Working Mom in a War Zone

From the frontlines of a Taliban ambush to the sidelines of her child's football game, a war correspondent explains how she balances work and family.

This article is an edited excerpt from Christina Lamb's new book, "Small Wars Permitting: Dispatches from Foreign Lands." Lamb will be talking about her reporting in Afghanistan as part of a Dart Center panel discussion with BBC correspondent David Loyn on Wednesday, Oct. 6 at Columbia University in New York City.

Here is a typical morning in my life. It happens to be Sunday, 2 July, 2006 and it is the day of my son’s seventh birthday party.

I arrived back on a plane early this morning from Afghanistan. At Heathrow I am one of the lucky people greeted by a name-board: For the first time ever my newspaper has arranged a car to pick me up. London has a grey hung-over gloom and St George’s flags droop forlornly from windows. The driver tells me that England was knocked out of the World Cup by Portugal the previous afternoon. Penalties, of course: I needn’t ask.

After dropping off my bags at home along with a paper bag of croissants from the airport Starbucks, and drinking my first decent coffee in a month, we drive to Sainsbury’s to buy ham and sliced bread. I have to make ham sandwiches for 20 seven-year-olds.

I make twice as many as anyone will eat, buttering slice after slice with great purpose. Then I take them and a cool-box of drinks to nearby Palewell Park where we are having a football party.

Some of the children at the party are pointing at me and whispering. They have seen me on the news or the front page of the Sunday Times that morning and know that four days ago I was almost killed by Taliban, I hear one of them explain.

My mother is there, looking shocked, though I had phoned from Heathrow to warn her before she bought the paper. My husband, who is Portuguese, has said nothing.

This, after all, is what I do.

It is a sunny afternoon and I throw myself into plying children with drinks and ice creams and acting supremely unbothered. I want to keep hugging the blue-eyed birthday boy who I thought I would never see again, but I know he will complain that is “embarrassment-making.” My phone beeps insistently with text messages: a mix of horrified concern from those who have seen the newspaper and jokes about the state of my marriage after the Portugal-England match from those who haven’t.

My jeans and long, printed smock are covering cuts, bruises, burns and thorns that I will still be picking out in six months. Some of them are infected, and in a few days I will go to a local GP who will say, “You have been in the wars,” and I will laugh and let him assume I fell off my bike into a thorn bush.

Almost 20 years I have spent living on the edge. I have been pinned down by Russian tanks in a trench in Kandahar, narrowly missed a brick that smashed through my windscreen on the West Bank, navigated through roadblocks manned by red-eyed, drug-crazed boys with Kalashnikovs in west Africa, been abducted in the middle of the night by Pakistani intelligence, come under sniper fire in Iraq and survived a car crash in a lawless gold-mining settlement in the Amazon as well as a number of emergency landings in planes held together by wire and tape. All around me people have died. My life, I believe, is charmed.

Now I have come as close as possible to being killed. The British paratroopers, with whom I was ambushed in Helmand, were so convinced we were about to be “rolled up” that they talked of saving their last bullets for themselves. In that ditch surrounded on all sides by Taliban with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs, for the first time I really believed I would die. And I swore if I ever got out I would never go back.

Two months later, I will grab the war bag with my flak jacket, helmet, medical kit and satellite phone and be back on a plane to Afghanistan.

Once again theatre tickets, dinner party invitations and other engagements will be cancelled; as always I had only accepted them with the rider “small wars permitting.”

Why do it? Every day I run away from that question.

I am not an alcoholic, a heroin addict or from a broken home. I am a mother of a gorgeous curly-haired boy, wife of a loving husband, daughter of devoted parents, part of a close circle of friends … I have no excuses.

I could tell you it’s a search for truth. A hope that by exposing the evils and injustices of the world I can help make it a better place. Sadly, the pen is not that powerful or else despots like Robert Mugabe would not still be in power.

I could tell you that when I was a child I loved to read the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson and turn the sheets hanging on the washing line into doors onto faraway places. One of our neighbours had an apple tree that served just as well as Stevenson’s cherry tree for climbing up and looking “abroad on foreign lands.”

I could tell you that I felt suffocated by suburbia, living in a place called Carshalton Beeches where the only excitement was to go “up the wine bar” or “down the pub.” Adventure was missing the last train from London after a gig at the Rainbow Theatre and having to navigate my way home via a series of night buses from Trafalgar Square.

