The Best Word for Coming Home is "Dislocation"
Jonathan Charles talks about about the challenges of coming home from hostile environments.
I’m the man who can fall asleep while the Americans are carpet-bombing a Taliban position in Afghanistan, literally three or hour hundred meters away. There are photographs to prove it, so I suppose that shows I’m used to being in a war zone, and I don’t feel so threatened that I can’t take time out to relax.
Why do I keep going back? I ask myself that question a lot. The other day, I met E.D.Lederer, who was one of the first women war correspondents in Vietnam. She’s just written a book called War Torn with the other female correspondents. She believes that those of us who do this work are all adventurers. So, I guess I keep going back because I’m curious, and it appeals to something in my personality. I also feel strongly that someone should be there to witness events and to write the first - draft of history.
The truth is, that when you are working in hostile environments, all your senses are completely alive because you have to survive. And, you get used to feeling like this – really, really alive. I suppose, that’s the addiction because it’s the ultimate challenge, and such a completely different experience to walking down a street in the UK.
You have to learn to be self-supporting when you’re in these situations. But, I think you also need to find some kind of balance so you don’t burn yourself out. I take a lot of books with me. It’s vital to be able to lose myself in a book for half an hour. Just to take some time out.
But, I do think about home a lot. Of course, you wonder about what those close to you are doing in their normal lives – which is obviously very different from your reality. Sometimes it’s extremely odd to think life at home is rubbing along as usual, while you’re living such a heightened experience.
I, therefore, make the effort to talk every day to my partner so she can remind me of mundane life – anything from walking to dog to going to Tesco’s. This also helps me to readjust when I come back because I’m not completely out of touch. At least I have an idea of what life has been like.
The only trouble is that sometimes it’s quite difficult to convey the right feelings over the telephone — particularly if the line is dreadful because it’s a satellite phone. Things can easily get misinterpreted. And, if they do get misunderstood, it can feel pretty lonely when you put the phone down and get back to the realities of working in a war zone.
To make it easier for myself, I always make sure I have something to look forward to when I get home. Like a wonderful meal in a fabulous restaurant. Having something special to look forward to often keeps me going when I’m particularly tired, or I have been asked to stay on for a few extra days by London, even though I feel it’s time to leave.
And, there’s no question that it’s a great relief when I get on the plane to come home. It’s good to know that I don’t have to maintain that level of awareness, that alertness. I don’t have to think night and day about my safety, the safety of the team, and all those other things that tend to take over in these situations.
But, I’m very good at compartmentalising my life. I believe this is a necessary asset for any foreign correspondent. Once I’m on the plane home, I take a deep breath and let it all go. You have to otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get away from it. Even so, it takes time to separate from what you’ve seen and done.
So, the obvious word that stands out about coming home is ‘dislocation’. There’s no doubt that when you spend four to six weeks in a war zone, or somewhere where there’s terrible suffering, you become very dislocated from your ‘normal’ life in the UK.
It can takes days to re-establish your bearings. So, it’s important to recognise there is always a period of transition to go through before the dust settles again. I love what I do, but I have to recognise the conflict between these two worlds. And it is the transition time that is really important to make my return okay.
Even so, it can be difficult. I try not to get irritable, but it’s hard. It’s little things like queuing up in a supermarket - what I describe as everyday life activities that you don’t have to do when you’re away. They can just seem so meaningless.
My partner often gets the brunt of my irritation. For instance, I remember once, cooking lunch. I’d only been back a couple of days from Afghanistan. The recipe was fine, but things hadn’t quite turned out as I had wanted - and I got rather irritated with her. Then, I stopped because I realised it was nothing to do with the recipe, or her. It was to do with Afghanistan.
My life style, and the effect it has on me, does put pressure on our relationship. It’s difficult enough when you come back after a long trip, anyway. Even when you’ve been to the nicest place in the world, it’s challenging because naturally, people get used to doing their own thing without you.
And, it’s easy for misunderstandings to happen because the person who is coming back may not be the person who left. It’s difficult when behaviour patterns are slightly different for a while, and it can take quite a few days to become yourself again, the person your partner knows and loves.
Luckily, my partner is very supportive, and understands what’s going on because she had experience of working in hostile environments. That helps, and it’s really important to have her in my life. I think it’s very difficult for those people who come back and they haven’t got anyone they can talk to. That’s probably when they turn to alcohol, or marriages start breaking down.
So, I have learnt to make myself stop and think about what’s going on for me when I feel myself getting irritated. I’ll say to myself, ‘Right, you know why this is happening; it’s because you’ve just got back from a war zone’.
I have had quite acute reactions too. A couple of years ago I had just arrived from Macedonia, and was driving up the M11. Suddenly, I saw this oily smoke coming out of some trees at the edge of the motorway.
My first thought was, ‘Oh, my god! A vehicle’s been hit by a shell!’
In a war zone, oily smoke is a sign of shelling, so I automatically started to go into the kind of reaction that you do in those situations. It took me about a minute to realise, ‘Hang on! You’ve just flown in from Macedonia. You’re not there, you’re in Essex, and driving up to Norfolk’. I burst out laughing. I think that’s the only way to deal with it. You have to recognise what’s happening to you, and once you do that, it’s usually okay.
When I first come back, I like a bit of peace and quiet. So, in the first few days, I like to walk along a beach-enjoying the peace and quiet. It’s important because, a) it’s very pleasant and b) it’s a signifier that I’m back home.
It’s a ritual that anchors my mind to the fact that I’m back, and it’s almost as though I’ve not quite landed until I’ve done it. It’s not so much about feeling safe, but about being somewhere peaceful. This is my personal totem. I also read a lot, and do things that are normal. But, I won’t watch television news, even though I try to read a newspaper every day, and listen to the odd radio news bulletins.
However, the main thing I do for myself is to make sure I am softer, because you harden in war zones. You have to. You have to be tough because it’s part of your survival mechanism - and the danger is that you will bring this hard shell back with you. Now, that really is damaging to relationships, apart from how it effects your general enjoyment of life.
When it’s time to go back again, I do psych myself. But, I always put where I am going into the context of some of the other conflicts I’ve been in, and then work out whether it will be better or worse. I use Chechnya on the grounds that it was far more unpleasant than anything I’ve ever, or hope ever to experience again. I take comfort from thinking nothing could be as bad as that. I don’t get nervous. But, as soon as I know where I am going, my mind hooks into concentrating on what it will it be like. So, in a sense the adrenaline is already beginning to pump by the time I get on the plane.
But, I am now getting to a stage when I have to think about what I want to do because this is a young person’s game. There is a point when you have to look at that, and recognise what it means for you. It’s possible I might want to do something completely different, or I will keep going back – but not quite so often.
Working in war zones, and difficult places does make you think about the importance of putting your life into some kind of context. As someone who grew up in a very peaceful country at a time of prosperity, in a reasonable middle class household, it’s too easy to take what I have in the UK for granted.
It also makes me think that people should witness what I have, because it would make them appreciate what they have so much more. The fact that I can compare the suffering I see with my good fortune has given me a strong sense of humanity. I’ve met people who are no different to me, but if they’d been born in more fortunate circumstances, they could have been brought up in a life similar to mine. This, in itself, has made me realise how fragile life is.