Fri, May 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Fighting for his life

The BBC's security correspondent was a champion of the Arab world, but that didn't stop al-Qaeda gunmen pumping him with bullets and leaving him for dead on a Saudi Street

By Kate Kellawat  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

unlight pours through glass doors into the London restaurant where Frank Gardner is having his picture taken. It is Monday, late afternoon. He would like the photograph to be of his face. He would prefer his wheelchair not to be part of it. He does not want to be seen looking out of a window, in a reverie, as if in an old people? home. He is determined to continue to be himself.

The face he presents to camera is fine and unusually still ? perfect for a BBC television correspondent: undistracting. He is 44. He looks and sounds elegantly English. His voice is upper class, suggestive of another age. There is a slight edge to everything he says.

It? good when he laughs, it transforms him. But sunlight exposes his profound fatigue. And the residual look in his eyes is ?unsurprisingly ?of endurance.

It is almost two years since Gardner, the BBC? security correspondent, and his cameraman, Simon Cumbers, were attacked by Saudi extremists. They went to Riyadh in pursuit of a story ?an analysis of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia ?and became the story themselves.

Cumbers, a charismatic Irishman, was murdered. Gardner was shot six times but, against seemingly hopeless odds, survived. His heroism ?not a word he will countenance ?is overwhelming. And, unfortunately, he continues to need it. There is a sense in which he will always be fighting for his life.

He is a paraplegic (he uses the word often, as if to fix the bitter truth of it). He has suffered so much (eight months in hospital, 12 operations, his body one great wound) that, reading his splendid autobiography Blood and Sand, I tell him, I felt like biting on a rag during the chapter describing his rehabilitation.

He laughs. His humor is a saving grace.

Cumbers and Gardner were under the ?rotection?of Saudi government minders in Riyadh. This was unusual for Gardner, who prefers to work on his own. Six months earlier there had been a shoot-out in al-Suwaidi, the suburb they were visiting, between Islamist fundamentalist militants and the security forces, but the risks were judged to be negligible.

They had almost finished filming ?five more minutes and they would have been done. But it was in those last moments that a man in traditional white dress got out of a car and strolled up to them.

Al-Suwaidi is a quiet, unexceptional area with creamy villas, flowering bougainvillea. The killer seemed similarly innocent, at first glance.

?e had ? nice smiling face and looked as if he knew me,?Gardner said. ?e said, ?ssalaamu aleikum?[Peace be upon you/I mean you no harm], before pulling out his gun.?P>

? always tell Westerners they must offer this greeting,?he continued. ?or me, it has always been a passport to a conversation. This time it was a betrayal of everything I held dear in the Middle East.?P>

Gardner shouted: ?o! Don? do this!?in Arabic ?which he speaks fluently.

The first shot went through his shoulder ?he ran. The second went into his thigh bone and felled him. A further group of persecutors then put four more 9mm bullets, at point-blank range, into his back, smashing his pelvis, spinal nerves and abdomen.

His attackers then plucked from his trouser pocket a miniature edition of the Koran (Gardner kept these to give as presents).

Did the holy book save his life? He does not know. But the men drove off, leaving him bleeding in the dust.

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