Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ghosts: creative non fiction

As a young aid worker, I always sought out the most dangerous current crisis and took pride in my ability to face scary places. I was always jones-ing to be the first on the plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq – you name it, I wanted to go. I thought very little about the dangers in the job and was naively focused on being where the action was until one afternoon in Norway. 

In June 2011, I was sitting in Oslo in the Grand CafĂ© preparing for a job interview in the spring sunlight when I read about the attack on the Continental hotel in Afghanistan. I had just spent three lonely weeks in Kabul at that very same hotel leading a workshop for Afghan aid workers. Every morning, I rode in an armored vehicle, jumped out in front of the hotel,  and greeted the construction crew who were refurbishing the lobby  with a cheery Salaam Alekum!  I ignored the fact that the metal detector was unplugged and trusted that the UN security advisor had assured us that the Continental was the “top safety choice” for Kabul.

In Afghanistan, I had thrown myself into work because my flaky long-distance "special friend" panicked and broke up with me while I was en route to Kabul - ruining our plans for a romantic summer meet up in Oslo after my work.  I was depressed and angry but hid it by putting all my energy into work. I showed up early, worked through the lunch hours, and focused on my work and hid my pain by being very chatty and energetic with the training participants.

One of the secrets to being a humanitarian aid worker is to never think too much about what danger you might be in. It’s a plus to be blissfully ignorant because if you took the time to actually think about what might happen to you, it would be impossible to get up and do your job. Better just to get on with it and think about it later. 

Flash forward to two days after a long grim flight from Kabul to Bangkok to Berlin to Oslo where I sat drinking a glass of white wine in the Scandinavian sunshine. I suddenly realized how dangerous that job running a training workshop in a luxury “UN approved” hotel had actually been. The hotel had been the scene of a bloodbath the night before  - those construction workers were disguised Taliban fighters who had been apparently plotting my death every morning. They had sprung their attack in the evening (when I was normally relaxing with a cup of tea) and had targeted the dining area -  shooting indiscriminately into a wedding party. There were five suicide bombers who detonated themselves and fought floor to floor as terrified guests huddled in hotel rooms until the US forces managed to secure the hotel by landing helicopters on the roof and having an extended gun battle through the night. Reports suggested that it was an inside job as the hotel ‘security personnel’ ran away as soon as the gunmen arrived. 

A chill ran through my body as I read the article - I was probably one of the ones that they had excitedly planned to kill – a red headed American woman teaching about gender equality and how to provide support to a woman in a violent relationship – the very embodiment of the principles and ideals that they detested.  I felt an uncharacteristic stillness creep over me. Minutes later my mobile phone buzzed, there was a contrite message from the "special friend" saying he had been wrong and could we still meet? Shaken, I said yes – postponing for 4 months the inevitable autumnal breakup in a Swedish Ikea cafeteria.

I didn’t realize it at the time but that’s when I subconsciously decided to take a break.  For the next two years, I hung back a bit and worked in easier places - nothing near a front line.  And I retreated from the front line of dating too – easy in Bangkok where white women are invisible. I wrapped myself in a ‘security blanket’ to avoid the ghosts that were haunting me – the ghosts of romantic rejection, my own frail human mortality, and my idea of myself as an invulnerable superwoman.  

But time heals all wounds, I guess and suddenly, I found myself bored and accepting a job in Jordan to work with the Syrian refugee crisis - a new country and I felt excited as my plane touched down in the desert turned green and lush from the winter rains. Time to confront those ghosts and to open up my heart again.

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