Carlos Mavroleon

Jason Burke, The Observer, 20 Aug 2000

Nobody chooses to end their days in Peshawar. Carlos Mavroleon didn’t want to die here. Certainly not in the small, claustrophobic hotel room where they found his heroin-soaked body, on 27 August 1998.

The old Etonian heir to a £100m fortune, he had been a war correspondent, a Wall Street broker, a lover of glamorous women from glamorous political dynasties (the Kennedys) and from less glamorous ones (the Heseltines). He had been a cool, gimlet-eyed war reporter, blowing off the tension of his assignments in the bars and clubs of Notting Hill. He had commanded a unit of Afghan Mujahideen against the Red Army and had been a bodyguard for a Pakistani tribal chief. And, for most of his adult life, Carlos had been a regular user of speed, coke, Ecstasy, heroin and enough pharmaceutical products to stock a large chemist.

On 7 August 1998, two massive blasts devastated the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and killed more than 200 people. Thirteen days after the explosions, President Clinton launched 75 cruise missiles against camps in Pakistan. Operation Infinite Reach successfully killed a dozen or so young Pakistanis who were training in the camps as well several blameless old men and a large number of goats. Carlos was staying with his family at his father’s seaside home in Athens when the missiles went in. Carlos was known to other journalists as a ‘shithole specialist’. The worse the war, the deeper the poverty, the nastier the place, the better Carlos liked it. His favourite shithole was Afghanistan. He rang CBS, the American TV network, to accept an assignment for their flagship Sixty Minutes programme, telling Leslie Cockburn, the producer at CBS, ‘I have a multiple Afghan visa.’

CBS wanted him to get to Peshawar as soon as possible to try to get to the camps. The hardline Taliban militia who ruled much of Afghanistan were not letting any journalists into Afghanistan. Carlos called his fiancée, a 26-year-old TV researcher who he was due to marry in November, and then rang his father. ‘Don’t worry, papa, I’ll be careful,’ he told him. He packed his gear, picked up a $5,000 expenses advance and flew straight out to Pakistan on Emirates first class. He arrived in Peshawar on 23 August and checked into Green’s hotel just off the central Saddar Bazaar. He had four days to live.

Saddar police station is only a mile from Green’s hotel. Ten days after Carlos’ death a smiling detective called Nisar Ali Marwat flicked a brown file on to his glass-topped desk and told me to read it. Under a slowly rotating fan, I leafed through the badly typed pages.

The death certificate gave the cause of death as ‘Heroin poisoning (self)’. The autopsy was conducted at 8am on 28 August by Professor Inayatur Rehman Khalil of the Khyber Medical College, Peshawar. Time of death: between 18 and 24 hours before the time of the autopsy. Carlos’s body was fully rigormortised and showed no visible signs of violence. All organs were normal. The face and upper part of the chest were ‘livid’. There was a blood-stained discharge from the right nostril. The left arm showed a prick-mark in the ante-cubital region and an insulin syringe contaminated with blood lay beside the body. The syringe tested positive for diacetyl morphine (heroin). Carlos’s stomach also tested weakly for diacetyl morphine. There were three small packets of drugs in the room. One, opened, was diacetyl morphine. The second was crude powdered opium. The third was an antihistamine tranquilizer called chlorophenaramine maleate.

According to the police statements, Carlos was sitting upright on his bed when he was found, a cigarette between his lips. The bloody syringe was on the coffee table in front of him. There was also a blackened coin. He had died of ‘heroin asphyxiation’.

A sheet of paper listed his belongings: satellite phone and spare battery, camera charger, British passport B451472, small video camera, Leatherman-style knife/tool, Sony audio recorder, first-aid kit, Maglite torch, tripod and head, Sony shortwave radio stethoscope, four syringes, duty-free pack of Marlboro Lights, sewing kit, video camera battery packs and charger, two shalwar kameez (local baggy trouser and shirt), white local prayer cap, local leather sandals, Holy Koran (translation), books of Islamic history – four, $1,800 in $100 bills, $2,400 in $50 bills, and 12,265 Pakistani rupees [£150].

When ‘Bluey’ Mavroleon said goodbye to his son for the last time he cannot have been too reassured by his promise to be careful. Carlos may have been kind, brave, intelligent and charming. But, by ordinary standards, he was not careful.

