Listening to the Heartbeat

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As a ‘stringer’ in Moscow in the early 1990s, I could not afford the army of fixers, translators and drivers of established correspondents. I spent hours in queues to obtain permits and tickets. I trudged home on dark, frozen nights, worrying about stories I was missing and longing for the resources of my big-name colleagues. What I didn’t then realize was that my impecunious status gained me a privileged view of the country from the ground up. After months in a blur, the Cyrillic fog cleared and I listened with pleasure to the gripes of passengers on train journeys across the steppe, sharing their sausage and lukewarm vodka. I laughed with Sergei, a retired KGB colonel, over the earthy Russian proverbs he taught me while we worked together on a newsletter. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of Chechen families who sheltered and fed me when I covered the war in the North Caucasus. But except for the odd ‘colour’ piece, I failed to get the feel of the place into my news stories.

Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution.

Since his death in 2006, he has been called a fantasist and a communist spy, and respected anthrop

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About the contributor

Chris Bird was a foreign correspondent. He is now a junior doctor, dreaming of escape from the NHS labyrinth.

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