was a joy. We bribed a policeman and climbed a secret passage hidden behind a carpet store to the top of one of the famous minarets.
But for years I had longed to visit the Silk Road city of Bukhara. I was excited as we drew close to the ancient city, but the motion of our 4WD bumping along the road sent me to sleep. The sound of a huge wooden door creaking open finally roused me as we parked, late at night, outside a guest-house in Bukhara.
I picked myself off the floor of the van, where half my body appeared to have slumped, rather unedifyingly, as I slept, rubbed my bleary eyes, and peered out of the back of the van window, at one of the most powerfully evocative sights I have ever seen.
The guest-house was next to the glowing domes of the majestic 16th century Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, an Islamic college. Light streamed from tiny windows sparkling along its colossal wall like portholes in a ship, and danced over striking blue tiles thought to derive their unique colour from a mix of human blood.
To the side of the madrassa was the chubby base of the legendary Kalon minaret, an elegant mosque tower built in 1187 to call the faithful to prayer, and for centuries lit by fires to guide camel trains travelling through the night. Although Genghis Khan destroyed Bukhara in 1220, he gazed in awe at the Kalon minaret and ordered it spared, enabling recent rulers to execute victims and criminals by throwing them off the top.
An ethereal golden glow from oil lamps and elegant lights played over the brickwork as my eyes widened and traced the minaret 160ft into the dark sky, just as the haunting sound of an Islamic prayer rehearsal drifted from the madrassa towards our hotel. I was nearing the end of my journey through this wonderful region, and I scrambled out of the van to gasp at the mediaeval vision. It was so beautiful that even as I remember the sight now a lump rises in my throat and, one day, I hope to return.
Simon Reeve, 2003.
Simon Reeve is the author of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, and the presenter of ‘Meet the Stans’, to be broadcast on BBC4 on September 29th and 30th at 9pm, and on BBC2 later this year.
The easiest way to travel through Central Asia is with a tour group.
Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711, www.regent-holidays.co.uk, offer a Kyrgyz Explorer trip for 9 days, a 14 day Uzbekistan Encounter and a Kazak Explorer (8 days); prices between £591 and £989 exc. international flights.
Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.com) offers a variety of overland trips through Central Asia.
Silk Steps (01454 888850, www.silksteps.co.uk) runs tours to the region, while Explore Worldwide (01252 760100, www.explore-worldwide.com) has a 10-day Golden Road to Samarkand tour (also visiting Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva) starting from £1,025 including flights.
There are good Western hotels in the main cities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is sorely lacking in decent hotels and any real tourist infrastructure. Rooms on the top floor of the Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe are passable, but often reserved for diplomats and drug lords.
When to go:
May to early June, and September to early November. At other times, the region is too hot or too cold.
Be wary. Most of it is fresh, organic and healthy, but meat is often left lying around. If given the option again I would avoid fermenting camel’s milk, particularly when drunk under the watchful eye of a hairy camel breeder early in the morning, and sour yoghurt balls made from goats milk, which I loathed.
Lonely Planet's Central Asia (£14.99) is the best guide to the region.
Beyond the Oxus: The Central Asians by Monica Whitlock, published by John Murray, £19.99, is a fascinating account by a journalist who truly knows and loves the region. Individual country guides are Kyrgyzstan, Odyssey Guides, £14.99; Uzbekistan, Odyssey Guides, £13.50;
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April 30, 2005
LENGTH: 1350 words
HEADLINE: The Guide: States of confusion: They have armies, governments, passports and stamps, but these breakaway nations are not recognised as countries by the rest of the world. Simon Reeve reaches for his map
By Simon Reeve
The detention cells in the KGB secret police headquarters in Transdniestria, a country between Moldova and Ukraine, are not the ideal place to spend a Saturday night. Perhaps I have seen too many cold-war thrillers, but after being detained by the Transdniestrian KGB for spying last autumn, I had visions of being held for years in a dark cell and having to write escape plans in blood using my toenails for nibs. Fortunately, the KGB dispelled these fears by offering me a tasty salad, giving me a KGB cap-badge as a souvenir of my incarceration, and eventually setting me free.
It was a strange experience. But then Transdniestria is a fairly strange country. Stuck in a Soviet time warp, it is not actually a "real" country at all. According to the international community and most maps of the region, Transdniestria does not even exist. There are almost 200 official countries in the world, but there are dozens more independent breakaway states like Transdniestria. They have parliaments, armies and passports, but are not recognised as countries by the rest of the world. So, in a bid to find out more about these obscure countries, a BBC film crew and I spent many months travelling to a group of countries that don't officially exist.
Although rarely found on maps, Somaliland sits next to Djibouti. It used to be "British Somaliland", but locals think Whitehall has long since forgotten they exist. After joining Somalia in the 1960s to form one country, Somaliland had to fight a bitter war for independence against the Somali dictator in the 1980s, during which thousands died.
On the way there we stopped in the Somali capital Mogadishu, perhaps the most dangerous city in the world. Twelve gunmen provided protection and I bought a Somali diplomatic passport from a man called Mr Big Beard. Somalia has no real government, but is recognised as a proper country. Somaliland, by contrast, has a government, president, lively parliament and traffic lights, but is not recognised as a proper country by any nation in the world. Lack of recognition means Somaliland has trouble getting foreign aid to help with a terrible drought. Tens of thousands of people were at risk of starvation.
The Somaliland president said he runs the country on just a few million pounds a year, or "whatever we can get". Edna Ismail, his dynamic foreign minister, doubles as head of the maternity hospital. Because nobody recognises their government, it cannot get loans, which at least means Somaliland is not burdened by foreign debt repayments.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, two-thirds of Moldova wanted closer ties with Romania and neighbours to the west. But the area of the country to the east of the Dniestr river wanted to stay close to Ukraine and Russia. War broke out, and the east split to form Transdniestria, which remains unrecognised by the world.
Soviet statues still stand in Transdniestria, and a mysterious firm called Sheriff - headed by former Red Army officers - runs much of the economy. Independence day was being celebrated when we visited. The Soviet-era army goose-stepped along the main road, and small children in uniforms sang "our army is the best army" with evident pride. At least we ate heartily on the day they celebrated. The rest of the time Transdniestrian cafes were the slowest on earth, and I regularly waited hours for food to be served. Sadly, that gave time for repeated karaoke rehearsals of the uplifting Transdniestrian anthem.
As the EU expands, the country will soon be on the eastern edge of Europe. It is a haven for smuggling and has a wild west feel. Rumours suggest that it is a major producer of illegal arms, and guns from Transdniestria have turned up in conflicts around the world. International investigators claim they are unsure what is going on in Transdniestria. Hardly surprising when there are no foreign embassies and few foreigners visit this extraordinary little nation.
Lack of international recognition is not limited to poor countries. Taiwan has one of the most powerful economies in the world, but it has no seat at the UN and no major state recognises it as a proper country. When Mao's communists defeated their nationalist rivals, they fled to Taiwan and took over. Taiwan has since become a stable democracy, but Beijing views it as a renegade province and wants it back.
Taiwanese cities feel like locations in Blade Runner. Neon signs light skyscrapers and night- markets, where stalls serve snake blood and girls from the Chinese mainland sit outside obvious brothels. We went to see a Taiwanese boy band, who sang of their pride at being Taiwanese, not ethnic Chinese like their parents. The Taiwanese president flew us to see a firework concert, but refused to speak to us, and then dumped us in a muddy field.
