Rahimullah Yusufzai: 'The Taliban respect me. I was the first journalist to visit them'

Rahimullah Yusufzai, Pakistan's most respected editor and fearless war correspondent, has reported all sides in the Afghan conflict and interviewed the most elusive leaders. Now he talks to Robert Fisk

The BBC reporter Matt Frei used to tell the story – true, I have no doubt – that he was once travelling on a Pakistan Airlines domestic flight with Rahimullah Yusufzai, Pakistan's best-known journalist. Anxious because his friend was late, Frei asked the check-in desk if they could hold the plane for a few minutes. "Sir," the check-in clerk replied. "This plane will not take off unless Rahimullah Yusufzai is on board." Now that is what you call respect.

And indeed, Yusufzai is not only Pakistan's most famous newspaperman; his integrity and sharp-witted analysis, administered with the curt cynicism essential to all reporters, makes him one of the best journalists still operating between the old Raj and the Mediterranean. Only Mohamed Heikel, the elderly but all-energy doyen of Egyptian journalism stays a few feet ahead of Yusufzai. But while Heikel enjoys his tower-block office in Cairo and his farm in the Egyptian Delta, Yusufzai is an editor in the cowboy city of Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier.

Six feet tall with a bright white beard – he is 56, with a heart attack behind him – he sits down with the litheness of a panther on carpets and cushions on the floor of his home for lunch. "You are not eating!" he bellows. Given his work-load – he can file up to 2am for his Islamabad paper, The News – I imagine he is forever hungry. To look at, he is a weird mixture of Ho Chi Minh and Joel McCrea as reporter Huntley Haverstock in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.

Yusufzai drifted into war reporting in his mid-thirties, covering the post-Soviet Afghan civil bloodletting, risking his life as an unknown reporter to cover a conflict few cared about. "You know, my wife and children have been tolerating me. In those days I would tell them I was going to Kabul and then I would wander off to the Kandahar front lines, and I was caught in the fighting so many times. In 1989, in the first Taliban attack on Jalalabad, I was in the front line for days. We were bombed. We were shelled. We escaped land-mines. I was constantly in Kandahar because that was the headquarters of Mullah Omar [the founder of the Taliban]. I think he visited Kabul only once."

And I suspect Yusufzai is admired as much by the Afghan Taliban leadership as he is by Pakistani politicians. "The Taliban respect me because I was the first journalist to visit Kandahar when the Taliban emerged. I was the first journalist to meet Mullah Omar in March of 1995. I gave the first detailed account of the Taliban. They said to me later, 'You introduced us to the world'.

"Some stories are very rewarding, others, because of the context, become very important. People do mention my two meetings with Osama bin Laden. They may not have been my best stories, but they were very important. But whenever we write about families who have suffered – of soldiers, civilians – those stories are very moving. You cannot keep yourself aloof from their suffering. Somehow, now we have become accustomed to suffering, not only in Peshawar, Swat, Waziristan, but whenever we go to a refugee camp, where you see displaced people."

Yusufzai's days as a "cub reporter" tell you as much about Pakistan as journalism, but the tired old taste of low pay, printer's ink and declining circulation will be familiar to any budding scribe. As a teenager, Yusufzai attended Karachi University, but after his father, a reservist in the Pakistan army who was recalled and sent to fight in Bangladesh with the rank of subadar (captain), was taken prisoner and languished for two years in an Indian PoW camp, the family's income dried up.

"There was no money to continue my education and I desperately needed a part-time job. And one day I saw advertised in the newspaper a part-time job for 'proof-readers' and 'copy-holders' at The Sun. That's how I became addicted to journalism. I thought that this was what I wanted to do. When the paper went to press, I could smell the print off the machines in the basement."

Yusufzai became an active trade unionist and was voted general secretary of The Sun workers' union. "They punished me by sending me to the Lahore office, even though Karachi was my home. But there I worked hard and became a sub-editor. Then when Zia ul-Haq was President and dictator, we had a story about how the political opposition was being suppressed and someone had slipped in the words 'Zia is a dog'." Yusufzai finds it difficult to suppress a smile as he recounts the story, but then turns cold. "Ul-Haq got those people punished. Four of our journalists were actually lashed; for the first time in history, journalists were whipped. They had been tried in a military court. One was disabled by his treatment."

The Sun eventually closed – financial mismanagement and unpaid salaries did for it – but Yusufzai had already diverted his energies to the Institute of Regional Studies. He wrote about Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, about the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz but, as Yusufzai puts it himself: "I was writing many articles, and nobody was reading them."

And so to the North West Frontier and fame. Yusufzai had already met the dictators of Kabul – Taraki, Amin, Karmal and Najibullah – and the mujahedin commanders, Hekmatyar, Rabbani and Massoud. He was the first journalist to travel regularly to Afghanistan; and after The News was launched in 1991, he became editor of the Peshawar edition.

He got calls from the martial-law authorities when they were offended by his articles. "They complained that my reports were 'not properly put together', that their viewpoint had not been fully represented. They would call me or 'invite' me to their offices. But they were always polite; in my case, I never faced any physical violence. Stories were occasionally cut by The News for political reasons but now you can carry your stories somewhere else. These days, there is no way a story can be just blacked out."

Yusufzai's father, who died in 1983, was a village boy from a poor family, but so fit and healthy, Yusufzai said, "that he was selected in 1952 to represent Pakistan at the coronation of your Queen Elizabeth. He learned to speak and write in good English. He was very proud of my writing about our village. He thought this would help our people."

But let's not get carried away. What journalist, I ask myself, does not understand the coda to Yusufazai's story? "Journalism for me is a way of life. You give up so many of your social functions. You give up so many of the things you love because you don't have time to do those things. But it's a choice; we weren't pushed into this job. I often bring my mother to Peshawar, but I have no time to give her. She is 78 and lives in a village in the Mardan district with my two younger brothers. And once, she said to me, 'One day I will die and you will say, 'First I have to finish my article and meet my deadline', and then you'll be late for the funeral'."

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