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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 44 October 22, 2022

Reporting at its Courageous Best | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 21 October 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

Review by M.R. Narayan Swamy

Bullets and Bylines: From the Frontlines of Kabul, Delhi, Damascus and Beyond
by Shyam Bhatia

Speaking Tiger
Pages: 249; Price: Rs 599
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1720226733
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1720226734

Shyam Bhatia got out of two tense situations because of Bollywood.
The India-born Bhatia was walking in Baghdad towards the ousted Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace when he saw 40 to 50 Iraqis shouting hoarse at an American soldier on a US Army Humvee. Unable to understand Arabic, the soldier, although armed, looked terrified. Knowing Arabic, Bhatia realized the men were merely seeking clean water, blaming the Americans for the post-war mess.

The mood on the bridge where the drama was going on changed when the Iraqis realized that Bhatia, a British citizen, was originally from India. One man blurted out: “My people are in love with India.” Before Bhatia could react, a few more Iraqis surrounded him and began praising Bollywood. One patted him on the shoulder and said: “I love Indian films and Indian actors, especially Rajesh Khanna.” Another added: “Have you seen Amitabh Bachchan in Muqaddar ka Sidander? I think of myself as a friend of Amitabh. Tell Amitabh that all Iraqis like him.”

Bhatia was astonished. But it wasn’t over. An older Iraqi man with a red bandana tied around his greying head did a little jig and spoke about the 1964 classic Sangam. He even sang the song: Yeh mera prem patra par kar...’ By the time the declarations of love for India and Bollywood were made, water tankers reached the spot. The American soldier was sincerely grateful to Bhatia for intervening.

On another occasion, Bhatia was on his own when Iranian border guards stopped him on the border with Azerbaijan. They thought his British passport was stolen. They softened when he talked about his Indian childhood and memories of watching Bollywood films. He was saved when he sang Raj Kapoor’s immortal song: Mera joota hai Japani... It turned out that all the Iranians there were fans of Indian films. They laughed and clapped, returned Bhatia his passport and treated him to copious amounts of cream, honey, naan bread and even local vodka!

This gripping book is all about Bhatia’s life as a foreign correspondent for The Observer of London, an exciting although risky job that took him to countries torn up by war or lesser trouble in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He interviewed or met Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, Bashir Gemayel, Benazir Bhutto, her brothers, Zia-ul-Haq, Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sudan’s ruthless military dictator Omar al-Bashir and Peter Malkin, the only surviving member of the Mossad team that kidnapped Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann and brought him to stand trial in Israel.

But Bhatia did not bargain for the Pakistan-US-Saudi-backed mujahideen hordes stopping his rusted bus when he was on his way from Kabul to the frontline to see Soviet soldiers in action. The killers demanded to see ID cards from everyone. When the driver and all other passengers (all Afghans) showed their red colour document issued by the Moscow-backed Kabul government, the armed men coolly shot dead one by one after every two or three minutes. When he flashed his British passport, he was dubbed a “jassos” (spy) and hit several times. But he was not killed. Once the bus was set afire, with dozens of bodies littered on the desolate rural road, the mujahideen forced Bhatia to run along with them.

After two days of captivity, the mujahideen left him, enabling him to board a bus to Kandahar with the help of a Soviet soldier he met on a battered highway. But instead of helping Bhatia whose money had been stolen by the killers, the Kandahar Governor accused him of collaborating with “counter-revolutionaries” and made him a prisoner. Bhatia escaped from a window, was directed by a Sikh man on the street to the Indian consulate which helped him get back to Kabul and from there, after some more misadventure, to Delhi.

Bhatia’s first major scoop came in a Cairo hotel when the food and beverages manager showed him what his son had brought from a government foundry — a large round medal with profiles of Jimmy Carter, Sadat and Menachem Begin and words on the other side in English, Arabic and Hebrew: “Heroes of Peace”. Bhatia immediately understood that he was in possession of a secret known then to just 20 people in Egypt, Israel and the US — that Cairo and Tel Aviv were all set to sign what came to be known as the Camp David treaty. Until then, there was plenty of speculation but no one was sure. The Observer, courtesy Bhatia, broke the globally-acclaimed story that a historic peace pact was imminent.

At a time in 1979 when the Pakistani was still a largely unknown entity in the West, Bhatia was part of an Observer team which exposed the nuclear proliferation by scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. The Pakistani hit back, calling Bhatia “a Hindu bastard”. Another piece on Khan in 1987 by Bhatia triggered a sectarian ranting. Benazir Bhutto, who Bhatia knew personally from their higher education days in the UK, told him how Khan was on his knees before her father revealing how his marriage to a Dutch-South African wife gave him unique access to secret reports in The Netherlands. Some of Bhatia’s key sources were Egyptian scientists angered by Khan’s activities because it cut off Libyan funds which they desired to produce their own atomic bomb.

Bhatia was unceremoniously booted out of Damascus after he wrote a scathing piece on Syrian politics that was not sympathetic to Hafez El Asad. Bhatia filed the story on a Saturday, thinking that Syrian government offices would be closed on Sunday, and by the time it was read by Syrian diplomats on Monday, he would be safety out of the country. “What I clearly hadn’t calculated was quite how thorough the Syrian intelligence services could be. This time they tapped my telephone and read my outgoing article even before it landed on the foreign editor’s desk in London.”

But Bhatia is convinced on the strength of his knowledge of the Middle East that for all the negativity that Syria earned, it was Iraq which was ruled by a much more dangerous and vindictive regime led by Saddam Hussein. And he feels that the Iraqi strongman’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, were “monsters”. In one of his secret trips to Iraq, resistance fighters showed him a remote nine-bedroom palace built for Saddam Hussein where he used to take his mistresses as well as select foreign guests.

Bhatia says he had more than one passport issued by the Foreign Office in London. Very few Islamic countries were then prepared to accept passports with Israeli stamps. One of his passports was meant exclusively for entering and leaving Israel. Another, devoid of any Israeli stamps, was earmarked for the Arab and Muslim world.

Bhatia earned Yasser Arafat’s eternal friendship after giving the Palestinian leader a bottle of honey — after a tip about the guerrilla leader’s biggest weakness. Soon, not only Arafat, but his 27-year-old wife Suba also became a friend. Suba confided she would never have married if she could have anticipated how difficult life would be as the Palestinian leader’s wife. Arafat revealed himself as a lifelong admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who he referred to fondly as “my sister, my sister”.

Over the years, Arafat and Bhatia became close. Arafat would speak frankly with Bhatia provided he never betrayed his confidence. “His revealing comments about his childhood, rival Palestinian leaders, the Israelis, including Rabin whom he respected, were all dutifully recorded in my reporter’s notebook but never published.”

This is not a recent book but I decided to write a review because it was unputdownable. Having devoured many fascinating books by Western journalists of their action-packed professional life, I can say with certainty that this is one of the best books I have read by any journalist.

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