The journalist

John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, recently disguised himself as a Pathan woman to get round the Taliban's refusal to allow foreign journalists into Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

For John Simpson these are precarious times. Since 11 September he has been travelling in and out of Afghanistan disguised in the long robes of a Pathan woman. This is no mean feat for a man who is 6ft 2in and wears size 10 boots. Simpson describes how he and his cameraman Peter Jouvenal, who is a similar size, recently made an eight-hour journey into Nangarhar province in the back of a pick-up truck. Looking like a sack of potatoes in his burqa, he bumped along treacherous roads keeping his feet hidden and peering out of the band of lace over his forehead.

"It was like wearing a cloak of invisibility," he says, speaking from Dushanbe in Tajikistan. "No one looks at you. It was a real lesson to me, a tiny but real insight into the nature of women in that society. We would have been caught if we'd had to walk. Westerners, even women, give themselves away by their walk, they move in a purposeful fore-and-aft kind of way. Local women tend to walk from side- to-side like sailors."

The two men were shepherded through dangerous country by four local smugglers, men who were anti-Taliban. "They put their lives at risk every day. They enjoy the risk. At one stage on the way back," he says, "we were stopped at a post set up by local brigands. There were five Kalashnikovs on our side, and five or six on theirs." The two "women" sat in the back, wondering whether a fight would break out.

Simpson describes how he told his guides that he wanted some pictures of the Taliban. He and Jouvenal were directed 6,000ft up a mountain pass, carrying a generator and other broadcasting equipment. When they arrived, Simpson got "a bit of a shock. The Taliban were so close they could have heard us. Anyone looking up would have seen our features".

The dangers of reporting in Afghanistan have changed hugely in the past few weeks. Death by hanging has been threatened for anyone with a satellite phone; Express reporter Yvonne Ridley was arrested by the Taliban on charges of spying. Explaining the change since 11 September, Simpson relates how, as recently as 9 September he happily took a bottle of whisky to Kabul, when trying to negotiate the re-opening of a BBC office there.

Men from the ministry of the suppression of vice came to search his hotel room. "I had to pour a bottle of single malt whisky down the lavatory, and I'm still in need of counselling. But the fact that I took in malt whisky shows that it was far less dangerous than it is now. The penalty for having it can be death. I like whisky, but I don't want to die for it."

Simpson is at the sharpest end of the BBC's coverage in the region, and says he will venture back into Afghanistan, again using the disguise. He is one of about 60 journalists, production staff and technical people that the BBC has deployed in the region. Catherine Davis, the Central Asia reporter, joined a small number of journalists to witness the funeral of opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood, and has stayed on in the front line in the Panshir Valley. Kate Clark, the BBC's expelled Kabul correspondent, Suzy Price and Jacky Rowland have all continued to report from the region.

Elsewhere, about 30 staff were deployed to cover the story from the Middle East and the Gulf, while the number of people working on the story from America reached 100 at its height, when numerous staff and freelances were brought on-board. Seven satellite dishes have been deployed, including one exclusively in northern Afghanistan and another on a British warship. The whole operation is costing BBC News around £700,000 a week.