On the Road Again

“Then you ask why I don’t live here –

Honey, how come you have to ask me that?”

– Bob Dylan

…..

It’s snowing in Mazar tonight: sheets of white that blow in off the mountains, crisp gusts slipping into sleet along the edges of the road.  We pass a man wheeling his bicycle through it all.

After my time in Turkey was unexpectedly cut short by a combination of visa issues and coup, I am on the road again.  This time, Afghanistan.

I am here to roll out a new emergency assessment tool to UN and NGO agencies, which has me in constant motion – each week a new province, a new city.  This week finds me in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province in the north of the country, where winter is closing in.

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Mazar in Snow

My accommodation in Mazar can best be described as ramshackle, in a conflict-y sort of way.  Faintly reminiscent of one of Kabul’s peak-opium ‘poppy palaces’ left to rot, it is large, cold and empty.  Although Mazar is typically seen as being the safest part of Afghanistan the building was damaged in a recent Taliban attack on the German consulate.  The blast was 2 kilometres away, but powerful enough to blow out the windows on the nearside of the house and warp the frame of the balcony doors, rendering them impossible to shut.  At night they clank and bang in the wind.  I am the only inhabitant, and the initial effect is as unsettling as you might expect.

…..

It is strange and invigorating to be back in ‘the field’ once more.  I was in Turkey working on the Syria response and, by the time I arrived, it had long passed the risk threshold for international staff to cross the border into northern Syria –  Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) weren’t exactly renowned for their tolerant attitudes towards foreigners, after all.  And so the whole thing was carried out through remote management, an inherently frustrating model that left my Syrian friends and colleagues bearing the brunt of the risk while the rest of us sat just 25 km from the border in the pretty Turkish city of Antakya. 

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Afghanistan from Air

While the work was by no means easy, Turkey itself was a very pleasant place to live.  Antakya had all of the amenities which are usually denied to you in a humanitarian aid environment – infrastructure, electricity and functional internet, foremost – and Istanbul and Beirut were but short hops away.  In comparison to South Sudan, say, there was nothing to complain about.  But still the sense of disconnect and lingering guilt sat heavy.

And so it was with considerable excitement that I was told within minutes of arrival in Kabul that I was driving down to Jalalabad, on the Pakistan border in the east of the country, the next morning.  Far from the attention of the international community, Pakistan has decided to expel, at exceptionally short notice, over one and a half million Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for generations.  I was to travel with my boss to carry out an initial assessment of the returnees, to feed into the UN appeal that was expected imminently.  After a year of working on programmes I never saw, with people who I spoke to every day but could never meet, the opportunity to get closer to the reality on the ground, and to work directly with the people implementing the actual programmes, felt like a blessed relief.

…..

The road from Kabul to Jalalabad is beautiful, if stark. It wends through mountain ranges and flood plains and is lined with reminders of the historical and ongoing violence. Recently burnt out trucks compete with Soviet-era tanks, decorated as markers of victory, for attention.  Much of it passes through areas outside of government control.  At one point on the journey my boss turned to me and said: “It all gets a bit Taliban-y after this bridge.” 

Welcome to Afghanistan.

…..

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Wild Is The Wind (Station To Station)

For Reuben

Distance begins in the navel.
I feel it there in the morning – wake to the dull ache
That I placate with poached eggs and milk.
On slow days this does not work.

Feeling tied – to people and places and the requisite familiar faces – it starts small.
A thread winds quietly around this diaspora of broken people, binds us,
And we dip down, drop, a day at a time. I think this is a slow day.
I feel the wandering wind at my back
We’ll walk hand in hand as we watch other people passing by,
Trapped in minarets without a conjunction to order their days;
But we, we have unfaithful eyes.

I heard a couplet from a street-singer, from the tip of her tongue:
“There is hope in the air,
There is hope in the water.”
I brush hope across my lips, savour its aftertaste;
This is what it means to be free, in a song that carries memory
In a forgotten melody.

A man I love he carries this gift,
His voices wrap around my wrist and pull me towards home,
Fingers package sadness and beauty and tuck them between
Intricate chords – Major and minor and minor again.

These afternoons are dull, scented with the afterthought of rain
That anchors the gathering clouds in a silhouette of retreat;
Angry and moving again, they sway with rudiments of loss, metrical and sparse.
I don’t want to run my friend, not this time.