Guides took us to a Taiwanese island just off the Chinese coast, from where the Taiwanese bombarded the mainland with propaganda from the world's loudest and largest loudspeakers. Taiwanese soldiers on the island also fought a 20-year artillery duel with the Chinese, but eventually both sides came to a gentleman's agreement to bombard each other on alternate days. Times have changed and local shops now melt old artillery shells into kitchen knives for Chinese tourists.
South Ossetia, Ajaria and Abkhazia
Three parts of Georgia all declared their own independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. In the ensuing conflicts thousands were killed and the whole region has suffered ever since.
In South Ossetia - which has had its own government and army for 12 years, Ossetes told me they speak a different language to Georgians. Tensions were high and the Ossetes were suspicious of foreigners, partly because my government guide kept telling people I was from London, America. After explaining I had nothing to do with George Bush locals warmed up, and young soldiers shared drunken birthday toasts. They all vowed to fight again rather than rejoin Georgia.
Ajaria and Abkhazia are on Georgia's western Black Sea coast. The former is a Soviet-era holiday destination which has now rejoined Georgia. The new governor kindly took us to a restaurant which was cleared of other customers as we arrived by extras from the Sopranos. Abkhazia may well be a lovely place to visit, but the government kicked us out before we could explore.
Elsewhere in Georgia we found a former secret Soviet military base containing thousands of tonnes of unguarded high explosives, and scores of powerful missiles capable of destroying skyscrapers. A local scientist trying to dismantle the explosives had rung the US embassy to warn them, but nobody returned his call.
Historically this breakaway mountainous area of Azerbaijan was mainly Armenian Christian. War erupted when it wanted independence after the Soviet collapse, and Armenian troops helped the Karabakh army push out the local Muslim Azeris.
Azerbaijan is still officially at war with Armenia over Karabakh, and our journey started in Azerbaijan on the frontline. It may be 2005 in the rest of the world, but on the border between Karabakh and Azerbaijan young soldiers still man trenches. We had to sprint across open ground to avoid sniper fire. Thousands of Azeri refugees live in appalling conditions. Children and the elderly survive in rusty train carriages. Everyone mentions the war, even the country's top pop star - a crackshot with an AK-47.
The border between Azerbaijan and Karabakh is closed, so we took a massive detour into Georgia, over snowy mountains into Armenia, then over icy passes into Karabakh. We were welcomed with organic mulberry vodka, but found bombed-out Azeri villages. Mine-clearance charity The Halo Trust is trying to improve lives, but locals shrugged and walked through a minefield in front of me. Despite the war, the people of Karabakh claim they would have the world's highest rate of longevity, if they were recognised as an independent country. *
Places That Don't Exist, Wed, 7.30pm, BBC2
Last Updated: Thursday, 5 May, 2005, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Somaliland's missing identity
By Simon Reeve
Author and broadcaster, Places That Don't Exist
There are almost 200 official countries in the world but there are dozens more unrecognised nations determined to be independent. They have rulers, parliaments and armies, but they rarely feature on maps and receive few foreign visitors.
Somaliland's government minister for tourism was elated that he finally had a rare foreign visitor he could take to see his country's national treasures.
"Don't worry," said the enthusiastic minister, as I reluctantly agreed to accompany him to some rock etchings recently discovered at Laas Ga'al outside Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
"The drawings are beautiful, and it will just be a small detour from the road!"
As we bumped along potholed dirt tracks through the parched African bush, I started to think my scepticism was justified.
But we dodged wiry bushes on a wide plain and scrambled over vast boulders to find exquisite rock paintings dating back thousands of years.
Even under the scorching sun, the paintings had strong, vibrant colours and stark outlines, showing the ancient inhabitants of the area worshipping cattle.
Laas Ga'al, it transpires, is probably the most significant Neolithic rock painting site in the whole of Africa.
For a brief moment I felt like an explorer finding hidden treasures, at a time when the entire world seems within easy reach.
Somaliland declared independence after the overthrow of Somali military dictator Siad Barre in 1991
But there are still places off the beaten track, like Somaliland, which can excite and amaze.
Somaliland is not on many tourist maps. In fact, it is not on any maps at all.
According to the international community, Somaliland does not even exist.
Across the globe there are dozens of unrecognised countries, and I embarked on a journey to a group of them who declared independence after conflicts with a neighbouring state.
In the case of Somaliland, that is Somalia and with a BBC film crew I began several months of travel by flying into a dusty airstrip just outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
Years of fighting have destroyed once-beautiful Mogadishu.
Somaliland's main attraction is its determined and inspirational people
Abandoned by the international community, it is among the most dangerous cities in the world.
After paying a dozen guards to provide protection, I went to the main market and bought myself a Somali passport from a gentleman called Mr Big Beard.
Although Somalia has no police or real government, the rest of the world recognises it as an official country.
By contrast Somaliland, in the north of Somalia, has a government, police, army and traffic lights, but no recognition, making it extremely difficult for the country to attract aid and investment.
A UN cargo flight took us north to Somaliland, and a smartly dressed Somaliland immigration official stamped our passports when we landed.
His presence and uniform was an immediate sign of order.
Britain is the former colonial power in Somaliland, and Somalilanders fought alongside British troops during World War II.
They struggle to understand why the UK has not recognised their country.
Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, my towering local guide, explained that Somaliland voluntarily joined with Somalia after independence from Britain.
But when the relationship soured, Somalilanders fought a war for complete independence in the 1980s.
Visiting Somaliland was a humbling lesson in survival and self-determination.
Hargeisa, where 50,000 died during the conflict, is being rebuilt with little outside help, and refugees are returning from camps in Ethiopia.
A Somali MiG jet that bombed the city sits atop a poignant war memorial.
Outside Hargeisa there were the ancient rock paintings to visit, and stunning journeys into the mountains and up to the port of Berbera, home to a runway hired by Nasa as an emergency space shuttle landing strip.
Tracks run along the coast west from Berbera towards Djibouti, and mangroves, gorgeous islands and coral reef.
But Somaliland's main attraction is its determined and inspirational people. Largely ignored by the world, they are building an independent state from scratch.
Many fear war between Somalia and Somaliland could erupt again, but perhaps one day the people of the Horn of Africa will have the peace and security they desperately want, and foreign visitors will start to return.
It is nothing less than Somalilanders and Somalis
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Back to the top
March 3, 2004, Wednesday
LENGTH: 494 words
HEADLINE: WHAT HAVE WE DONE?
BY TERRORISM EXPERT SIMON REEVE
THE invasion of Iraq has fanned the flames of the centuries-old war between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
While Saddam was in power his feared henchmen ensured the hatred was held in check.
But the vacuum created by his downfall has meant ancient antipathies have resurfaced.
Yesterday's attacks push the fragile relationship to breaking point and are a huge blow to the Bush administration as it tries to wash its hands of Iraq before the US Presidential elections.
The Western invasion of Iraq encouraged foreign militants into the country.
It created links between Iraq and al-Qaeda which barely existed before the war.
Since Saddam Hussein's statue toppled and hostilities officially ended, US and coalition failures in Iraq have allowed home-grown terror groups to develop and foment trouble.
Attacks in Iraq are steadily worsening and even with Saddam in jail the terrorists show no sign of letting up.
