The thing about Ak-47s, a friend of mine once told me, is that when you hear that god-awful crack, you know the bad guys are around. Good guys never use that kind of rifle. The noise reminds me of all the creeps I have come across over the past two decades — Chechen thugs, Sierra Leone rebels, leering Serb snipers, teenaged Liberians in wedding dresses and fright wigs, and the drunken Ivorian government soldier who pointed his AK at my heart, safety catch off. Here in Afghanistan, too, the baddies carry AKs.
After a long break from reporting war — in the form of a five-year maternity leave — I find myself fumbling around with a safety belt on a chopper flying over Helmand. From Camp Bastion to Sangin, I am moving into the heart of the conflict, to be embedded with the good guys. My wartime experience had always been as a ‘wild cat’ — an independent who covers what she wants, when she wants. But as I fight the urge to be sick, I realise how much of a scaredy-cat I have become since becoming a mother. I’m out of touch with modern warfare.
I tried to pack lightly, warned by a hysterical (male) colleague in a rather macho way that ‘No one is going to carry your bags!’ He went on to explain, in detail, the horrors of Sangin, a town in the valley of the Helmand river: how many people die per patrol; what exactly happens to your limbs when a roadside bomb blows you up. I am pretty sure I have seen more active combat than my friend, but I know how sensitive the male ego is, so I don’t complain. We land at Forward Operating Base Jackson. I struggle to lug my gear off the helicopter before someone kindly offers to help. I am then introduced to a young officer named Emma, a graduate of Sandhurst, who looks as if she should be competing at gymkhana. She gives us a brisk tour, pointing out the outhouses and describing, in the most embarrassed voice possible, that the outhouse was for ‘Number one only’.
The soldiers are unspeakably young. They all wander around in the sun, working out in a makeshift gym, drinking tea (there’s no booze on the bases). I guess if you have to be an active-duty warrior, Sangin is the place to do it. Even though the statistics for casualties are high — one in four patrols gets hit — soldiers hate to be away from the action, and they generally look pretty perky. That said, the guys going out on patrol don’t look too happy. My arrival coincides with a service for two men who had died a few days before. Emma, having completed her tour, describes going on patrols as ‘punchy’. ‘Bear in mind,’ she says brightly, ‘the BBC does not leave the base.’ Another colleague, who wrote a book about Helmand, joked before I left, ‘Don’t do anything I would not do — like leave the bomb shelter,’ and I am beginning to think he is right. Age does something to one’s sense of fearlessness.
Before going out with a patrol, I sit down with commanding officer Lt Col Nick Kitson on a rickety picnic bench by the canal that runs through the base. We have a heart-to-heart with each other — or at least I think we do. ‘I have a five-year-old,’ I blurt out, dramatically. ‘I don’t want to die. Or worse, get injured.’ Kitson is a father of three (as well as being the nephew of General Sir Frank Kitson, the counterinsurgency expert) and is going on most of the patrols I’ll be accompanying. This gives me a reassuring — perhaps unrealistic — feeling that nothing bad can happen.
I was acutely aware when we set off on patrols through fields and down paths that the soldiers I was with were 20 years younger than me. Some of the soldiers are still teenagers. They play Playstation. They listen to bands I do not know. They have pictures of girls with big breasts taped on to the walls of their accommodation. But at the first sign of ‘contact’ — what the soldiers call that crack of an insurgent’s rifle — as they take off running, age hits me. I was clearly sucking wind. At one point an Afghan commander practically lifted me off my feet and dragged me through a field because I was not keeping up. Strangely, though, as I climb into my absurdly large sleeping bag after washing down with a wet wipe — amazing how fast creatures adapt to not cleaning themselves properly — I realise that, much as I have tried to be a trendy-yet-conventional mother who wears ballet slippers and a trench coat, at my core I’ve still got a bit of wild cat, and I feel at home among these scruffy soldiers.
Back in Paris, where I now live, I set out on the first morning run. I notice that the other mothers are looking more concerned than usual. There is lots of double-cheek kissing. Then one mother approaches me near the school gate. ‘Are you insane?’ she screams. It turns out that my son had blurted out, ‘Someone shot a pistol at my maman today!’ That’s not technically true — no one was shooting at me directly, and it was an AK-47, not a pistol. But to this anxious mother, war reporting is evidently a form of dangerous madness.
‘Will you be OK?’ Stephanie, the teacher, asks me later, observing me for signs of post-traumatic stress. I am fine. Everything is going to be fine. So fine that I find myself writing to an officer I know, asking if I can go back to Forward Operating Base Jackson in the spring, when the warm weather comes.