Let us stay here, let spring bloom around us,
Share it with the people we love.
But I know that we are soon scattered with seeds,
Swept with the rivers, hapless and uprooted again.
I am tired and I can see that you are wilting too.
For wild is the wind
Where our way is lit with flickering lights.

Your songs are generous and rare, these days,
They slip out with the ache of one treading to stay afloat.
You say a lovesong is at the heart of it all
And you’ve no need for a lovesong in your life.
Listen again.

………

In memory, David Bowie

Jonglei

In this place of cattle songs and bridal bartering,
There is blood in the air and conflict between the clods
Of sun-dried equatorial earth.
It may not yet run red, but give it days.

This place, barren, flat and empty, is marked by dichotomy,
Binary seasons and sudden shifts in message and intent.

Our pronouncements and activity plans fall short.
We fill collapsed latrines with the evidence of spent efforts,
Expired chemicals whose dates ring out a chorus of our failure,
A procession of missed targets,
A cavalcade with hubris at its head.

We skirt around the periphery of it all, oblivious,
The inheritors of far flung fancy and colonial folly –
The cattle lands and peace-stick prophets give us short shrift.
We do but meddle.

We sit each evening behind iron fences
Oxidising to the echo of battered calf skin.
‘Mobilisation’ has rarely carried such ominous portents –
We hear the beating as villages empty.
This is the rush before the run of red.

…..

In the hurried breath that precedes the storm
Iron sheets grate against uprights,
The wind a diaphragm whose movements conduct
A chorus pitched as a choir of women in labour
Ushering forth something terrible and new with their strains and tearings.

This evening tukuls will collapse under the weight of bad weather,
Fence posts will snap in the face of it all
And nature’s theatrics will be accompanied by an entirely human counterpoint
As cattle raiders and neighbouring tribes sneak in beneath the cover of the rolling skies.

These are not my people, and perhaps I should never have come,
But this evening will find me sheltering alongside strangers,
Lying between a circle of concrete six feet below the earth
And watching tracers pass overhead
As automatic writing fills the skies.

No, these days the nights are never still.
Even for a dark-dweller as myself the mornings come as welcome relief.
Maale, Murle – hold off another day.

The unspoken rules of war have dissolved over decades
Leaving innocents at the heart
Of a cycle of revenge and revenge
And staked through wombless women.
Please, Lord, give us days.

And so we wait, filling backpacks with essentials and the keys to flee –
We hold onto our own days here,
And we guard them jealously.

…..

In the aftershock of the storm
My mud hut swells and creaks.
The plastic sheeting hung over the wire mesh windows
Drift and press against in the breathing out,
Rhythmic and redolent of the ocean.
I am all at sea.

On Paisley, Peace and Reconciliation

I had the misfortune to hear Ian Paisley deliver a sermon once.  Rounding the corner of a busy Belfast street I came across a street preacher – a common sight to this day – holding forth on the eternal reality of Sin and Hell.  Amidst the pointed gestures and weary familiarity of the message, I recognised the man.  Dressed in black, straight backed, he was taller than I expected – but his stature made sense.

Having been born in Northern Ireland, Paisley and others of his ilk filled the newspapers and television screens of my childhood, spewing forth their nationalist cant and infectious bigotry.  At the time the divisive rhetoric and identity politics meant little to me, but I was intimately familiar with the concept of the God whose name they invoked in vain.  And although my parents strove at all times to stand apart from that too-common Northern Irish identifier – “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” – that this was a God at once loving and standing in unbending condemnation was clear, so his choice of men like Paisley as his messengers made some kind of instinctive sense.

Ulster Says No

Ulster Says No

The landscape of my childhood is littered with the inevitable outcomes of these men and their unyielding extremism.  Northern Ireland in the early ’90s was a place distinguished by armed police, bomb scares, and the ever-present crackle of hatred.  Small towns marked their allegiance with coloured curb stones and crudely painted murals glorifying ‘martyrs’ and murderers as the lampposts held aloft their signifier of choice – Irish tricolour or Union Jack, take your pick.  I lived in a relatively peaceful town by the sea, within walking distance of the forest from which C. S. Lewis took the inspiration for his Narnia books, but it seeped in nevertheless.

In South Sudan my experience of violence was much more direct.  Conflict zones became part of my daily reality as I became fluent in radio speak, dug foxholes to while away the evenings, negotiated with military commanders, and became intimately acquainted with the sound of bullets passing overhead.  It was easy – too easy – to become hopeless in such a place, and many of us did, wearing our hard-won cynicism as a badge of honour.  

