She’s survived a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan and bombings in Pakistan. But British war reporter Christina Lamb says adrenalin and the belief she’s raising awareness keep her doing the job.
"Your first war is like your first love,” declares Christina Lamb, “and like your first love affair – you remember it differently.
“Afghanistan was the first war I covered and I fell completely in love with the place, felt very passionate about it, and still am to this day.”
A war reporter for the UK’s Sunday Times, Lamb is in New Zealand to promote her latest book, Farewell Kabul, that chronicles, to quote the blurb, how “success was turned into defeat in the longest war fought by the United States in its history and by Britain since the Hundred Years War”.
First impressions of Lamb are that she is reserved and softly spoken and has a demure demeanour – not the kind of character to be found thriving in war-torn hell-holes.
But the 49-year-old is an award-winning correspondent who first went to Afghanistan more than 25 years ago and knows the people, the place and the politics. She has spent 13 years on and off there, beginning when she rode with the Mujahideen to cover their fight against the Soviet Union and through to the US invasion following 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and all that happened afterwards. Along the way, she befriended a spokesman for the Mujahideen by the name of Hamid Karzai.
Lamb has a voracious appetite for war zones such as Afghanistan, but initially had wanted to become a novelist. She had completed the obligatory degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, but after an internship at the Financial Times, she decided writing about the “real world” held more excitement.
Her first big break was meeting Benazir Bhutto in London in 1987. The Pakistani politician took a shine to the aspiring reporter and invited her to her wedding in Karachi, beginning a roller-coaster friendship that would last until Bhutto’s assassination 20 years later.
She remembers Bhutto, who became Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister in 1988, as someone who could be brilliant, warm and very funny but also imperious when the occasion demanded it.
Rubbing shoulders with Bhutto and her clan opened Lamb’s eyes to the seething and sinister political cauldron in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, and in fairly short order she decided to make it her patch.
Lesser souls would have seen it as a death wish, but Lamb is made of sterner stuff and despite coming perilously close to meeting her maker on three occasions, is still alive to tell her story.
Not only that but shortly after embarking on her war-reporting career she got married and had a son. It was a big call to make given the dangerous nature and huge demands of her job. She had very little work/life balance, but tried hard not to miss milestones in the life of her growing son, who is now 16. He was cared for by his father and grandmother while she was in Afghanistan or wherever the Sunday Times chose to send her.
Her decision resulted in a barrage of fairly trenchant criticism from the chattering classes who accused her of putting her job ahead of her family. It was at a time when groundbreaking female war reporters were making inroads into what had been a largely male preserve.
The invective stung Lamb. “Nobody asks my male colleagues about leaving their children behind. We haven’t got very far in sexual equality if we’re still asking those kinds of questions.”
There were frequent and sometimes prolonged absences from home, and always the chance she wouldn’t see her son again, but she says he has coped admirably. “My son is used to it,” she says. “I don’t think it’s affected him at all. He’s very interested in foreign news, much more than a 16-year-old probably would be.”
FROM PORTUGAL TO 9/11
However, when her son was born, Lamb did think about giving the job away and went to Portugal to write a book. “We had just arrived in Portugal but the next day 9/11 happened and I went back to work because there was no way I wasn’t going to cover that. Apart from anything else, it was Afghanistan, the first place I had ever covered as a foreign correspondent, and I felt very passionate about it.”
She believes female war reporters bring a different perspective from their male counterparts who, she says, are still the majority, especially in print journalism. “I think women are better at listening than men so they make better journalists in general.
“To me, the story isn’t the actual fighting really, you know, the ‘bang bang’. We women tend not to be good at identifying weapons, but I can tell the difference between incoming and outgoing [fire],which is all I need to know.
“I’m interested in how people continue to live their lives during war. In Syria today there are terrible battles going on but there are also millions of people continuing to go to work, to school, to university and I’m very interested in that.”
Lamb says female journalists also have an advantage over males in Islamic countries. “It’s quite hard for male correspondents to get access to women in these places … in some cases it’s actually impossible, but as a woman I can talk to anybody. In fact, I’ve never been stopped from talking to men as well, so being a woman gives you an advantage.”
Her observations are borne out by other female war reporters who say they are viewed as a third gender in Islamic countries, with Muslim men often showing them deference and Muslim women feeling comfortable confiding in them.
However, she admits there’s also a downside for female journalists in some parts of the Islamic world. “We’ve all had groping in crowds and you just live with that. You just have to become quite sharp with your elbows.”
She singles out Egypt as a difficult location for women. There is an increasing incidence of abuse towards reporters in the country, such as the beating and sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Square in 2011.
