Former Burnley soldier travels to South Africa for Channel 4's 'Unreported World'
Adnan Sarwar’s ‘Unreported World: Schools Under Siege’ airs tomorrow at 7-30pm and will mark his first appearance on the channel.
The 30-minute programme sees the former Towneley High School pupil meet children, parents and teachers trying to survive at a primary school caught in the middle of a turf war between lawless gangs in Cape Town, South Africa.
“This was my first documentary for Channel 4 and I’m very proud to have my debut on Unreported World,” he said. “The series has been going for 19 years, I used to watch the journalists on there doing hard reporting from dangerous places.
"I wanted to be one of them. I never thought I’d get into journalism after the military. Many of the people I’ve admired working in television documentary came through Unreported World.
“It’s a real testing ground, as soon as you start, you’ve got a couple of weeks in the office to work things up, get out there and hit the ground hard, when things fall down you’ve got to pick them up. It’s hard, exciting.”
One of the last times Adnan (40) was seen on our TV screens was in 2018 when he presented the ‘Journey in the Danger Zone: Iraq’ – a two-part BBC documentary in which he travelled the length of a country he served in while with the British Army.
Despite having witnessed the barbarity of war personally and professionally, filming ‘Schools Under Siege’ affected him in a different way.
“I know it’s my age. When I was a soldier in my twenties I was just excited by the war and being in Iraq. In my forties now when I visit a place I still get excited but there’s guilt too. I know I have to leave these people here and I get to go home. I know telling their stories is the right thing to do. And I’m glad journalists do it. I’m proud I get to.
“This particular story was about children and knowing that they could end up being hurt or killed in the crossfire was hard, that they might join gangs and shoot others themselves was shocking. But it’s a truth they’re living. We need to see it. That’s how things change, when we know something is happening so we can do something about it.”
It has been a busy few months for Adnan who left is role as community editor for The Economist earlier in the year. This led to him moving back up north to Manchester following a number of years in London. A northerner through and through, it means he is now closer to his family, his friends and the beautiful Burnley countryside he so fondly remembers growing up.
“London is great but doing the work I do, I’m never going to be rich man. I initially did move back to think about buying a place but there’s much more to the north than that. People here are very friendly, my parents live nearby and I can see them more.
“I have lots of friends in Burnley and Manchester, and when I was training for the army I used to run from my house in Duke Bar to the top of Crown Point and back, or to Pendle Hill, I used to love that. One thing it’s easy to miss is Burnley is set in some of the best countryside you can see. I want to get my trainers on and jog up the hills again.”
His desire to keep moving is a trait that has kept him in good stead while carving out a career in a notoriously difficult industry.
“TV is very competitive. It can seem glamorous but it’s very difficult to get jobs, and then do them well enough to get the next one. I would love to stay making documentaries and telling the stories I believe in but if the army taught me one thing it’s to keep adapting. So alongside this career I’m looking at what else I can and want to do.
“I’ve just completed an advanced medical course, the first step on the ladder to becoming a paramedic. I guess my mum was right, I should have gone to medical school. I did some first aid training in the military and loved it, and now before I go to anywhere dangerous I have to do training for the channel I’m working for.
"I just enjoy it so that may become something. Who knows? What I do know is I don’t want to stop learning or reading, it’s what got me from working in a restaurant to editing at a newspaper in London. It’s been the thing that’s helped me keep going.”