There are many Iraqi Sunni militants who are keen to attack Shias and they appear to be linking with supporters of al-Qaeda, a group which draws many of its members from the Sunni branch of Islam.
Al-Qaeda supporters are operating in Iraq and were almost certainly responsible for killing more than 170 Shias yesterday.
They are relishing the chance to use Iraq as their battlefield to launch attacks on Westerners, their main political target, and on Shia Muslims, their main ideological target.
The split between Sunnis and Shias dates back to the early days of Islam and arguments over the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed.
Roughly 85 per cent of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, but Shias comprise the vast majority in Iran. There are also large numbers of Shias in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Sunni militants such as bin Laden want to ignite a religious civil war in Iraq and annihilate the Shias they arrogantly view as heretics.
Bin Laden's lieutenant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the world's most wanted men, has been in Iraq and issued orders calling on followers to launch "spectacular" attacks on Shias.
Many intelligence officials believe he is behind a letter stating Shias are "the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom".
These latest attacks seem to be a fulfilment of his terror orders. Many of the dead were pilgrims from Shia Iran.
Intelligence reports indicate elements in the Iranian military are keen for Iran to invade parts of Iraq to "protect" Shias, sparking likely conflict with US forces and with Iraqi Sunnis.
In launching yesterday's cowardly attacks, al-Qaeda supporters have exposed the continuing failures of the US-led "war on terror", and may have just brought a devastating civil war between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis one step closer.
SIMON Reeve is an expert on al-Qaeda and the author of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism.
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September 27, 2003
LENGTH: 1177 words
HEADLINE: The Guide: High and dry: Drug warlords. Germ laboratories. Al-Qaida. Central Asia, subject of a new two-part travel programme, isn't everyone's ideal destination. Presenter Simon Reeve sends back a postcard from the edge
BYLINE: Simon Reeve
As the headless corpse of the goat began to slip out from under my leg I realised I had neither the stomach nor the skill to play the legendary central Asian game of Kokpar in Kazakhstan.
I had been forced onto a horse and into the game - best described as something akin to bloody polo - by a village elder after pausing to see a traditional baby-naming ceremony. It was supposed to be a brief stop on the road to Almaty, the main city in Kazakhstan. But the entire village turned out to watch, so I took a deep breath, grabbed at the goat's mangled testicles to keep it from slipping to the ground, urged my horse forward, and was rewarded with an invitation to the village feast. I just wish I could have washed my hands before eating bits of goat with my fingers.
Generous hospitality is legendary in central Asia, and woe betide anyone thinking of spurning a proffered glass of vodka or a week-old piece of goat meat, as I discovered on a long journey through the "Stans" (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) with a BBC television crew for the documentary series Holidays In The Danger Zone.
After writing a book on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in the late 1990s, I had long been fascinated by this forgotten corner of the world, where Islamic militancy is on the rise, and which I fear could be a potential future flash point and focus for the "war on terror".
The Stans were a backwater of the Soviet Union until the country collapsed in 1991. Independence and the discovery of the world's largest untapped energy reserves has barely raised their profile. Central Asia is a vast area bigger than western Europe, but it remains perhaps the most obscure region on Earth.
We began our journey in the far north-west of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border, and travelled by plane, train, helicopter and 4WD east across the endless Kazakh steppes to the Chinese border, then south through little Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and west through Uzbekistan to the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.
The region was fascinating and bizarre in equal measures. One of our first stops was the dry bed of the contaminated Aral Sea. Formerly the world's fourth largest inland lake, it has shrunk to half its size since the Soviets diverted rivers to irrigate cotton fields.
Local fishermen have started breeding camels while their huge boats rust and rot. My attempts to fend off one of their amorous camels were successful; not so my attempts to avoid downing fermenting camel's milk and most of a bottle of vodka early in the morning.
Heading east across Kazakhstan, with a stop for my game of Kokpar, our 4WD suffered a steady series of punctures on the potholed roads. Our record was four in one day. The nights are cold on the Kazakh steppes, and none more so than when we suffered a flat at 11pm one night 100 miles from a depressed little town called Kyzylorda. We walked through the darkness to a police checkpoint and hitched a ride for a 2am audience with the Kazakh Beatles, a tribute band who suffered years of state harassment during communist rule.
Further east on the road to Almaty, the main city, we visited a biological weapons laboratory abandoned by the Soviets. Underpaid scientists in what is now described as a "plague research institute" showed me vials of anthrax and plague stored in plastic jars in old fridges. Security against attack by terrorists seeking biological agents was woefully inadequate.
Almaty offered more surprises. Parochial and glamorous in equal measures, it offers plenty of late-night diversions. Taking the road south into Kyrgyzstan, we found an Islamic militant threatening to martyr himself against the west, visited a contaminated radioactive waste dump, and talked our way onto a US-led coalition airbase in the former Soviet Union. Mountainous and beautiful, Kyrgyzstan offers fantastic trekking, if only people could find it on the map.
A wizened farmer on a donkey cart took me across the border into Tajikistan, the poorest state in the former Soviet Union, where up to 150,000 died during civil war in the 1990s. They don't get many visitors in Tajikistan, and the country has the worst accommodation in the region.
Tajik doctors and government officials earn between £ 3-pounds 5 a month, and corruption is a major problem. We had agreed to stay in a foreign ministry official's home in Dushanbe, the capital. At first sight it was bad enough, with mould, windowless rooms, and damp, smelly mattresses. As I stood at the sink waiting for the water to turn from brown to clear, idly watching two cockroaches scuttling along the filthy floor, I nearly trod on a colossal brick-sized rat-trap, primed with a chunk of rancid cheese.
Tajikistan has become a major transit route for heroin from Afghanistan. It shares an 800-mile border with the war-torn state, which supplies 90% of European heroin. I followed the police on a raid in Dushanbe and watched as they caught a mother of six with a kilo and a half. The police shrugged, and showed me a store containing half a tonne.
With a colonel from the Tajik secret police in tow we drove down to the Afghan border, which is guarded by 19-year-old Tajik conscripts living off bits of bread and old potatoes. Despite empty cupboards, the border guards arranged a minor feast for us with a tin of pilchards.
We had been told to leave the border region before dark and quietly because of militants and armed Taliban sympathisers. But as the sun set the vodka emerged. Eight large bowls later I was pouring drink into my sock to avoid an early demise. We left singing out of the open windows of our 4WD.
Chugging back from the border along Tajikistan's horrendous roads, we met the country's top pop star, a 22-year-old ex-Etonian called Wills who runs his Canadian father's gold mine, and a former warlord. Tajikistan has a laidback wild west feel. I loved the place.
By contrast Uzbekistan, our next stop, reeks of oppression. Thousands have been jailed as the government cracks down on dissent and Islamic militancy. Uzbeks are sick of their leadership and its bizarre laws. One night, I crept around the back of a gutted shop in Tashkent, the capital, and broke Uzbek law by entering a pool hall to play a few games. Snooker and pool were banned last October. Gossips claim the son of a presidential aide lost a fortune on a game, and his father banned the sport in a fit of pique.