After two years the low level background hum of danger was abruptly punctuated and I left South Sudan with the taste of fear still fresh in my mouth, retreating to an Ireland I barely recognised.  I left hurriedly and in a daze, ostensibly to catch my breath before the next return, the next go around, but soon realised that I was locked headlong into a spin from which there was no quick recovery.

And so I sat for months, picking out new bearings before losing my way all over again, marking out a new topography of home and self that hasn’t yet coalesced, and likely never will.  Like most aid workers I have come to the realisation that I live with feet in two worlds, places defined by competing and often mutually exclusive demands.  I am no longer sure about my place in this life, but after a year at home I step more lightly between the two, and I have come to value the movement.

But in the midst of it all, there were moments when I was confronted with the fact that my two worlds are perhaps not so dissimilar, at root.  When people in South Sudan found out that I was Irish a common reaction was to ask about our own war of liberation and our fight against the British.  They could relate to this, and it created a momentary, if uncomfortable, bond.  When I asked them why they continued to fight, they pointed me to my country’s recent bloody and internecine past.  I had no easy reply.

And so Paisley’s death gave me occasion for reflection, and also reason to hope.  For regardless of purity of motive, that this most devoted of sectarians and his Republican counter-parts – cheap preachers of hate, the lot of them  could sit around a negotiating table and learn to govern together, to steer a country from violent conflict to halting peace, attests to the human capacity for healing and forgiveness.

For if there is one thing I have taken away from my time in South Sudan it is that there is no dark continent, no intransigent and uniquely ‘African’ propensity towards violence.  We all share the same dark heart.

……………………

Return

And so I am back in South Sudan.  I come to with a start as the wheels touch down in a puff of smoke, in time to watch the wreck of a civil war era MiG 23 fighter flash past the window.  

By now Juba airport looks all too familiar, and this time around – having arrived armed with a visa – the entry process goes off without a hitch.  Sure, getting the visa in London may have necessitated joining a library, but that’s South Sudan for you…

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.

…..

I always appreciate the headspace offered by intercontinental travel.  Cut off from the internet, and with a transit time far exceeding my laptop’s Mud Hut-battered battery, there is an enforced solitude to the whole thing.

On journeys with unrushed transfers this sense is only emphasised by the parade of faces that hurry past you in the terminals and transport hubs: in travel, you feel transient and rootless, in motion on more than just the physical plane.

Reflection settles naturally as the world passes by the window – thoughts turn to where I am going, while inertia draws them back to where I have come from.

On the plane I read through my journal, tracking the experiences and emotions of the past twelve months.  The pen-scribbled lines which often required such a concerted effort to get onto the page at the time now provide a welcome record of what I have been through and lived through.

Reading back I am reminded of our programme’s achievements and successes, the reality of which can easily be overlooked amidst the details and daily struggles of project implementation.

The fact that our project is still in existence is in itself a source of pride.  Twice we were coming to the end of our donor funding, at the very time that we could see a massive ramping up of needs.  Staff had to be let go, and many more of us were operating in an uncertain limbo as we waited for donor decisions; those were not easy times.

In Logistics we secured the procurement, transportation and distribution of over 100 tonnes of project goods in little more than a month.  These goods and materials enabled the construction of nutrition feeding centres for several thousand malnourished children.  The rainwater harvesting storage systems we constructed at schools and clinics will provide clean water during the long dry season, while the eight new boreholes we constructed in underserved communities will provide safe water for many thousands more.  In addition we now have materials pre-positioned in new storage facilities ready for the next spike in need, whether due to food shortages, flooding or conflict.

These efforts may be utterly inconsequential in comparison with the scale of the situation, but they will enable us to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable next time around, and that is something at least.  And in this line of the work you need to hold fast to the small victories…

…..

And so it is with a mixture of pride, weariness and regret that I read through my journal.

I can certainly see the contribution I made in my roles to major aspects of our projects. And yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that I and all of us could have done so much more.  If only we had put in more hours; if only we had had the money secured at the right time; if I had only been able to be more disciplined and focused – if only, if only…

A couple of days ago it was a friend’s leaving sodas and speeches (a South Sudan tradition that apparently spans multiple organisations).  I was struck by what she said, at the end of two years in country.  She spoke of how this place it demands a lot of you, how it requires that you give your all, how it changes you.

