Yvonne Ridley – In the line of fire
Original address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/homeground/archive/2004/yvonne_ridley.shtml (dead link)
Source: BBC, March 23, 2004
What turns a hard drinking, feminist war correspondent into a Muslim peace campaigner?
Homeground tells the unique story of one of Britain’s most controversial journalists, Yvonne Ridley – a woman who spurns convention.
Sunday Express journalist Yvonne Ridley was captured by the Taliban two years ago after being sent to cover the build-up to the Afghanistan war.
Yvonne was detained on suspicion of spying after going in search of a scoop disguised in a traditional burka.
But it ended in disaster when she was thrown into prison and held for ten days, while the government, Yvonne’s family and work colleagues tried to secure her release.
Against the odds Yvonne was set free, but her time in the hands of the Taliban proved to be a life-changing experience.
Against the odds
Yvonne Ridley says she was “simply doing her job”‘ when she was seized by the Taliban near the city of Jalalabad.
As Yvonne explains, “A camera which I had hidden in the folds of my burka slipped out right into the full view of a passing Taliban soldier.
“He went crazy – cameras were banned under the regime – and he pulled me off the donkey and removed the camera.”
For the first six days Yvonne was held in the intelligence headquarters in Jalalabad before being taken to Kabul prison.
Her cell was very basic and the experience was terrifying. “Every morning I woke up, I thought ‘is this going to be my last day?’,” she recalls.
Hostage to fortune
Although Yvonne was never physically hurt in any way, the experience was mentally exhausting.
“Although they were very nice, I just thought ‘these are the good guys, the bad cops are going to appear at any time now with electrodes and torture instruments, or I’m going to be taken outside and shot.”
While being held captive she kept a secret diary using the inside of a box from a toothpaste tube and the inside of a soap wrapper.
Yvonne remembers her ordeal in her cell all too well, “They tried to break me mentally by asking the same questions time and time again, day after day, sometimes until 9 o’clock at night,” she recalls.
Some fellow journalists have called Ridley naive, others have criticised her for leaving behind the two guides who were arrested with her – they were tortured and beaten in prison.
Kevin Maguire, Chief Reporter for The Guardian, calls her actions “very cruel, callous and unforgivable,” but Ridley is unrepentant.
Whilst in prison Yvonne tried to secure her release by offering to read the Koran or Qur’an. It was the start of her conversion to Islam.
Yvonne took on the Muslim faith in August 2003. As a result she’s given up drinking, tries to pray five times a day and visits a mosque every Friday.
“There are two billion Muslims on the planet, praying at the same time – that’s quite a force,” she says.
“I was told I was part of a bigger family, and I really feel that closeness now.”
So why has a feisty war correspondent been drawn to a faith which some in the west say oppresses women?
“I started reading the Koran and it was an absolutely breathtaking. It could have been written yesterday for today.”
“It was crystal clear that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education,” says Yvonne.
Protestant to protester
Yvonne was brought up as a Protestant in Stanley, sang in the church choir, and was the Sunday school teacher in her village.
Today she’s exchanged her Church of England upbringing for Islam and a very different set of spiritual beliefs.
“Some of my friends are very understanding, others think I’m the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The reactions have been quite strange, the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other.”
Yvonne’s experiences in the Middle East have made her a vocal anti-war campaigner.
She started to think about the futility of war because, in her words, “These missiles can’t differentiate between civilians and military targets, between a woman, a child and a soldier.
“If I can use any of my 15 minutes of notoriety and celebrity for good, then I will,” says Yvonne.
It’s not just her faith that Yvonne has changed – she started working for the controversial Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera.
Until recently Yvonne worked on their new English website, and she became hooked on the internet.
“It’s a really exciting 24/7 operation… if something breaks, we can put it straight onto the Internet,” she said at the start of her job with them.
Yvonne believed Al Jazeera had given the Arab world a previously unheard independent voice.
“I like the strident style of Al Jazeera,” she says. She had no problems with the station’s graphic coverage of dead British soldiers.
“I had no problems with that at all… I cry more when I see innocent civilians slaughtered by gun fire than dead soldiers.”
Another twist in the tale
Just as Ridley was extolling the virtues of Al Jazeera, she was abruptly sacked by the station.
“I was told I’d been terminated. There was no explanation… I was pretty shocked and devastated,” she says.
Opinion is divided as to the reasons for her sacking.
Some claim that the station bowed to American pressure following several controversial reports that Ridley had written about US soldiers handcuffing a seven-year-old Iraqi child.
Al Jazeera denies this, saying “at no point was this an issue”.
The station claims that it was Ridley’s overly-vocal and argumentative style that led to her departure.
Yvonne is still upset about her treatment and plans to take action, “I still have the utmost respect for Al Jazeera, and of course I’m going to fight it. This is a big slur on my reputation.”
A changed personality
Yvonne is now tee-total and celibate – a far cry from her Fleet Street days as a journalist.
“It’s a chapter over,” she says stoically, “I’ve never missed the alcohol. I still go out and socialise.”
Yvonne has also changed as a person. “I think I’ve become more reflective and tolerant than I used to be… I’ve grown to like myself more,” she concludes.
“I haven’t just signed up to a religion. I’ve totally transformed my life and I see myself evolving as time goes on to become the most perfect Muslim I can.”
In just two years, Yvonne has been transformed from a war corespondent to a committed Muslim with a new lifestyle and a change of career.
It’s been an amazing spiritual and physical journey for the North East-born journalist who finally has found her spiritual roots, thousands of miles from her country of birth.
From Durham to Dohar, it’s been an incredible adventure and a fascinating spiritual rebirth.