At least I was never forced to eat eyeballs when I was kidnapped by the Taliban …
The Taliban commander had heard about our freedoms and asked if it was true that women in the west could marry animals … even small animals
It’s easy to mock the seemingly endless supply of second-rate celebrities in Britain today. But as I watched Nicola McLean, a former glamour model with fake breasts, talking about the harsh realities of life in the jungle on this week’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, I realised that perhaps I was wrong.
Maybe I shouldn’t laugh, I thought. Not after what she’s been through. It sounds just like what I went through earlier this year, after I was kidnapped by the Taliban and locked in a dark room for three months; even the pain she felt at being separated from her child reminded me of the torments I was forced to endure. Maybe I should take celebrities and their suffering more seriously.
After all, Nicola’s confinement in the jungle-studio with other celebrities, and the deprivations she was forced to endure (presumably by her agent), had clearly been traumatic for her. And the way she described her ordeal made it sound alarmingly similar to mine.
Well, not that similar. I was never forced to eat eyeballs by the Taliban, as poor Nicola was by Ant and Dec. But I did come down with dysentery, and lost more than two stone in weight because of malnutrition. As a result my teeth started to fall out. But thankfully, the Taliban never tortured me in the same way Nicola was tortured by Timmy Mallett.
Like the poor tourists who were interviewed on their return from India this week, Nicola was barely able to hold back her tears as she relived her ordeal. The past two weeks, she confessed to Ant and Dec on her release, had been the hardest of her life. A couple of weeks’ confinement in a campsite might not sound as traumatic as surviving a massacre in Mumbai. But, as Nicola put it, the reality of reality TV is a lot harder than it looks on television. As far as she was concerned, her ordeal was real and her suffering genuine – and as far as the media is concerned, just as worthy of headlines as the atrocity in India.
Sadly, it seems more and more of us in Britain agree. When I arrived back in London in June, I was stopped by a well-dressed woman in the street. She had seen me being interviewed on Channel 4, and seemed desperate to hear more about my ordeal. “Tell me,” she pleaded. “What were they really like?” I began to tell her what I thought about the Taliban, but she cut me off. “No, not the Taliban. Richard and Judy. What were they really like?”
I stared at her in disbelief. Was it me? Or had everyone in Britain lost touch with reality?
Over the past 10 years I have spent more and more time abroad, filming documentaries in war-torn and poverty-stricken countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. My first film abroad was in 1998, when I spent six months in Kashmir. It felt really exotic and far away, and I can still recall that sensation of coming home, of coming back to reality after an adventurous trip abroad.
Over the years that feeling has reversed. The reality for most people in the world is poverty, conflict and strife. And I was beginning to feel at home abroad. Life in Britain, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly unrealistic, and I slowly began to feel like a foreigner in my own land.
On my return from Iraq in March 2004, I was surprised to discover that the fighting in Fallujah wasn’t the big news. The front page story in the Observer on the day of my arrival was about who had won some new reality TV show called I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Within a few days, I quickly realised that no one I met in London seemed to care, or even know much, about the war in Iraq. They were far more interested in celebrities, shopping and the fact that their properties had tripled in value. Worse, in my absence, the bankers had taken over all my favourite bars in London. Somehow, London had gone from gentrification to Bentley-fication while I was away, and everyone seemed to be living in some banker’s dreamland, brought on, perhaps, by a severe dose of affluenza.
Of course, it turns out that Britain really was dreaming. The recession has come as a much needed reality check, and my only hope is that the celebrity-bubble will burst like the property and financial bubbles before it. Maybe then we can get back in touch with the real world.
Unfortunately, as I discovered for myself, not everyone in the real world is in touch with reality. Near the end of my captivity, a Taliban commander entered my room and asked if he could speak frankly. He sat down on the floor, soon followed by his men. The commander had heard about our freedoms in the west, and wanted to know if it was true that women in the west “could marry animals? Even small animals?” I stared in disbelief. God, no. We’re not that immoral. Why was he asking? “Well, I read an article about a woman who married a frog in the west.”
He had confused the fairytale about the frog prince with reality. It would have been funny, had this Taliban commander not been in charge of 250 fighters and suicide bombers. No doubt he fed them this fairytale before dispatching them across the border to Afghanistan to kill British and American soldiers. He also had links with al-Qaeda, and with the Pakistan militant groups now widely suspected of involvement in the atrocities in Mumbai.
After 10 years on the road, I was ready to come home. Suddenly Britain no longer seemed so foreign to me. It is still a land of tolerance, common decency and basic humanity. And as I faced the reality of being killed by my captors, the final truth of my journey was revealed. The only thing that really counts in life is family. And my family were waiting for me at home.
Note – This article was first published in The Guardian, 4th December 2008.