A Dangerous Yet Still Necessary Assignment
I really did not want to die in a muddy field in Helmand. But there I was, cowering in a ditch with Kalashnikov bullets and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) whistling overhead, mortars bursting into orange flame all around. When we tried to run, we found ourselves heading into a hail of bullets. The Taliban had surrounded us on all sides. When I dropped my notebook at the start of the ambush — the first time I'd done that in 20 years on the road — I knew I had abandoned all pretence at journalism. All I could think about was desperately wanting to survive and my little boy whose seventh birthday party I was due to be hosting that Sunday.
What was supposed to be a hearts and minds mission with British soldiers in a village in southern Afghanistan had turned into a desperate fight for our lives. As we walked in, leaving the vehicles and big guns outside, Zumbelay had seemed a quiet, bucolic place. We joked that it would be a nice spot for a cold beer. But our senses should have been alerted by the fact that no children were around. Usually they all come clamoring for candy. Nor did the villagers invite us for green tea. Instead they directed us straight into a Taliban ambush. The commander was telling me "I think that went well" just as the first shots rang out, and we ran for our lives. And when a sergeant major from Britain's elite Parachute Regiment asks, "Can you use a pistol?" you know you're in serious trouble.
Ironically I had refused to return to Iraq because it was too dangerous. Yet now here I was staring at death in a ditch in southern Afghanistan for the second time. It was back in 1988, when I was 22 and in and out of love and thought I was indestructible, that death came close but also passed me by. I was with a young, chubby and then unknown Hamid Karzai and a band of turbaned mullahs who had later gone on to become founding members of the Taliban. (I had lived a block away from Karzai in Peshawar where he was then a spokesman for the smallest of the seven mujahideen groups.) Armed and funded by the Americans and British, they had mounted an ill-conceived operation to attack a Russian base at Kandahar airport, which had ended with us pinned down in a trench by Soviet tanks with hot dust and rubble raining on us and several dead.
Had anyone told me then that 18 years later Karzai would be president of Afghanistan, and I would end up under fire in a similar ditch with British soldiers in the neighboring province of Helmand fighting Afghans, I would never have believed them.
Afghan Coverage: Then and Now
"Going inside" was what we called it in the old days, when the Russians were occupying Afghanistan back in the 1980's. Most of us covering that war were based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, divided from where we wanted to be by the jagged mountains of the Khyber Pass. By foot, donkey or motorbike, we would travel back and forth across those mountains with the muj, as the Afghan guerrilla fighters were known, dodging landmines and Soviet helicopter gunships. Sometimes we would darken our faces with a mixture of dirt and potassium permanganate to blend in with the fighters; sometimes we would be disguised in burkas. We lived on stale naan bread, occasionally supplemented by rice from some villagers, or okra fried in diesel oil.
When we were inside, we longed to be out, but when we were out we spent all our time trying to get back in. There were no satellite phones then so it was impossible to file copy while inside Afghanistan. Crossing the border meant being out of contact for weeks. Even when back in Pakistan, it was so hard to get an international phone line that most of the time the only way to file was through the telex operator in the Pakistan Communications Office who required regular baksheesh to keep him punching out the holes in the ticker tape.
Once I got a visa from the Communist regime to cover the war from the other side. That was little better. Copy had to be sent through the one-armed telex operator at Hotel Kabul who doubled, somewhat alarmingly, as the taxi driver, his one black-gloved hand swinging back and forth from the gear-stick to the steering wheel.
These days it's much easier. The major cities of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad all have mobile phones and Internet, and some guest houses such as the Gandamak even boast Wi-Fi. But while logistics have been revolutionized, other aspects of reporting Afghanistan have become harder. Journalists have become targets. Afghanistan has not reached anywhere near Iraq's level of violence and danger for journalists, but there have been a number of kidnappings and murders of correspondents. Some can be put down to banditry, but not all.
The new U.S.-funded highways between Kabul and Kandahar and Kabul and Jalalabad have slashed journey times, but they have become no safer, with roadblocks once more a feature. Some who man these roadblocks are Taliban who are looking for government sympathizers and shooting them; others are bandits or even police demanding bribes. Some of us have started wearing burkas again when we travel on such roads.
Reporting about Afghanistan has also become more depressing. Back in the 1980's Afghanistan was a romantic story — the Spanish civil war of my generation — a David and Goliath struggle by men from the mountains with their plastic sandals and old Lee-Enfields turning back one of the more powerful armies on earth. That first soured in the early 1990's when the Russians had left and the muj all started fighting each other.
The narrative arc of the story had changed, but that hardly mattered, because the moment the last Soviet soldier stepped back across the Oxus River on February 15, 1989, Afghanistan dropped off the news agenda, anyway.