But despite its problems, Uzbekistan, like all central Asia, remains a joy to visit. In legendary Samarkand and Bukhara, the holiest city in central Asia, we found Islamic architecture on a par with the finest in the world. There I stood in a mosque courtyard near the base of the 800-year-old Kalon minaret as the muezzin chanted the haunting call to prayer. The experience, which banished my exhaustion, was one I cherish to this day. *
Holidays In The Danger Zone - Meet The Stans, Mon, 9pm, BBC4 Simon Reeve is the author of The New Jackals (Andre Deutsch, £ 7.99)
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August 20, 2003, Wednesday
LENGTH: 356 words
HEADLINE: ATTACK ON THE UN: A LONG, HARD GUERRILLA WAR IS INEVITABLE
BYLINE: SIMON REEVE TERRORISM EXPERT AND AUTHOR
THE bombing yesterday represents a new low in the guerrilla war raging in shattered Iraq.
Despite the claims of President Bush, al-Qaeda and its supporters were not operating on the ground in Iraq before the war. But they are now.
They are infiltrating Iraq to fight US soldiers and may well have been involved in yesterday's attack.
Al-Qaeda craves another confrontation with America - the "Great Satan" - and what it views as its allies.
Osama bin Laden always had contempt for Saddam. Ironically, removing him from power also took away the ideological barrier which prevented al-Qaeda from working with the Iraqis.
Senior intelligence officials in Pakistan believe al-Qaeda lieutenants have travelled to the Middle East to organise anti-US attacks in Iraq.
Other foreign militants are believed to be linking up with Saddam's followers and his ex-security staff.
The presence of US troops in Iraq is a new rallying call for Islamist militants around the world.
Pakistani, Indonesian and Saudi militant leaders are calling for the launch of a new jihad. Scores of Saudi men have travelled there to fight.
US Special Forces have already captured a group of Saudi fighters in Iraq with a huge supply of weapons, while dozens of foreign fighters were killed in a recent battle around a secret training camp west of Baghdad.
Contrary to Bush's claim that Iraq is now more secure than at any time since the war, attacks on Western forces are increasing as guerrillas and terrorists become better organised.
Sixty-one US and seven British troops have been killed since the war ended on May 1. Combating guerrilla warfare is nigh on impossible when the locals are against what they see as an occupation.
The US has done itself few favours. By failing to restore electricity and water, and sacking Iraqi soldiers, the US has created massive disaffection among ordinary Iraqis. Many Iraqis are providing support for the guerrillas.
A protracted guerrilla war now seems inevitable.
Simon Reeve is author of bestseller The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism.
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February 13, 2003, Thursday
LENGTH: 543 words
HEADLINE: LADEN NOT A FRIEND OF SADDAM;
TERRORISM EXPERT EXAMINES THE REAL TALE ON THE TAPE
BYLINE: SIMON REEVE
COLIN Powell's assertion that Osama bin Laden's latest audio tape is evidence the al-Qaeda leader "is in partnership with Iraq" is nonsense.
The tape actually offers little support for the Bush cause.
Bin Laden can be heard referring contemptuously to Saddam's ruling secular Ba'ath party as "socialists", and says the Baghdad regime is a "government of infidels". Hardly the words of a close friend.
However the tape does show bin Laden, an opportunist, is trying to position al-Qaeda as friend and protector of the Iraqi people if the US attacks.
He knows there is seething discontent in the Muslim world at the perceived inequities of Western foreign policy. He hopes to gather support by linking his cause to the Iraqi people, while distancing himself from their despotic and murderous ruler.
Bin Laden hopes to channel the fury which will follow attacks on Iraq into waves of "revenge" attacks on the US and its allies. "We stress the importance of martyrdom operations against the enemy, these attacks that have scared Americans and Israelis like never before," said bin Laden, who also suggested Iraqis should draw US troops into protracted street-fighting in the event of an invasion. "They will have big casualties."
Although bin Laden dislikes Saddam, fighting on the same side is justified because the greater good is battling the US.
"The fighting should be in the name of God only, not in the name of national ideologies, nor to seek victory for the ignorant governments that rule all Arab states, including Iraq. All Muslims have to begin jihad against this unjust war." Although it fails to prove his link with Baghdad, intelligence experts accept Gulf War 2 could strengthen low-level connections between Baghdad and terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.
It is also possible Iraq could supply weapons of mass destruction to terror groups such as al-Qaeda in the future.
The tape clearly shows bin Laden plans to strike against the US if Iraq is attacked.
So military strikes on Iraq could, perversely, result in precisely the type of terror attacks the US is trying to stop.
Those may start soon, because bin Laden's messages often seem to herald atrocity.
Security has been tightened, but al-Qaeda specialises in finding chinks in our armour, and may plan for carnage in the next few weeks.
But bin Laden did not reserve his fury solely for Western powers.
He mentioned Nigeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco and Pakistan, all ripe for liberation "from the slavery of these ruling apostate, unjust regimes enslaved by America". Al-Qaeda political cells are known to be operating in each of those countries to destabilise the governments in the hope of creating Taliban-style regimes.
Bin Laden is no friend of the leaders of those countries, but many leading establishment figures support his aims.
There are institutions such as Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which is helping the Taliban to re-form, has aided al-Qaeda and provides sanctuary for senior terrorists.
It remains a mystery why the US is not targeting those individuals and institutions more aggressively, instead contemplating a war which could spark a wave of devastating terror attacks on the West.
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February 6, 2003, Thursday
HEADLINE: THE POWELL STATEMENT - MIRROR WRITERS ANALYSE YESTERDAY'S DRAMA AT THE UN: WAR WILL PROVOKE TERRORISM
BYLINE: SIMON REEVE
COLIN Powell yesterday failed to prove why the West should now launch military strikes against Iraq. He produced satellite photographs and intercepted conversations between Iraqi officials but there was no real new evidence linking Iraq and al- Qaeda, and no real proof Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Powell is burdened by his reliance on intelligence provided by the CIA but the agency does not have enough spies in Iraq, and has been unable to provide him with concrete proof of Iraqi duplicity.
He claims the US is planning war with Iraq to prevent future terror attacks and make the world safer. But his presentation demonstrates a lack of understanding about the real causes of global terrorism. It also shows America is pursuing the wrong policies if it wants to protect American lives.
Yet much of what Powell said is doubtless true. I have no doubt Saddam Hussein is one of the most evil dictators in modern history.
I also have no doubt he is more than willing to use WMD against the West and against his own people. He has already tried to gas up to four million Kurds, killing perhaps 200,000 men, women and children in genocidal slaughter.
Powell was also right to warn of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. I was one of the first to warn of the links and suggest Saddam and bin Laden were moving closer. Both have similar aims and, despite their religious differences, both now deliver similar political speeches.
I also have no doubt bin Laden's organi-sation would gladly use Iraqi WMD and will launch future attacks against the West which will eclipse 9/11 in barbarity and body count.
However the full extent of the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda remain unclear, even as suspicious links between al- Qaeda and army and government officials in Pakistan - which already possesses nuclear weapons - are largely ignored by the US.
There are also connections between al- Qaeda and senior royals in Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 hijackers were born and where large amounts of money are still being raised for terrorist attacks. Yet nobody in the Bush administration talks of invading Pakistan or the Arabian peninsula. The West was wrong to support Saddam in the past, and clearly needs to dismantle his regime.
But taking action against him before addressing the core issues which are driving young men into the arms of al-Qaeda is a mistake which may cost many lives.
The best way to protect the West is for governments to devote all their resources to resolving the cancerous Arab-Israeli conflict, which remains the main engine driving global terrorism and the major recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.