And I can see that much has changed in the past year; both in my life, and in myself.

I can see now that this year, and the time in the Mud Hut in particular, has made me more solitary, more comfortable in my own company.  Simultaneously, I can see the impact that extended periods of isolation has had on me, and the resulting aversion to absolute loneliness which has developed.  A confusing contradiction.

My times back home are still marked by a rushing around and a certain manic tendency in which the instinct is to see all the people that I love, all of the time.  But in this place there is a sense of remove which I now find essential to survival.

I have come back to South Sudan in a new job, with a new NGO.  And it feels like both a new beginning and starting again.  I was fortunate that last year I made some good friends, people I connected with and could be myself around.  Now, due to the transient nature of humanitarian work and its short term contracts the majority of these friends have moved on, whether to new crises, new postings in country, or they have returned home to rest and nurse themselves back to health.

And so I find myself once again in Juba, looking ahead to another year.  After a very short turnaround between jobs I have come back wary and decidedly weary.  Two weeks in and I can already feel that I am deeply tired.  There is a balance that needs to be struck here, a balance that I have not yet been able to find. So now it is time for head down and absolute focus, and hopefully it will all become clear in time.

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.

Rest

R & R: Rest and Recuperation.  Every aid worker’s favourite acronym.

The bright shining beacon at the end of three months in a mud hut, refugee camp or the pressure of a country head office, these three little syllables hold forth the promise of a return to normalcy, or at least a couple of weeks on a beach somewhere, drinking margaritas until you forget about the intensity of it all for a while.

A couple of years ago a wise and experienced friend told me that the humanitarian system is geared around taking people who are energetic, hard working and care too much and wringing it out of them.  There was a wry smile as my friend imparted his semi-serious warning but now, a year down the line, and I can see that there was a grain of truth to his pronouncement nevertheless.

Before I came to South Sudan I thought of R & R as something of a humanitarian perk. A bit of cash to fly somewhere interesting, a few additional days leave to explore the more pleasant corners of whichever region you find yourself posted.  Something worthwhile and enjoyable, sure, but by no means essential.

Now, however, I have seen too many of my friends and compatriots burnt out and exhausted. Unwilling to give up until the next target has been met, the next grant secured, they keep going and keep going until they come to a sudden and abrupt halt.

Dublin - Eden Quay at Night

Dublin – Eden Quay at Night

There is joy to this life, of course – joy and the privilege of service which I wrote about in my first few months are very much present.  But self-care is mostly an abstract concept in this line of work, and saying no often doesn’t come easy, or without a cost – for you, for the project, or the beneficiary – or so our inflated sense of self says, at least…

And so the very drivers which make people want to do this humanitarian thing can be the thing which pushes them that step too far.

I have read several critiques of humanitarian work in which the author pins the emotional hook of the piece around their disdain at the sight of an aid worker walking around a refugee camp or similar with a hangover on a Sunday morning, as if this were somehow an abnegation of their duty to or belief in humanity.

I now see that this is getting the whole thing back to front and upside down.  The desire to escape for a brief moment is not a dereliction of duty but a very human response to the inevitable suffering with which you are confronted, or undergo yourself.  At some point there must be a break, or something will snap.

A friend, more eloquent than I, summed it up perfectly:

People sometimes say to me, ‘it [aid work] must be so rewarding’. More like a sense of pouring cement into an ever-widening crevice. Even as we struggle to cover the very basics, the feeling is that we are barely papering over the cracks of problems much deeper than we can begin to address. Hence the sense of barely suppressed despair that is palpable among many aid workers.

After only a week off in my first seven months, I was running on empty myself when I first went home, at Christmas.

Home has much to recommend it, all of which is highlighted and intensified after three months of long drops and boiled goat.  The bitterness of freshly ground coffee, leavened with a single sugar.  The warmth of a city wrapped up for Christmas, all knitted jumpers and sparkling lights.  Old friends and familiar places, weighted with memory.

But the return brings with it its own particular set of challenges.

The past few times I have come back I have alighted in London, and the drop off point is jarring.

One week – Jonglei: mud huts, pitch black nights filled with stars and drumming and the occasional Antonov overhead, carrying with them portents and probably weaponry.

The next – London: several million people jostling for position, watched over always by false advertising, everyone constantly in motion, seemingly with little destination.  Everything seems at once familiar and artificial, a little too real to be trusted.

When you are away, relationships get put on hold, and the details that are missed between the frames of the time lapse snapshot can be hard to recreate upon return.

