At the Front

By Paulo Coelho
For The Bali Times

Robert Fisk, maybe most famous war correspondent today, told me one day that as he returned from the Iran-Iraq front by train, one of the soldiers had asked him: “Did you like the war? It’s great, isn’t it?”

Journalists who risk their lives to cover armed conflicts around the world have always intrigued me: what leads them to risk their lives to such extent in their professions?

Christina Lamb, from the Sunday Times, interviewed me one day. When I found out she was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, we ended up changing roles: I began making the questions. Christina served as thread to one of the main characters of The Zahir. But it was another foreign correspondent, also in charge of covering Afghanistan, who told me about a conversation she had with her husband. On a nice Sunday morning in London, she told him her decision:

“I want to be a war correspondent.”

“Are you crazy? You don’t need that. You are working on what you want. You earn well enough and even beyond your needs for living.”

“Let me say, then, that I need to be on my own.”

“Is it because of me?”

“No. I love my man and he loves me.”

“So what is this story about war in a forgotten place of the world? Don’t you have everything?”

“I do. I do have everything a woman may desire.”

“What, then, is wrong in your life?”

“That is exactly it. I have everything but I am unhappy. I am not the only one: all through these years, I lived with or interviewed several types of people: rich, poor, powerful, laid back. In all the eyes that crossed mine, I read an endless bitterness. An unhappiness that they not always accepted, but it was there, regardless of what they were saying.”

“Nobody is happy, in your opinion?”

“Some people seem happy; they simply don’t think about it. Other ones make plans: have a husband, a home, two children, a country house. While they are occupied by that, they are like bulls looking for the bullfighter: they don’t think; just keep moving forward. They purchase a car, sometimes even a Ferrari. They believe that is where the meaning of life is; they just never question it. But in spite of everything, their eyes show a sadness they don’t even know they have. Are you happy?”

“I don’t know.”

“I do not know, either, if everybody is unhappy. People are always busy: working beyond hours; taking care of their children, of their husbands, of their career, of the diploma, of what to do tomorrow, what needs to be bought, of what it is necessary not to feel inferior, etc. In short, just a few people told me: ‘I am unhappy.’ The majority say: ‘I am great. I’ve got everything I desired.’ So I ask: ‘What makes you happy?’ The answer: ‘I have everything we dream of – family, home, work, health.’ I insist: ‘So, then, life’s meaning is work, family, children – who will grow and leave you – wife or husband – and will become more friends than true people in love. And work will end one day. What will you do if this happens?’ Answer: there is no answer. They change the subject.”

“But why this story about going to war?”

“Because I think at war, Man is at his limit – one can die the next day. Your outlook changes. Everything changes. We are capable of the most barbarian and heroic actions.”

I don’t know if it is a good explanation. But it is the explanation of my friend, who as I write this column is back to the front in Afghanistan.

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