pakistan (4/5)

The drama-documentary series that tells the gripping real-life stories of travellers detained overseas continues. Using re-enactments and interviews, this week’s instalment tells the story of Amardeep Bassey, a British reporter who found himself incarcerated in a Pakistani jail.

On 3 May 2002, Amardeep Bassey arrived in Pakistan on a professional and personal journey. A British-born Asian, Amardeep was on a mission to tell the stories of everyday Afghans in the wake of the US-led assault on the Taliban. After flying into Islamabad, the journalist travelled to Peshawar to meet up with the region’s human rights commissioner, Tariq Khan. The official had organised an escort to ensure Amardeep’s safe passage. Tariq also quelled Amardeep’s fears over the fact that he had not arranged a multiple-entry visa into Pakistan, stating that he could simply visit the passport office at the checkpoint on re-entry.

That evening, Amardeep was introduced to his bodyguard, Noushad. Together with a group of tribesmen, the men shared a few drinks and chatted about the trip. Noushad noticed Amardeep’s watch, which had a basic camera built into it. The men were fascinated by the gadget and set about taking candid snaps of each other. “Taking that watch with me to Pakistan and Afghanistan was probably the worst mistake I made,” Amardeep reflects.

The next day, Noushad told Amardeep that he had to be reticent about his true nationality and religion. The journalist obediently donned a salwar kameez and covered the Sikh bracelet on his wrist. The road to Kabul was littered with makeshift checkpoints manned by outlaws, but the pair ran the gauntlet of barriers unscathed.

Day one was a success. Although Amardeep’s interview subjects knew he worked for a newspaper, they were open and willing to candidly discuss their experiences of the war. But this luck was to run dry. “That was my last day of freedom,” Amardeep says. “The next day everything changed.”

Early the next morning, with his notebook filled to the brim with his collected stories, Amardeep departed Afghanistan with his faithful bodyguard in tow. Although the pair wanted to head back to the first checkpoint, their taxi driver refused to take that route. When they arrived at an alternative border crossing, the gate was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan refugees. “I pulled out my British passport and, like the Red Sea, everyone kind of parted in front of me,” he remembers.

But as soon as passport control realised the British national did not have a valid visa, he was interrogated roughly by a military intelligence officer who declared him to be an Indian spy. Evidence against him was held up in the form of his camera watch, his ‘coded’ shorthand scribbling and his Sikh bracelet.

Amardeep was thrown into Landi Kotal military prison. Although Noushad was free to go, he insisted on accompanying his charge – as to leave him would be to go against his tribal code. After almost two weeks in appalling conditions, a British official arrived to meet with Amardeep. “This very English-looking gentleman was waiting for me, all suited and booted in the 42 degree heat,” he recalls. All the envoy could offer him was a single annual visit for every year of his 15-year sentence.

After 28 days of incarceration, Amardeep was suddenly released. But to his horror, he realised that Noushad was being kept behind bars for one more week. Back in Britain, Amardeep never forgot the loyalty that this virtual stranger showed him throughout the ordeal. Five years after their shared experience, the film follows Amardeep as he is reunited with his friend. “A big chunk of me has been left back in Pakistan and I think it’s still there,” he says. “And I don’t think I’m going to reclaim that part of me until I go back again.”

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