This article was originally published in August 2018 in conjunction with the broadcast of Simon Reeve in Burma. It is repurposed here to coincide with the broadcast of Mediterranean with Simon Reeve - Tuesdays at 8:40pm on SBS.
Simon Reeve is a man deeply aware of the privileges and responsibilities associated with owning a passport.
Over the last 15 years, the former journalist-turned-presenter has journeyed across the world, producing travel series from some of the most remote areas on earth. His latest offering is a two-part series on Burma, focusing on the realities of life in a nation at war with itself.
“We actually were planning the Burma series before the Rohingya catastrophe began to develop,” says Reeve. “And then the refugee crisis began to emerge, and it became even more important to go there.”
In 2017, Burma’s military launched a campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority residing in the Rakhine state. What followed was a mass exodus of over 720,000 people – half of them children – into neighbouring Bangladesh, desperately fleeing rape, torture and murder.
The terrors inflicted on the Rohingya people are captured in one confronting scene in episode one, when a young boy speaking to Reeve is visibly frightened of the video camera, having confused it for a gun. “It was a deeply upsetting journey to undertake,” says Reeve. “A beautiful country, but the story of what’s happened there is horrifying.”
Burma is currently embroiled in a civil war that began shortly after the country declared independence from the UK in 1948. “There are a lot of different rebel and guerrilla groups fighting in Burma, usually against the Burmese military, but often amongst themselves as well,” says Reeve. “It’s still very much a chaotic situation and there is still conflict in large areas of the country and millions of people are affected as a result.”
Several guerrilla groups are now engaged in daily, deadly conflict with the Myanmar military, including the Shan State Army. For episode two (airing Wednesday night on SBS), Reeve travelled across enemy lines to Shan state to meet with the rebel-fighting group.
“We travelled hidden in the back of vehicles, and at one point we had to run in the darkness along the final military checkpoint,” says Reeve. “And then we were able to get to the Shan area and learn about a forgotten war. It’s the world’s longest running civil war in Burma, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes as a result, tens of thousands have died.”
But life, as Reeve has learnt during his extensive travels, must continue. “I was travelling in Libya, on the edge of the area which is still threatened by the so-called Islamic State, and I saw that there is tragedy there, but there is humour as well – there are normal lives being lived,” he says. “You had a guy who was trying to open up a huge wedding venue in a country that is a hostile environment. But this is the reality of life: there is normality alongside chaos, humour next to tragedy.”
Reeve himself grew up in West London. His outlook on life at that stage, he admits, was fairly simple: he had never travelled outside of the UK, and his main career aspiration was to become a van driver. “My world really didn’t go much further than the streets around my house. I just used to go to school and I used to hang out on my bike along the streets outside my house, causing trouble,” he says. “I had no idea that trouble would become a huge part of my life when I was older.”
Reeve speaks candidly about his struggles in his teenage years, battling mental health issues and desperately trying to find a sense of purpose. “I was fairly pathetic as a teenager. I had a lot of problems – I was getting into trouble quite a lot,” he says. “I had very, very low points in my teenage life. I left school with no qualifications and I failed pretty much every job I tried.”
And then, by some quirk of fate, Reeve landed a job as a mail sorter at The Sunday Times. “I got the lowliest of the low jobs working in the post-room, and that was the making of me. I was suddenly thrown into this environment where people were doing really impressive things, and although I was very scared of the place and people initially, after a couple of months finding my feet, I began to go around volunteering myself to people.”
He became, as he admits laughingly, rather indispensable. “The real reason that I was able to keep the job there was because I became the expert in maintaining this ancient photocopying machine that people really depended on,” Reeve says. “And because I was the only one who could fix and maintain this photocopier, I became unsackable. So always a good thing to do is to find a niche that no one else can do wherever you’re working.”
Whether it was the photocopiers, or Reeve’s own hard work and determination, he soon found himself promoted to the newsroom. One of his first missions was to track down two South-African terrorists hiding out in the UK. “They had killed, and they had maimed,” he says. “And by all accounts, they should have had horns and they should have been obviously evil characters.”
But what he was most struck by was how human they were. “They threatened death, but fundamentally the people I was speaking to were very human and so I was frightened and intrigued by that relation between their humanity and yet, what they were able to do,” he says. “I could see they wielded this quite terrifying power, and that horrified and intrigued me and I think it was the spark that made me very interested in terrorism as a subject to investigate.”
For a number of years he investigated terrorism, and suddenly found himself in hot demand after the 9/11 attacks – being the only person in the world with a book on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Not long after, he found himself on television presenting his first series, Holidays in the Danger Zone: Meet the Stans. Television is quite shallow, he maintains, and the fact that he had his own hair and teeth played no small part in helping him to secure the role.
Rather luckily, that hair and those teeth have kept him on television for close to two decades now. “I think these series are an incredible privilege to be involved in and the adventures are really fascinating – if ever the BBC, or anyone else told me that my time is up, and they replace me with someone younger, funnier, better looking I will have no problem with that,” he says. “I will retire, disgracefully, still screaming and trying to cling on to the passport.”
But for now, there’s still much about the world to see and learn. “I’ve met a huge number of people who are suffering on this planet, but I will say I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people who are able to inspire me and keep me grounded and keep me humble about my life,” he says. “Every single journey I’ve done has included incredible experiences that are often upsetting and inspiring, often at the same time.”
One particular encounter has stuck with him all these years. “I went to a refugee camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia, and I met a young woman called Fatima there, who had been living in this camp for 17 years – she was 23 years old when I met her,” he says. “Stuck in that camp for 17 years of her life, unable to go forward because the Kenyan government wouldn’t let her, and unable to go back because of fighting in Somalia.
“I will never forget her. When I start to forget what a privilege it is to travel the world, she reminds me of how special it is to have a passport, because she is stuck there in what is effectively an open-prison, unable to go more than four kilometers in any direction.”
Generally, Reeve says all his travels have taught him two things:
“One, that the world is a very safe and welcoming place, as long as you use your instincts and you wear a seatbelt,” says Reeve, whose memoir will be released in September. "I think the second thing is that wherever I’ve been, everyone, everywhere – after they’ve got relative security, somewhere to live and eat – beyond the basics, what we all need as human beings is purpose, otherwise we feel empty and lost.”
So as a once directionless child and teenager, does Reeve think he’s become inspiring in adulthood?
“I’ll tell you that my seven-year-old son doesn’t find me hugely inspiring – the lengths I have to go to get him off my phone sometimes do not suggest that I’m very good at inspiring him,” he laughs. “I certainly feel like a pretty ordinary bloke in every possible way, but I do know that the adventures I’ve had are a little bit different and unusual and if people find that inspiring in some ways then that’s absolutely wonderful.”
He adds, “I don’t think we should be living on our knees – we should be getting up, getting out and pushing ourselves and doing exciting things, because life is short.”
Watch Mediterranean with Simon Reeve Tuesdays at 8:40pm on SBS. After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand.