Living life on the line

Foreign correspondent Christina Lamb talks to Honi about changing the world through reporting.

Christina Lamb with Malala Yousafzai while working on I Am Malala.

Helmand in July is incredibly hot. Amid the dusty villages and parched landscapes, the Afghan province was the scene of deadly fighting between Taliban insurgents and NATO forces during the summer of 2006. Christina Lamb had been sent to cover the conflict for The Sunday Times in London. While there she joined British troops on a ‘hearts and minds’ mission to a nearby village, where they would assess and plan any needed development projects. It wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. En route, though, the party was ambushed by Taliban fighters who immediately tried to pin them down. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the British soldiers knew they had to escape. “We were running for hours in this incredible heat,” recalls Lamb, “gasping for air, jumping in and out of ditches, running through fields, with Kalashnikov fire and machine gun fire, RPGs … bullets hitting all around. It was like being in a First World War movie.”

It’s not the only time Lamb has had a close shave with death while on the job. In 2007 she was on the bus carrying former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that was attacked by suicide bombers, killing over 150 people. “When the bus blew up it was terrible, but I quickly knew I was okay” she says matter-of-factly. “Unlike the ambush that lasted hours, you knew you’d either died or you hadn’t”.

Lamb has been a foreign correspondent for thirty years, and is currently the Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Sunday Times, having also written for The Financial Times, and The Daily Telegraph. She has won numerous accolades for her journalism, including being named Britain’s Foreign Correspondent of the Year five times, and receiving the prestigious European Prix Bayeux-Calvados in 2009. She has written eight books, including the international best seller I Am Malala, and awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen and made an  honorary fellow of her alma mater, University College, Oxford.

In person, Lamb doesn’t act like someone with such an accomplished career. She is friendly and unassuming, and talks at length on numerous topics in a thoughtful yet assured manner.

“I wanted to be a novelist growing up,” she says. “I wanted to go and travel and write novels, but I found myself in journalism.”

Lamb began life as a war reporter in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the late 1980s, covering the Western backed Mujaheddin in their struggle against the Soviets. Lamb shunned the conventional narrative that depicted the Mujaheddin as ill-equipped, sandal-clad fighters with outdated Enfield rifles fighting against one of the most powerful armies on earth, the Red Army. Instead, she wrote about the intense infighting amongst Afghan forces that was happening concurrently with the war against the Russians, and the cruelties being performed on both sides — aspects that didn’t fit into the Cold War narrative of good versus evil.

“I also met all these incredible Afghan tribal elders who had the most amazing stories, and I just thought I cannot make up stories like these, so I started telling their stories … it was always more narrative journalism,” she says. Lamb has since focused on telling women’s stories, writing about the oppression they face in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her work often deals with the confronting incidents of violence and persecution these women endure. With the departure of most NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the situation for women appears to be worsening as instability rises and the Taliban re-emerge across the country. “There are Afghan women that we made a lot of promises to, in the West, that their lives would be better,” she says. But after a long and costly war their situation has hardly improved. In the face of this oppression, Lamb likes to highlight the small acts of resistance that occur daily by women determined not to submit, whether it’s a group of Afghan women cycling around the streets of Kabul despite being hailed by stones that onlookers throw, or a group of teenage girls learning how to code computers in a small classroom in the capital city.

“During our conversation, Lamb leans across the table and shows me her WhatsApp messages: one is from an Afghan MP who has had her car blown up; another is from an Afghan woman with an abusive husband. She reads one message out loud: ‘Can you help me, I need some help'”

However, it can be difficult for Lamb to get to know her interview subjects. Technology has made it possible for her to remain in contact with these women and she often receives messages from them asking for help. During our conversation, Lamb leans across the table and shows me her WhatsApp messages: one is from an Afghan MP who has had her car blown up; another is from an Afghan woman with an abusive husband. She reads one message out loud: “Can you help me, I need some help. I want to leave Afghanistan because there is no life for me here. I’ve faced a lot of problems in my life but now I want to make my life, and my children feel wanted.” Despite her composure, Lamb’s concern for the women is evident. She tries to put her contacts in touch with people who can help, but she admits “it’s difficult”.

“It means you don’t stop thinking about a story, and you feel responsible for people. They’ve trusted you with their story”. While not an activist, Lamb wants to make a difference through her job. She hopes that by telling these stories things will change.

One of those stories is that of Malala Yousafsai. In 2013 Lamb helped co-write I Am Malala, a book about the young girls’ struggle for female education in Pakistan, which has since sold 1.8 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 different languages. In 2012, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating female education. She has since gained international recognition for her work and become the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. “I was very lucky to have worked with Malala because she is a very special person. She is funny, and warm, and her family is great. They tease each other a lot so it was really nice working with them. And my family and her family are friends now,” Lamb tells me, smiling.

In a similar vein, in 2016 Lamb co-wrote The Girl from Aleppo, the story of Syrian refugee, Nujeen Mustafa, who made the treacherous journey to Germany in a wheelchair. Having covered the refugee crisis throughout her career, Lamb wanted to find somebody through which to express this ongoing narrative. “It would have been very easy to tell a depressing refugee story,” Lamb says, “but I didn’t want to do that”. For Lamb, Nujeen was perfect given her upbeat personality and ability to find joy despite her hardship. “When she arrived in Austria she was obsessed about the fact that The Sound of Music had been filmed there.”

“Nujeen was bumped across sunflower fields and corn fields, in a wheelchair way too big for her and she got very bruised. There were no facilities for disabled people so it would have been extremely difficult. But she never complained about what happened,” she says. “She just got on with it”.

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