This disjunct, the sense of being an outsider looking in on your own life, is strange and unsettling.

The Liffey at Sunset

The Liffey at Sunset

One of my closest friends, who had herself left behind the comfort of the familiar in the past year, put the word on it thus:

When you are so far away, even if you are doing what you want to do, there is a certain element of holding a part of yourself very still and careful until you are safe back in a place where you can fall apart and let all the shit you had to go through take its toll.

I have termed the adjustment period Mud Hut Head – it takes a while to build up the courage to poke your head outside again, and after so much time spent in a particularly intensive environment and headspace, the results when you do are not always pretty.

But I am incredibly fortunate to have friends magnificent enough to offer me the patience and love and space that I require, and help me tease out the threads and patterns that have begun or been exacerbated by the muddied surroundings.

In essence, R & R, this return, it offers an essential lifeline, providing a run-up to get you through the insecurity, under-resourcing and eighteen hour days.

In the absence of systematic pastoral care or psycho-social support structures, R & R is an essential attempt to enable people to rest and forget in healthy, rather than destructive, ways.

It enables you to find the joy in the thing again.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  It is near impossible to offer anything of value from a place of emptiness or exhaustion.

And so I find myself back in Jonglei, with an immediate procession of targets and reports, infinitely grateful for the rest I have just received.

Deep breath.

Stuck

We have had visitors in Jonglei.  Our Logistics Manager and our roving technical genius were out with us to review the project, and to identify areas where there are room for improvement.  There are, it transpires, many such areas, all of which are – unexpectedly – now my purview.

At the start of this year our venerable logistician, who had been with the project for five years – an aeon in humanitarian terms – found himself a new job, and ventured off to pastures new.   And, due to the essential combination of proximity and willingness, I now find myself responsible for all of our project logistics.

First among the many challenges facing us is the state of our fleet, for one of the difficulties with operating in an environment such as Jonglei is that it takes a tremendous toll on vehicles, upon which you are reliant for essentially everything.  The compound of hostile terrain and unsympathetic driving combine to drastically curtail the lives of our trusty Land Cruisers.

Stuck

Stuck

Through a combination of ingenuity, stubbornness and duct tape some of the vehicles are now pushing five years old, and it shows.  So, after six months of sitting prone in axle-deep mud we conducted a review of the fleet to determine the functionality or otherwise of the vehicles now that movement is possible once again.

We found that in our fleet of five we had only one fully functional vehicle, a year old three seater pick up – Mobile 4. The first weekend back Mobile 4’s HF radio mast sheared off.  As the radio is the only reliable way to contact the base or Juba when in the field, this left us with a grand total of zero fully functioning vehicles.

Leaving the mechanics to their Sisyphean task, Fernandez, Alick and I decided that it would be worthwhile to conduct a driver training exercise wherein we tested both the driver and the vehicles’ ability to drive handle the unforgiving terrain.  And so we headed towards the remnants of the river which for much of last year separated us from the project sites.

Where once the river was chest deep and took two hours or more to cross, now the unrelenting equatorial sun had withered it to knee deep and several hundred metres wide.  Deciding to see how far we could get we ploughed straight on.

Sunset Over Swamp

Sunset Over Swamp

We didn’t very far, of course, but that was the expectation, and at first it was all an awful lot of fun – splashing around in the embarrassingly shallow water offered a welcome relief from the heat of the office.  But after an hour or so of utilising the jack and mud plates and alternating between coaxing and brute force it became apparent that we weren’t getting out.  The four wheel drive wasn’t working, we didn’t have a winch and all we were succeeding in doing with each attempt was further embedding the wheels in the thick clay, and amusing the onlooking children.

As three of the five vehicles were on the other side of the river at far away project locations and the one remaining vehicle in Yuai was completely non-operational we were stranded.  Fortunately, we had another NGO staying in our compound at the time, so we radioed base and waited.  As the sun went down there was a burst of AK-47 fire from across the river.

In the end we got back without too much trouble – the oft-repaired towing rope snapped on the first attempt, but we were soon on our way.  But it was a reminder of how easy it is for a series of simple oversights to potentially spiral into an altogether more serious situation.  Without a torch between us, no backup at base, no spare food or water in the vehicle, broken four wheel drive and a broken winch, we were helpless.

In an emergency, these are the basics upon which you need to be able to depend.

There is work to be done.

……………………