Wounds are deeper when violence becomes personal

The horrors of Afghanistan run deep after a friend is severely injured in a roadside bomb.

Phil Coburn, a photographer, was wounded in Afghanistan.
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LONDON // The war in Afghanistan seems a million miles from Abu Dhabi - and a few million more from here in London. Yet, early on Sunday morning, the bloody conflict pierced the very heart of my home. Michael Smith, an old friend and the defence editor of the Sunday Times, rang my mobile. "Phil Coburn has lost part of his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan," he said. "Rupert Hamer [defence correspondent on the Sunday Mirror] has been killed."

I did not know Hamer, a 39-year-old father-of-three. But photographer Coburn and myself have been close for the best part of 20 years. To be frank, our off-duty antics have prompted eyebrows to be raised in some establishments across the world. When we were working in New York, our impromptu line-dancing performances at our favourite and oft-frequented Manhattan bar became the stuff of legend. Or so we liked to tell ourselves.

We got through the odd bombing in Northern Ireland together, been scared witless by an exploding volcano in Montserrat and been moved to tears by the teenagers of Columbine High as they recounted the horror of the massacre there. I was the first to know he had fallen in love with Alison Roberts, a fellow journalist and now the mother of Joe, their three-year-old son, and, as usual, he was the last to leave my silver wedding celebrations a couple of years ago.

And today he is lying in the acute ward of Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where the UK's military trauma cases are treated, one leg shattered and the other missing a foot. Phil, a 43-year-old Ulsterman, and Hamer had been embedded with the US Marine Corps since the new year. On Saturday, the vehicle they were travelling in was hit by a roadside bomb near Nawa in Helmand province. Hamer and a US marine died instantly. Phil and five other marines sustained serious injuries.

Both journalists were experienced Afghanistan hands, each having made several trips there previously. Invariably, when Phil returned from his other trips he would moan that his newspaper had "thrown my pictures away", only using one of them on a piece on page 28 or some-such. We would smile indulgently. It is a prerequisite of journalism that, whatever a newspaper editor does with your story or picture, it becomes a source of bitter complaint.

And Phil could have earned himself a master's degree in complaining. I recall his moaning to me once - during a lengthy and undemanding assignment in the Caribbean, as we were stretched out on loungers beside a sun-drenched pool, large glasses at our side - that he was "really fed up because I haven't had a bloody holiday all year". When I pointed out the irony of his remark, he grunted, then giggled and then ordered a couple more drinks in a very loud voice.

But behind the sometimes grumpy mask lies what Londoners like to call a "genuine geezer" with a mischievous sense of fun, a devotion towards his family and a quite inexplicable loyalty to Liverpool FC. Why anyone would want to blow him up is beyond me. Of course, it has always been beyond me, in a disinterested, reasoned sort of way, why anyone would want to kill or maim anyone, in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Now, though, that violence has become personal. And it hurts. At least, Phil Coburn escaped with his life, as so many in Afghanistan have not. And, when he is patched up, I have no doubt at all that he will be berating his picture desk, demanding to be sent back there because, after all, it is what he does. And when he gets back from there next time, I am equally sure that he will moan incessantly about how "the idiots" have, yet again, thrown away his pictures.