Carlos was born in April 1958 and grew up in the rarefied air of real high society. His father is a Greek shipping tycoon who was once married to Somerset Maugham’s granddaughter Camilla. She eventually left him, when Carlos was three, for Count Freddy Chandon, head of the champagne house Moët et Chandon. Carlos’s mother, Giaconda, is Mexican. His brother, Nicky, is married to the filmstar Barbara Carrera. The family fortune is estimated at £100m. Carlos’s address book contained phone numbers for Fawn Hall, the secretary at the heart of the Iran-Contra affair and an old flame, Barbara Streisand and Christina Onassis. He went out with Annabel Heseltine, the journalist daughter of the former deputy prime minister for two years. She wanted to marry him. When it became clear that something awful had happened to Carlos, Ethel Kennedy, wife of Bobby senior, rang the White House to find out exactly what was wrong.

In 1979, Bluey inherited the family fortune. Carlos grew up in London’s Eaton and Cadogan squares and was sent to Eton but, though he did well, hated it. He started to rebel, at first in the ordinary ways; with left-wing politics, music that his parents wouldn’t like, soft drugs and drink. But as ever he soon left the ordinary far behind. At 14, he left his privileged world and signed himself into a London comprehensive.

After two years of taking a lot of LSD and indulging in ‘industrial scale shoplifting’, he told his parents he was going to the southwest of France to stay with friends. There were no phones, he said, so they wouldn’t hear from him for at least two weeks. He had calculated that would give him enough time to get free. He planned to head to Burma and smuggle rubies.

He got as far as Pakistan. High in the Hindu Kush foothills, close to the border with Afghanistan, in lands that are barely controlled by the Pakistani administration, Carlos did odd jobs – including bodyguard and labourer, learned to speak the guttural language of the Pashto tribesmen who looked after him and converted to Islam. He never contacted his family. They gave him up for dead.

After nearly two years, he returned to Britain and Belgravia, thin, sick and still restless. His family welcomed him back, hopeful that his youthful wanderlust was sated. Carlos worked hard to get his A levels. He moved from amphetamines and acid to heroin.

He crammed at Millfield, a top public school, and got a place at Princeton University. Not satisfied with that, he applied to Harvard and, on the strength of a successful interview and a fistful of forged references, got in to read politics. With his money and connections, he was soon mixing with the best of America’s East Coast society. He was a favoured guest of the Kennedy clan. He had an affair with Mary Richardson, who later married Bobby Jnr, and a short fling with Fawn Hall.

From Harvard he went on to Wall Street. He made a lot of money. And spent much of it on cocaine and heroin.

n 1985 he flew to Islamabad, Pakistan, and drove up to Peshawar, then the main headquarters and logistics base for the guerrilla groups. He introduced himself to them and convinced them to take him into Afghanistan. It was his first taste of war. Within months of returning to America he had sold the New York apartment and was on his way back to the sub-continent. He was 26.

A canal runs through Peshawar. It is full of refuse and dead animals, but the children play in it anyway. By the banks of the canal, in a bungalow set back behind high walls and a courtyard, is the Afghan Media Resource Centre (AMRC). Throughout the Afghan war, it funded journalists’ trips into Afghanistan and disseminated the material they collected. It is widely believed to have been set up and supported by the CIA. Carlos used to sleep on its floor between trips ‘inside’.

One of the films they have at the AMRC was taken in June 1988 near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The camera pans across a field full of Mujahideen fighters. They are waiting to go into action, squatting with their weapons in lines in the sun or standing in the shade of trees. In the background are the mountains typical of eastern Afghanistan. The film flickers, jumps and weaves. A bearded, grinning Carlos appears.

‘My name is Karimullah,’ he says, his voice deep and unaccented. He is wearing the pakol – the beret-like woollen cap of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan – and has four curved magazines and an AK47 slung across his shoulders. He is a head taller than everyone else. His new name means ‘blessed by God’.

‘I am a Mujahideen,’ he continues. ‘We are making an attack today on the city of Jalalabad. All the Mujahideen commanders have come together for this attack. I am very happy and proud to be with my Mujahideen brothers. Allahu Akbar. God is great.’ Karimullah then continues in fluent Pashto. ‘I am from London. In London I fought the Jihad with a pen. Now I fight it with a sword. I have come to Afghanistan to take part in the Jihad.’

The cameraman asks if when the Jihad is over Carlos/Karimullah will bring his family to Afghanistan. ‘Inshallah [God willing],’ he replies with a broad smile. Carlos had arrived in Peshawar three years previously. At first he had been involved in the political side of the Mujahideen’s struggle, handling foreign journalists and visiting American VIPs, but the urge to be physically involved in the action became too strong. By 1988, he was an experienced fighter.

