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Rolling the dice alone in Afghanistan

  • Source: Global Times
  • [01:28 September 20 2010]
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Pictures of Afghan political leaders and local celebrities hang on a street vendor's stand in Kabul Sunday. Photo: AFP

Watanabe Yoichi. Photo: Hao Zhou

By Hao Zhou and Qiu Yongzheng in Kandahar

Watanabe Yoichi is a loner of sorts. He also likes to live on the edge.

That's why the Japanese freelance reporter chose to embed himself in Afghanistan and cover the war.

"I have gotten used to traveling alone," said Watanabe, with a comforting smile and sense of modesty, speaking very slowly and clearly.

Watanabe, 38, has a thick mustache and is easily discernable from the rest of the group he is with, consisting of mostly stocky Western journalists.

While others chat and smoke, Watanabe sits alone, including recently at Kandahar Airfield, where the writers were waiting to be transferred to the frontline of Kandahar in the south.

"I work for myself, and I will sell my photos and videos to Japanese TV stations when I go back to my county," said Watanabe, who has been an independent journalist for 18 years. However, Watanabe wasn't sure how much money he'd earn, or even whether his work would be accepted.

"It's just like a gamble," he said. "I brought only $5,000, which should cover my flight to and from Tokyo, as well as a one-month stay in Afghanistan," Watanabe told the Global Times. During the embedding period, from September 1 to 15, the US Army obliged to provide transportation, lodging, dining and other necessary assistance.

If no TV stations buy Watanabe's pictures and film, he will suffer not only a loss of $5,000 but also other opportunities to earn money during his month-long stay in the war-torn Afghanistan.

However, Watanabe seemed optimistic about his journey. "I love my life, but I love adventure better," he said.

Watanabe, carrying his camera and video camera, said he's been to Iraq more than 10 times since 2002, and his travels have also reached Iran, South Africa, Europe, Latin America and most parts of China.

"When you go to Japan, you may see my face on television. Some programs often invite me as an analyst to comment on internationals issues," Watanabe said.

Watanabe's wife had the couple's first child three months ago. She works at a private social security firm in Yokohama.

"Life is a little bit difficult to me," Watanabe said. "Sometimes my wife fights with me because she worries about my safety." In a year, Watanabe spends an average of six months abroad, traveling and reporting.

In April one of Watanabe's friends, Tsuneoka Kouske, 41, was kidnapped in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz Province. "I was in Kabul then; he was invited by the Taliban to go to Kunduz for an interview, which proved to be a trap by a local gang. After he was kidnapped, his translator came back to Kabul and told us that the Taliban wanted a ransom for Tsuneoka. The translator then vanished."

One of the most dangerous experiences for Watanabe came in Iraq. "It was in 2004, when I was taking video on the streets of Baghdad; four gangsters grabbed me by the neck from behind, and my camera fell down and broke," Watanabe recalled. "They tried to kidnap me, but my security guard, a former special forces soldier in Saddam's army, fought with the four thugs and drove them away."

It's enough to make him question his dangerous lifestyle, especially with a child and wife waiting at home.

"I am considering working for a certain company so I can have a stable income rather than always traveling and taking risks," Watanabe said.

"However, most Japanese media (organizations) don't like to send journalists overseas, especially to war zones, for reporting. They would rather buy pictures and videos from big news agencies such as Reuters and the AP," he added.

"I love traveling and adventuring so much, and my favorite is taking pictures," Watanabe continued. Asked how long he would like to continue to work as he does now, Watanabe said simply, "Until death."