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Zen Under Fire

A story of love and work in Afghanistan.

Sunday 23 October 2006, Herat, Afghanistan

It’s almost lunchtime on my first day in charge, my boss only left this morning and so far things are going according to plan. I’m in my office working on the weekly report. I find this both tedious and harrowing given the grim tally of deaths and maimings. In my boss’s absence I have to prepare the report for the entire office, on top of that for my own human rights team. Just before midday, Asif, one of our senior Afghan staff members, comes in to speak to me.

‘Amanullah Khan has been killed,’ he says.

For an instant I wonder whether he’s joking but the look on his face and the tone of his voice are unmistakable.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘He was travelling in a convoy with some of his supporters when a rocket hit his vehicle. He was killed instantly. His son may have been in the vehicle with him and might also be dead, although we aren’t sure about that yet.’ He stops for a moment and stares at me, as if to gauge my reaction.

‘They will seek revenge for this,’ Asif continues, ‘and it could escalate very quickly. We need to do everything we can to contain this situation or many people could be killed.’

My disbelief is already giving way to fear. I feel it in my belly first, my stomach clenches as though I can keep this disaster at bay with my abdominal muscles.

‘Yes,’ I say, redundantly, ‘we need to do everything we can.’

What I’m not clear on yet is what that ‘everything’ might be, but I know that my first responsibility is to manage the office, where news of the assassination is already sweeping through on a wave of barely contained panic. People are huddling together around their desks listening to it with wide eyes.

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In the initial hours after the attack I struggle to make sense of the confusing and sometimes conflicting reports that flood in. Every time the phone rings the news gets worse. Asif’s sources in Zir Koh say that Amanullah Khan’s men are descending on villages of the Barakzai tribe – who they believe are responsible for his assassination. They are making their way from house to house executing adult men and any boys they deem to be old enough to fight. The reports claim men are being killed in front of their children, boys in front of their mothers.

As Asif and I try to confirm this from other sources, the phone rings again; it’s a journalist from Reuters. Word of Amanullah Khan’s murder and the reprisal attacks is spreading. ‘How many dead?’ he asks. ‘We are hearing anything from forty to a hundred and forty.’ No one seems to know, least of all me.

One thing is agreed on by almost everyone. Amanullah Khan’s murder was a revenge attack in response to his men killing a Barakzai elder a week ago. Our efforts to broker a peaceful solution failed. Now the question is whether we can prevent things getting worse.

I spend the afternoon in my boss’s office as our political staff come and go with new information and advice. The phone rings frequently as people from our head office in Kabul call to ask for more information and to give me advice about how we should intervene. I’m supposed to promote a peaceful solution to the fighting. I don’t understand why they think that I might have more luck now when my boss and his superiors were unsuccessful up to this point. But I’m hardly in a position to refuse.

If I had been asked to envisage a worst-case scenario for my first day in charge of the office, this would be it.

The reality is that there is very little that the civilian component of a United Nations mission can do once fighting has broken out. In these early hours of the fighting, the first response will come from the Afghan security forces, possibly with the support or assistance of their international military counterparts. My job, initially at least, is simply to try to form an accurate picture of what is actually happening. And that is proving to be much harder than it sounds.

What compounds the difficulties, I discover, is the extraordinary power of the Afghan rumour mill. Distance and security concerns prevent us from getting to the place where the crisis is unfolding, and limited mobile phone coverage means that we have to rely on information from a small number of informants. So we end up working on the basis of second-hand accounts. I’m not sure what to believe. The potential cost of getting the facts wrong is so high that I won’t pretend to be able to handle this situation alone. I call Asif back into my office again and tell him, regretfully, that I need him to work with me through the Eid holiday. He doesn’t hesitate to agree. He himself is Pashtun and knows the people at the heart of this conflict well.