Lamb also concedes women are no longer immune from the atrocities meted out to their male colleagues. “When I started out in this job, if anything happened to you it was maybe because you had done something silly or you were unlucky. Most of the deaths occurred in car accidents, but that’s completely changed and we are now targets in a way that we never were.
“A lot of these terrorist groups would rather capture a journalist than a soldier because we make more headlines than soldiers.”
A wake-up call came when her Sunday Times colleague Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012. “Her death was a major reality check and made us realise that it was no longer just a remote possibility that you didn’t think about much.”
She said it’s frustrating that it means there are now parts of the world where journalists don’t go because it’s too dangerous. “In Syria you would be crazy and suicidal to go off into areas controlled by Daesh [Islamic State] and even in Afghanistan and Pakistan there are places I wouldn’t travel.”
Her biggest fear is being kidnapped, a possibility never far from the minds of war reporters. “We sometimes have macabre conversations in hotel rooms in the middle of nowhere. The question is asked ‘what method of death would you most want to avoid?’
“Would it be worse to be blown up by a suicide bomber or to be kidnapped? But that was before Isis and I now think the worst thing would be to be kidnapped by them, which is pretty much a death sentence.”
EFFECT ON PSYCHE
Lamb has won Foreign Correspondent of the Year five times in the UK, as well as Europe’s highest award for war correspondents, the Prix Bayeux. She also received an OBE in 2013. But the accolades aren’t the reason she stays in the job.
“I think it is addictive because you’re living on the edge and there’s the adrenalin from surviving or narrowly escaping things, but I do sometimes worry that my luck is going to run out. I went through a period in 2006 and 2007 when I was ambushed by the Taliban and very lucky to get out of Afghanistan; I was in a hotel in Pakistan that was blown up by a suicide bomber; and then I was on Benazir Bhutto’s bus when it was blown up.” She and Bhutto emerged unscathed from the blast in Karachi, which killed about 139 people, but Bhutto died two months later when she was shot while travelling in a motorcade.
Lamb says she has “seen a lot of people messed up by covering this stuff”. “Just last week somebody I know committed suicide in the bathroom at Istanbul airport, so I’ve seen at very close hand the effect it can have.”
She says when war reporters are at home on leave, they often fall into the trap of fraternising with colleagues and swapping war stories over a few drinks in a bar, reliving the horrors they’ve witnessed. “That’s bad and I don’t do that. These days I only work for the Sunday Times for seven months of the year so I have plenty of time to spend with my family and write books.”
Even then there’s no real escape from the job, with desperate people contacting her on social media or by email seeking her help. “I had a message from an Afghan woman who had run away with her boyfriend and was scared that her family was trying to kill her. Sometimes I feel quite powerless to help them so I find that harder in many ways than seeing the bad stuff.
“The bad stuff I’m used to. You don’t become immune to it, it’s still horrid, but I know I can deal with it. I do that by having a different kind of life to other correspondents.”
There was an occasion when she seriously questioned the deadly risks she was taking, but was convinced otherwise by a Zimbabwean activist. “I said to her, ‘I’m not sure I want to keep doing this,’ as I found it very frustrating going to Zimbabwe and putting people’s lives at risk by getting them to speak to me when it was illegal for them to do so.
“She said to me, ‘If people like you stop coming, then what will be the point of people like me doing the work that we do?’ That resonated with me and convinced me that you can make a difference.”
BRINGING CLARITY TO MATTERS
Lamb has tried to make a difference to the West’s understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. She believes it is not yet a lost cause, despite the resurgence of the Taliban, but warns the country’s future is very much on a knife edge. “I don’t think we had any choice about going in there as it was a reaction to 9/11 and Bush was under pressure to do something. It was also a UN-sanctioned invasion, with everybody supporting what they did. And it appeared very quick and easy to start with. They would move the Taliban within 60-odd days, it wouldn’t cost very much money and it would be quite a straightforward intervention.”
She believes it would have been relatively easy to stabilise Afghanistan at that point, but with insufficient forces on the ground because of the US and Allied commitment to Iraq, “everybody took their eye off the ball”. Compounding this was the fact that “no one quite knew what it was they were trying to do in Afghanistan and that’s where it all went wrong.”
All the while Pakistan was allowing the Taliban to regroup, enabling them to make a comeback so that by 2005-06 it was “a very difficult situation”.
Despite such destabilising events, Lamb says much has been achieved in Afghanistan with enormous improvements in healthcare and education. About nine million children are now in school compared with about two million previously. Afghanistan also is no longer cut off from the rest of the world – it has the internet and about 10 million cellphones.
