TDJ: How did you transport yourself and the equipment during the weeks leading up to the fall of Kabul?
Peter Greste: Afghanistan has got to be one of the most logistically challenging locations for any journalist to work, though especially broadcasters. The transport and communications systems are nonexistent, roads often little more than donkey tracks and the weather plays havoc with the best-laid plans. And then there's the war...
We were forced to move overland from Tajikistan down into the Panjshir Valley, just north of Kabul, and then on to the capital itself on the morning the city fell to the Northern Alliance forces. I led a team bringing over a ton and a half of equipment including 700kgs worth of satellite transmission gear for live broadcasts. We were loaded into an ancient Ural six-wheel drive truck, and a battered old Russian jeep with a shaky clutch and even dodgier brakes.
The "road" we took was a four-wheel drive track that had to be seen to be believed. At times, the track disappeared beneath the waters of the Panj River, at other times it soared above the cliffs, chiseled into the rock.
And then there was the Anjaman Pass. At 14,800 feet, it had been closed by snow. The only solution -- horseback. All 35 of them. With all the gear (including generators). It was a major logistical challenge that involved organizing extra trucks at the opposite end of the pass to take all the gear down into Charikar where we had our forward base.
In all, we had five breakdowns, including a broken front wheel bearing on the Ural; a leak in the jeep's brake lines; the clutch that finally gave up the ghost; the jeep's chassis that fell off the front spring; and three flat tires.
We arrived in Charikar barely 24 hours before Kabul fell. And we were the first broadcasters into the city. For a more complete account of the epic journey, have a look at this link, which takes you to the story written by the dish engineer on the trip. http://www.tvz.tv/newsbiz/2001/november/nbimage2611.shtml
TDJ: What kind of reporting is unique to radio? Can you give an example of "listening" for the story?
Peter Greste: Reporting for radio involves "sound images". Someone once said they preferred radio over television because the pictures were better. The best dispatches include vivid writing that gives clear, uncluttered descriptions of what is going on around the reporter. But the best radio involves packages that use sound to tap into the listener's own mental images of what's going on.
As a radio reporter, I'm constantly searching for sounds that are an integral part of the story, that are clear and distinctive and that can be understood with the help of clear writing. There is the obvious -- gunfire, for example. But there is also the relatively mundane that can bring radio to life. In a piece on the oppressed community of Hazaras in Kabul, we went into the local market, and recorded the sound of people frying the local vegetable pancakes called "polonie". The sizzling and the chatter of the Hazaras, combined with a brief description of what was going on provided all the color we needed to bring listeners into the bazaar.
TDJ: What did you concentrate on as you arrived in Kabul? What did you see and hear, and how many reports did you file?
Peter Greste: In a breaking story like the fall of Kabul, the key is to convey a sense of what it is like to be entering a city that had experienced all the drama and trauma of a major military campaign. In that kind of situation, the detail of how it happened is less important than the sense of release and joy and anxiety experienced by the locals. We tried hard to find small vignettes that helped illustrate exactly what it was like for Afghans.
We were ahead of the main force of Northern Alliance troops -- their commanders held them back, fearing widespread looting. They did not want to appear as an invading army, and lose the international support that had helped get them there in the first place.
We swept down into the city from a pass to the west, with crowds barely able to believe their eyes. The sense of relief that this was a relatively peaceful handover was palpable. People were throwing flowers onto the road. They were dancing and laughing and waving and cheering.
But there was also the brutal side. We found the bodies of Taliban fighters in a gutter, who'd been left behind in the scramble to leave the city. They'd been beaten to death by vengeful locals. And people scrambled to do the things they'd been forbidden to do under the Taliban. Everywhere you looked, kids were flying kites, men were cueing to get their beards shaved off, people were playing music. At one checkpoint now occupied by the locals, we were ordered to turn up our car stereo, loud.
The BBC had a team of about five correspondents, each had a specific role to play in covering the day. Mine was to do live television reports from the dish that we'd hauled over the mountains. I lost count of the number of lives, though we started at 10.00 am local, and the last one I did was at 2.30 am the following morning. And in the space of one particularly busy hour, I did five live reports to various outlets in London.
TDJ: How did the murders of four journalists affect you?
Peter Greste: The murders affected me deeply. I was very close to one of the four -- Italian journalist Maria Gracia Cutuli. She stayed with me several times during my first assignment to Kabul as the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent in 1995, and I saw her several times afterwards as well.
The death of journalists in these situations is hardly unexpected -- it's an occupational hazard. But the corps of foreign correspondents is also small and close-knit and it always comes as a blow. It also seriously curtailed our movements around this country. Nobody is sure if the murders were the result of a robbery gone wrong, or if it was a deliberate attempt to target western correspondents by rogue Taliban or Al Quaeda members. Clearly if it is the latter, we all have to take particular care.
TDJ: Why did you take this risky assignment?
Peter Greste: Because Afghanistan is a country I feel very strongly for. I spent a year here throughout 1995 as the BBC's correspondent, and I fell in love with the country and its people. I found it very hard to stay away from the assignment because it's a place I know so well. It's also the only game that matters now, and as a journalist it's hard not to be at the center of the story.
TDJ: What is courage?
Peter Greste: Courage is the ability to recognize your fears, and overcome them. People who don't fear, either don't understand the seriousness of their situation and are probably stupid, or who have death-wish. I am neither, though I don't feel very courageous. I tend to tread very carefully.
BIO: Born and raised in Australia. Studied journalism at the Queensland University of Technology, and spent nearly five years in regional television news. I left Australia in 1991 to work in London as a freelance producer. My aim then, was to become a foreign correspondent, though I never dreamed I'd wind up working for the BBC.
In between freelance shifts in London for Reuters TV, CNN, WTN and the BBC, I traveled to Bosnia and then South Africa on freelance expeditions for Australian newspapers and radio networks. My big break came when I landed the Afghanistan correspondent's job for the BBC (they couldn't find anybody else...). That job was a joint BBC-Reuters appointment, and on the strength of my work in Kabul, Reuters offered me a contract in Belgrade. Agency work didn't agree with me, though and I left Reuters after a year to return to the BBC. I worked in London for News 24 (The BBC's 24-hour cable TV news network) before moving to Mexico as the Central America correspondent. I am now based in Santiago as the South America correspondent. I guess Santiago is now as close as any place to "home", though after living in seven countries over the past eleven years, that definition is rather loose.
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