For the next thirty minutes he tells me everything he knows about the men likely to have stepped into the breach left by Amanullah Khan’s murder, the men most likely to be giving orders to the fighters who have descended on the Barakzai villages, and who will be making decisions on how to respond to this conflict. As I listen to him, furiously scribbling notes on all the key players, I start feeling slightly less panicked. His calmness is rubbing off on me and my legal training is kicking in. The more information he gives me the more comfortable I feel. I might be a complete novice to this local conflict, but processing lots of information quickly is familiar territory to me. If all I have to do is get my head around the conflict and write articulate, intelligent reports about it, I’ll be fine. The problem is that people are dying as I sit in my office ‘getting my head around it all’. I need to take action now.

First order of business, Asif advises, is to set up meetings with the relevant local authorities. Each province in Afghanistan has a governor and a provincial council. The president appoints the governor, and the council members are elected in local elections. The governor holds more executive power in the running of the province, but the council generally has a lot of influence with the population. So I need to talk to them both. The commanders of the police and the army also need to be consulted, along with tribal and religious leaders.

Asif starts calling the various players, starting with the governor, and discovers that the governor has already convened an emergency security shura, or council, to discuss the situation. I am invited to join them. Our office’s role, in this kind of situation, is to advise and assist the government of Afghanistan in order to promote peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The meeting is at 4 p.m. I have time to go home and get changed. I came to work this morning in an embroidered orange shalwar kameez – a cotton suit made up of a long tunic and loose pants that cover my arms and legs, as is respectful – and a large headscarf. This occasion, however, calls for something more formal. Once home, I change into a loose-fitting black business suit with a long skirt and a sober black headscarf. I look at myself in the mirror: with my dark hair, hazel eyes and olive skin I blend in well here. I’m not confident of much else today, but I am confident that I look the part. I sit down at my kitchen table to drink some tea – my response to any situation that seems beyond me – and think things through.

I am about to meet the governor, the chair of the provincial council, the head of the Afghan National Army and the chief of police. I feel a heavy sense of responsibility. If I mess up because I don’t know who is who, or what political games they might be playing at the expense of the lives of people in Zir Koh valley, those lives will be on my head.

One of the things I’ve learned in my career so far is to always, always, call on local expertise when you are out of your depth. So I call Asif again, for the third time today, and ask him if he can come to my house to brief me on each of the men who will be at the meeting. I need to know their ethnicities, tribal and political allegiances.

He agrees to come in twenty minutes. I use the time to call a colleague. Talatbek is not exactly local – he’s originally from Tajikistan – but he has been in Afghanistan for almost twenty years. He is the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) office in the troubled southern province of Kandahar. Although Herat is far to the west of Kandahar, the tribes involved in this particular conflict are subgroups of larger tribes based in Kandahar and I’m hoping Talatbek will know something about them.

Although I have never met him, I’m sure Talatbek has handled many situations just like the one I am facing. If anyone can help me right now, it will be him. I call him at his office and explain quickly what I know about the conflict, asking for his advice about my next moves. In response he is both calm and kind.

‘Do you want me to call my contacts in the Zir Koh branches of the Noorzai and Barakzai tribes?’ he asks. ‘I think I can probably talk them into holding fire while you and the governor pull together a peacemaking delegation from Kabul.’

‘Yes please, Talatbek.’ I like that idea very much. By the end of our conversation I am breathing a little easier. I may feel alone and out of my depth, but help is only a phone call away. I thank Talatbek and assure him I’ll call again if I need more advice.

As I get off the phone to Talatbek, Asif arrives. Over yet another cup of green tea, he fills me in on the political affiliations of each of the men who will be in the room that afternoon. We don’t have long, but it is enough to alert me to the agendas that might be playing out in our discussions. What is making Asif particularly nervous is the possibility that this conflict is bigger than Zir Koh valley. ‘The real problem,’ he explains, ‘is that behind the tensions between Noorzai and Barakzai tribes lies a much bigger battle, the battle for power between Amanullah Khan and Ismail Khan.’

