I have covered many conflicts over the years, but in all that time I have rarely felt that my life was in direct danger. I’ve been roughed up at check points in the congolese jungle and dodged bullets in the fields of Afghanistan but I always felt confident that I would be OK.
Today I wanted to draw attention to a man who I respect greatly and whose adventures scare the hell out of me. . . my friend, Abdul Wahid Khan. He is a cameraman and editor for Al Jazeera and has had more close shaves than you can shake a stick at. Just listening to his tales terrifies me and with his kind permission I wanted to share a couple of them with you today. After spending many weeks at a time on assignment in Syria he has recently been working in Iraq covering the advance of ISIS. Here’s his story in his own words:
A few days ago I was informed that I would be traveling to Iraq. For some reason this trip made me feel very nervous. I spent late nights and early mornings checking and rechecking my equipment. Finally my visa arrived and I was ready to go.
I left South Africa on the 17 June 2014 and arrived in Irbil the next day. Shortly afterwards I was asked to travel to another town.
19 June 2014
Its 7am and the heat is staggering. It feels like you are standing in front of a powerful heater. We meet with our guide who is to take us to our destination. Along the way we see Iraqi Government tanks and cars blown up. We pass many check points guarded by soldiers. Every town has their own check points, making sure the bad guys don’t get in. Queues of cars are lining up to fill up on petrol – of which there is a shortage. We also fill up only to discover that the petrol was not good quality and our car refuses to start.
Our driver eventually arranges for another vehicle and we continue our journey. Arriving at the last check point, we interview a commander who tells us of the situation. We await further instructions from a guide on the other side before we can pass beyond the last check point. Eventually he informs us that it is safe to cross. We jump in the car and head off. Thirty seconds later I hear a loud bang and the car begins to burn. The fumes are beginning to make it harder to breath. At this stage I was sure it is a bomb, the burning sounds like a fountain of fireworks. I was sure that the car was going to explode any second. I tried to get out but the child locks on both the back doors were on. The driver and reporter exit the car and eventually manage to let me out.
We rush to the back of the car and kneel on the burning ground to take cover. There’s a sniper. He continues shooting in our direction, twenty more bullets come our way. After about half an hour the firing has stopped. Luckily the car hasn’t exploded and we climb back in and head for safety. I realise to my horror that if I had been sitting on the left side of the car I would have been killed – the bullet had come through the roof of the car, bouncing off the inside and landing on my bag.
19 June 2014 – later that day
We head back towards Irbil.The Peshmarga (Kurdish army) guard checkpoints trying to make sure that its people are safe. Hundreds of people mass at the Kurdish border desperately trying to escape from the advancing ISIS forces( Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). My biggest fear as we travel at 20km/h is that there could be car bomb amongst the hundreds of vehicles along the road.
Our colleagues in the Irbil office have heard of our ordeal, they greet us and thank God we have arrived safely. I spend the rest of my days in Irbil working in the studio doing live broadcasts.
22 June 2014
I am informed that we will try to go back to the town of Kirkuk. This time we will use a different road, hopefully avoiding the sniper. Once again we pick up our guide, who will only take us to the last check point. We call our producers who will meet us on the other side and ask if the road is safe to travel through. Everything seems to be clear. Burned Iraqi tanks are seen along the way. The black flag of ISIS group is seen. We pass an oil refinery. After a nervous journey We reach Kirkuk which is controlled by ISIS.
We are stopped at a check-point manned by heavily armed masked men. We inform them of who we are and our purpose. We are escorted by one of the ISIS vehicles to the leader (Ameer). The gunmen take us to his office. He too is masked. He speaks a bit of English, saying to me, “nice to meet you”. All the men are masked, they would not remove them. We inform him of our purpose and he agrees to us filming at the checkpoint. We are escorted back there and begin filming our first report. The streets are empty, not many people to be seen. The people we did find we interviewed. How did they feel living amongst ISIS? One man told us, it was fine, he did not have any issues. Another said, “I do not wish to answer that question.” Some people have no other place to go. They live in fear, ISIS are the law in the towns controlled by them. We will spend the next few days trying to film some reports in nearby towns as well.
24 June 2014
We film at a mosque that was bombed and shot at. After the midday prayer we decide to head to another location. As we are about to get into the car, we see a helicopter over us. We know that it is not a good place to be standing around. Seconds later, a bomb falls just meters away from us. The bomb lands on a house. I immediately switch on my camera and film the smoke rising. We rush to the hospital, doctors treat a man covered in blood. The doctors ask not to be filmed – Just the patient. The man has no pulse, doctors try desperately to get his heart to beat again. Family members start to arrive at the hospital, mothers,wives, sons and brothers. The women cry, while the men look towards my camera and shout out to the Iraqi government.
25 June 2014
I am awakened by the reporter at 7am. He informs me that ISIS has a demonstration and would like for us to attend. Hundreds of 4×4’s mounted with guns, about a thousand men. All armed and masked. They are all lined up ready for action. I ask the reporter if it’s allowed to get out and film but we are informed by one of the men, that we shouldn’t. He then asks a few men to get into the back of our 4×4 and take us away. We immediately realise that the situation is not good. The reporter calls head office in Doha to inform them of our situation. We are taken to a base surrounded by armed masked men. They ask us to follow them. Some of the men remove my equipment from the 4×4, when asked what were they doing, they replied, that they were just putting it in the room. They took us into a room and asked for our cellphones. We were being detained without any reason.
After a while the reporter asked to talk to the leader, one of the men just said he is busy and could not talk to him. We were detained for six hours, with many thoughts going through my mind. Later another masked man came into the room asking the reporter what we were doing there. He told the others that they should let us go as there were going to be clashes between themselves and the army. He immediately requested us to take our bags and go. We left the base and decided that we cannot trust ISIS, we headed directly back to Kurdistan. When we got back to the office in Irbil we heard that another team has been missing for days. They had been arrested by ISIS and had witnessed over 20 killings including two men just because they were smoking.