Kathy Evans, who has died aged 55, was The Guardian’s correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1989 to 1991. A veteran reporter on the Middle East, she was distinguished by immense personal courage, both in the risks she ran as a journalist and in her long battle with cancer. In the last years of her life, she dedicated herself to charitable work for Afghan women and children.
Kathy was born in Wokingham, but grew up in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where she went to the John Mason School. After secretarial work, she joined a shipping magazine, the Dock And Harbour. But she showed her spirit early in 1970, with no foreign experience, when she marched into the offices of the Daily Star in Beirut looking for a job.
As Hanna Anbar, the then editor, recalled: “I hesitated. An attractive young brunette, with little knowledge of the Middle East, is a dangerous combination. But Kathy’s determination and power of persuasion prevailed and she got the job. She was only 22, but quickly proved able to hold her ground in a heavily maledominated corps of international and local hacks and manoeuvre her way through the security and political turbulence of Lebanon and the Middle East.”
Remarkably, Kathy soon became the Star’s chief investigative reporter, helped by her determination, her hatred of injustice and hypocrisy, and her nose for a story. Apart from her work on local politics, a friend recalls her being among the first to report on the benefits of marijuana for cancer patients suffering the side effects of chemotherapy – “a finding that evidently delighted her”.
One of her own stories involved wandering around Tehran at night with a western colleague during the Iranian revolution, passing through numerous checkpoints, weighed down by a large and heavy jar of hashish they were determined not to jettison.
After the Daily Star closed during the Lebanese civil wars that began in 1975, Kathy moved to the Gulf, where she reported for various international papers and journals, including the Financial Times. She covered all the subsequent wars, revolutions and disturbances in the region through to the mid-1980s. She was also one of the foremost analysts of the intricacies of local financial systems. After a brief and unhappy period in Dallas, Texas, as an oil analyst, she worked for the BBC Eastern Services in London, before joining The Guardian in 1989.
She was arrested by a bewildering range of local forces, and boasted that she had, at one time or another, been declared persona non grata by almost every Middle Eastern state. Her forthright interviewing technique made her many enemies, but also earned widespread respect.
A favourite story recalls how she accosted a friendly Arab potentate leaving a conference in London with a cry of “Oi! Sheikh!” and then jumped into the official car to interview him, to the fury of the accompanying British minister.
Kathy’s absence from the field during the current war on terror has been a severe loss to western reporting of the Muslim world.
In the early 1990s, she was forced to retire by cancer, against which she fought with gallantry and stoicism. For several years, she ran her own carpet import business in London with her partner Robin Brightwell. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, she formed the Kathy Evans Education Trust to set up a school in Kabul to train Afghan women and adolescents in literacy, carpetweaving and jewellery-making. She believed that journalists who make careers and money reporting on countries owe those countries something in return. Although desperately ill, she travelled to the region in order to lay the foundations of this work. She will be remembered for her generosity, her honesty – and her great cackle of a laugh.
Anatol Lieven Guardian journalist Simon Tisdall writes: In the chaos of Kuwait City in early 1991, after the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s troops, there were no working public telephones. This was a time when satellite phones were a rare commodity anywhere, and mobile phones were all but unheard of.
It was thus with not a little personal amazement that I learned from Kathy Evans that she had worked out a way to file her stories to London. She had been cultivating a British army major – a nice man, she said with a smile – who, more importantly, had a phone that worked. Thanks to her friendly, down-to-earth, nononsense approach, the men of her majesty’s armed forces frequently agreed to her requests to use it. Fearless when it came to Saddam, they may even have been a little afraid to refuse Kathy.
Unfortunately, their obliging attitude did not extend to other, less persuasive correspondents, but this was not Kathy’s fault. It was just one more example of her determination, charm and resourcefulness.
Even more impressive in a way was Kathy’s other Kuwait coup, again in collaboration with the British Army. It turned out that among their ready-to-eat meals and other stores, they also had a supply of gin. It wasn’t long before Kathy had a bottle or two, too. There wasn’t any tonic to go with it, of course. But that didn’t faze her.