Another war in the Gulf could provoke Saddam into passing WMD to apocalyptic terrorists such as al-Qaeda. Visions of terrorists infected with smallpox wander-ing around British airports already keep many of our senior intelligence analysts awake at night. Launching a war against Iraq could make their nightmares a hellish reality.
Simon Reeve is an expert on al-Qaeda and author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, published by Andre Deutsch at pounds 7.99.
MAIL ON SUNDAY
January 12, 2003
LENGTH: 1091 words
HEADLINE: You are guilty too, Mr Blair;
As America admits mistreatment of terrorist suspects . . .
BYLINE: Simon Reeve
ALMOST exactly a year ago, The Mail on Sunday ran a shocking front-page picture which reverberated around the world.
Under the headline ' Tortured', the paper showed how prisoners in America's Camp X-Ray were being shackled like wild animals, deprived of sight, sound, smell and touch, and forced to kneel for hours on end in baking 30C sun.
It posed the question: 'Is this how Bush and Blair defend our civilisation?'
The reaction from the United States was indignant. The prisoners were 'dangerous killer fanatics' being given the ' treatment they deserved' and The Mail on Sunday was accused of 'America bashing'.
Twelve months on, the vast majority of these alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects are still in captivity, still haven't been charged and are still being held in conditions that demean civilisation, albeit in a new compound into which the Americans are no longer inviting photographers.
As Amnesty International said in a strongly-worded statement yesterday: 'This legal limbo is a continuing violation of human rights which the international community must not ignore.' Meanwhile, it is slowly being admitted that the Americans who have arrested nearly 3,000 terror suspects since September 11 have been using torture in exactly the way this paper alleged last January.
The highly respected Washington Post recently reported how at the US-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, at Diego Garcia the Indian Ocean island the US leases from Britain and at other secret detention centres worldwide, captured Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects are subjected to what are euphemistically referred to as 'stress and duress' techniques.
THIS means that those who refuse to co-operate with their CIA interrogators are kept standing or kneeling for hours in black hoods or spraypainted goggles to cause maximum disorientation exactly as The Mail on Sunday front page showed. At other times they are deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights and/or sound. If this doesn't work, says the Post, prisoners are turned over 'rendered', in official parlance to foreign intelligence services whose practices of torture have been well documented by both human rights organisations and the US government.
These are said to include agents of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia whose interrogation techniques include the use of mind-altering drugs such as sodium pentathol as well as violence.
What happens is that the CIA hands over a list of questions to be answered and either watches the interrogation through twoway mirrors or receives a summary afterwards.
As one US official puts it: 'We don't kick the **** out of them.
We send them to other countries so they can kick the **** out of them.'
Jordan, in particular, is praised for its 'highly professional' interrogators whose techniques include beatings on the soles of feet and prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions. With more senior suspects, the ones it wants on US soil, the CIA mounts a 'false flag' operation using fake decor and uniforms to deceive a prisoner into thinking he's in a country with a reputation for brutality.
At a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees last September, Cofer Black, head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Centre, admitted the agency's new 'operational flexibility' in dealing with terror suspects.
'This is a very highly classified area,' he said, 'but I have to say that all you need to know is: There was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11.
After 9/11, the gloves come off.' It is easy, particularly when recalling the horrors of September 11 plus recent atrocities in Bali and Kenya, to sympathise with the American approach.
Proponents of torture point to the so-called 'ticking bomb' scenario which asks: What should the authorities do if they have a suspect in custody who refuses to divulge the location of a bomb primed to destroy a shopping centre, plane or school?
Many American officials now openly argue that the infringement of the rights of a single individual can protect the rights of the majority. Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and distinguished advocate of civil liberties, has even proposed that judges be allowed to issue 'torture warrants'.
But there are two huge problems with this argument. One is purely practical.
Torture is not necessarily efficient. Individuals suffering pain will blurt out anything they think their captors want to hear. Many Al Qaeda operatives also view torture or death as part of their holy duty.
They embrace the pain in the hope of dying and reaping the rewards as martyrs in heaven.
NOW American intelligence officials report growing evidence that using coercion on Al Qaeda suspects has resulted in poor intelligence or completely misleading information. The CIA should follow its own advice. In the mid-Eighties the agency changed its standard training manual for colleagues in Latin America, discouraging them from using torture because studies had shown it 'yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear'.
The second objection is a moral one. How can Bush argue he is fighting for democracy when he resorts to the tactics of the despot? Great civilised states must behave like great civilised states. Otherwise how can they ever claim to be the good guys in the battle against evil?
Once civilised standards slip, they can be very difficult to revive. This week there has been worrying evidence that America's gung-ho approach to human rights has spread to its allies.
Reports in Paris suggest that the arrest of several young Algerians in North London and the find of the deadly poison ricin were the result of aggressive interrogation of terror suspects seized by the French last year.
Nor should we forget that at least eight of the 600 prisoners still being held in Cuba are British citizens whom the Labour Government with its infamous 'ethical foreign policy' hasn't lifted a finger to help.
The uncomfortable truth Tony Blair must face is that by practising and tolerating torture America is making allies like Britain complicit in its crimes.
While America's enemies could be forgiven for thinking their case that the US is the world's Great Satan is being comprehensively proven.
Simon Reeve is the author of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden And The Future Of Terrorism, published by Andre Deutsch.
How does this campaign fit in with the war on terror
and September 11?
It is hard to see how Gulf War II is an integral part of the war on terror.
The Iraqi regime certainly has links to terrorists and in the future it may pose a threat to the West.
But Saddam has been successfully contained for several years, and other countries also have strong links to terror groups including al Qaeda. A full-scale invasion of Iraq is exceptionally dangerous and could result in a wave of massive terror strikes on the West.
One of my main problems with this proposed war is that it is simply not the best way of saving innocent lives by stopping future terror atrocities.
There should be a much greater emphasis on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the most important cause of international terrorism, before the West turns on despotic regimes such as Iraq. There should also be a greater acceptance in the West that we created many of these monsters in the first place – understanding our past mistakes is vital if we are to avoid repeating them in the future.
Won't this war just create more terrorists?
Militants around the world are already using the threat of Gulf War II to attract new recruits for their cause.
Even in Europe hardline preachers are delivering increasingly fiery sermons about Iraq which are drawing young men into the arms of terror groups such as al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda and other militant organisations ignore the atrocities perpetrated by Saddam against his own people, and instead see this as yet another example of the West attacking Muslims. It will be very hard to counter that view, particularly if the war is not over in a couple of weeks, or if there are heavy civilian casualties.
In many ways a new war in the Gulf will be a win—win situation for Osama bin Laden and his men. I think Gulf War II could be just what al Qaeda needs to attract new recruits and regenerate itself after a series of setbacks for the group and after a number of its senior operatives have been captured.
How is the Middle East divided over this war?
The Middle East is always hopelessly divided at the best of times.
Most leaders in the region are now afraid that if they fail to support the US in the war on terror they could be next for the chop. But they also fear the reaction from their people if they are seen to be helping the US wage war on a Muslim nation.
Most people in the Middle East recognise that Saddam is an evil dictator, but they also believe the West is hypocritical and targeting Muslims. And they are furious that nobody is doing anything to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including their own leaders.
