Fell off donkey ... caught by Taleban

Poor Yvonne Ridley. September 11 should have been a "really pleasant day" for her.

As chief reporter for the Sunday Express, she had contacts to meet for lunch at The Ivy or Quaglinos, followed by "some wine in a local bar and then on to a Soho watering hole". Instead, as we know, she had to do some proper work.

When she was captured on September 28 trying to cross into Pakistan - after spending two days in Afghanistan, disguised in a burqa - many deplored her and her paper's antics.

Not only was Ridley imprisoned, so were her two male guides and a 5-year-old girl who was travelling with her.

A large swathe of her book describing her adventure - In the Hands of the Taliban, published last week in Britain but not due in New Zealand until February - is a Bridget Jones-style sniggering romp.

Ridley tells of how she had to postpone her facial at Harvey Nichols the day after the New York atrocity because she had too much work to do.

When the newsdesk rang her at Heathrow Airport to tell her to go to Islamabad, rather than New York, she was furious.

"All my clothes had been packed for downtown New York, not some bloody souk somewhere in Asia, I felt like saying."

One chapter, "Carrying On Up the Khyber", tells how she almost shot dead several soldiers when her scarf got caught in the semiautomatic she was holding while posing in a "Boadicea-like manner" for a photograph.

Then there's the hangover she suffered after a particularly heavy night drinking, and the yell of "Flaming Nora" (while posing as a deaf mute) she emitted when her donkey bolted during her fateful attempt to get back into Pakistan. As she reached for its reins, her camera swung into view, and she was arrested.

I meet Ridley at Simpson's in the Strand (her choice) for breakfast. "It's just such a really nice way to start the day," she says, referring to the wood-panelled surroundings, where breakfast for two can cost £40 ($139).

She says she churned the book out in six days. It is credible in so far as you can't believe a journalist writing about a war in Afghanistan could include such asides as the tale of her "clothesaholic" chum Daffers, who would stone herself rather than suffer the Taleban decree forbidding women to buy new clothes.

But what puts the book in a league of its own is Ridley's claim that Western intelligence agencies tried to get her killed while she was imprisoned to bolster support for the air strikes on Afghanistan.

She claims that, within days, her captors were in possession of a file of doctored personal papers suggesting she was a spy, which made her highly likely to be killed. She also claims the locks on her Soho flat were tampered with.

"It would make a really good newspaper investigation, but quite frankly, I've seen this sort of thing happen to other people, and the first thing that's done to them is they are marginalised and made out to be total crackpots.

"All I know is that somebody tried to cause me serious harm. If I had been tortured, murdered and my body sent home, this would have sent a clear message about this reviled regime. It would have been great propaganda for the war machine."

Who does she think is out to get her?

"The contacts I've got say it's got the clumsy hands of the Americans all over it," she says darkly. "But then those contacts would say that. Other people think it's Mossad. I've got no idea.

"I feel very, very betrayed, and very, very sad that someone was prepared to sacrifice my life, for whatever reason, although I have been told by a contact in Whitehall not to take it personally."

Ridley worked on regional papers for 18 years before arriving in London, but apart from a couple of brief stints during the Gulf War with the Newcastle Sunday Sun, she had no war reporting experience.

"I had been in war areas, and hostile areas, such as Beirut. And I dipped in and out of Northern Ireland on different stories," she says.

Nor had she ever worked as a foreign correspondent.

"A lot of the criticism was: 'Oh, she's got no experience!' When do you become a war correspondent? Do you have to get special training? Everybody has to make that first step."

I ask her why she thinks the paper sent her.

"At the end of the day, I've done 25 years of journalism; if I can't handle a story with that degree of magnitude ... "

While Ridley was never physically harmed during her captivity - first in Jalalabad and then in Kabul prison, which also held eight charity workers from Shelter Now International who were also later released - the experience was terrifying to the point where she would shake uncontrollably.

She feared being raped twice, first by a man who was groping her in the car as she was taken to Jalalabad, and then during her first night in captivity when a man crept into her room.

She was unable to scream and lay still with her eyes shut while he watched her. He left her unharmed.

The worst moment was when her guard went to find a woman to search her before locking her up, and she thought she was going to be stoned to death.

When not being questioned, she was on a hunger strike, doing yoga, reading Ken Follett thrillers and being bloody minded to the guards (which included hanging her knickers out to dry in full view).

She believes she was released because the press coverage was embarrassing the Taleban.

During her absence, much was made of her having "abandoned" her daughter Daisy, who turned 9 at her Lake District boarding school during her mother's captivity.

She maintains that the experience made her closer to her daughter, who she says in her book was the result of a burst condom and whom she was initially going to have aborted.

Daisy's father is Daoud Zaaroura, a former Palestine Liberation Organisation colonel, now chief executive of the North of England Refugee Service, whom she met while working on a story in Cyprus. The couple were together, on and off, for five years.

Ridley, who is leaving the Sunday Express this month after two years, plans to return to Afghanistan to see the people she met there during her two brief days in the country, and already has a second book offer in the pipeline.

She says she has also had several offers from documentary makers.

What has the experience taught her?

"To avoid donkeys," she replies.

- INDEPENDENT

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