'The real story of war is of the lives behind the lines'

Christina Lamb claims to have led a charmed life, which is something of an understatement from someone who was the 2007 British Press Awards foreign correspondent of the year, famous for befriending heads of state, and has narowly escaped death more than once.

Over the past 20 years Lamb has worked for the Financial Times, Sunday Telegraph and is currently with the Sunday Times. She got her break when she was 21 and on a work-experience stint at the FT, when she interviewed the then-in-exile former Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto.

Friendship with the former Pakistani leader blossomed and Lamb was invited to the Bhutto’s 10-day wedding celebrations in Karachi, in December 1987.

Lamb’s visit to the Pakistan capital proved to be inspirational. She returned home and resigned from her trainee reporter job at Central TV. Touting herself around, Lamb got a loose agreement from the FT that she’d file copy from Pakistan, so she packed a suitcase and headed back to Karachi.

Her long and turbulent relationship with Pakistan, from where she has twice been deported, was mirrored in her dealings with its most famous daughter. ‘Benazir saw everything in black and white,’says Lamb. ‘She thought ‘you are either for us or against us’.

‘In the beginning I visited her as a friend. So when I went there as a journalist she thought she’d get very positive coverage. It was a lesson; it was very difficult to live in a country where you are friends with the head of state.”

The friendship nevertheless endured up until Bhutto’s assassination in December. Bhutto may not have always agreed with what Lamb wrote about her, but the former leader allowed Lamb to accompany her back into Pakistan in October last year.

Initially, Lamb had reservations about travelling with Bhutto on her open- top bus into the country. Then, sensing she needed to be where the story was happening, Lamb ran after the vehicle as it left Karachi airport.

The bus was later blown up, killing more than 130 people but both Bhutto and Lamb escaped unhurt. ‘Your initial reaction is to be amazed you’re still alive,’says Lamb, who ran from the bus soaked in other people’s blood. ‘You think in things like that you would try to help people but I just wanted to get away from it. As I ran down a side street a woman tried to take me back to the main road where there were body parts, carnage and shoes.’

It’s a long way away from Lamb’s suburban upbringing in Morden, which, she says, gave her a thirst for adventure. The Oxford graduate admits she didn’t have a plan when she went to Pakistan, but had a gut feeling that the country was about to get interesting.

This instinct for trouble has led Lamb to political and social hotspots. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe remain the three places closest to her heart, says Lamb, who has a great knack for making friends with soon-to-be influential political leaders.

A young Hamid Karzai was a contact of hers in 1988 – when he was the most ‘inconsequential’leader of the seven Afghan parties fighting the Russians and before he became a founding member of the Taliban. ‘I never for one moment thought that he would be president of Afghanistan. I don’t think he did.”

Of Zimbabwe Lamb says it is ‘by far the most heartbreaking story’she’s had to tell because its devastation hasn’t been caused by war but president Mugabe’s ‘desperation to stay in power”.

There is too, a sense that the Western media got the story wrong, she says. ‘I feel guilty too because when the white farmers’ land started being seized, we in the Western media were so focused on the farmers and not on what was happening to all the black farm workers. Yet at the end of the day only 18 white farmers were killed.”

‘I’m not trying to condone what was happening, and it was awful,’Lamb adds. ‘But hundreds of black workers lost everything: their homes, everything they had. They weren’t as equipped as the white farmers, who were well educated, to start a new life.

‘Most of the black farm workers ended up back in the villages with absolutely nothing to eat, they were beaten and some of them killed. It made me feel we got the story wrong.”

Despite stints in the relatively subdued climes of Latin America and western Europe, Lamb has always been drawn back into political hotspots, she says.

Trouble, it seems, also follows Lamb. ‘Last year I said to my foreign editor that I always get sent to dangerous places and get shot at, so could I go to somewhere less dangerous? So I went to Kenya in December,’she says with a wry smile.

She knows, too, that she’s been lucky, but says she has developed an instinct for sensing danger. In March 2003, when travelling as a unilateral in Iraq, she was driving towards Basra, informed by a wire story that the city was about to fall to American and British forces.

With no sign of either on the roads, Lamb nevertheless turned back, sensing something amiss. ‘Shortly after that, ITN‘s car which we passed on the way out, with its correspondentTerry Lloyd, was attacked,’says Lamb. Lloyd was killed that day by American Marines as he and three colleagues approached Basra.

Lamb’s most recent and closest brush with death was in July 2006 when paratroopers she was accompanying to a village in southern Afghanistan came under sustained attack.

‘It was chaos. There were these irrigation ditches we were jumping into for cover. The first one I jumped into I lost my notebook. In 20 years of being a journalist I had never lost a notebook. I saw it, and with bullets flying over I thought I have to get that notebook. I started climbing up to get it and thought ‘this is really stupid’. Not having my notebook I felt less protected.”

Lamb spent more than two hours running from the attack. One of the snipers told her he would keep the last bullet for himself and the commander asked if Lamb could use a pistol after he had radioed for air support and been told ‘all assets were in use”. It was a detail that Lamb used to illustrate just how badly exposed the British troops were in Afghanistan.

Lamb’s marriage in 1999 and the birth of her son made her think twice about the job, but events like 9/11 draw her back in with a sense of responsibility she feels to tell the story.

She says: ‘To me, the real story in war is not the bang-bang but the lives of those trying to survive behind the lines.’As a woman, she says she is well placed to get at those stories.

‘In Afghanistan, my male colleagues don’t have access to half the population that I can speak to.’And she adds: ‘I think women make much better journalists because they are much better at listening.”

Christina Lamb’s Small Wars Permitting, Dispatches from Foreign Lands, is published by Harper Press, £8.99

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