Yvonne Ridley: Fearless behind the veil

Dozens of journalists are taken captive each year while reporting from some of the world's hot-spots. But only a few become famous for it.

British journalist Yvonne Ridley, released by Afghanistan's ruling Taleban on Tuesday, is assured of a place in that phone-box of fame. From the moment Afghan locals dobbed her in to Taleban officials and they lifted the veils of her traditional burqa disguise she was guaranteed a slot on the war's front pages.

Without a passport or travel documents, they accused the 43-year-old of being a spy and threatened her with a trial - the penalty could have been death.

After 10 anxious days in a Kabul jail, and diplomatic pleading to the Taleban embassy in Islamabad by the British High Commissioner, the Pakistani Government and her bosses from Express Newspapers, Ridley is now a household name.

Certainly the Daily Express, sister publication of the Sunday Express where she is chief reporter, ran her portrait on its front page under the double-decker headline: "Freed from Taleban Hell."

In unrivalled tabloid fashion, it promised further details of how "I lay terrified in my bed inside filthy, rat-infested prison cell", followed by "I went on hunger strike and fought with vicious guards", finishing with "I risked death to keep secret diary for Express readers".

A slot on the speakers' circuit, a book and television chat shows are sure to follow.

It takes a certain breed of journalist to step willingly into a war zone. That breed tends to be, but is not exclusively, male. As a chief reporter whose role it was to assign other journalists to stories, Ridley could easily have sent someone else. And as a mother of 9-year-old Daisy, she had every excuse not to go.

Instead, soon after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, she boarded a plane to Pakistan, becoming one of an increasing number of female war correspondents to follow in the footsteps of Kate Adie, the BBC's chief news correspondent. Indeed, there are more women covering this conflict than any before it.

Denied a visa for Afghanistan, Ridley decided to cross the border anyway for that greatest of journalistic duties: a first-hand account, this time of life on the ground in Afghanistan.

Courageous though that decision was, there was pressure from home base. BBC world affairs editor and Daily Telegraph correspondent John Simpson had made the first foray across the border shrouded in a burqa. His fellow Telegraph colleague Christina Lamb, who dined with Ridley in Peshawar before her arrest, said when Simpson's stunt was revealed "mobile phones started going off simultaneously" as editors called asking why they hadn't done it too.

"For the females among us, the pressure was worse: 'If all six foot two inches and 200 pounds of him can get disguised as a woman, surely you as a real woman can easily slip in?"'she said.

There were those who criticised Ridley for ignoring procedure, just as they attacked her for putting herself in danger when she is the sole parent of an only child.

After Ridley's arrest Lamb wrote about a conversation the two had in Pakistan, about the difficulties of leaving children behind while they went on dangerous assignments. Ridley said then she had sent Daisy to boarding school so she would be free to do her job.

"Yes, it was a hard decision, but Daisy loved her school in the Lake District," wrote Lamb, who went on to say Ridley had described herself as "not an earth mother type," and said that Daisy was proud of her and showed the other girls at school her articles.

Murmurs of disapproval spread, even among journalists. The Independent's Natasha Walter sprang to her defence, pointing out that "Ridley wasn't the only parent working for Western media in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though she was a particularly unlucky one". Walter further admonished her critics for not finding out how many male reporters in the region had left children at home.

And Independent founder and former editor Andreas Whittam Smith also launched a valiant defence. "Among war reporters," he wrote, "there is nothing unusual, or reprehensible, about the actions of Yvonne Ridley ... She applied many times for an Afghan visa so that she could cover the escalating humanitarian crisis. After repeated refusals, she decided to go anyway.

"If you want to be legalistic about it, you could say that she and her paper believed the public interest in bringing news of the starvation of millions of homeless people outweighed the illegality of her disregard of entry procedures.

"I say there is nothing unusual in Ms Ridley's decision, because the best reporters become obsessed with finding out what is actually going on. Once they have an objective, they do nothing else, they think and dream only the story."

Certainly her editor at the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend, described Ridley as "an experienced and courageous journalist". She had already covered a number of conflicts in places such as Cyprus, Damascus and Northern Ireland.

Her former husband, Daoud Zaaroura, was a colonel in the Palestine Liberation Organisation. She met him on assignment in Cyprus. Now chief executive of of the Northern England Refugee Service, he describes his ex-wife as "a journalist of great integrity and courage who shows no fear in pursuit of a story. She often feels she can cruise through any given situation."

Perhaps because of Zaaroura's connections, Ridley was the first journalist to interview Ahmed Jibril, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, when he was the leading suspect in the Lockerbie bombing.

Ridley has worked across the spectrum of the British print media, from the outrageous tabloids such as News of the World, to the respectable broadsheets such as the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Independent.

At the Sunday Sun, deputy editor Colin Patterson remembers Ridley as "a very warm, gregarious person who is very determined and tenacious".

But former colleagues say that as hungry as she might be for a story, she is not the sort of reporter to take unnecessary risks.

According to her 74-year-old mother Joyce, Ridley would not have been a compliant prisoner either. It was reported that while being kept under house arrest near Jalalabad, Yvonne was eating four or five times and was being supplied with clean clothes and cigarettes. At the time her mother was not surprised. "She will probably have insisted on those things. Knowing Yvonne, she will be getting her own way during this."

Instead, as Ridley wrote in the Daily Express after her release, she had in fact been on a hunger strike "because I requested access to a telephone and they refused. Hunger strike was the only weapon I had. It was the only thing I could do that they wouldn't stop me doing."

Despite the fear among the female war correspondents about what the woman-hating Taleban might do to them if captured, Ridley insisted she had not been physically harmed. Instead, she said, "they tried to break me mentally by asking me the same questions time and again, day after day, sometimes until nine o'clock at night".

And despite her apparent bravado, she described being "very, very scared" when the bombs started falling on Kabul.

At home in County Durham, a magnum of pink champagne - her favourite tipple - awaited her return to a jubilant family.

But there has still been no mention of the fate of her two male Afghan guides, thought to be exiled students living in Pakistan, who were arrested with her. The last news of them was that they had been severely beaten.

- AGENCIES

Map: Opposing forces in the war against terror

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