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Simon Reeve on visiting countries that don't really exist. And the people that live there.
Issue 69 | 69 february 2005
Simon Reeve is the writer and presenter of Places That Don't Exist, part of BBC4’s Holidays In The Danger Zone, where he visited little-known places where people live outside the normal rule of government. Jim Blackburn asked him all about it
How did you get the idea for the series?
A friend of mine told me about a part of Somalia known as Somaliland, of which, to my shame, I’d never heard. So I started looking at similar ‘breakaway’ states. There are around 200 countries recognised as official, functioning states but, beyond that, there are places that fall into some kind of vacuum. They exist as countries, but they’re not recognised by the rest of the world, so nobody really knows what goes on there.
The series is described as a mixture of travelogue and ‘serious journalism’.
Well, some people might say that it’s not serious enough! But the only way to tell people about places like Somaliland and Transdniestria is to do it in a light-hearted way, otherwise people switch off.
How did you choose the countries?
With difficulty. When you start looking into it, there are a lot of them; not so much in Europe, but in the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia... there are dozens: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Somaliland...
Where do these countries get their sense of independence from?
Customs and traditions play an important part, but these countries have all been involved in conflict, bringing people together and making them reluctant to reunify with the country they’ve split from.
What was your most unusual moment?
We went to see the President of Moldova, who’s actually a Transdniestrian, but he can’t go there because Transdniestria has now broken away from Moldova. We thought it would all be very serious, but he decided to show us his wine cellar, and then took us fishing, at which I was completely hopeless. It was a very strange afternoon, finished off by a few bottles of cognac, which he insisted we drank.
At one point we were detained by the KGB, which was understandable as we were creeping through bushes trying to get a glimpse of a secret Russian military base. But overall, Mogadishu was the scariest place. It is a completely lawless, anarchic city, where guns control everything, and we could only operate there with a dozen armed gunmen shadowing our every move to protect us from kidnap or shooting. We were the only white people in a city of 1.3 million. It’s been abandoned by the rest of the world, and is reckoned by the UN to be more dangerous than Iraq.
Transdniestria sounds like something out of an Ealing comedy.
Yes, Passport to Pimlico – in fact, there are parallels with the situation in some of these countries, all desperate to have their own national identity. In Transdniestria, an official from the bank asked us to look at a display of banknotes. All the figures on the notes were from other countries, which was strange, but he said: “We’re only a young country, we haven’t had time to create any national heroes.”
A major worry about these places must be the amount of weapons that are lying around.
Yes, particularly in the states that were once part of the Soviet Union and home to vast amounts of Soviet ammunition. No one’s quite sure what’s happened to it, and there are rumours that it’s been sold off to undesirable elements, such as terrorists and political organisations. The fact that these countries aren’t recognised means the UN aren’t free to go and investigate.
For which of these states do you hold out the most hope?
I was most comfortable in Somaliland; they’re building a country from nothing, with no help or aid, yet because of that there’s virtually no corruption and no debt. It’s an African success story, and they desperately want tourists to visit. If you want somewhere a bit different, it’s not a bad place to go.
You've written two books about terrorism. Where does this fascination stem from?
I was working on a newspaper and I went to meet two South African terrorists. I was pretty naive then, but these guys struck me as such pathetic individuals, and yet they’d been involved in bombing attacks and had had a major impact on the political process. That fascinated me, and I’ve specialised in terrorism ever since. Having said that, one day I’d like to write a book where everyone survives to the end of the story!
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