Love and life of a war correspondent

Love and life of a war correspondent

Civilian life was tougher for us than life together under bombardment

From the roof, I could hear the call to prayer from a nearby muezzin. It was the time of evening between twilight and night — what the French call ‘entre le chien et le loup.’ I took out my flashlight and began to phone the other world.

The other world was where I lived when I was not on the road more than three-quarters of the year, in war and conflict zones. The other world was my second-floor flat in London, my family in America, my friends scattered across Europe. The other world was where I thought about the future, about bills, options, choices. It was a place, unlike war zones, that terrified me.

As a war correspondent, my life was the opposite of cozy domesticity. I slept with a pre-packed bag with clothes, and had a wardrobe consisting of ‘winter war’ (Chechnya, Balkans, Afghanistan, northern Iraq) parkas and boots and ‘summer war’ (Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Guinea, etc.) baggy shirts and trousers. I had a collection of Middle East and ‘strict Islam’ head scarves, abayas and kurtas. When I went on the rare holiday with friends who had children, I listened like an alien as they talked about schools and real estate.

The next day in Mogadishu, the teenagers with AK-47s I had hired to protect me, heard of my sadness. One by one, they brought me little presents: a lighter, a seashell, a single cigarette, and offered words of condolence. One told me we were all on a train to death. “In Somalia, it just happens faster.”

In the middle of this trip, I had another astonishing telephone call. It was from   Girodon, the French reporter I had met and fallen in love with in Sarajevo in 1993. We parted after a brief affair. We met again during the war in Algeria in 1998.

That time, the love stuck. I felt I had met someone who spoke the same language, who shared my compulsion to follow wars and disasters, who knew what it felt like to come home at night feeling ashamed to be human. But our lifestyles didn’t seem to promise much of a future.

We had broken up in Tora Bora a few months earlier; he retreated to his home in Abidjan, where he was covering the violent conflict in Ivory Coast. I wandered through Africa — from Nigeria to Zimbabwe to Kenya to Somalia — with a single bag.

Somehow Bruno tracked me down. He was in Rwanda when he reached me in Ivory Coast. He’d made a decision. ‘Let’s get married,’ he said over a crackling satellite wire as I watched the sun drop in the sky, leaving darkness, stars and the pop of gunfire. ‘Let’s have a baby.’

Two years later, I lay in a grimy French hospital drugged out of my skull. A doctor handed me a still and quiet baby who had arrived seven weeks early. (I had been working in Gaza when I began dilating at 21 weeks and was ordered on bed rest.)

A new beginning
“Is he dead?” I whispered, looking at the quiet form. “No, he’s not dead,” said the shocked doctor. “Hold your son.” And so Bruno and I — two very wounded souls who had seen truly terrible things — began life as new parents. We believed the baby — who laughed and smiled and was utterly untouched by coups d’état and genocide — was our redemption. We called him Luca, the bringer of light.

And Bruno began to have nightmares, and to drink heavily. A devoted father, he stayed up all night to take care of the baby, and never seemed to sleep. He played bizarre video games, all about war and destruction. Terror, the kind that freezes your stomach, became an odd presence in our lives.

Civilian life was tougher for us than life together under bombardment. Why did we function better in a world in which death was constant, where we saw men with hands tied behind their backs, naked, in our front yard after death squads had done their dirty business? I don’t know. But Bruno and I both operated best in a war zone.

War reporters may not be ideal parents. In 2010 alone, 44 journalists were killed worldwide. Of these, 6 were killed in combat and 11 on dangerous assignments. Many more have been wounded or narrowly escaped death.

As I write, Bruno is in a military hospital in Paris recovering after being shot in the face by a sniper in Tripoli. He has a hairline-fractured jaw and has suffered hearing loss, but he is all right — and is healing. But this will not stop him. “I felt so alive,” he said when he described the moments before he was shot. And I am going to Libya later this month to continue his work. I don’t work the high-risk assignments the way I used to, but I still go to places I probably should not.

In fact and by choice, except for short, sharp assignments I can finish in five or six days, I’ve been home with Luca for five years. This was my response to parenting advice I got then from Ahmad Chalabi, a controversial Iraqi politician when I was in Baghdad, and Luca, then 4 months old, was at home in Paris.

“There will always be more wars,” he scolded me. “But if you miss Luca’s first tooth, or his first step, you will never forgive yourself.” I took his advice, missed Falluja and Afghanistan and Gaza, and instead learned how to bake cupcakes and enroll in children’s art classes at the Louvre. Eventually, the pull took over and I went back.

As I was leaving for Benghazi last spring, Luca turned to look at me as he walked down the stairs, hand in hand with his father: “Mama, can’t you go somewhere less dangerous?”

It did and always will break my heart to say goodbye to Luca. But I still went. People often ask why I still do it. When they do, I think of Dili Babu, an Indian boy I wrote about when Luca was an infant. Dili Babu was dying of AIDS. He looked like an injured sparrow. I spent hours on the floor with him, feeding him bread and water. I wanted so badly to take him back to Paris with me, to make him better, to will him a better life.

For months, I kept a photograph of Dili Babu above my desk, next to one of sunny Luca, and I wired money to a bank in Chennai for his treatment. Then one day, the director of the orphanage sent me a message: Pray for Dili Babu. His soul is no longer with us.
I am not sure that what I do as a mother always works. Like every parent, I try. I make huge mistakes. But my son is loved, wanted.

As cinematic and passionate as it was, my love affair with his father could not sustain itself, perhaps because of the damage we have witnessed. We parted with sadness and immense love. And there is Luca, bringer of light, promise, redemption.

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