Sunday, 25 July 2021

Britain once made and the world has now lost and says "Farewell" to a 'Valiant servant of Truth’, foreign correspondent, Simon Dring, সাইমন ড্রিং

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Simon, who has died at the age of 76, was a brilliant foreign correspondent and television presenter who worked for many news agencies for over a career of 40 years, covering major stories and events, but in particular, over 20 wars and revolutions around the world. 

He was born the son of Betty La Fontaine (née McAnally) and John, in the last year of the the Second World War during an exceptionally cold snap in January 1945, in the market town of Fakenham in Norfolk. His father was recorded in a 1939 government register as a 'Senior rank clerk' and his mother's occupation was classified as 'Unpaid domestic duties'. 

Brought up at home with his sister, Susan, when he was 11, Simon was packed off to Woodbridge School in Suffolk, where he lived as a boarder in this independent school for boys, with Tudor origins, with its motto 'Pro Deo Rege Patria', 'For God, King and Country''. However, his tenure at the school was broken short in his teens, when he was expelled after being found guilty of the misdemeanor of 'midnight swimming in the local River Deben'. Back in Norfolk, after a couple of years attending King's Lynn Technical School, he left at the age of 17 in 1962. 

Simon's childhood dream was to explore the world and in the same year he left school, he left home and became one of the first to walk, what was to become, the 1960s 'Hippie trail to India'. To raise money, along the way, Simon sold the shirts his mother had packed for him in his ruck sack as he hitch-hiked overland across Europe and the Middle East, out to India and then on to South-East Asia. It was here that he got his first media job in early 1963, at the age of 18, working as a proofreader and feature writer for the 'Bangkok World' newspaper in Thailand.

After his return the Britain, at the age of 19, Simon briefly worked as a freelance reporter for the London 'Daily Mail', before leaving the country again and reporting for 'The New York Times' in Laos, before moving to Vietnam at the end of 1964, where he covered the War for two years for Reuters, as their youngest staff correspondent at the time. It was the practice of foreign correspondents to become 'embedded' within military units, a practice required by the Pentagon. Simon, however, was critical of the practice and said at the time, no doubt with his desire to maintain his impartiality :  "My instinct is not to get embedded". It was here that he was, while working in the field, wounded for the first time in his career, the second time was to be in Cyprus, ten years later. Simon was snapped (right)with the Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis, who would be killed in Bangkok filming an attempted coup in 1985.

In 1969, for the 'Daily Telegraph' he reported on the Nigerian Civil War and was the first western journalist in a year to visit front lines in east central Nigeria and highlight the plight of refugees flooding out of Biafra. Then, in 1970, he was Phnom Penh in Cambodia, reporting on the civil war between the forces of the Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong allies against the government of Lon Nol. As Prime Minister was supported by a brief two-month incursion by more that 80,00 US combat troops and South Vietnamese soldiers with President Nixon seen here, indicating the site of the incursion. In May Simon reported that this was 'forcing the North Vietnamese westwards and drawing Cambodia into a tragic and destructive war she is far from able to cope with'.

In 1971, at the age of 26, Simon was in Dhaka in East Pakistan working on the launch of 'Jamuna Television'. While there, he witnessed the speech given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the 'Founding Father of Bangladesh' at the Ramna Race Course Maidan to a gathering of over a million people. Simon later recalled : "For us, we were young journalists those days and we still didn't really have a very strong perception of what was happening here. But when I arrived I had the privilege of 7th March standing in Race Course Maidan on the podium where Sheikh Mujib was giving that famous 18-and-a-half-minute speech". (link) 

He said :"I was actually on the platform only a few yards away from him. I don't speak Bengali, but I have to say that in that 20 minute speech, listening to him, seeing the reaction of that huge crowd there, I understood everything that was going on." (link) Simon can be standing on the extreme left in the still photo. "It was extraordinary. There was that one phrase in particular where he said : "The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle now is the struggle for our independence. Joi Bangla". When I heard that, I understood it even though I didn't understand Bengali'. The hairs almost stood up on the back of my neck, because I didn't understand it, but I understood it. It was at that moment I really began to get a feel for what was happening, in what was then, East Pakistan and the conflict that was evolving between the West and the East". (link)    

He wasn't to know it at the time, but he would, within weeks, cover the horrors of the country’s war of independence from Pakistan. He was among about 200 foreign journalists confined to their hotel, 'The Intercontinental', in Dhaka on March 25th and designed to hide the journalists from witnessing 'Operation Searchlight'. 