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September 14, 2002
LENGTH: 1346 words
HEADLINE: THE GERMAN WAY WITH TERROR;
BYLINE: Simon Reeve
SHORTLY after 4 a. m. on 5 September 1972, eight heavily armed terrorists from Black September, a faction of the PLO, arrived on the outskirts of Munich and scaled a perimeter fence protecting thousands of athletes sleeping in the Olympic Village. Carrying assault rifles and grenades, they ran to Apartment One, 31 Connollystrasse, the building housing the Israeli delegation to the 1972 'Games of Peace and Joy', and crept into the foyer.
Yossef Gutfreund, a 6ft 5in wrestling referee, was the only one woken by the faint sounds outside. As he crept to the door, it opened just a few inches. Sleep turned instantly to horror as the Palestinians burst inside and captured the Israelis.
Inside Apartment Three, the terrorists captured six Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters. They hustled them into a line, and moved back towards Apartment One. Gad Tsabari, one of the wrestlers, knew the situation was desperate. With a burst of energy, he pushed a terrorist out of the way and escaped down a flight of stairs. Moshe Weinberg, his coach, tried to help him but was shot and fatally wounded.
Yossef Romano also refused to go quietly. As he was shoved upstairs to join the first group of captives, he lunged at a terrorist and was shot. Yossef, the beloved father of three young girls, fell to the floor.
A second Israeli was dead.
So began the Munich Olympics massacre, the first great outrage committed in the name of Palestinian liberation outside the Middle East. The 11 September atrocities were the latest and most disastrous.
Most of the blame lies with the international failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis; but Western governments, especially the Europeans, still do not understand how to deal with terror, from Black September through to Osama bin Laden.
The Bush administration is prepared to wage war to remove Saddam from power. By contrast, European leaders were lukewarm about tackling the Taleban in Afghanistan, and remain reluctant to tackle Iraq. The German leader, Gerhard Schroder is even campaigning for re-election on the slogan that a vote for him is a vote against war.
For many Americans, the 30th anniversary of Munich is a timely reminder of German and European impotence in the face of terrorism. The German authorities were criminally negligent during the Munich crisis.
Policemen ludicrously disguised as chefs left food outside No. 31, thinking they could somehow overpower the well-armed militants.
Officials literally begged the Palestinians to give up and offered them cash to surrender.
They could not believe that the Palestinians were ruining the most expensive Games ever held, mounted partly in an attempt to expunge memories of the Holocaust.
Around the globe news of the attack was leading broadcasts as the Palestinians issued their demands: they wanted to swap their remaining nine hostages for 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails and two from German prisons. It was a straight, if unequal, exchange of souls, and the first deadline was 9 a. m.
The Germans told Luttif Issa, the Black September leader, that Israeli officials needed longer to locate the prisoners, and the first deadline was extended. By 10 a. m.
panic was spreading through the German government at the realisation that neither side was prepared to compromise.
Olympic organisers soon suspended the Games and more than 50,000 spectators began congregating around the perimeter fence. A television audience of 900 million viewers in more than 100 countries watched as the archetypal figure of a terrorist, a stocking on his head, emerged from No. 31 to check the position of police officers. Broadcasters cleared their schedules as the siege became global theatre.
Eventually the Germans attempted a halfhearted rescue operation. Twelve poorly trained police officers climbed on to the roof above No. 31 Connollystrasse in preparation for an assault. Thousands of spectators, watching the police from a hillock just outside the perimeter fence, yelled tactical advice as at a pantomime ('Get down! Get down!'). Eventually the officers realised that the terrorists were watching events unfolding live on their own televisions.
By early evening Issa was demanding a plane and told officials that the hostages and terrorists would be flying to the Middle East.
Some German officials were delighted that they could move the crisis away from the Olympics, while others decided to launch a rescue as the hostages boarded the plane.
They agreed to shuttle the terrorists and hostages in two helicopters to Furstenfeldbruck airfield outside Munich, where a Boeing 727 would fly them out of the country.
Just after 10 p. m. a bus took the Palestinians and blindfolded Israelis to helicopters waiting in the Olympic plaza. Hans Dietrich Genscher, the German interior minister, was watching. 'One, two, three, four. . .' he said, gasping as he counted eight terrorists. All day the Germans had thought there were only five Palestinians, and there were only five snipers waiting at Furstenfeldbruck.
Worse followed. The Germans had 17 officers hidden on the 727 to capture or kill the first two terrorists, but they grew worried about their mission, and fearful for their own safety in the plane. An officer held a ballot and, in an act of sheer cowardice, all 17 men voted to leave. The helicopters carrying the terrorists were already landing and there was no time to hide a new squad on the 727.
The Palestinians clambered on to the tarmac, found the plane empty and realised it was a trap. The snipers opened up with two inaccurate shots and the 'rescue' began.
There was instant chaos. The terrorists ducked into shadows under the choppers and began sweeping the airport with bullets.
The battle went on for over an hour.
German officers sheltered in airport buildings, and it certainly seems possible that their bravery was discouraged by latent anti-Semitism. Eventually armoured cars blundered on to the airfield. The gunner in one car shot two men on his own side and the terrorists thought they were about to be machine-gunned. In one helicopter a terrorist shot four of the hostages before another man leapt out on to the tarmac and tossed a grenade inside. The explosion ignited the fuel tank, and the captive Israelis burned. Another terrorist then shot the Israelis in the other helicopter.
Germans present at the airfield are still haunted by their screams. All 11 Israelis were killed. Three Palestinians survived.
For more than two decades German officials refused to give information about what really happened at Munich, fearing accusations of anti-Semitism, and claiming there was only one short report on the attack. But a few years ago a whistleblower revealed a hoard of thousands of files. The errors made by German officials are staggering. There were only five poorly trained snipers, with no walkie-talkies, inadequate rifles, poor lighting, no flak-jackets or helmets, and no proper rifle sights or infrared equipment.
Interpol had issued an alert just weeks before the Games that Palestinian militants were grouping in Europe, and German intelligence warned the Munich police of Palestinian plans to do 'something'. And yet nothing was done to protect the most vulnerable guests. The cover-up continues:
German officials have recently tried to silence witnesses, and film footage showing events at Furstenfeldbruck has been stolen.
Thirty years after the massacre the tragedy continues to echo around the Middle East.
Some European politicians still do not seem to understand that stopping similar terrorist attacks requires governments to pursue a twin-track approach: resolving the crisis in the Middle East to the benefit of both sides, and aggressively targeting the psychopaths who lead the terror organisations.
Simon Reeve is the author of One Day in September: The Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre (Faber) and The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism (Andre Deutsch).
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MAIL ON SUNDAY
September 16, 2001
LENGTH: 3272 words
HEADLINE: THE JACKAL OF ISLAM;
AFTER ARMAGEDDON Schooled in high-technology by Britain, trained to hate in Afghanistan-the young man whose one aim is massacre
BYLINE: Simon Reeve
In an extraordinary investigation, writer SIMON REEVE traces how the Bin Laden fanatic who first turned airliners into flying bombs and attempted to blow up the World Trade Centre learned his skills in a Swansea library FOR several years a tall, lean man with a high-pitched voice has been shuttling around Afghanistan in four-wheeldrive trucks, staying in caves to avoid detection from the air and travelling light with just his teenage son and a few close bodyguards for protection.
Rising early every day to a breakfast of fried eggs and tasteless low-fat cheese smeared across bread gritty with sand, he received emissaries at secret rendezvous points and issued his orders to be disseminated around the globe.
