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Veteran War Correspondent On Her Relationship With Benazir Bhutto

Christina Lamb
Christina Lamb
Christina Lamb, an award-winning war correspondent for "The Sunday Times" and author of five books, has spent 20 years reporting from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and South America.

In 1991, her first book, "Waiting For Allah: Pakistan's Struggle for Democracy," chronicled Benazir Bhutto's rise to power to become Pakistan's prime minister. Lamb's third book in 2002, "The Sewing Circles of Herat," documented the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

On the fifth anniversary of Bhutto's December 27, 2007, assassination in Pakistan, Lamb is finishing a three-year-stint as the Washington bureau chief for "The Sunday Times" and is preparing for her return to war reporting.

RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz caught up with Lamb to speak about her relationship with Bhutto -- including her eyewitness perspective on an assasination attempt against the late Pakistani leader -- as well as Lamb's fears for Afghanistan's future.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about your career in journalism and some of the history you've witnessed in Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 1980s. For a start, could you tell us why you got involved in journalism?

Christina Lamb: Yes, I was always interested in writing. I loved to write. But I was also interested in seeing the world and going to different places, and it seemed like a great way of doing that. It's also a wonderful excuse. I'm a very curious person and being a journalist you can always ask people questions anywhere about anything. So it enabled me to do that.

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007.
Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007.
RFE/RL: One of your first interviews was with Benazir Bhutto in 1987 when she was living in exile in London -- before she was elected to her first term as Pakistan's prime minister. How did that come about and how did it impact your life?

Benazir Bhutto had a huge influence on my life because when I started out, when I left university, I worked on the "Financial Times" as an intern. One day, the foreign editor couldn't go to a lunch of South Asian politicians that he was supposed to be going to. I was very interested in India. I'd written a thesis on Kashmir. And so he said to me, "Why don't you go to this lunch?" I sat at this lunch next to somebody who was secretary-general of the Pakistan People's Party, which was Benazir's party. He said to me, "Would you like to interview Benazir?" She was living in exile in London in the Barbican Center at the time. So, of course, I said yes.

I went to interview her and it was actually when she'd just announced her engagement to [Pakistan's current President] Asif Zardari. So the flat was full of bouquets of flowers and it also made it very topical. Of course, I was very fascinated by her. She was an incredibly impressive, very courageous woman -- and we got on very well. She then went back to Pakistan and I went to work for a TV company in the U.K.

A few months later, I came home from work -- a really miserable day in Birmingham, cold, wet, dark -- and there was this invitation on my mat written in gold script to her wedding in Karachi. Of course, I went to that. It was my first time to go to Pakistan and was a most amazing introduction because her wedding went on for a week, 10 days. It was a huge event. Very colorful, like something out of the "Arabian Nights" but also very political because at that time, she'd gone back to try to take on the dictator General Zia [ul Haq].

And so every night, after all the ceremonial parts of the wedding, there would be gatherings of her and her political colleagues discussing how to try and topple this dictator. So it was absolutely fascinating. As soon as I got back to the U.K., I gave in my notice at the job I had been doing and went back to live in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: In 1998, after Bhutto's second government was dismissed amid corruption allegations and her party had been defeated in elections, she went into self-imposed exile in Dubai. But she returned to Pakistan in October 2007 to run again for prime minister. You were actually on the campaign bus with her on the day she returned to Karachi and was targeted by a double bombing that the authorities blamed on the Taliban. Can you describe what happened that day? Also, before she was assassinated on December 27, 2007, did she speak to you about who she thought was trying to kill her?

Before she went back, I met her in London when she was announcing her return and she was talking about the fact that there had been these assassination threats. But I don't think that she really thought that anything was going to happen to her. She hadn't been in Pakistan then for 8 1/2 years, and it had totally changed in that time. I mean, I used to travel with her during elections sometimes back in the 1980s and 1990s, and then the biggest threat was somebody kind of jostling you. There was no idea that anybody was going to be blown up or anything like that.

But in the time that she had been away, of course, suicide bombs had become very frequent in Pakistan. There were more victims there than anywhere. So when we arrived in Pakistan and got on the truck, we started driving, and there were thousands and thousands of people and it was an open-top truck. The route that they'd chosen went under bridges and through areas where there were all these people on tops of buildings. It felt incredibly exposed.

I said to the head of security on the truck, "How can you possibly protect her?" And he said it was in God's hands -- which, frankly, didn't seem that reassuring. The things that they'd been provided -- jammers, for example, to try and make sure nobody could set off a bomb through mobile phones -- were not working. So there were concerns from the start. And we were on that vehicle for hours and hours. We left at about 2 [in the afternoon] and it got to late night, and it was dark. And the street lights kept going off, which made her very wary that something was going on.

But it was still a huge shock when the bombs actually happened because the atmosphere was actually really lively. She was ecstatic, actually, to be back. It was what she loved doing -- being among the people. Then she'd gone downstairs to prepare for this speech that she would give when we arrived at [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah's mausoleum, which was where we were headed. Suddenly, there was this sound and we were all thrown to the ground.

