Stuart Ramsay has covered 18 separate wars and numerous natural disasters during his 30 years as a reporter but even he admits the scenes unfolding around him this week in Afghanistan have been unique.
“The circumstances and the desperation and the sadness is the same in every scenario but this is slightly different,” the Sky News chief reporter tells Variety in an exclusive interview. “Because it is a sort of end to a 20-year campaign that’s ended in failure.”
For now, danger crackles in the air but hasn’t yet smashed its way through the doors of the military compound where Ramsay and his small team (comprised of a Sky News camera operator, security advisor and their producer, Dominique van Heerden) are hunkered down — just metres away from the Taliban — near the airport in Kabul. Outside the compound, thousands of terrified civilians plead their case to the military and interpreters trying to process evacuees, while gun shots are occasionally fired as the Taliban try to bring some order.
Van Heerden has pivoted almost entirely to trying to help evacuees, particularly those Afghans who have worked for Sky News over the years, ranging from camerapeople to cable engineers, as well as their families. “[Dominique] said to me today, ‘Stuart, I’m not going to be producing you much today, I’m producing getting people out,’” says Ramsay.
Ramsay has also been inundated with desperate pleas for assistance, too many to possibly be able to fulfil. “I’m getting so much mail from people saying, ‘Can you help?’ I woke up this morning and basically broke down because it’s—” Ramsay goes silent. “Hold on… Yeah, it’s pretty emotional at times, because there’s nothing you can do for so many people.”
While the compound represents hope, it is no utopia. Inside, food is already running out. When Ramsay speaks to Variety it is mid-afternoon in Afghanistan but he hasn’t eaten since the previous evening, when the Sky News team found some pasta. “There just simply was no food yesterday,” he says. “I believe there’s some today, but I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t had a minute to even go think about food yet.”
Earlier this week, before relocating to the compound, Ramsay was broadcasting live from the roof of his hotel in Kabul when he spotted a procession of Taliban marching past the presidential palace. The clip quickly went viral.
“This whole idea that without a fight they could just enter the capital and walk down the streets with their white flag, while I was doing a live shot — we’d been on for hours already — was absolutely, in one moment, surreal,” he says. “We’re watching history happening. A superpower supported by NATO countries, and obviously the United Kingdom, just lost to a bunch of guys on the back of pickups with AK47s. I mean, it is quite remarkable. And we knew then what we were watching was history unfold.”
For now, there is an uneasy cooperation between the Taliban and the Westerners still in Kabul. Western women — including van Heerden and CNN reporter Clarissa Ward — are no more obviously at risk than their male counterparts. “We’re in a bit of a honeymoon period here, but that would definitely change,” Ramsay says. “So it is extremely dangerous.”
“The position we’re in now is if the Taliban decided, ‘Enough is enough, we’re going to stop this, and we’re going to go in [to the compound] and kill everyone,’ they would be able to do it. The [British] soldiers are not enough, they could not defend this at all. So, yes, you’re working on the theory that the Taliban don’t want to do something like that at this stage, but that they do want everyone to get out.”
When the moment does arrive for Ramsay and his colleagues to evacuate, it will hopefully come courtesy of the British army, with whom they are currently embedded. The only other option is to charter a plane, which is virtually impossible. If an evacuation fails, they would potentially have to go into hiding.
“We’re with the soldiers every day and we are filming all the time, so I would hope that they wouldn’t leave me behind,” he says. When — if — they do evacuate, the Sky News team will need to leave almost everything behind, including their equipment.
“There’s probably no chance of us taking anything out of here,” Ramsay says. “I think I have one bag. I’ve got my favourite T-shirt in it and a pair of trousers. And that’s it.”
But he’s not bothered by that.
“There is an old [maxim], you know: the journalists put themselves here so you can’t really be complaining about it,” Ramsay says. “It’s just the circumstances we’re in, which are obviously very important to report on. But what happens to us is really our own problem.”