‘Karimullah would do whatever he was asked and do it well,’ said one former comrade. Several former fighters said that by the end of his time in Afghanistan, Carlos was in charge of a dozen men and was running ambushes by himself. He was always in the thick of any action and even prayed longer and harder than his comrades. One former Mujahideen remembered how Carlos had gone outside for dawn prayers in a freezing gale and had returned wet through. ‘We laughed at him when he came back in, but he just said “Ahumdilallah [God be praised]”, and lay down again.’

In 1989, the Soviets pulled out. The war carried on as the guerrillas took on the Moscow-backed government’s forces, but Carlos returned to London, and within months had metamorphosed into a war correspondent. At the end of his time in Afghanistan he had worked as a cameraman and had shot footage of frontline action. In 1991, he was in Oman trying to sneak, in disguise, into Kuwait during the Gulf War. He failed, but succeeded in getting into northern Iraq a few months later. The next assignment was Somalia, then the Sudan, Burma, Angola, Rwanda and back to Afghanistan. On several occasions, he found himself back in Peshawar. Twice he tried and failed to use his connections with the Mujahideen to get access to Osama Bin Laden.

In the early 90s, he made a number of trips to Somalia for the American networks. In between trips, he had a number of relationships and took a lot of cocaine. He spent time in the clubs and bars of Chelsea and Notting Hill. He read and re-read TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He wrote book reviews for the Literary Review.

Green’s hotel is gloomy and claustrophobic. Poor backpackers and wealthy Pakistanis stay there, not journalists working for American networks. Carlos’s room cost £8 a night and was on the third floor facing east. From its small window there was a view of tangled electricity wires and roofs. Carlos arrived in Peshawar on the evening of Sunday 23 August. He dumped his bags and walked a hundred or so yards to the office of The News – a local paper – to catch up with Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pathan reporter who knows everyone and everything. If Osama Bin Laden wants to talk to the Western world he gives a statement to Rahimullah. So do the Taliban.

Rahimullah knew Carlos from the time of the Afghan war and was generous with his advice. He was happy to talk over the various ways to get to the bombed camps, even though he was trying to work out how to reach them himself. Yusufzai told Carlos what he must have suspected: that his only chance was to disguise himself as a local and work his way through the mountains and across the border. The best place to try, Rahimullah said, was from the small town of Miram Shah which is only a score or so miles from the camps themselves. The next day Carlos hired a car – a big Toyota pick-up – and a driver and set off. By nightfall he was at Bannu, a dusty town on the edge of the mountains, by late afternoon on the next day he was in Miram Shah itself.

Within hours he was picked up by Pakistani intelligence services. It was the evening of Tuesday the 25th. Despite his credentials, he must have had a hard job convincing his interrogators of his true identity and purpose. After a tense and sleepless night he was put on a bus back to Peshawar.

Around 7.30pm the next day, Cockburn, his producer, began calling Carlos’s satellite phone. It rang out every time. By the evening, she was very anxious. She called Green’s and was told that Carlos had his key and was in his room which was locked. She kept trying the sat’phone. Eventually the hotel staff used a master key to open the door of the room. Carlos was dead on the bed. He had died a few hours earlier.

I arrived in Peshawar on the day Carlos died. After three days stuck in the UN compound while the authorities tried to restrain angry mobs in the streets we were finally evacuated by the UN back to Pakistan and I had driven up to Peshawar to cover the story of the missile strikes’ fall-out from there. After only a few hours in the city, a local newspaper editor, Faisal Quazi, called me on my mobile to ask if I knew anything about the dead British cameraman.

There are many who believe that the bald facts of the police report and the post-mortem are concealing something more sinister.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Carlos would have been unlikely to have accidentally overdosed. Nicky Mavroleon pointed out that his brother was an experienced drug user.

Could he have committed suicide? Rahimullah Yusufzai saw him shortly before he died and said that though he was shaken by his ordeal at the hands of the intelligence men he was not too worried. A CNN cameraman who bumped into him in a Peshawar street later that day said, with no pun intended, that he ‘seemed full of beans, really on a high’.

‘He told us how he had been in prison and seemed to think that it was all very amusing,’ the cameraman said. ‘He had a cutting from a local paper that said that he was a British spy which he said he was going to have framed.’

Everybody who knew him said he was planning to settle down and was as happy as he had ever been. He was to marry in the autumn and was, according to his father, ‘devoted’ to his fiancée. In Islam suicide is a great sin.

If the suicide scenario is rejected, as it has to be, and the accidental overdose explanation is thrown out too, you are left with nothing but half-baked conspiracy theories. We know that he was tailed throughout his stay in Peshawar and that Green’s hotel staff were interrogated by intelligence men both before and after his death. And we know that he was suspected of being a spy. You have to apply Occam’s Razor. What is more plausible – an accidental suicide or a plot involving spooks and forced overdoses?

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