Asif refers to Ismail Khan as IK, which is initially a bit weird for me because it’s what my sisters and I call our father (Ian Kennedy). It is always a little unsettling when details of my life in New Zealand appear without warning here in Afghanistan. It seems incredible to me that life in New Zealand could carry on as usual, unaffected by the devastation that surrounds me in Afghanistan, so I’ve come to imagine the two places as existing in different, parallel, universes.

I already know a little of Ismail Khan’s history. He first came to international attention when he led a local garrison in Herat into an uprising against the Soviet government in 1979. This uprising was defeated but Khan went on to become a powerful commander during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He was also a key member of the Northern Alliance, a group of commanders from the north of Afghanistan who, in 2001, formed an alliance with the US to topple the Taleban.

Once the Soviets had been ousted, Ismail Khan became the governor of Herat province, successfully defending the province against the Taleban in 1995. Yet he was no liberal himself. Before I even moved to Herat I had heard stories about how he opposed women’s participation in higher education and the workforce. He was renowned for his repression of journalists and the press.

Asif explains to me that, despite his reputation for repressive policies and brutal policing, Ismail Khan still has many supporters in Herat.

‘After the fall of the Taleban, despite efforts to re-establish a national government in Afghanistan, IK continued to rule Herat as though it was his personal emirate,’ Asif explains. ‘He collected taxes and customs duties himself and refused to pay them into the central purse in Kabul. Instead he used them, or at least some of them, to rebuild Herat city.’

I can see how this subversion of public money would have made IK popular here in Herat. While Kabul, the capital, waited for the slow trickle of international aid, Herat’s roads, bridges and schools were being rebuilt. I remember being surprised, when I first arrived in Herat after living in Kabul, to discover that the sewerage system seemed to be largely intact and functional, putting Herat well ahead of the capital.

As I listen to Asif, I think that President Karzai might have tolerated Ismail Khan’s independent streak were it not for two factors. Firstly there was the problem of access to funds. Herat province borders Iran, so the customs duties collected in Herat constitute a large proportion of national revenue. The government can’t afford to allow Ismail Khan to keep those funds in Herat province.

Secondly, Khan works closely with Iran. The US is caught up in an increasingly tense standoff with Iran. Over the past few years George Bush’s administration has been moving US forces into position in western Afghanistan, where they could theoretically launch an air attack on Iran. It seems unlikely to me that President Karzai’s main supporters, the Americans, could have been happy about Khan’s cosy relations with Iran. In 2004, at the urging of the US, President Karzai agreed to send Afghan National Army units to Herat to remove Ismail Khan from power.

Asif informs me that in the clashes that ensued Khan’s son was killed. As a conciliatory gesture, the President offered him an especially lucrative ministerial post, that of Minister for Energy. Khan accepted.

‘Although Ismail Khan no longer holds any official positions in the government of Herat province,’ Asif explains, ‘I have no doubt as to his ongoing political power and influence. Whenever IK comes ‘home’ to Herat we know that something big is going down. He still sends his thugs out to catch and punish anyone who dares to break the fast of Eid,’ Asif goes on. ‘He is also the ‘godfather’ of a local mafia that controls all construction projects in the city and,’ Asif drops his voice, ‘is rumoured to be siphoning large amounts of public money into their private investments.’

The image Asif is drawing of IK as a mafia don reminds me of the first time I saw Ismail Khan in person. I was surprised at his modest stature; his reputation is so gigantic that it was hard to reconcile it with the small, round man with a long white beard whom I watched descending from a private plane at Herat airport. However the calibre, and political stripes, of the supporters who had shown up to welcome him home had tipped me off to the identity and importance of the man on the tarmac. I couldn’t help staring. Here before me was a character of legendary proportions in Afghanistan and he looked so ordinary.

‘Amanullah Khan,’ Asif carries on, ‘was probably the only person in western Afghanistan who had the courage and the backing to openly challenge Ismail Khan. Rare among men in the Western Region, he didn’t seem to be afraid of Ismail Khan.’

‘I’ve heard rumours,’ I tell Asif, ‘that Amanullah Khan has received clandestine support from the central government to mount a campaign against IK.’

