Falling in love with Afghanistan

British war correpsondent and author, Christina Lamb talks about the conflicts that have shaped her career and why the risk is worth it

Image Credit: Francesco Guidicini
For Christina Lamb, it’s hard to “just walk away and forget” the horror and madness that she has witnessed in war-torn areas

Christina Lamb wears her love for Afghanistan on her sleeve. It started from the very first time she crossed the mountains into Afghanistan in 1988 to report on the latter stages of the Soviet occupation. Since then she has maintained her passionate involvement with the country.

“I fell in love with the country, its beauty and harshness, the nobility of its people and their incredible storytelling,” says the British war correspondent and author.

Her book Farewell Kabul, released in 2015, sheds light on the US and Britain’s post-9/11 military adventurism into Afghanistan, how Afghanistan led to Iraq and how Iraq led to Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Scarcely disguising her contempt for the political masters back home, she says, “We’re now in the 16th year of this war. Western leaders would like their publics to think the war is over since the end of their combat operations in 2015 but unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated and more people were killed last year than in any of the previous years.”

Perhaps we are living in an era when wars no longer come to a clear end, and the world remains far more volatile — especially now, with liberal democracy and multiculturalism in crisis across the West. Lamb, like many other observers, worries about about its future, more so after the controversial executive order by US President Donald Trump restricting refugees and travel by immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries.

“Like many I hoped he didn’t mean the things he said in [his presidential] campaign and that once in office would be more pragmatic. But the evidence so far is that Trump meant exactly what he said,” she says. “His ban on people from seven Muslim countries was against everything the free world stands for and plays into the hands of those who would seek to harm us all like Al Qaida and Daesh.”

With long years of experience reporting on and off in the region, Lamb is particularly exasperated about the treatment of women in war-torn Afghanistan. The country is ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be born a woman, according to a survey by the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Under the Taliban, women were banned from going to school and working. They were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative or be seen in public without a burqa. For defying the regime’s repressive laws, women were openly flogged and executed.

“Western leaders promised them they would be free after the Taliban and encouraged them to put their heads above the parapet and do things they wouldn’t otherwise have, and now we seem to have abandoned them,” she says.

Having said that, Lamb has also witnessed a noticeable change in the country, although the Taliban has proved remarkably resilient. “There is far more access to health and education, particularly for girls. But there is little employment. So young men might be enticed to join the Taliban. The fact is, the Taliban have not gone away.”

“Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world and was never going to be Sweden,” she adds.

Aside from her illuminating books on Afghanistan, including The Sewing Circles of Herat, Lamb is known for writing I am Malala (with Malala Yousafzai) and One Girl’s Journey From War-Torn Syria In A Wheelchair.

Published last year, One Girl’s Journey details the story of Nujeen Mustafa, a teenager born with cerebral palsy, and her gruelling 16-month trek from Syria to Germany.

“Both Malala and Nujeen are so inspirational,” says Lamb. “At the time of doing interviews, each of them were 16 and what I loved was their positivity in adversity. They have a lot in common — bravery, determination, commitment to education… Nujeen teaching herself from TV and Malala risking her life to go to school.”

They have a wonderful sense of humour, adds Lamb, and have supportive families who keep them down to earth. “I hope we will be friends all our lives.”

Interestingly, Malala is not Lamb’s only link to Pakistan. As a young reporter she interviewed the country’s future prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto, and was subsequently invited to her wedding in 1987.

Lamb’s first book, Waiting For Allah: Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy in 1991, chronicled Bhutto’s rise to power. It was the start of a decade-long friendship which came to an end in December 2007, when Bhutto was assassinated. Just two months before Bhutto was killed, Lamb was with her at a rally in Karachi to mark Bhutto’s return after eight years in self-imposed exile, when their bus was rocked by a bomb.

“Benazir was the bravest person I ever met — at least before Malala — and had an enormous influence on my career,” she says.

Although they had their differences — Lamb was critical about the corruption of her government and her failure to overturn discriminatory laws against women — she says Bhutto was a “very loyal friend”.

“In the end, she made the ultimate sacrifice for her country. I will never forget how after the Karachi bus bombing, we were back at her house in shock and she came down the stairs and touched the photos of her children. I knew she was wondering if she would ever see them again. She was a massive loss to Pakistan.”

Lamb herself has been living dangerously by operating in zones of conflict. The hardest part, she says, is being away from home and family and always having to cancel arrangements. “Sometimes when I am packing for a war zone I think: ‘why am I going to places normal people flee?’ But once I am on the plane I’m thinking about the story,” says Lamb, a winner of Prix Bayeux, Europe’s most prestigious award for war correspondents.

War, however, leaves an indelible imprint. A very different set of emotions holds sway, with the intrusive images and thoughts of death and disfigurement. “Over the last year, I’ve seen more brutal things than ever — Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS [Daesh], Nigerian girls forced to marry Boko Haram fighters.”

It’s hard to “just walk away and forget” the horror and madness that she has witnessed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. There were times when, similarly to many war correspondents who are burned out, emotionally drained or haunted, even Lamb contemplated giving it all up.

In 2001, when her son was a toddler, she says she had negotiated a sabbatical. But then 9/11 happened, and it changed everything. “There was no question I wouldn’t go back to Afghanistan. And when I was on Benazir’s bus that was blown up, which was shortly after another narrow escape — I was ambushed by the Taliban and there was a suicide bombing before that, I started to think I was running out of my nine lives.”

“But the night I got back to London, I had dinner with Beatriz Mtetwa, a very brave human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe, and told her I was thinking of stopping because it also felt to me what I was writing didn’t make a difference,” she says. “She said ‘if people like you don’t come and report on people like me, then there would feel no point for us.’ So I am still doing it.”

The call of war is something few of us can understand. But Lamb is still eager, she says, to discover new fascinating stories and places. “How many people can say they have never experienced a moment’s boredom in their job?”

Currently a foreign affairs correspondent for the Sunday Times, Lamb cheers herself up by doing things she loves to do. “I love going to theatre, cinema, opera, Brazilian music, having meals with friends, reading novels, ice skating and travelling with my son and husband. These are the things that make me smile,” she says.

Although she has the ability to function well in situations of extreme peril and can keep her head in the midst of everything falling apart, her writing ritual when she’s at home begins before the chaos starts. “I like writing early in the morning. Before the day has started for everyone else, before I get distracted by emails and my son looking for socks. Then my husband gets up and makes me a special coffee.”

“I love writing — there is nothing I like more than an empty page and quiet room. I feel very lucky and privileged to do a job which lets me see incredible things and meet amazing people.” But apart from a book she’s currently writing, she says she’s currently doing “something new” — a podcast.

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.

 

Christina Lamb is taking part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature being held at the InterContinental, Dubai Festival City, until March 11.

 

 

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