The world wars that time forgot

The Observer/Guardian (UK)
May 23 2004

The world wars that time forgot

BBC director of news Richard Sambrook on a documentary series that
features people for whom war is part of daily life

Sunday May 23, 2004
The Observer

Every minute of the day two people die somewhere in the world as a
result of war. Not only do most of us not know who dies, we hardly
know the wars that claim their lives. For many of those caught up in
conflict it is because of a decision they have made: to join the army
or a rebel group. For many others, there is no choice and little
Take the Hmong fighters deep in the jungles of Laos and still
persecuted for helping the Americans in the Secret War. The father of
a young family surviving on sawdust noodles and moving daily to
escape attack says: ‘One day the leaders of the international
community will come and rescue us. If they don’t nothing will
change.’ As I say, faint hope.

Television often portrays wars as exceptional and highly charged
events. The reality for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people is
anything but exceptional – it is part of how they live their daily
lives and encompasses boredom and drudgery alongside death.

How as journalists and broadcasters can we help people to understand
these conflicts and how they affect ordinary lives? One Day of War,
the first programme in the new series of BBC2’s This World, follows
individual fighters in 16 conflicts over the same 24-hour period. It
is a new approach, intended to be less remote than conventional
foreign affairs coverage, allowing viewers to get to know, if only
slightly, the individuals at war and their hopes, fears and
motivation. Of paramount importance to This World editor Karen
O’Connor and series producer Will Daws is to convey the fighters’
stories in their own words and to show the full 360 degrees of their
lives; the struggles but also their concerns for family, trying to
feed themselves and their sense of humour.

The day chosen was 22 March, when Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin was
killed by the Israelis. That made the day’s headlines, but much else

We meet Grace, an 18-year-old fighter with the New People’s Army in
the Philippines. She wanted to be a teacher, but couldn’t afford the
fees. She joined the rebels on New Year’s Day and now has two
choices: kill or be killed.

On the Black Sea a Georgian navy captain is trying to cadge fish off
passing ships to feed his crew as they sail an improbable rustbucket
to blockade the Abkhazian rebels. ‘I love work, I love women, I love
beer,’ he declares, but as night falls his discomfort and the danger
grow. In Nepal we accompany a 24-year-old woman Maoist rebel on her
first active mission armed with a flintlock rifle more suited to the
Napoleonic wars. ‘Ideology is our weapon,’ she suggests, but in a
quieter moment talks lovingly of the grandmother who raised her and
who she misses at night.

And in Somalia we follow a child soldier collecting money at
roadblocks to fund his militia. He takes us to the house where his
parents were killed by a mortar. It was better when they were alive,
he tells us. He could play football and go to school. He longs to do
something positive for his country, but charm and aspiration are not
enough to survive in Somalia.

In Chechnya, Russian troops on mine-sweeping duty used to put wooden
crosses at the side of the road where a colleague had fallen. ‘Now no
one bothers. We have to have a collection to buy a coffin to send
them back to Moscow,’ says one. Nine hundred Russian troops have died
in Chechnya, plus, it is estimated, 15,000 rebels and 100,000

Last February I met the 16 teams who were going out to film One Day
of War as they gathered in London for safety briefings and final
logistics. They comprised a highly experienced group of cameramen and
producers, all motivated by the idea of contributing to a unique
film, a snapshot of the world in a way that had never been attempted
before. They are largely unknown to the audiences who benefit from
their work. The risks to them were considerable, and I salute their
courage and professionalism.

This project and its approach are the latest extension of what the
BBC has seen as part of its core mission since it began broadcasting
in 1922. ‘Let nation speak unto nation’ is emblazoned on the BBC
crest. ‘Making sense of the world’ is how BBC News has more recently
defined its purpose. Once a team of seven or eight people would be
needed to film overseas and ship – literally – the film back to
London for developing and printing. Today we can broadcast live from
anywhere on the planet. Last year we saw live coverage of fighting in
Iraq. But it doesn’t follow that instant communication in a
globalised world makes our understanding any deeper.

Napoleon is said to have once declared: ‘If you had seen one day of
war, you would pray to God that you would never see another.’ Two
hundred years later, there are some corners of the world, little
discussed and under-reported, where that still holds true.

I believe the BBC’s commitment to world affairs, and its scale, make
it the only broadcaster that could attempt a project as ambitious as
this – venturing deep into the jungles, deserts and mountains of the
world, finding the most remote and dangerous conflicts, and allowing
the people there to speak for themselves. The film reminds us of half
forgotten names: Nagorno Karabakh, the FARC, the Hmong. While we
carry on with our lives, jobs, children, moving house, they carry on
fighting, sometimes for 40 or 50 years. If it sometimes seems
pointless we should make a little effort to get to know them and to
understand. There is a reason they go on – and in One Day of War they
tell us why.


· ‘One Day of War’ will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Thursday