But life will be different for Osama Bin Laden this weekend. Although it is still too early to know for certain whether he is directly responsible for the carnage in America, there can be no doubt the most wanted man in the world will have revelled at the sight of the Pentagon burning and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, those pillars of capitalism, crashing to the ground.
Bin Laden is thought to be under the close scrutiny of the Taliban militia who govern most of Afghanistan as a battle rages between those who think he should be encouraged to leave, and a smaller, more powerful group around Mullah Omar, the reclusive one-eyed Taliban leader, who view Bin Laden as a brother and have vowed to protect him at all costs.
Even if Bin Laden did not order the attacks in America, it is likely he was the inspiration, and both he and the Taliban will face the full wrath of the most powerful nation on earth. Some intelligence officials suggest the United States is preparing to launch a ground offensive in Afghanistan with the help of one or more neighbouring states. At the very least there will be air attacks and landings by special forces.
But Bin Laden will not be troubled by the prospect of an American attack, or even death. American officials may try to portray him as a coward hiding in holes in Afghanistan but, in truth, he has been fighting ferocious battles for more than 20 years and is absolutely fearless.
The man declared public enemy No 1 was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957, 17th son of Mohammad Bin Oud Bin Laden, one of the most powerful businessmen in the Middle East.
Mohammad founded a construction company which built much of Saudi Arabia, and rebuilt Beirut after Lebanon was ravaged by conflict.
The family were fantastically wealthy and Osama Bin Laden matured to enjoy the splendour of palaces and foreign travel. After leaving school he visited Beirut, in the early Seventies when the city was a playground for wealthy Arabs, and became known for drinking and even womanising. But he lived in the shadow of his older brothers, particularly half-brother Salim, a jet-setting playboy who referred to him as the 'son of a slave'.
' Mohammad Bin Laden's eldest son, Salim, was my host at the family's lavish offices,' recalled one visitor. 'Clean-shaven and softspoken, Osama was dressed in a well-tailored Western suit and tie.
There was no mistaking the unease with which Osama regarded his elder half-brother. After our brief introduction, Salim dismissed Osama with a wave of his hand and the young man backed away with a look of cold frustration in his eyes.' The younger Bin Laden lacked any real sense of purpose until the Soviet Red Army invaded Afghanistan in winter 1979. Like thousands of other young Muslims around the world, Bin Laden was outraged and travelled to the country to fight the Soviet occupation.
The death of his father left him with an inheritance of around GBP 300 million and the financial ability to help the Afghan rebels, or Mujahideen, buy arms and build a fighting force.
The Americans were also keen to help. During the decade-long Cold War struggle in Afghanistan the CIA and other Western agents Bin Laden was once a renowned womaniser armed, supplied and trained men like Bin Laden. Rebels were brought to Britain and trained to use missiles capable of shooting down aircraft.
In Afghanistan some were taught the tactics of guerrilla warfare and even how to build improvised bombs. Thousands of young men were encouraged to travel to Afghanistan and fight with the Mujahideen, becoming known as 'Afghan Arabs'.
The war gave Bin Laden incredible drive and turned him into a committed fighter. During one Red Army attack he was with his men in a trench near the mountain village of Jadji. 'Tanks attacked from the front and the Soviet air force also started bombing,' he has since claimed. 'We could hear the enemy's footsteps. Despite the situation, I fell asleep. When I awoke the enemy had disappeared. Perhaps I could not be seen by them. On another occasion a Scud missile exploded very close to me but I remained safe. Such incidents have removed my fear of death.'
When the war against the Soviets was won, the Afghan Arabs, many transformed by their experiences from students and engineers into hardened warriors, began searching for new battles. Hundreds returned to their own countries and started uprisings as far afield as Algeria and the Philippines. 'We did spawn a monster in Afghanistan,' admits Richard Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Relations during the Reagan administration.
Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia as a hero. Friends asked him to appear in their homes and mosques to tell of his adventures.
More than 250,000 cassettes of his speeches were produced and sold.
But Bin Laden was disgusted and angered by what he saw as increasing immorality in the kingdom and the presence of American troops during the Gulf War. He turned against the Saudi government and was forced out of the country and back to Afghanistan, where many of his former followers were still living in appalling conditions. He moved hundreds of his supporters to training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan and began transforming them into his own private army, indoctrinating them with a virulent form of Islam which has only a loose connection to the Koran's teachings.
Recruits were taught to use basic firearms and machineguns, command skills, communications, mapreading, the use of explosives and the manufacture of advanced improvised bombs.
The most promising commandos were also taught to use advanced weaponry left over from the Afghan war, including mortars, antitank missiles and Stinger surface-to-air missiles for destroying planes (kindly supplied by the CIA with British help). Then, in a spectacular example of 'blowback', where intelligence 'assets' turn against their former sponsors, some of these Afghan Arabs went off to attack the West because of its support for Israel and corrupt Middle East governments.
'It is all a consequence of the Afghan war, where a lot of indoctrination took place,' said Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.
According to Bhutto, fighters in Afghanistan were told 'if you have your faith you don't need anything else to demolish all the superpowers. They were brought up to believe you can demolish both the Soviet Union and the United States and all the world. And having driven the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan they feel they have the power to drive America out as well.' In the most appalling case, Ramzi Yousef, a young British-educated munitions expert, gathered a small cell of terrorists in New York and detonated a huge bomb inside the World Trade Centre in February 1993. Yousef hoped to topple one of the twin towers on to the other and
cause perhaps 250,000 casualties.
But he ran out of money to buy explosives and his conspirators placed the device by the wrong support columns. It still wreaked havoc, causing six deaths and more than 1,000 hospital casualties.
'It's quite a shock,' said Charles G. Cogan, the CIA's operations chief in the Near East and South Asia between 1979 and 1984. 'The hypothesis that the Mujahideen would come to the United States and commit terrorist actions did not enter into our thinking. We were totally preoccupied with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is a significant unintended consequence.'
Yousef was born in Kuwait, but his parents wanted him to study in Britain, possibly because of family connections. 'He may have had some family or friends in Britain,' said a senior FBI terrorism investigator, 'but we were never sure.' In November 1986, Yousef travelled to Oxford to study a short English course at the Oxford College of Further Education. Afterwards, he flew back to his family for a holiday, then returned to the UK on August 10, 1987, and travelled west to Swansea. 'We were never really clear on why he went
to Wales,' admits Neil Herman, the FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of the elite Joint Terrorist Task Force which investigated the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.
In Wales, Yousef studied for a Higher National Diploma in computer-aided electrical engineering at West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education (nicknamed Wiggy and now the Swansea Institute).
His course sounds innocent enough, but he also studied microelectronics, which the FBI believe helped him build miniature nitroglycerine bombs later in life.
'He was hardworking, conscientious and kept himself to himself,' said his former computer graphics instructor. But former students remember him as a regular in the 'Townhill Library', the nickname for the student bar. Down the hill from the college, past Taffy's Barbers, Yousef was also seen in the Uplands Tavern, a pub once frequented by Dylan Thomas with a corner dedicated to the legendary poet.
Students remember Yousef as an intense young man, but one who mixed freely with locals. However, he apparently became friendly with members of the Egypt-based militant group the Muslim Brotherhood which was active in Wales and was recruiting young men for the war against Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. While other Wiggy students lazed in bars and beaches during the 1988 summer holidays, Yousef travelled to Afghanistan to play his part and received explosives training in camps run by Osama Bin Laden.
