BBC TV documentary “Places that don’t exist” (Includes NK)



Part 1: Tuesday 1 February 2005 9pm-10.30pm; 12.30am-2am;
Saturday 5 February 7.30pm-9pm
Part 2: Wednesday 2 February 2005 9pm-10pm; 12.45am-1.45am; Sunday 6
February 11.40pm-12.40am; 2.40am-3.40am

There are almost 200 official countries in the world, but there are dozens
more breakaway states which are determined to be separate and independent.
All of the breakaway states have declared independence after violent
struggles with a neighbour. Some now survive peacefully, but others are a
magnet for terrorists and weapons smuggling, and have armies ready for a

In these two programmes Simon Reeve visits six such places: Somaliland,
Trans-Dniester and Taiwan (part one); Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and
Abkhazia (part two).

Interview: Simon Reeve

BBC Four: Was there one country that was the starting point for thinking
about these “places that don’t exist”?

Simon Reeve: Yes. A friend of mine mentioned that he was doing business with
some Somalilanders. I said, “Somaliland? Where’s that?” He said it was a
country in the north of Somalia and to my shame I didn’t know anything about
it. I found out that it’s a functioning state within Somalia. It seemed
extraordinary to me that there is no real government in Somalia but the
world recognises it as a country, and then there’s Somaliland which has
elections and a functioning democracy, but the world doesn’t recognise it as
a proper country. It just seemed a very strange situation. I discovered that
there were all these other countries, some of which I’d vaguely heard of,
some I hadn’t. Then of course there’s Taiwan, which everybody has heard of,
but not everybody knows isn’t recognised as a proper state. It has no seat
at the United Nations and no major countries have an embassy there.

BBC Four: What are the main negative factors affecting these countries
because they are not recognised?

SR: It leaves a lot of these people in limbo. Many people can’t get proper
passports and it’s difficult for them to travel because no other governments
recognise their country. To many of them I also think it’s a bit of an
insult that they’ve built a functioning state and yet the rest of the world
won’t recognise their existence. From our perspective I think it’s better to
bring them inside the international community. When they are outside it
doesn’t give international organisations the chance to keep an eye on what’s
going on. For example, Interpol can’t efficiently operate in Trans-Dniester
because it doesn’t recognise it exists. There are great concerns about the
risks of arms manufacturing there, but nobody can really find out the truth
because they can’t go there.

BBC Four: I got the impression that you enjoyed Trans-Dniester because it
was in such a Soviet time warp.

SR: All the places we went to were fascinating, but Trans-Dniester was very
unusual because it did feel like stepping back in time. I didn’t go to the
old Soviet Union, I was a bit too young then, but Trans-Dniester is how I
imagine it would have been. Indeed, people there said that they didn’t
really want to change when the Soviet Union collapsed, didn’t want to be
become a Western European state, and didn’t want McDonald’s and Starbucks.
They’d kept things pretty much the way they were, so it was a fascinating
place to visit precisely because of that.

BBC Four: Did you have a favourite?

SR: The whole thing was a great adventure frankly and a chance to go to
places that very few people get to visit, and to show people countries
they’ve never even heard of. Somaliland was perhaps the highlight because it
was incredible to see what the people had achieved with virtually nothing.
That was a very moving experience and the people were quite inspirational.
They rebuilt their country after a devastating civil war with very little
help from the outside world, but with sheer hard work and a belief in their
own national identity they’ve been able to build a functioning state.
Speaking on a personal level I find it very sad that their requests for
international recognition fall on deaf ears. This is a country which has
virtually no foreign debt. Now that’s rare in Africa and it’s primarily
because they aren’t recognised so the IMF won’t give them loans. It also
means that there’s not a lot of money sloshing around in the government
coffers so there’s not much corruption. We met the president of Somaliland,
which was quite interesting. He made the point that he runs the country on
just a few million pounds a year. It seems incredible to us that they can do
such things, but everybody accepts that they’ve got less money.

BBC Four: And a least favourite?

SR: Each country was very different and had something special about it.
Everywhere we went we met truly wonderful characters who were brimming with
hospitality. But Nagorno-Karabakh was a place that made me quite sad because
everywhere you went, on both sides, people loathed the other side. There
didn’t seem to be much hope for any improvement for the people there. With
people still in trenches facing the opposition in Azerbaijan – there’s the
threat of war there at any moment.

BBC Four: These programmes always have surreal moments, but this series
seemed to have even more than your last one. Are there any that stick in
your mind that were particularly bizarre or unexpected?

SR: I actually got quite emotional when I saw the Chinese tourists trying to
look at the Taiwanese propaganda. I was more emotional about it off camera
than I was on camera. It just seemed such an extraordinary situation. You
had tourists from a country which is emerging as one of the world’s great
economic, and potentially military, super-powers. They are very keen to find
out what’s happening in the rest of the world, including just over the water
in Taiwan. For years they’ve been able to see these small signs on the
horizon which have been spouting out Taiwanese propaganda, and then as soon
as they try to get close to the signs to see what they say, the Taiwanese
coast guard turns them back. It was a very weird situation.

BBC Four: I enjoyed your encounter with Mr Big Beard in Somalia.

SR: Yes, buying a Somali diplomatic passport from Mr Big Beard in a
Mogadishu back street market was a fairly weird experience.

BBC Four: Mogadishu did seem genuinely hairy.

SR: It is a very, very dangerous place. It seems to have been virtually
abandoned by the rest of the world precisely because it is so dangerous.
That just condemns the people who live there to almost perpetual suffering.
It actually made me think of Afghanistan in terms of how the rest of the
world was involved there at one point. There was foreign involvement in both
Afghanistan and Somalia in the 1980s and then in the early 90s the
international community pulled out of both countries. It was still pretty
bad when the rest of the world was in Somalia, but then they pulled out and
the inhabitants have been left to suffer on their own ever since. I think
there is the potential for similar problems to those in Afghanistan if the
rest of the world doesn’t get involved properly in Somalia.

BBC Four: There also seemed to have been a lot of instances when the camera
had to be pointed at the ground to avoid your filming being noticed.

SR: There were a few times when filming became dangerous. The countries we
were in are inherently lawless by their very nature. They exist in a vacuum
of their own. There is no British embassy you can turn to. You take
somewhere like Trans-Dniester, which is quite clearly functioning as a
country, but the international community does not operate there and there’s
no one to turn to if you get into trouble. So you are entirely dependent and
at the mercy of the local government and the local security people or secret
police. You do have to be responsible and careful. If someone points a gun
at you, you point your camera the other way, and if they tell you to stop
filming, then you have to make a judgement on whether you are going to get
into a lot of trouble if you do carry on.

BBC Four: I realise that they are all very different, but where do you think
these countries are going?

SR: All of these countries have sought independence after a war or major
conflict and the threat of a future war hangs over them. Taiwan is the most
serious for the rest of the world, because if Taiwan and China go to war, it
will drag in other countries in the region, and possibly even the United
States. I think Somaliland is a likely candidate for international
recognition. The government and the people there have done so much to build
a functioning country that it does make you wonder how the rest of the world
can ignore them. It’s a real African success story.