“Even in remote villages I find tribal elders looking at Facebook so they can see what life is like outside,” she says. “It makes them realise that what they have doesn’t have to be like that, and now they don’t want any more war. The bad effect is that it’s meant a lot of people just decide to leave the country and we didn’t foresee that.”
WHAT PRICE INTERVENTION?
So, has the West paid too high a price for what’s been achieved? Lamb is in no doubt about the answer. “Considering the amount of money spent, a trillion dollars, and the human sacrifice – 3500 Nato soldiers died plus an estimated 100,000 Afghans – it should have been a lot better than it was. And don’t forget that this year more Afghans have been killed than in any one year of the war, yet political leaders in the West have tried to declare the war is over.”
She says the recent fall of Kunduz to the Taliban has been a wake-up call to the West that the Taliban have not gone away. “It’s the fifth-biggest city, strategically important, and it’s in the north, which is not thought of as a Taliban stronghold, so this really rang alarm bells.” Of concern was not just that the Taliban were back in town but how they had managed to get there, which she says has disturbing implications.
“Why they got support to get into the town was because the Afghan security forces, which the Americans have spent US$65 billion training, were abusing people, abducting people, raping people, demanding bribes from people, so everyone was fed up with them.
“When the Taliban started appearing, they were seen as quite a good alternative because they offered stability, they’re not corrupt and they offered speedy justice, as they call it.”
Lamb describes the situation as “critical” and says the West urgently needs to bring the security forces into line so Afghans see them as a force for good, not evil. She says although President Obama is committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan for the time being, their numbers, just 12,000, are few.
“But their continued presence is important, otherwise it’s showing the Taliban they’ve just given up and the Taliban have won.”
Lamb is also concerned about the plight of Afghan women if the Taliban once again take control.
“We really encouraged women to stand up after the Taliban fell. We encouraged them to run for office and all kinds of things and now we’ve just abandoned them and they’re in fear for their lives.
“Some have already fled, some have been killed off and if we don’t take care, those left will become very vulnerable.”
If there’s one lesson Lamb hopes the West will learn from Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s that there must be clearly defined objectives and coherent plans in place for the future of such countries before implementing a military invasion.
“You don’t just topple the person and go away and I fear that we are not learning those lessons. That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted to answer the question: was this all a waste of time?
“So many people lost sons or husbands or fathers and it would be awful to think that it was all for nothing. That’s why it’s important we don’t abandon Afghanistan now.
“I think there’s a risk if we left now that all the blood spilled and all the money spent would be a waste and that would be a terrible legacy.”
MIGRANT CRISIS 'A VERY COMPLICATED ISSUE'
Christina Lamb’s most recent assignment has been in Europe, covering the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. An estimated 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived there this year, travelling along dangerous land and sea routes from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and far beyond. Lamb is ashamed at how badly many of them are being treated.
“I thought the least Europe could do was to have some sort of dignified reception centres for these people, many of them with young families. But they’re having to sleep on roadsides, on railway station platforms or outside in the cold and on the concrete.”
She says the influx of so many people has polarised public opinion in Europe. “I can’t think of anything else that I’ve covered over the years where you get such divided comments. Some people are abusive and say horrible things about these migrants whereas other people feel strongly that we should be doing more.”
She believes the reality of the situation isn’t black and white. “At the start there seemed to be this feeling that the Syrians were fleeing the war so they were okay and they were also a bit like us, whereas the Africans were just fleeing poverty and we shouldn’t let them in. But the reality is that some of the Syrians are leaving for economic reasons whereas some are regime supporters. Do we really want to give asylum to people who support a regime we consider to be barbaric?”
The same mixed motives apply in Africa. Some Nigerians are fleeing the atrocities of Boko Haram whereas Eritreans are escaping military conscription, which applies at 16. “It’s a very complicated issue and I think people are now beginning to understand that.”
Lamb says another concern in Europe is that Islamic State has infiltrated the ranks of migrants and refugees to establish terrorist cells in the West. “There is the talk that Isis people will come in with the migrants, but they don’t need to. They can get in in other ways so why would they come in that way?”
With no end in sight to an exodus that saw more than 200,000 desperate people crossing the Mediterranean in October, the outlook seems grim. “There’s no way they are all going to be given shelter in Europe. I was in Germany recently and the Germans are struggling now and saying they can’t cope with the volume.”
But Lamb says good has come of it. “It’s forced Europeans to take notice, because the war has now come to them. They can longer ignore what’s happening in Syria or Afghanistan or Eritrea.”
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