In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing the FBI task force identified Yousef as the mastermind but he went on the run, hiding in the Far East and plotting more attacks. His technical genius is frightening: the type of bomb used to wreak havoc in the World Trade Centre had only been used once before in 73,000 explosions recorded by the FBI.
While in hiding, Yousef developed an astonishing plan, codenamed the 'Bojinka Plot', to simultaneously destroy 11 air-
liners over the Pacific, causing thousands of deaths. He developed liquid nitroglycerine explosives which could be hidden in a contact lens solution bottle and smuggled on to a plane. He converted a digital watch into a timing switch and used two nine-volt batteries hidden in his shoe to power light-bulb filaments and spark an explosion. 'Nobody in the world can make bombs like these except us', one of Yousef's gang later bragged.
Yousef obtained aircraft schematics and tested a small version of his bomb on a plane flying over Japan. It tore one passenger in half but the captain managed to keep the plane in the sky. The 'Bojinka' attack was just a few weeks away when a fire started in Yousef's apartment in Manila and police uncovered details of his plot. They also found evidence he had been planning to assassinate the Pope and President Clinton.
Later investigations proved one of Yousef's conspirators had trained as a pilot at American flight schools before graduating from an academy in North Carolina with a temporary commercial pilot's licence. In a chilling precursor to the attacks this week, Yousef wanted his friend to fly a plane loaded with chemical weapons into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Few doubt that Yousef learned many of his technical skills during his time in Britain. When the police raided his flat in Manila they discovered chemistry textbooks from Swansea Institute library with passages on the manufacture of explosives highlighted.
Although now held in the Supermax prison in Colorado, on the most secure wing of the most secure jail in the world, Yousef's grand terrorist schemes may prove to have been the inspiration for this week's attacks.
He was the first of the new breed of terrorist, with no restrictions on mass killing and the cunning to spend months preparing a devastating atrocity. Terrifyingly, he is just one of thousands of young men who have passed through Osama Bin Laden's training camps. Some of the militants will display his technical genius, others will not. When a plane can be hijacked and turned into a guided missile by a small group of fanatics wielding craft knives, terrorists do not need to be technically proficient.
They just need to be willing to give their lives for the cause.
The task President Bush has now set himself is 'whipping terrorism'.
The carnage is the beginning of the first war of the 21st Century, said the President. 'It's a new kind of war,' he added. But 'now that war has been declared on us, we will lead the world to victory. Victory.' The difficulty for the American authorities, however, is identifying their target. Osama Bin Laden sits at the top of a group the FBI call al-Qaeda, or 'the base', originally established during the chaos of the Afghan war, but now an umbrella organisation for various militants with widely differing aims.
Membership of al-Qaeda largely consists of Afghan Arabs who fought with Bin Laden and it has a majlis al shura, or consultation council, which discusses and approves major undertakings, including ultimately 'terrorist operations', say American investigators.
The senior members of this group have already been identified by American and Asian investigators, and include former Afghan rebel fighters, Islamic militants, even an Egyptian former surgeon. The real challenge for America is to identify the foot-soldiers and supporters.
Bin Laden has assembled a huge following, numbering several thousand, along with many more spread across dozens of countries. He enjoys particularly strong support in the Balkans, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines and Algeria. Small numbers of al-Qaeda supporters have also established themselves in other countries, living apparently blameless lives while planning an attack or preparing for a call to arms. In many ways they are like classic Russian 'sleeper agents' in the Cold War. During the preparations for the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, linked to Bin Laden and in which more than 200 people died, one of the terrorists bought a seven-ton boat and set up a fishing business as cover, while the wife of another was a prominent member of the local Parent Teacher Association.
These 'sleepers' comprise a tiny proportion of the Muslim population, to whom they also represent a terrible threat, but American agents have no idea how many exist, where they are or what further atrocities they might be prepared to commit.
In truth, they have no real way of stopping their attacks. Yet the risks they pose and their savagery is now undeniable. Two of Bin Laden's supporters recently on trial in New York, just a few hundred yards from the World Trade Centre, were involved in an attack on a prison guard before their hearing.
They sprayed chilli sauce in his face, then used a plastic comb to stab him in the eye.
Western intelligence sources fear more attacks by Bin Laden's group, and know his supporters have been
trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Senior staff in the CIA's Counterterrorist Centre in Virginia working in windowless offices under ironic ceiling 'street signs' labelled 'Tamil Tiger Terrace' and Abu Nidal Boulevard' are aware of several trips by Bin Laden followers to former Soviet republics. However, the CIA remains unsure whether the group has obtained nuclear material.
According to transcripts from Egyptian interrogations of captured Afghan Arabs, members of al-Qaeda operating from Albania have already obtained phials of anthrax and the lethal viral agent botulism from a laboratory in the Czech Republic for $ 7,500 (GBP 5,100) a sample. Representatives of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, which has close links to al-Qaeda, are also understood to have obtained anthrax 'in some form'. 'We don't consider it a crime if we tried to have nuclear, chemical, biological weapons,' Bin Laden has said. 'If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so.' If United States military commanders decide to launch strikes against Bin Laden they should know military action has failed spectacularly in the past. After the 1998 embassy bombings a shower of American cruise missiles dropped on Afghanistan and Sudan resulted in little more than a huge lawsuit from an aggrieved Sudanese factory owner.
They made America look incompetent and resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of young militants joining Bin Laden.
Mohamed Hussain, an 18-year-old training in one camp when a cruise missile struck, was left with deep wounds in his back and chest. Six of his friends were killed. 'I could smell perfume from the blood of those martyrs,' he said from his hospital bed. 'We will take revenge on America and its President.
They should not think we are weak.
We will emerge as heroes like Osama Bin Laden.' Bin Laden has since become as much a cult figure to young militants as a terrorist leader. Tapes of his speeches are sold around the world and his portrait is displayed on T-shirts sold in Pakistani markets.
He has become a hero to many disaffected young men. Arresting him and returning him to America will turn him into a hostage to be bartered when his supporters hijack another plane. Assassinating him will make him a martyr.
But voices are increasingly being raised in America in favour of some form of targeted assassination campaign against militant leaders. In 1972 the world was stunned when 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the Munich Olympics. In response, Israel launched a lengthy assassination campaign aimed at all those it deemed responsible. In one assault on three militants, Ehud Barak led the Israeli equivalent of Delta Force into Beirut, the future Israeli Prime Minister disguised as a woman carrying grenades in his bra.
At the time the attacks were seen as successful, 'turning the terror on the terrorists', in Israeli eyes. But the Israelis could identify many of their targets because they lived openly in Western Europe. Bin Laden's supporters may never appear on 'intelligence radar' prior to an attack. Even if they could be identified it is clear many would glory in their deaths as a means of securing martyrdom.
The only certainty when dealing with terrorism is that violence begets violence, and if America does not wield its military might carefully, hundreds more men could soon be queuing to join Bin Laden's terrorist group.
The tragic irony is that military action in response to the attacks this week may lead to more terrorist atrocities in the West, and the loss of even more innocent lives.
(c) Simon Reeve, 2001 SIMON REEVE investigated the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and is author of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden And The Future Of Terrorism. He is also author of One Day In September, about the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and Israeli revenge operations.
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