About an hour before the planned massacre began, Public Relations Officer of Pakistan Army’s Eastern Command, Major Siddiq Salik  (link) addressed the journalists in the room where they were confined and said : “Civil War has broken out and for your own safety we are going to take you out of the country.” Simon stood up and after introducing himself he asked : “I heard that we have to leave. Is it an order?” Major Salik replied : “Oh, no, it’s not an order. It’s just for your own safety.” Simon continued : “Then I don’t have to leave. I can stay”. Salik answered : “You can stay, but it might be dangerous for you.” Simon persisted : “What will happen if I stay?” Major Salik responded with his veiled threat : "Yes, if you choose to stay it's up to you, but you might find that we prepare a special party for you. So it might be better that you left". Simon replied : "OK, thank you".

Simon said : "I personally felt very angry about this. (link) Angry professionally, that we were being denied the opportunity to go out and document the scale of the killing and personally I knew many Bengalis and I knew a lot of innocent people had been killed. And somehow you couldn't allow this to happen and the Pakistan Army thought they could get away with it and that was really appalling and it did make you angry".

Without fear of the Major's threatened 'party', Simon went up to his room, packed his bag with a pretense of leaving. He thought that if the Major didn't count the number of journalists, there was a good chance that his disappearance would go unnoticed. As fate would have it, he was proved correct. Simon hid and watched from the rooftop as the journalists were loaded onto army trucks and whisked away to the airport. (link)  After a little while, Simon crept back into the hotel, which was now empty of all the army officials. He recalled : "All the Bengali staff in the hotel were very helpful and very excited that I had taken this step, and they said there was one other person here too - he's a photographer from Associated Press News Agency, Michel Laurent. So we got together and we decided we better hide overnight somewhere in the hotel and the Bengali staff helped hide us and protect us. We decided the next morning that we had to go out and document what had happened". 

When the curfew was lifted on March 27, avoiding the military patrol, they left the hotel dressed in kurta-pajamas and were able to extensively tour Dhaka in a baker's van. They managed to capture the harrowing details of the genocidal brutality that took place at Dhaka University’s Iqbal Hall, Rajarbagh Police Line and parts of old Dhaka.(link with graphic images) They were, however, spotted by a Pakistani army patrol at the University, but fortunately weren't captured. The officers were now aware that there were Western journalists still roaming around and came to Intercontinental Hotel to search for them. Once again the Bengali staff hid them and they escaped capture. 

Simon recalled : "We thought we had to keep moving, keep hidden as much as we could. We went to the Hindu area and the older part of the city. A market area had been attacked and about two hundred yards of houses had been burned down. There were people dead in front of their shops. I counted four or five bodies there, but many more had been killed in the burnt out shops. When we got to the Hindu area, quite clearly, again, there had been a very deliberate attempt to kill people". (link)

Simon and Michel estimated that in the region of 7,000 were killed in that 24 hour period. They then managed to board on a flight to West Pakistan. Security personnel stopped Simon a couple of times, but he somehow held on to his notes hidden in his socks and taped to the back of his trouser belt.(link)  Simon recalled : "We ended up in Karachi (in East Pakistan) and we thought for sure a message would have come from East Pakistan and said : 'Detain these people take everything off them'. But there didn't seem to be, but 'Customs' were suspicious of us. We were taken into separate rooms. I was made to take all my clothes off. They stuck a pencil up my bottom, obviously looking for film or something like that and I was sitting there naked with all my clothes and my notes in my socks". (link)

Simon had retained his notes and Michel his film and when they flew out and reached Bangkok he filed a special report the extent of the sudden mass crackdown and ensuing massacre in Dhaka. His report was published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on March 30, 1971. It was the first news of the genocide and the first-ever international report on the atrocities as seen by a witness. It was also clear from his article that the Army had struck without warning, under the cover of darkness and that these factors were responsible for enormous casualties. 

Simon said : "It was a very important story, personally, but for us professionally, and its not often in your life that you can report a story that individuals get value from. Its not just a war story. There's something very, intensely personal, about it and you felt you were able to serve people in a way you couldn't normally do as a journalist". (link) 

Simon flew to Kolkata from London in November 1971. His mission was to collect war news and he entered Bangladesh in December with a Bangladesh-India Joint Force and he went to Dhaka where Pakistan Army was preparing to surrender. (link) When he, again, met Major Salik he said : “Major Siddiq, how are you? I am really sorry that you have ended up here. For your own safety now you are here”. With an embarrassing smile on his face Major Salik replied : “Things do change”. Another account of their meeting suggested that, when Simon asked the Major what he would have done if he would found him, he answered :  “We probably would have killed you”. (link)

Simon became the 'UK Reporter of the Year' for his eyewitness accounts in The Daily Telegraph of the massacres in Dhaka during the Liberation War of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Government  expressed its gratitude to Simon for his outstanding role during its War of Liberation. He returned to Bangladesh after it gained victory for its independence in December 1971 and was in Dhaka when Sheikh Mujib returned from his exile in Pakistan on 10 January 1972. Sheikh Mujib recognised him as they had met 2-3 times during March 1971. In fact, Simon was on the back of the truck which took Sheikh Mujib from Dhaka airport to Paltan Maidan. "It was very special and particularly exciting because when he arrived at the airport I was able to clamber on to the back of the truck and I actually drove into town on the back of the truck Sheikh Mujibur was on . (text link) And of course mass crowds and the excitement and mass crowds and enthusiasm, you were caught up in that. It was a very special moment". 

