The Worst of Times: We suffered for those few minutes of 'News at Ten': Sandy Gall talks to Danny Danziger

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In November 1989, I went to see Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famous guerrilla commander in north- east Afghanistan. I had got a message from his brother, who was then in London, saying something very important was going to happen and I ought to come.

The Russians had left six months earlier and everyone was wondering if the mujahedin would overthrow the Najibullah government in Kabul. I thought Massoud would have a go, because whoever wants power in Afghanistan must control Kabul.

So I went to Stewart Purvis at ITN, to clear me going, and he sent with me a very extrovert cameraman called Sebastian Rich, who was quite famous for his dashing ways. He played polo, for example, and you had to ride horses in Afghanistan, so that was a useful attribute. And we took a sound recordist, who'd never been east of Suez, I don't think, and had never ridden a horse before, called Russell Padwick, and he turned out to be very resourceful and splendid.

We flew to Islamabad from London and then went by road into the Hindu Kush, to a place called Chitral. At about 12,000ft, and five o'clock in the morning, we were disgorged on to the snow by the driver, who said: 'This is as far as the road goes, you'll have to walk the next thousand feet.'

So we got out with our kit and started legging it up to the top of the mountain.

We had the camera, which is 30lb, and the sound equipment which was about the same, and our personal gear, sleeping bags and whatever, so we were quite heavily weighed down. Walking in that rarefied air is quite exhausting and we promptly felt dizzy and nauseous, but we struggled to the top.

Horses were supposed to be waiting for us at the top, but of course they weren't there. So we set off through the mountains on foot - because it was so damned cold, it was better walking than waiting for the horses.

We got to our first chaikhana about midday. Chaikhana means a tea house: they are small resthouses used by the mujahedin. We felt pretty exhausted because of the altitude and all had splitting headaches.

We found a tent next to the chaikhana and ordered some food. Rice is the staple, with perhaps a bit of goat with it; if it's a young goat it's all right, but if it's an old goat, and pretty high, as it normally was, it's quite disgusting. I don't particularly like goat anyway.

We got into our sleeping bags and were settling down nicely, when the chaikhana owner came and said: 'You'll have to move out, because an Afghan lady has arrived, and she can't share a tent with foreigners and infidels.' So we went into the chaikhana which was draughty as hell, and in it were something like 40 Afghan mujahedin, which Sebastian found difficult because he tends to get claustrophobic.

The horses arrived that evening, and so we set off early the next morning. We rode the horses as far as we could but conditions were so bad we had to leave them in a village where, after considerable difficulty, we hired a Russian jeep - which took us for about 10 miles and then the front wheel came off.

So we then had to get out and walk in appalling conditions. After two days we finally got to Taloqan, where Massoud was.

We decided to interview him straight away, because I was worried the bad weather was setting in. Looking back on it, this may have been a mistake: I think we rushed him.

Normally he is very forthcoming and friendly, wants to tell you how the war is going, how he sees things, but on this occasion I found him guarded, very reluctant to talk. I'd never seen Massoud so low. He had had a personal disaster only a few weeks before, about 20 of his senior commanders had been ambushed by the opposition, and all were murdered, and he was still tremendously affected by it.

Anyway, we did the interview, which wasn't a great success, because it didn't go into much detail, but it was just as well that we did it, because Sebastian got dysentery; he sort of collapsed overnight. We got drugs for him, but they didn't seem to work and after 48 hours I began to get worried; he seemed to be very ill, passing blood and so on, and I thought, this man's going to die. So we decided we had to get out before the passes were snowed under, even though we'd seen Massoud only once. What do you do? We couldn't have our cameraman dying right in the middle of nowhere.

So we began the trek back. It really was snowing hard, and it was very slippery. We went over one very high pass in the dark, which was an exhausting business: with no moon you couldn't see your way and we all kept tripping over rocks.

But the good news was that instead of looking like he was about to die, Sebastian was looking as if he might survive. And, luckily, he was a good rider, so he was able to sit on the horse, despite being very weak.

We finally reached a chaikhana where there were about 150 mujahedin all jammed in one big room, and we had a very unpleasant evening in this very cold room lying like sardines. Sebastian said he couldn't stand this claustrophobic existence and rushed outside, but we finally persuaded him to come back.

It really was the most uncomfortable journey back to Islamabad. It took nearly five days and we were cold most of the time. Cold makes me feel miserable, and I suppose I was short-tempered and tetchy.

Our report was about three or four minutes on News at Ten. Three minutes sounds very little, considering the length we had gone to, but three minutes on News at Ten, when the whole thing is only 26 minutes, well, you can't grumble about that, and I didn't feel too disappointed

I think that trip taught me a lesson. I had imagined, with no particular evidence, that Massoud was going to make an attack on Kabul, which would have been much more interesting in television terms. But I should have obtained more information beforehand, and I blame myself for not finding out more precisely what we were going to get.

Massoud is now fighting in Kabul against his arch enemy, the prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar is bombarding the capital, and a lot of people have been killed and maimed, much of Kabul has been destroyed, and people are very short of food, so it's a pretty desperate situation.

There is an attempt now to get all the commanders together to try and find a solution to this fighting, which has bedevilled the country for years. I hope they can sort themselves out.

'News From the Front' by Sandy Gall, published by Heinemann, pounds 16.99, is an account of assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf.

(Photograph omitted)

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