Robert Fisk: Farewell, Ane-Karine, adventurous envoy and friend to all the Middle East

Her love of life was superhuman. She served devastating gin and tonics in the garden of her Tehran residence
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The Independent Online

Ane-Karine knew all about bombs. And she would have had strong views on the London atrocities. "There's no point in banging on about security," she used to tell me in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. "You've got to find out why people do this - and what we might have done to prevent it. You're not going to stop it by talking about 'terrorism.'"

Ane-Karine Arvesen, one of Norway's best diplomats and a good friend for more than two decades, would have understood the irony of my last journey to be with her: that because I travelled back to Beirut via London from her funeral in Oslo, I was on the Piccadilly Line heading for Heathrow just three or four trains in front of the one that exploded at King's Cross.

She was a tough lady, was Ane-Karine. Born in 1941 when Norway was under German occupation, war seemed to determine her life. She was a striking, tall, blonde lady who drank like the proverbial trooper - though never showing the least effect - and smoked cigarettes on a long holder in the hope that this would protect her from cancer.

It didn't, and she died in pain, trying to breath air into her lungs, alone in a Norwegian hospital. She was always "recovering" but found herself at home, unable to walk, unable even to use e-mail any longer. I called her a few days before her death. She had sent a message that she wanted to talk and her high, wheezing voice down the line asked about Lebanon and what would happen in Iraq and whether I would return to Iraq. But we both knew that she wanted to talk to me so we could say goodbye.

I tried to cheer Ane-Karine up by reminding her of the unwise, foolish, ridiculous, dangerous, necessary adventures we used to share in Lebanon, how in 1982 when Israel invaded and was attacking Syrian forces in the mountains near Bhamdoun, she drove up into the hills with me as Israeli aircraft destroyed the Syrian armour around us.

"It's neat, neat, Bob, that we could get this far," she said as huge explosions ripped across the mountains. "Neat" was one of her favourite words - "neat" as in "mission accomplished".

"Ane-Karine," I told her, "this is bloody dangerous." And she gave me a withering look. "Bob, we have the Norwegian flag on the car. I am a diplomat." And I looked at the 16-inch long flag and reflected that the Israeli F-16s were flying at 10,000 feet and I stared at Ane-Karine and she was laughing.

I told this story at her funeral. The mourners, some of whom had been producing sumptuous tears, burst into parallel laughter. Ane-Karine, locked in her white coffin to my left, smothered in white roses, had come back to life.

Yet she was one of the few people whom I could never imagine dead. Her love of life - and her love of adventure - gave her that superhuman quality which only those who have never feared the institution of death can possess. She was in Serbia and was stationed in Iran, a cowled, chadored Norwegian chargé d'affaires in a country that sometimes drove her crazy but who served devastating gin and tonics in the garden of her Tehran residence.

She once turned up in Beirut with a defence ministry diplomat, who was deeply offended at my analysis of the Middle East because it did not coincide with his own. "Shut up," she snapped at him. "You're here to listen, not try out your silly theories."

No, Ane-Karine didn't suffer fools - I could also feel the lash of her tongue from time to time if she thought I hadn't grasped some self-evident fact of Middle East life; to people here in the Arab world, she said, justice could sometimes be more important than democracy.

On the phone in her last days, she told me that she thought that in Iraq, security and electricity might be more important than democracy. And she may have been right. She felt that the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was too US-oriented, looking only through Washington's spectacles at "peace processes" and "road maps".

And she could be indiscreet. She once emerged from the Norwegian embassy in Beirut in the 1980s - she was an attaché then - with tears streaming down her face; tears of laughter, that is. "I've just read a dispatch from our ambassador in Washington," she said. "He'd gone to meet Reagan and the President had a set of briefing cards so he could say all the right answers.

"But he got the cards all muddled up and when our ambassador asked about trade relations between Washington and Oslo, Reagan said there would be peace in the Middle East!"

I admired Ane-Karine because she always went to look, to see for herself, to be a witness to the events she would describe in her nightly dispatches to the foreign ministry in Oslo. While other Western diplomats cowered in their Beirut embassies - and a few Western journalists did much the same in their Beirut hotels - she was up there in the hills, working in danger and at first-hand. No wonder, years later, she would be sent to Beirut to negotiate, cost-free, the release of a hostage. She succeeded. How I would one day love to read her reports to Oslo - and the anger they apparently contained.

Never was this so obvious than when she walked into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp on 18 September 1982. She looked with fury - her face so taut that I thought it had lost all its beauty - at the piles of dead men and the eviscerated women and the dead babies, the work of Israel's Phalangist allies. "Disgusting! Revolting! Obscene!" she shouted. "One day, we're going to have to pay for this!" Perhaps we still are.

We said our last goodbyes to Ane-Karine in a former chapel not far from a row of British war graves containing the bodies of RAF crews lost over Norway around the time she was born. It was a big, oval building with rather a lot of what I thought were runes on the walls, but it was somehow fitting that two Hannukah candles stood on each side of her coffin. Ane-Karine was not Jewish, but she loved all the people of the Middle East.

The last music was a Swedish song about the third-class passengers on the Titanic, how they went from disbelief to conviction that they would die, and at last concluded - as the song claims - that they would go down bravely with the ship's flag still flying.

It was entirely in keeping with Ane-Karine's character that she insisted that with money from her estate, her best friends should be taken into Oslo fjord that same afternoon on a boat stocked with 40 bottles of Bollinger champagne. Given her courage in war, she was, I think, as much a reporter as a diplomat. She was a creature of our dangerous times. She knew how to live and she knew how to die.

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