Obituary: Natasha Singh

Tim McGirk
Tuesday 11 May 1993 00:02 BST

Natasha Singh, journalist: born Jhansi, India 1967; died near Puli-kumri, Afghanistan 16 April 1993.

WHEN I first met Natasha Singh, I thought she was a California Valley Girl who had taken a wrong turn at the shopping mall and somehow ended up in Delhi. Her voice, her fizzy slang, was so Californian it was easy to forget that Natasha was born in India of Sikh parents who immigrated to the US when she was six. Natasha was attractive, with shiny, shoulder-length hair, big Indian eyes and had a disarming transparency to her manner. Natasha could never mask her emotions.

I met her at a dance party. She was 27 and said she wanted to be a reporter, a foreign correspondent. I lost touch with her afterwards, thinking that like many young, Westernised Indians paying a swift pilgrimage to their parents' land, Natasha had retreated back to California. But then I ran into Natasha in Afghanistan, during the fall of Kabul in April 1992. At the time I thought it was a mistake for her to be there. There were gun-battles in the streets and rocket attacks, and I thought it was a mistake for me to be there, too, for the same reason. But Natasha Singh surprised all of us correspondents. It wasn't just a scary Disneyland ride for her.

First, Singh had the good news sense to be in Kabul days before the pack of other reporters arrived. She didn't panic. And she never lost her nerve, even during the seige of Bal- Hissar when shots were zinging in from every direction. She was with the first wave of mujahedin rebels who liberated the presidential palace of the old Communist ruler, Najibullah, and the first thing she did was start scrambling among the telephones on the president's desk (there were 16 of them) to find the only one that worked so she could call in her story to Agence-France-Press, which had hired her as a stringer.

Most of all, though, I remember how, as darkness fell, Natasha Singh would pace the lobby of the rocket- shattered Inter-Continental Hotel fretting until all of her friends, which included nearly every hack in Kabul, was safely accounted for. A quick learner, she soon knew more about the Byzantine rivalries between the mujahedin gangs than the rest of us. Soon she was not only stringing for AFP but also sending radio broadcasts to various US networks. Singh was wracked with doubts whether she was any good as a journalist, any good at making sense of it all. Many among us never worry too much about that. Back in Delhi, she would fax copies of her stories to friends in Tokyo and circulate them to colleagues here in Delhi before daring to dispatch them to her editors. She suffered their rejection badly.

Singh and I were also at Ayodhya together last December, when a horde of 250,000 screaming Hindu fanatics tore down a mosque and then started attacking the press who were watching it all. Peter Heinlein from Voice of America had a gory head-wound and was dragged up to a shrine by other reporters. Then that shrine fell under siege from the fanatics, armed with bricks, swords and Hindu tridents. With Singh and another colleague, we slipped out through a back door, across a field and, finally, to a road where Singh flagged down a car, and demanded that Heinlein be taken to a hospital. Singh went with the injured radio reporter, made sure he was mended, and then, against all better judgement, tried to get back to Ayodhya to help rescue her other trapped colleagues. She was wise enough to realise that friends matter more than the story.

She reported on the last coup in Thailand and went alone on a dangerous assignment in Burma. Then she returned to Afghanistan. She and a friend, Sharon Herbaugh, the American bureau chief of Associated Press, were offered a ride by helicopter up to a village in the Hindu Kush where some Britons were clearing up Soviet- laid mines. It was a good story, magnificent country, and any journalist would have climbed aboard that helicopter. But six minutes into a 10- minute ride, the helicopter crashed into a mountain. Everbody talked about what a senseless death it was. But in a way it made perfect sense: Natasha Singh always wanted to see over the next mountain.

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