'Imagination will take you everywhere'
This summer I have been to the craggy mountains of the Khyber Pass, through the dusty streets of Karachi, walked along Copacabana beach in Rio, taken a packed train across Zambia, and ran with bulls in Portugal. Sounds pretty epic?
Only I haven’t. But reading about the foreign correspondent, Christina Lamb’s adventures in her book, Small Wars Permitting, Dispatches from Foreign Lands, has taken me all over the world.
So I may be peacefully reclining by the pool in a rather sedate France, but in my head I’m being fired at by Taliban fighters in Helmand Province. THAT is the power of a good book. Small Wars Permitting was published in 2008, with a compilation of Lamb’s stories and memories of foreign assignments from her early career, they are thrillingly addictive and left me feeling exhausted – both physically and emotionally.
Admittedly I discovered this book a little late (Lamb has since written two more books), fuelled by my love of Lamb’s reporting – she recently wrote a brilliant piece in the Sunday Times about the European migrant crisis. What I find inspiring is how she gives a voice to those who are usually voice-less or unheard/ignored by the wider world, braving unfathomable dangers to get the untold stories and discover the truth. In her words; “To me the real story in war is not the bang-bang but the lives of those trying to survive behind the lines.”
The book begins with an anecdote depicting the bizarre contrasts of Lamb’s life; four days after being almost killed in a Taliban ambush, she is making ham sandwiches for her son’s birthday party (not your typical working mum). Balancing being a war correspondent and a mother was also wonderfully depicted in a previous article she wrote that wasn’t included in the book – ‘My Double Life: Kalashnikovs and Cupcakes’. Despite her desire to be a constant presence in her son’s life, she has an addiction to story-telling and adventure – the very thing that drew her to the profession.
Her first report as a foreign correspondent is about a grand wedding in Pakistan; the marriage of Benazir Bhutto, the future Prime Minister of Pakistan. Lamb’s descriptions are full of depth and colour – like all of her other stories, she conjures up a faraway world that is still tangible to readers. The complex political goings-on are well explained (I now have a brief knowledge of the Pakistan People’s Party, as well as an understanding of the tragic family history of the Bhutto’s). At the end of the book, the trajectory comes full circle, as the second-to-last article documents the moments when Benazir’s campaign bus is bombed (with Lamb on it), a failed assassination attempt on the leader’s life.
What surprised me about this book is just how many countries Lamb has reported from. I naively thought she just focused on the Middle East as most of her articles that I’ve read are about that area. But I was wrong. She has lived in and written about countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. My favourite stories are the ones from Latin America. Lamb has sambaed along the streets of Rio in the annual carnival, while uncovering how it is funded by organised crime. She has ventured into the depths of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, to investigate how “modern man and rainforest co-exist”, interviewing people who risk their lives defending nature.
The most chilling tale in the whole book is the story of Rio’s disappearing street children. Lamb writes that the city is one of the most violent in the world – with 500 killings in just one month in 1989. Children made up a large amount of the victims. But the saddest thing is that they were killed in order to ‘clean up’ the streets. With tourism generating a lot of the income in Rio de Janeiro, many residents believed it necessary to deal with the unsightly issue of street kids – even using such brutal methods. According to Lamb, most of the “death squads” were run by policemen, making it impossible for the murderers to be brought to justice. These children are often nameless, with no families – therefore no one notices them disappear. But Lamb gave them a voice; they told her stories of torture, death and fear, and she retold them to the world. It was one of the most powerful articles I’ve ever read.
One photo of Lamb stands out. She’s sat on a tyre in an arid desert, barefooted with messy hair, wearing baggy trousers and eating a slice of melon. She looks happy and relaxed as if on a picnic – nobody would guess that she’s actually accompanying teenage guerrilla fighters in a warzone. Lamb is the ultimate adventurer. One wonders how she can go back to normality after experiencing such dramatic, dangerous events.
The book is dedicated to Wais Faizi, a fixer in Kabul who’s unexplained death Lamb said symbolised “Afghanistan’s downward spiral”. Furthermore it represents how certain societies repress journalists – and the local fixers who help journalists. Only recently the retrial of three Aljazeera journalists in Egypt ended in them being given a three year sentence, which further highlights how some countries are refusing to acknowledge the importance of journalists in a free and democratic society.
Good journalism shines a light on issues the public need to know. Lamb writes about dictatorships, rape, slavery, wars, drug gangs, murders – difficult, upsetting things. But somehow it is compelling reading; Lamb is candid, honest and compassionate. I feel as if I know so much more about the world just from reading one book. Yes it is usually about evil acts, but there are also stories of hope and survival against all odds (the story of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq is particularly astounding) – showing both the best and the worst of human nature.
One important line struck me; after a heated battle with the Taliban, in which British paras showed true bravery and killed about twenty Taliban fighters, Lamb writes that had she and the photographer, Justin Sutcliffe, not been there, “you would probably never have read about it”. I think that is true of many of the articles in the book. Without Lamb being amidst the action – be it in Afghanistan, the Amazon, or Johannesburg – to write notes and ask people questions, we wouldn’t have any of these incredible stories. And many people would still be voiceless.