The next day was Simon's 28th birthday. To his excitement, Sheikh Mujib had sent him a surprise birthday cake to the Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying. Back home in Fakenham, Simon's mother and father were photographed at home in the December of that year. 

In 1972 Simon was assigned to Uganda and in September he was photographed at at Manchester Airport with photographer Don McCullin (left) and Newsman Sandy Gall (centre) after their return from Uganda, where they had been detained in jail under the threat of execution by dictator, Idi Amin. Sandy Gall recalled : “I was in Uganda when there was an invasion from Tanzania and Idi Amin thought it was a British plot and locked up all the British journalists. We were rounded up and put in a military barracks in Kampala. We were put in an execution cell by mistake before eventually being moved, which was rather unpleasant”. Don said that, in his career as a photographer, having been most frightened when arrested by Amin’s men and taken to a notorious prison where they were murdering hundreds of people every day with sledgehammers. He said : ”Sometimes if felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed”.

In August 1974 Reuters carried a report : 'CYPRUS: ONE NEWSMAN IS KILLED AND OTHERS ARE WOUNDED WHEN THEIR CONVOY RUNS INTO A MINEFIELD'. In this conflict between the Turks and the Greeks on the island, Simon was driving first car in a convoy of 4 vehicles carrying newsmen when it ran into a minefield in a disputed area north-east of Nicosia. The whole episode was captured by a cameraman filming from the side of the road.(link) When Simon spotted  disturbance in the road surface he stopped and Ted Stoddard, a BBC sound recordist, got out to warn the following vehicles, when he triggered a mine and was fatally injured. Wounded by shrapnel, Simon was led by a Turkish captain out of the danger area and pointing to Ted said : "What about him ?"  As he was led to a jeep he said : "Which way do I go, for Christ's sake ?" 

He was placed in the back of a jeep to be taken to a hospital in Nicosia and remarkably, wounded and smoking a cigarette filed his report for the camera as he travelled to a hospital in Nicosia : "It only goes to show just how badly defined the front lines are in this war between the Greek and the Turks here in Cyprus. At least on the Greek side the minefields are marked very clearly with barbed wire and (indistinct) lines. Here on the Turk's side, where there's no front line marked at all, mines have been indiscriminately sown across the road and nobody ever makes any attempt to stop you crossing them. There are no checkpoints, nothing. Today it's no man's land, but hopefully one day it will be policed by the United Nations". (link) That night at a meeting in Geneva foreign ministers from Britain, Greece and Turkey renewed efforts to bring peace to the island of Cyprus. 

In 1978 Simon was in Africa working for the BBC and spent 5 weeks with the guerilla fighters of the 'Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front' before Ethiopian Army launched an offensive of 120,000 soldiers and hundreds of Russian tanks on EPLF positions, regaining most of the Eritrean territory which had been held by the organisation fighting for Eritrean independence. His resulting Report for the BBC (link) contained his question to one of the fighters : "How much are you able to operate in Asmara (the town of held by the Ethiopians) itself ?" He asked another fighter : "Does that mean that, as an army, you are prepared and ready to face the full force of an Ethiopian offensive ?" He asked a Relief Co-ordinator : "How much of your supplies actually pass through the Sudan ?" In the engineering shop he asked one of the operators : "Where did you get this machine from ?" The quality of his Report was recognised when he received the International 'Valiant For Truth Award' for his reports. 

For BBC TV News, Simon reported the Shah of Iran going into exile on 17 January 1979. He said : "The hatred of the monarchy displayed on the
streets of Iran has, according to court officials left him a bitter and saddened man. Few people expect him to return".
(link) On February Ist Simon was on the plane carrying the Ayatollah Khomeini back from Paris to Iran after 15 years in exile and was given the Monte Carlo Television Festival 'Golden Nymph Award', shared with John Simpson for his reporting of the 'Iranian Revolution' for BBC Television News. 

In 1986, at the age of 41, Simon produced and helped design and organise, with Chris Long and Bob Geldof , 'Sport Aid' and 'The Race Against Time', which is still the biggest simultaneous mass-participation sporting event ever held. At the time it was the most complex live global television event ever produced and raised over US$36 million for famine relief in Africa and more than 20 million people in 120 countries took part.

