A reporter recalls riding in the first Soviet tank convoy pulling out of Afghanistan in 1988 and considers the barriers women overcame to report on war.
The author (left) together with colleagues from Italy and Germany riding an armoured personnel carrier out of Afghanistan when Soviet troops pulled out
In 1988, when then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began withdrawing Soviet forces from Afghanistan, I was given a chance to ride in the first tank convoy pulling out. The Soviet Union had been in control of Afghanistan for almost a decade since its invasion of the country in 1979.
I am telling this story because I think it illustrates how far women journalists have progressed towards equality. You can judge whether barriers of sexism remain.
The convoy was to leave from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and rumble through the mountains to Kabul before progressing on to the border with Soviet Uzbekistan.
Soviet officials warned us that if we chose to go, we would have to be ready for possible battle conditions because the Afghan rebels had not accepted a ceasefire and might shoot at us.
I consulted my editors in London (all male). Even though they wanted coverage, they didn’t put any pressure on me. They assured me my career would not suffer if I preferred to stay in the relative safety of Kabul.
I thought about it.
Leaving the safety of Kabul
I was newly married. My Russian husband, a draft dodger, was not keen on my being embedded with the Soviet army. He said it “wasn’t a woman’s place to go to war.”
As for my parents, I didn’t tell them until after I got back safely.
I was afraid and excited in equal measure. I was in my early thirties, with the energy of a young person but enough experience not to do anything too silly. I said “yes,” and then to my disappointment, the Soviet army said “nyet.”
The chosen journalists, who included four women, were all assembled on the tarmac at Kabul airport, waiting for the military flight to Jalalabad.
The Soviet officer in charge took one look us and said, “I’m not taking those women.”
We protested, saying we had a job to do. I was rather more vocal than the other women, who came from Germany, Sweden and Spain.
I remember arguing that if women could give birth, they could go to war, and feeling rather foolish after I’d said it.
“Get on that plane then!” commanded the officer.
“Now what have we got ourselves into?” the four of us whispered. A part of me had been secretly hoping to avoid this test of courage.
The plane took off, shooting out flares to deflect the rebels’ heat-seeking Stinger missiles.
Friendship among war reporters
The women didn’t sit together in a sisterly group but mixed with the men. I found myself sitting next to an Italian correspondent.
He took my hand. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a bit sweaty.” He laughed, and that sealed our friendship.
When we landed in Jalalabad, the night air was full of the scent of flowers and the stars were twinkling like diamonds. We went straight into a press conference at our hotel.
Nearby, we could hear the sound of desultory shelling. In Moscow, my husband read the wires in the Reuters office and worried on my behalf.
I spent the night in a small room shared with the Swedish woman and some other Scandinavian colleagues. They offered me whiskey to calm my nerves, but I preferred fear and a clear head.
A ride on a Soviet tank
Before dawn, I stood under a trickle of water from the rusty shower. Outside, I could hear the chirp of frogs and the first call of the muezzin.
I washed my legs and wondered in a strangely detached way whether I would still have them the next day.
We attended a dawn ceremony on the parade ground at which Soviet officers congratulated their men for having “fulfilled their international duty.”
Then we were taken to the convoy of tanks and armoured personnel carriers and allotted our vehicles.
We were told that the road to Kabul was mined and there might be snipers along the way. We could choose to sit inside the armoured personnel carrier or up on top.
Inside, we would be safe from snipers but goners if we ran over a mine. On top, we might roll to safety from a mine blast but would be easy targets for the snipers. We all opted to sit in the fresh air.
Gifts from the Afghans
Crowds of Afghans gathered by the roadside to wave goodbye to the convoy, throwing bouquets at the departing troops.
Among the flowers were other small “gifts.” As we set off, I was hit in the mouth by a piece of dried camel dung. Luckily it wasn’t a nail.
Protected by helicopter gunships, the convoy roared off into the mountains. We opened our packed breakfasts of flat Afghan bread and hard boiled eggs.
The air was dusty and filled with exhaust fumes. I guzzled plenty of water.
It wasn’t until about lunchtime that it dawned on me why the Soviet commander had been reluctant to take women.
In war, you learn to pee fast.
Going through enemy-held territory, the retreating convoy couldn’t stop. That was OK for the men, who could pee merrily off the sides of the moving tanks. All the women could do was cross their legs.
We were not due to arrive in Kabul until evening. I was getting desperate. In a way, the desperation was a blessing because it took my mind off any thoughts of mortality.
Then suddenly the armoured personnel carrier in front of ours broke down. The whole convoy ground to a halt.
I took my chance, jumped down and disappeared behind a rock, praying that the tanks didn’t start up again, leaving me stranded with the rebels. I got back on just in time.
When we reached the outskirts of Kabul, we all cooled off with a swim in a little river, after which the Soviet officers invited the journalists to dinner in their camp.
We joked with the soldiers, barely noticing the kitchen staff who brought in steaming plates of dumplings and cleaned up afterwards. They, of course, were all women.
Three questions to consider:
- Was the Soviet commander being sexist or practical?
- How much progress do you think women have made towards equality?
- What do you think are the best ways to handle sexism if you encounter it?
British-born foreign correspondent Helen Womack is a specialist on former Communist countries. From 1985-2015, she reported from Moscow for Reuters, The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Now based in Budapest, she covers the European Union’s relatively new eastern members. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe.