When I was in Herat I drove past my old guesthouse several times. It is no longer a UN guesthouse, the guard box out the front is gone. Every time I drove past I wanted to stop, go inside and climb up to the roof where I used to practice yoga and breath in. Or perhaps breath out. I’m not sure I exhaled fully the entire time I was in Herat.
Two hundred metres down the road from my old house was the alley that led to my ex-boyfriend’s guesthouse. I thought I might have trouble recognising it. But like so many other things on this trip it was less changed, and my memories clearer, than I expected. I visited the small supermarket where we used to go to stock up on pop tarts, tabasco sauce and tonic water (for my stash of gin) and drove past the stall where we bought our Buffy DVDs. I remembered the good times. I guess that’s how nostalgia works. It’s nice. Not necessarily terribly historically accurate, but nice.
I also visited my old office. Instead of driving in the front gate in a UN 4×4, flashing my ID card. I waited at the guard box for 25 minutes while they tried to work out exactly who I was and who I was supposed to meet. I recognised one of the drivers as he went past, and greeted him. Apparently he got into the compound and told one of his colleagues ‘There is a woman at the gate. I recognise her but I don’t know where from.’
Eventually they let me in and I met with a former colleague who I suspect never forgave me for certain professional disagreements. I took a peace offering. It was a little awkward, but I wanted him to know that I remember all his good work too. Maybe he understood. Maybe he didn’t. Either way I was glad for the chance to do it.
I spent the afternoon in the women’s shelter. I met a girl who had escaped an abusive marriage with a drug-addicted husband by dressing as a boy and getting work in a brick factory. She worked and slept alongside the other boys for months before being found out when she began to menstruate. Luckily for her, the police brought her to the shelter. I was astounded by her courage, until she explained to me:
‘When you are dying every day, the fear of dying once is not so bad. Either you escape or you die once and for all. Either is better than dying a little bit every day.’
I guess desperation sometimes looks like courage.
That night I met with an old friend, Maria Bashir. The first ever female Public Prosecutor in Afghanistan, Maria’s career has gone from strength to strength in the years I’ve been gone. She’s a powerful woman these days. Powerful enough that the guesthouse manager and cook went into a flurry of activity when they heard she was coming. I was glad to see her, touched that she would make the time.
On Wednesday morning, as I sat in Herat airport waiting for my flight to Ghor, I heard about the attacks in Kabul. I checked to see if there was any news from a friend in Kabul whose mother had been in the vicinity of the blast. At 9.30am I got word that she was okay. Others were not as fortunate. Meanwhile I was sitting in a brand new airport terminal, funded by the Italian government and named in honour of a young Italian soldier killed in Herat. On Tuesday I had heard how his parents, flown to Herat by the Italian government, had cried through the opening ceremony.
So many lives lost. So many left behind to grieve. On the one hand it makes it easy to understand why people would want to do whatever it takes to bring an end to the fighting, even if that means making a deal with the Taleban. On the other hand, as one person I spoke to this week said, it makes you think that these lives shouldn’t all be lost in vain.
I’ve been talking to people all week about the possibility of political reconciliation with the Taleban and this much is clear – Afghan women are not keen on the idea. That won’t surprise most people. But will it be taken into account by the men who make these decisions? I don’t know.
All in all, it has been a fairly emotional week.
So it may come as no surprise that by the time our plane came into land in Chagcharan I was feeling a little weepy. I love this place more than I can really explain. I guess it was the place where I felt myself again after a long period of not-quite-myself-ness. It was also the one place in Afghanistan where I really felt at home. Whatever the reason, it took all the self control I could muster to hold back the tears as we landed. Perhaps I should have just let them flow, but I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Old habits die hard.
I stepped off the plane to a row of faces I thought I’d never see again. Luckily they had immediate plans for me (a new office building was about to be inaugurated) so there was little time to indulge my sentimentality. Within moments of landing I found myself sitting in the front row – alongside the Governor and PRT Commander – of the opening ceremony.
If Herat was full of complex memories, Ghor is full of ghosts. Last night I went to the ISAF base where I found myself looking around every corner for my friend Heida, the Icelandic development advisor who lived on the base when I was here. It didn’t help that several of the senior military officers in the current rotation were also on the base when I first visited in 2006. The current Commander was Chief of Staff back then.
I’m staying at an NGO guesthouse (they’d probably rather I didn’t mention which one) where I once shared a room with my friend Kate while she taught a workshop on gender and criminal justice to police and prosecutors in Chegcharan. I’m typing this in the room we shared. It’s a sitting room now, and on the shelves are the DVDs I left here more than four years ago. I just spotted one of my old tunics on the washing line, I left it for the woman living in this house in 2007 and I’m happy to see it has survived and is still being put to good use.
One of the things I loved most about Chegcharan was the fact that it was considered safe enough here for me to walk, with a guard, in the town and along the river. Unfortunately that’s not currently the case. When I was told, in the security briefing yesterday, that I couldn’t walk anywhere, I thought maybe people were being a bit too cautious. Then last night a Bangladeshi NGO worker was murdered in his guesthouse, just across the river. He was due to go home in just a week. His replacement, who was in the guesthouse with him, managed to escape. I hope he’s allowed to go home now too.
So there will be no walks along the river. In fact I’ve spent most of this afternoon in the house.
Which brings me to the Kuchi dog. It turns out there is a giant dog at this house too. I guess the universe wasn’t going to let me off the hook on that one. So I’m facing my fear. Literally. He’s staring through the window at me now. And I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, ‘Go ahead punk. Make my day.’
Actually, he seems pretty well-behaved. But I remain terrified of him. I am, however, grateful for him. If he’s big and scary enough to keep me in the house, he’s probably scary enough to keep other people out.
So I’m following the rules. Staying off the street and out of trouble. Celebrating World Freedom of Press day by doing what I can to not join the ranks of too many journalists who have been killed this past year.
I’m staying in and watching my old copies of Six Feet Under for the same reason I always watched them here, because they give me a good excuse to have a cry.