In 1992, at the age of 47, Simon retraced his 1962 overland journey to India for BBC Radio 4 as a series entitled ‘On The Road Again’. The series was first broadcast in the summer of 1993 and Simon repeated the journey again for an 8-part TV series of the same name for BBC Television and the Discovery Channel. He covered 29,000 kilometres in a Jeep and a Land Rover and wrote a book to accompany the series, ‘On The Road Again: Thirty Years On The Traveller's Trail To India’ in 1995. (YouTube clip, without sound, of Simon buying a melon, en route)

In 1994 he covered 'Operation Uphold Democracy', a US-led military intervention designed to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup d'état that overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The operation was effectively authorized by the 1994 United Nations Security Council Resolution 940 and Simon was awarded The 'New York Festival Grand Prize' for his BBC Radio 4 documentary of the US Invasion. 

In 1994 from Oslo he filed : 'Norway's Whaling Woes' centred on Norway's decision to resume hunting minke whales, in defiance of a moratorium by the International Whaling Commission  : 'Kathrine Kjelland of the Olympic Organizing Committee emphasizes that even with 3,000,000 visitors and more than 20,000 tons of waste, it will be possible to stage a reasonably green Olympics. Hard to imagine in a one-elk town like Lillehammer. But in order to preserve the sweep of the Alpine landscape here, the ice hockey rink, for example, has been carved out of the inside of a mountain. And even Coca-Cola has been persuaded to switch from glitzy red neon to more modest, wooden signs. This is the same country that hunts the minke whale?' (link) By complete contrast, In the same year BBC Radio 4 broadcast 'Dancing in Dead Men's Shoes', a series of reports about the aftermath of revolutions.

In 1997 Simon and his partners in Bangladesh helped to found 'Ekushey Television', bringing together a team of over 50 reporters, producers and editors, he helped establish the first television news operation in Bangladesh. Journalist Tushar Abdullah said : “Simon Dring was an iconic character in the expansion of TV media in Bangladesh". It was the countries first independent television station and attracting audiences around 70 million, outperformed the state-run Bagladesh Television. 

In 2002 Simon was Managing Director of the TV station, but was forced to leave  Bangladesh after the Government, led by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, issued a deportation order. Ekushey Television went off the air the same day, after the Government shut down its transmission facilities. At the time, ETV insisted that its news and current affairs coverage was neutral and objective, but the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party believed it was biased against them. Before his departure, Simon was given a farewell reception, at which many of Bangladesh's leading cultural personalities were present and told the audience that it was the second time he was being deported from Dhaka.

For BBC Radio he was commissioned to produce a documentary on Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party 4 on Turkey’s war against the Kurds for which he was awarded a 'Sony Radio Award' while at the same time receiving recognition from Amnesty International.

In 2012, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Government awarded ‘Muktijuddha Maitree Sammanana’ (Friends of Liberation War Honor) to Simon for his outstanding role during the great Liberation War in 1971. Though Simon was honoured to have received such a prestigious award, he urged the Government to recognise Michel Laurent as he was not accorded the honour. Michel had been killed w in April 1975 in Vietnam whilst trying to rescue fellow news reporter when they were both ambushed by North Vietnamese troops. It was the last day of the war and Michel was 28 years old. 

In his later years, in addition to the countries mentioned here, Simon, could look back on the reports he had filed in his career from other hotspots in the world in Angola, Israel, Croatia, Bosnia and Georgia. Although no longer working as a foreign correspondent, he continued to work for different television channels in a number of countries and served as a consultant in Australia and returned to Bangladesh again to work as the advisor of Jamuna Television in 2013. 

Simon was looking forward to participating in "one final project" focusing on Bangladesh's Golden Jubilee of independence, before he passed away unexpectedly in Romania last Friday. On his passing, President Abdul Hamid of Bangladesh said : "Simon Dring made immense contribution in informing the world about the genocide in Bangladesh and the struggle of the people through his coverage of our Liberation War. With his demise, Bangladesh lost a time-tested friend". 

Simon's partner of 26 years Fiona McPherson, on behalf of herself and their 10 year old twin daughters, Ava and India, said in her published 'In Memoriam'

'Simon's success and achievements in his life as a renowned international journalist are very well known. His ingenuity and drive to capture the true story no matter what the cost; to go where it was required, and to do what was needed for that end, is the stuff of legend. Indeed, our twins have spent many a bed and bath time sharing his extraordinary adventures! It gave our girls, and myself, boundless inspiration and far-reaching courage to live the road less travelled with him. To find answers and meaning in wide horizons'. 

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