I could tell you that I adored Hemingway and wanted to run with the bulls in Spain, watch big game among the green hills of Africa, drink mojitos in bars in old Havana and find love behind the lines.

I could tell you that once you see others die and evils such as boys transformed into killing machines with AK-47s or families forced to bury stick-limbed girls because they could not afford HIV drugs, one’s own life becomes pretty insignificant.

I could tell you that there is nothing more exciting than getting on a plane to somewhere you have never been, particularly with a name like Bujumbura or Cochabamba. That used to be true, but, post 9/11, endless security queues have spoiled the magic of airports.

Maybe the answer lies in Dubai Terminal 2. That’s where you go to catch planes to the Bad Places. The destination board lists Kabul, Baghdad and Mogadishu, and the airlines have names you’ve never heard of like Chelyabinsk, Don Air, Kam Air, Ossetia, Mahan and Samara Airlines. These are airlines so dodgy that they are not allowed to land at the proper airport. Many, like Ariana Afghan airlines or Reem air of Kyrgyzstan, are on a list banning them from European airspace and describing them as “flying coffins.” Their planes are old Tupolevs bought second or third hand from Aeroflot or Air India.

The name, Terminal 2, might lead one to presume it is attached to the main airport; in fact it lies a half-hour taxi ride away. It seems in another country entirely to that gleaming glass temple to capitalism where sunburnt passengers in shorts and mini-skirts shop for Rolex watches and Fendi handbags and buy $100 tickets to enter the lottery for a Jaguar X-Type.

At Terminal 2 there is just one shop and people stuff baskets with Mars bars, batteries, tampons and biscuits for they know not what they will get the other end. Mostly they are bounty hunters, Afghan money changers, aid workers, private security guards and journalists. Instead of Samsonites on wheels they have battered kitbags and rucksacks, black plastic crates of survival equipment or, in the case of the Afghans, large cloth bundles. The few with suits and briefcases are consultants, being paid thousands of dollars for something called “capacity building,” but they will get on a special United Nations plane. Sometimes there are dead bodies being flown back from comfortable exile to be buried in harsh homelands.

Most people have grimly resigned expressions, particularly if like me they are flying Ariana. For the airlines of Terminal 2 departure times mean nothing and it is common to turn up day after day before a plane finally arrives. Besides, we all know that the Ariana pilots prefer staying in Dubai to piloting their "coffins" back to a destroyed country. We debate with those holding Kam tickets whether it’s safer to fly with an airline that has already crashed (Kam) or one that always seems about to crash (Ariana). Passengers that make a fuss and try to find non-existent airline representatives are exposed as newcomers.

Some might be committed do-gooders; others are only doing it for money. “George Bush has paid off thousands of mortgages,” says a Scottish ex-para on his way to be a $1000-a-day security consultant in Afghanistan after a long stint in Iraq.

There are a few that have a look on their face that I recognise. It’s a sort of suburban restlessness. Not in a grass-is-always-greener kind of way. But a search for adventure.

These are the people whose eyes gleam when they see the name Kish on the destination board. Where is that? Kish islands in Iran, someone tells me. It sounds intriguing. I know one day I will try to go there. It will mean flying Kish air, which last crashed two years ago.

Biographers of Alexander the Great used the Greek word pothos to describe his endless yearning to be somewhere else, whether it was to cross the Danube, go to the oracle of Ammon, sail the ocean, see the Persian Gulf or untie the legendary knot at Gordium.

I liked that description. But then I read that the longing for something unattainable expressed by pothos could also signify a desire to die. For pothos is also the Greek word for delphiniums, the flowers traditionally placed on tombs in Greece.

I never set out to be brave or daring or intrepid or any of those labels often attached to the phrase "war correspondent." What I wanted to be is a storyteller. I didn’t want to be like Albrecht Dürer drawing a rhinoceros from hearsay — I needed to experience and see things firsthand. Stories have not been lacking for I have lived in countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe at a time of huge upheaval when the world was adjusting from the Cold War to a whole new war of terrorist attacks and suicide bombs.

To me the real story in war is not the bang-bang but the lives of those trying to survive behind the lines. Mostly working for weekly papers, I have had the luxury of time to often venture where other reporters don’t and tell the stories of those forgotten. Sometimes the story behind the article is more interesting than what appeared on the printed page. These are my places of hope and despair.