Journalism is an Act of Faith in the Future
Recalling his time in Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent, Ed Gorman’s Death of a Translator shows how little the West has ever understood this unique country and shines valuable light on the hell that is PTSD
Article by Andy Barnham
I’m sure Kipling would have been amused how his observation that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun still rings as true today as it did when he first uttered it; plus ça change and all that. How else would you explain a young Englishman with no outdoors and little foreign experience setting off to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s during the height of the Russo- Afghan war? Death of a Translator recounts the story of the then 24 year old Ed Gorman who set out to make his name in journalism in Soviet occupied Afghanistan and his experiences with the Mujahedeen including being smuggled into the capital, Kabul, at the height of the conflict.
Now retired, Ed looks back at his 25 year career at The Times newspaper where he subsequently covered the Balkans, Sri Lanka, and the troubles in Ireland and admits the mid-1980s were a different era. Pre internet, stories took time as journalists literally wandered off the beaten track; one of Ed’s trips into Afghanistan, setting foot from Pakistan, took 70 days to complete. Seventy days of trekking into Afghanistan and living side by side with the Mujahedeen, eating their food and taking similar risks they took. Indeed his first hand experiences of the country were invaluable as years later as deputy foreign editor of The Times Ed himself was commissioning correspondents in Helmand. However, as he points out, just because the infrastructure exists today to offer instant feedback that doesn’t mean the dangers are any less. Journalists today still have to find a way to physically reach a location and ever changing political realities mean occasionally remaining detached from a situation, and risk having to rely on third party reporting and second hand sources. This isn’t too different from the 1980s where Mujahedeen were known to kill journalists or hand them over to the Russians or in Ed’s case leaving him to fend for himself in the middle of Russian artillery barrage… plus ça change.
Ed’s love of Afghanistan is clear in the book; of the simple rural economy and a healthy farming population living life at their own rhythm in a working country where people thought nothing about walking 25 miles to have tea with their neighbours. During his visits into Afghanistan which started in 1984, just five years into the Russo- Afghan conflict, there was still a sense that this is what the Afghans were fighting for, however as he notes with sadness, 30 years of conflict means that country is now gone. War has destroyed the balance of the country, with more people than ever with weapons and more powerful weapons than before, and the accelerated international development with ‘advances’ such as JCBs, alongside western values.
Those knowledgeable of Britain’s recent visit to the country will see sign posts littered throughout Ed’s book of the reception the British Army should have expected in the late 2000s. Ed recounts a fiercely independent tribal culture, run far away from a dysfunctional central government, adhering to tribal and local law. He also witnessed first-hand the theme of martyrdom amongst the Mujahedeen and their willingness to take extreme risks in combat in order to achieve this. Of how radicalised the locals had become in a short space of time and how they were already being led by Mullahs. Religion had become a central strand in the DNA of the conflict and a struggle against foreign infidels was the perfect story. The Taliban were the next logical step ‘of turning the volume up’ following the Soviet scorched earth policy which, Ed believes, was conducted so frequently and thoroughly partly due to the lack of any media presence. “What if Russia hadn’t invaded…,” he sighs.
Recounting experiences such as lying under the floorboards of a garden hut in Kabul, trying to avoid capture by the Russians, for hours at a time to having his life endangered by Mujahedeen breaking cover and running into open ground during combat, it is no surprise Ed developed PTSD due to his experiences in Afghanistan. Death of a Translator, 28 years in the writing, is a description of his journey and recovery with the aim to help others suffering from the illness. “PTSD is a jail cell for the mind, but there is a key to it,” Ed says. In his case the group therapy he underwent helped speak his subconscious mind out and as he puts it, “helped take the rubbish out.” He always wanted to revisit his experiences and the telling of the story was cathartic; “being able to have a beginning, a middle and an end and physically encapsulate it in a book.” Aware that PTSD is now a catch all phrase that covers all types of symptoms, his own symptoms remained undiagnosed for years as he struggled with inaccurate diagnoses from GPs of stress and other such maladies, before finally being offered hope from a consultant psychiatrist who had previously worked with the British Army. Regarding his own PTSD as relatively simple, Ed is aware that the disease can take years to present and often remains untreated and unidentified due to subsequent complications with substance abuse and a stigma he believes is attached to the disease. “Many sufferers just can’t see an end,” states Ed.
Ed leaves the meeting, heading off to see an old journalist friend for lunch. “He vowed never to read books by any of his friends,” says Ed, “he made an exception in this instance and I’m about to find out what he thinks.” I’m sure his opinion is the same as mine; an honest, unprejudiced and compelling account of a brutal conflict, seen from both sides (Ed was hosted by Russian forces in Kabul at the end of the Soviet – Afghan war) and the subsequent impact it had on his mental health years later. Whilst frequently associated with the military, it is clear from Ed’s book anyone can be affected by PTSD. What should be equally clear is that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that anyone who suffers isn’t alone.
Enquiries: Ed Gorman’s Death of a Translator is available from Arcadia Books here