BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner lit up the Wigtown Book Festival last Saturday with his humanity, his humour and his intellect when appearing in the Scottish Power marquee to promote his book ‘Blood and Sand - 11 Years On’.
Fifty-three year old Gardener was shot six times and left for dead by Al-Qaeda members in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2004, when reported for the BBC. His cameraman, Simon Cumbers, was killed.
This horrific incident is seared on his mind and he began his question and answer session by reflecting on the reasons why he was shot, the surgeon who saved his life and how he retained his curiosity and respect for the Arabic world.
He remembers the day he was gunned down as absolutely routine with no sense of forboding. He and his cameraman had gone to a suburb of Riyadh in the late afternoon, the “peaceful, golden time between four and four thirty” when the dust in the fading light turns the land glorious yellow hue. They were reasonably relaxed as the Saudi government had assigned them minders. These minders turned out to be “completely useless”, recalls Gardner.
As they were filming a car drew up and an “ordinary looking guy” got out and shot Gardener twice. The gunman then had a conversation with the others in the car about these “infidels” lying on the ground. When the discussion was over, he shot the journalist four more times. The car drove off and Gardner was left to die.
He remembers going into survival mode and realised his only hope was to get word to the British Embassy. The ‘minders’ legged it and the grave situation was exacerbated by being a neighbourhood full of Al Qaeda sympathisers, so no-one came to his aid even though, as a fluent Arabic speaker, he was crying out for help in their own language. He clearly heard passers-by casually dismissing his plight with the words: “He should not be here, let him die.” Finally help arrived and when he got to a hospital, Gardner heard nurses say to each other they could only do what they could “until he dies”.
His life was saved by a pioneering surgeon from South Africa who specialised in gunshot wounds called Peter Bautz. His surgery strategy, allied to the former Territorial soldier’s fitness levels, gave him a lifeline to cling onto.
Once he has recovered suffiently, he was moved back to Britain for rehabilitation, and Gardner paid tribute to the care he received from the “fantastic NHS” teams involved.
The experience had, unsurprisingly changed him forever, made him a more confident person and instilled in him a determination not to “sweat the small stuff”.
Gardner said: “It’s funny now, I meet kings and queens and prime ministers and look at them as just flesh and blood. I have been though the tunnel and come out the other side.”
He concluded that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the brutal experience he suffered has not changed his attitude towards Muslims.
“I was just in a bad area. Generally, I always receive good hospitality from Muslims. The people that shot me are outcasts in their own society.”
The book charts his return to Riyadh 11 years after the shootings and his morerecent experences reaffirmed his lifelong fascination with the intricacies of the Arab world. But he could only make the journey back to the Saudi Arabian capital after his mother died last year, having promised her he would never return in her lifetime.
Taking questions from the capacity crowd he spoke with clarity and deep understanding about the present difficulties in the middle east, the spiralling civil war in Syria resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
He traces the root of the upheaval back to the first gulf war and the allies decision to disband the Iraqi army.
He reasoned: “When the army was disbanded in came the insurgents. The Iraqis are a proud people and they would have been happy to carry on serving a puppet leader. But if you wipe away all order you better replace it with something as good and they didn’t.”
He touched on the similar situation in Libya than when Gadaffi was deposed the government fell apart and into the vacuum came various militias who have ended up fighting each other.
When asked to comment on Syria, Gardner said: “Syria is not our war. The British, French and the USA tried twice through the UN to get Assad to stand down but they were blocked by Russia and China.
“It’s now turned out to be Assad against Isis with Assad backed by Russia. Attempts by the west to support more moderate groups failed and Isis was left, the most successful group to emerge. Their caliphate is broadly the same size as it was last year, it’s not expanding, but their brutal jihadism attracts recruits from all over the world.”
He also spoke eloquently about his student days and travelling extensively and living with the ancient tribes of Arabia and how honoured he was to be allowed to embrace their society and the courtesy they showed him.
On a lighter note, Gardner referred to his recent experience as a subject of the geneology programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, an experience he found both thrilling and frustrating as his need, as a journalist, to ask questions about were he was going were met with a firm rebuff. The programme showed Gardner trace his lineage, on his mother’s side, back 31 generation to reveal he was a direct descendant of William the Conqueror!
A fitting end to this remarkable presenter and stoic survivor whose visit to Wigtown revealed a prince among men.