Life in the line of fire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 10:05am

For the first eight months, I hid my pregnancy from my bosses, terrified it would spell the end of my career as a foreign correspondent. I simply didn't know any other women in the field with children.

Being based in Malaysia for the BBC at the time made it easier to keep my secret from my employers, although I did have to be careful about inhaling too much tear gas in the weekly opposition street protests. Only when I was offered a role as a roving reporter in Europe did I come clean, as by then I was no longer legally allowed to fly.

The reaction from colleagues was a little disturbing. One male journalist admitted he'd always assumed I couldn't have children because I'd left it so late (34 years). Females muttered in corridors, asking how I would manage such a demanding job and a child.

I had indeed delayed getting pregnant because it seemed impossible to combine with foreign reporting, but in the end I felt missing out on having children was too high a price to pay for an exciting career, and not fair on my husband.

Two months after giving birth, I became BBC correspondent to Sri Lanka, which was in the midst of a vicious civil war. I'd seen my fair share of horror, poverty and bearded men with guns, but this time I found myself packing milk bottles and washable diapers as well as a flak jacket, helmet and first aid kit. It was the start of a double life as foreign correspondent and mother.

We arrived in Sri Lanka in 2000, just after the BBC's local reporter in Jaffna had been killed in a grenade attack on his home in a government-controlled town. One of my first tasks was to work out what to do about his widow, still numb with shock, and her three young children. My baby grew into a toddler while my colleague's terrified family waited to escape abroad.

Having just created life, it was strange to spend so much time dealing with death. As a mother, I found it harder to fathom the extraordinary cruelty otherwise gentle people are capable of in wars. At night in Sri Lanka, I would rock my baby to sleep, haunted by the stories of torture, mass graves and the agony of the missing fighters' mothers who never received a corpse to mourn. In the male-dominated world of foreign reporting I never admitted it, but motherhood did bring a new perspective to the story.

Colombo was full of soldiers and there was talk of suicide bombers, but normal life continued in spite of the war. The violence was both random and targeted, but my baby was at home so unlikely to be caught up in a bombing on the streets, and in a targeted attack it would be me, not him, they'd be after.

The BBC sent a retired MI6 [British Secret Intelligence Service] officer to check my security arrangements. He placed video cameras on the gate and barbed wire around the perimeter, and hired round-the-clock guards.

I set things up so my office was in the garden, and employed two nannies who took it in turns to be with my son for 24 hours at a time. My bosses regularly asked me at very short notice to travel for weeks at a time; not once did it cross my mind to refuse, convinced that I'd never be asked again. I missed my son, but the trips were exciting and I knew he was well looked after.

When the rebels attacked the country's only international airport in 2001, I was on air almost solidly for three days. My child would cry when I dashed into the house to get something to eat, because I didn't have time to spend with him. But there were slack periods that compensated, and when I travelled he would sweetly kiss the television screen when he saw me on air.

My husband was a roving correspondent for CNN then and also often away, but we agreed one of us would always be with our child at night if the other was travelling, and we wouldn't take the same flight to war areas lest the plane be shot down. One parent was not ideal, but better than none. If my husband was already abroad and I was given an assignment, my son came with me.

In 2004, when my son was four, I became the first female BBC bureau chief in Iran. He was very upset about leaving Colombo and in the month we spent in transit in London he refused to eat food that wasn't Sri Lankan. He felt he belonged there. We lured him to Tehran by promising snow - a thrill for any child brought up in the tropics.

Being a female reporter in Iran was difficult enough without being a mother. As a woman, you lived with discrimination every day. In the president's office, journalists were taken to the canteen for lunch while waiting for a press conference, but as the only woman I was escorted away to eat on my own on a different floor. Lowly security officials at the Iranian foreign ministry delighted in ordering me to pull my headscarf tighter around my forehead.

I struggled to find an Iranian nanny who'd work the hours I did, so eventually I brought our Sri Lankan nanny to Tehran, flying her home three times a year to keep her sane. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, the Iranian immigration department abruptly decided not to renew her work permit. The government said it would provide a nanny to live with us - or rather spy on us. I made a fuss and somehow ensured her stay.

The authorities in Tehran also refused to give my husband a press card to work as a journalist, even though he was originally Iranian. This put pressure on all of us. Children find it very hard to accept such unfairness. I told my worried son that the government didn't like daddy because he told the truth. Then he logically asked why they didn't have a problem with me, too.

There were, of course, people abroad - as well as in Iran - who didn't like the fact that the BBC had sent a woman to Tehran. A picture appeared on the internet of a woman with a noose round her neck that was supposed to be me. The accompanying article implied I was a traitor to Britain and claimed my husband routinely beat me up to make sure I reported stories favourable to the regime.

I worried terribly about what would happen to my son if one of us was arrested. Being married to an Iranian, I had to work on an Iranian passport, which offered no consular protection. If I got into trouble, I wouldn't be deported; at the very least, I'd have my passport confiscated. On one occasion I was taken to a revolutionary court as the criminally accused in a libel case that had nothing to do with my reporting. I had sleepless nights imagining how my child would cope if I was found guilty and put in jail. In revolutionary Iran, any minor court case could quickly snowball out of control if it involved a foreigner. Later, after the disputed 2009 elections, it felt as if almost every journalist we'd ever interviewed ended up in prison or exile.

In 2007, we returned to London. I looked for foreign postings to fit my husband's career and our child. A BBC manager asked if I'd considered Kabul. When I said I needed a place with a good school for a seven-year-old, he told me I'd limited my options by having a family. So I left the corporation, did another degree and stumbled into writing books.

After me, a few more women correspondents have had children - one even as a single mother of two in Uzbekistan. But since the BBC appointed its first woman to the job in 1986, most have been unmarried and/or childless.

Like any working mother, I feel perpetual guilt, wondering if I have done my best for my child. Bedtime stories were abandoned, holidays were cut short, and countless family lunches and outings were cancelled because of breaking stories and exciting new developments.

Recently, a stream of refugee journalists from repressive regimes have eaten up my spare time, which my son sometimes feels should belong to him. When I explain their stories, he understands why I want to help them. These sacrifices are nothing compared with those of some people I've met.

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