As a cub reporter, I was shocked. Overnight most of the diplomats, spies, aid agencies, and journalists packed up and left. As a freelance correspondent at Financial Times and Time magazine, I was determined to stay with the story, but it was getting harder and harder to find interested editors. One month later I was there for the battle for Jalalabad, the mujahideen's first attempt to capture a city from the Communist regime. Masterminded by Pakistan's military intelligence, it was a disastrous offensive. I watched thousands of women and children pour out of the city to escape the mujahideen's rockets only to be killed as the roads were bombed by the Afghan Air Force. Ten thousand people were killed in a few days, the biggest single death toll of the entire war. Yuri Vorontsov, then the Soviet ambassador in Kabul, later told me more ammunition was used in Jalalabad than in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Among the Arabs fighting with the muj in Jalalabad was Osama bin Laden. He'd been living in Peshawar at this time, but in those days no one had heard of him. (It always makes me laugh when I read journalists claiming they met him then.)
For a long while after that Afghanistan felt like a love affair that had gone badly wrong. During the years I was away, I returned many times to Pakistan and often met my Afghan friends living in exile. Over time the once dashing warriors became potbellied and balding, moaning of having thrown away their youths on a struggle that had lost its point. I, too, had changed, growing up I suppose, and becoming a mother. And I had learned the lesson of Jalalabad: The real story in war is often not the "bang bang," but the people who are left to carry on with their often shattered lives, particularly the women.
Lack of interest in Afghanistan all changed, of course, on September 11, 2001. In the ensuing fight to oust the Taliban, it was once again easy to identify who were the good guys and who the bad. The Taliban, after all, were one of the world's most repressive regimes, harboring the man responsible for more than 3,000 deaths in terrorist attacks, and most of the world was on the other side.
Changes and Similarities
But more than five years after BBC world affairs editor John Simpson's infamous "liberation of Kabul" on November 13, 2001, much of the goodwill towards Westerners has already dissipated. In large swathes of southern Afghanistan, propaganda from the resurgent Taliban, combined with some overenthusiastic NATO bombing, have convinced many to regard peacekeeping forces from the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere as the occupiers, there to destroy their livelihood, that is, their poppy fields. (Afghanistan is now responsible for 92 percent of world opium production.) It's not hard to sway minds in this direction. As I watched British commanders telling villagers, "We're here at the invitation of your government," those words were eerily reminiscent of what the Russians used to say.
One thing that has not changed in 20 years of reporting Afghanistan is the elusive nature of truth. Afghans are a captivating people, with their noble stance, generous hospitality and proud history, and a love of beauty that has even the most brutal warlord tying plastic flowers to his Kalashnikov. But to say Afghans are prone to exaggeration is like saying the French quite like wine. Any number of times I would arrive at a mujahideen camp in the late 1980's to be told that I had just missed them winning a major battle or shooting down seven Soviet MiGs. Strangely the wreckage was never anywhere to be found. I should have remembered this lesson in June when the villagers of Zumbelay assured us there were no Taliban and then directed us straight into the ambush.
People often ask me if it's a problem being a female correspondent in Afghanistan. Strangely, it's not at all. Warlords and commanders generally seem to regard Western women journalists as some kind of asexual species, and we have a distinct advantage of being able to go and sit in the women's quarters, with access to half the population our male colleagues often miss.
The end of the Taliban and arrival in Kabul of more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations, many of which have media training programs, has led to a proliferation of newspapers. At last count there were more than 250. But most Afghans still get their news through the radio. Whenever I go to rural villages, people always ask me, "BBC? BBC?" Long ago I gave up trying to explain that I worked for a newspaper.
One of the big changes I've noticed this time around is how media savvy the Taliban have become. This organization that was so reclusive when it was in power — with no official pictures of its leader allowed — now has spokesmen with satellite phones who hand out DVDs. They still use night letters pinned to mosques or schools to warn locals to cooperate, but these days they also have mobile phones. Mullah Omar even has a Web site.
Once I was angry that Afghanistan was no longer in the news. How easy it was to forget about this country after the Taliban were gone, just as it had been forgotten by journalists after the Russians left. By 2003, reporters were already referring to it as "the forgotten war." Now I feel sad that Afghanistan is back in the news. I was lucky to survive the ambush in Zumbelay. Four thousand Afghans were killed last year in the violence, and 191 coalition soldiers lost their lives. Afghanistan was never going to become Sweden, but had the world really been committed to rebuilding it after 2001, and not been distracted by Iraq, then the return of Western journalists to report again on another war might never have been necessary.
Christina Lamb, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year for 2006 in the BBC's What the Papers Say Awards. After her (London) Sunday Times report on the Zumbelay ambush was published in early July, Britain sent more troops and equipment to Afghanistan. She is also the author of "The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan" (HarperCollins). Her next book, "Tea with Pinochet: Tales From Foreign Lands," will be published this summer by HarperPress.