Lamb in 1989 after crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan with mujahedin fighters.
Lamb in 1989 after crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan with mujahedin fighters.
There was a small bomb, or a grenade maybe, even, to start with. And then, as people started to get up, there was a huge blast and we were all thrown to the ground and there was orange flame everywhere. There were, I think, 15 of us on top of the bus. Three people [on the bus] were killed. The rest of us were lucky. And then, she was taken out and taken straight to her old house. I then, with some of the other people, joined her there a bit later. She was obviously incredibly shaken and I talked to her a lot -- into the early hours of the morning.

She, I think up to that point really, had never imagined something like that would happen. But she was then in a very difficult situation because it was quite clear whoever had done that was not going to stop at that. They would try and kill her again and again. She felt she couldn't leave. If she went back to Dubai where she'd been living, it would look like she was running away. And she'd gone back to try and be prime minister again. So she continued campaigning. But she did talk about who she thought had been behind it.

She never bought the official line that it was one of the Pakistani Taliban -- Baitullah Mehsud -- because, first of all, he denied it. And they don't tend to deny things. They usually claim things. But secondly, she just felt very strongly that the "establishment," as she called it, the people in the military -- and particularly in the ISI, the military intelligence who had always been against her -- were the people who were really behind it. And she actually named several individuals.

RFE/RL: In "The Sewing Circles of Herat," you spoke with Afghan women about their lives under the Taliban, but also about their expectations the day after the Taliban fled that city. You also wrote an article for "The Sunday Times" in early 2007 saying Afghanistan "can still be saved." What do you think now about the hopes of those Afghan women? Have they been disappointed? Also, do you still think Afghanistan can be saved from extremism or descending back into civil war after the withdrawal of foreign troops?

Obviously, I'm very worried, with the withdrawal of troops coming over the next year, that women in particular -- the rights that they have achieved since the Taliban have gone -- will be lost. It's not great, the situation for women. But things are a lot better than they were. There are lots of girls going to school. There are women going to work. We've also seen a lot of assassinations of women in public positions. So they are taking a risk when they do anything. But it does feel like once the NATO troops leave or draw down to less than 10,000, it will be very, very hard for those women to be protected.

We're already seeing that some of the old warlords from the 1980s when I first used to go to Afghanistan are now talking about rearming and trying to take over their areas -- whether it's Ismail Khan in Herat or [Muhammad] Fahim and Atta [Muhammad Noor] in the north.

There's a lot of concern that Afghanistan will revert to some kind of a civil war where different areas are run by different people. Everything really hinges on the ANA -- the Afghan National Army -- and whether they really are in a position to take over the security of the country. And that is a big unknown. I mean, there was a report [recently] in the Pentagon saying that only one of 23 ANA brigades are actually capable of operating on their own without NATO's support. That obviously isn't very encouraging. Also, there are lots of these insider attacks where soldiers within the ANA have killed American or NATO soldiers.

So that does leave some doubts about which side they are actually on and whether once the bulk of the NATO troops have gone, will they still stay in the ANA or will they switch over to the Taliban. I think in the south, where the Taliban are strongest, and in the east, you may well see ANA people deciding that the Taliban are there for the long term and that they're better off switching over to them. But it's still quite unknown because we don't know. I mean, the Americans are suggesting they'll have less than 9,000 troops after the end of 2014. We still don't know if there will be air support for the ANA. If they don't have air support, I think it will be extremely difficult for them to really secure their country. It's difficult to be optimistic, frankly, about what is likely to happen there -- sadly.

RFE/RL: After 20 years as a correspondent covering the world's conflicts, what is your perspective like now as "The Sunday Times" bureau chief in Washington? Are you itching to get back out in the field?

I've been in Washington for nearly 3 1/2 years and it has actually been fascinating because almost all my career covering conflict has been largely covering things that were the result of decisions made in Washington. And I think it is extremely difficult, often, to understand those decisions. Frankly, they can often be quite baffling if you are in these places. Once you actually come here and see how things operate, and how much domestic politics decides everything -- I mean, it's kind of obvious. But until you actually live here, you don't quite appreciate it. And the fact that there are elections to Congress every two years, so, you know, domestic politics really plays a huge part in decision-making.

It's been very interesting to come and see the debate from this end, to hear the different parts -- the White House, the State Department, the military, the different perspectives on what they all think they are trying to achieve in these various places. And of course, to be here during the Arab Spring and how that really changed all calculations in the regions.

I was talking to somebody very senior at the State Department on the Middle East the other day who was saying that in the past you knew how different actors in the region would react to certain things. And now, they just have no idea, really, who is going to do what. It's been a time of great turmoil.

So yes, I am itching to go back to covering those kind of things. And I will be leaving here at the end of the year to go back to covering it. Well, in particular, I wanted to cover the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But also, following developments in Pakistan and Iran and whatever happens in Syria and in the rest of the region.

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