‘I’ve heard them too,’ he agrees, ‘but it’s impossible to know whether they are true.’

Either way, Amanullah Khan had already shown himself to be willing to rattle Ismail Khan’s cage. Eighteen months ago, for instance, a showdown between Amanullah Khan and Ismail Khan resulted in tribal fighting in Shindand. I know about this because the members of my human rights team were left with the grisly task of taking stock of the dead and hearing the harrowing testimonies of the survivors.

‘It’s slightly more complicated,’ Asif continues. ‘Not only are there two powerful personalities at play, there is also an ethnic dimension to the tension. Amanullah Khan’s tribe, the Noorzai, are Pashtun while Ismail Khan is Tajik.’

Pashtun are the ethnic majority in Afghanistan. President Karzai himself is Pashtun. Tajik are the second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. To simplify, you could say that Pashtun leaders are more closely linked to Pakistan while Tajik leaders, who are Persian-speaking, are closer to Iran.

‘As the removal of IK from his position of governor of Herat demonstrated,’ Asif explains, ‘the US backers of Karzai’s government have little tolerance for friendly relations between the powerful elite of Afghanistan and Iran. Iran, on the other hand, is very keen to make friends in Afghanistan and is happy to spend money to do so.’

I’ve seen the figures and know that Iran spends large amounts of money on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Most of these efforts are centred in Herat province, where Iranian money has paid not only for the construction and repair of madrasas (religious schools) and mosques, but also of orphanages, roads and hospitals. Different groups of Afghans view these efforts very differently. In our own office, for example, there are tensions evident between the Pashtun staff, who tend to be more suspicious of Iran and its influence, and the Tajik or Hazara staff, many of whom have themselves lived in Iran, often as refugees.

Asif explains that the relationship between Iran and the US provides the backdrop to the relationship between IK and Amanullah Khan. Meanwhile, tensions between these two men have fuelled the conflict between the Noorzai and Barakzai. Even the suggestion that Ismail Khan is behind the murder of Amanullah Khan increases the stakes of this conflict considerably.

I’m about to walk into a meeting of the key local officials, so I ask Asif whether each of them is likely to be more sympathetic to Ismail or Amanullah Khan. He tells me that while the chief of police and the chair of the council are generally assumed to be affiliates of Ismail Khan, the governor has a tense relationship with IK – which isn’t surprising, as he was appointed to replace IK when he was deposed.

I thank Asif for the briefing and suggest that we head to the governor’s office. That’s when I find out that he’s not coming with me. Apparently only I am invited. I argue that the invitation is actually to our office and so it would be fine for Asif to come with me. He’s not convinced.

‘It’s important that you attend this meeting alone, Marianne,’ he says, ‘so these men begin to take you seriously as the Acting Head.’ I can’t argue with that, so he heads home to his family while I steel myself to face the task ahead alone.

I’m not actually alone, though; I may not have Asif with me, but one of the language assistants from the office, Abdul-Rahim, will come with me to interpret. The discussions will all be taking place in Dari and my Dari doesn’t extend far beyond buying fruit and vegetables and giving simple driving directions. If only the answers to this afternoon’s dilemmas were as simple.


I am about to be left in charge of the office. I’m not sure I am ready for the responsibility, so I double-check with my boss.

He reassures me. ‘You’ll be fine, Marianne. As long as no one kills Amanullah Khan, you’ll be fine.’

By midday, Amanullah Khan is dead.

In 2006 Marianne Elliott, a human rights lawyer from New Zealand, was stationed with the UN in Herat. Several months into her new role an important tribal leader is assassinated while she is in charge of the local UN office. She must try to defuse the situation before it leads to widespread bloodshed. And this is just the beginning of her story in Afghanistan.

Zen Under Fire is a vivid account of Marianne’s experience living and working in the world’s most notorious battlefield. As well as sharing the incredible details of her UN role, Marianne tells the very personal story of the shattering effect that the high-stress environment had on her and her relationships, and asks what it really means to do good in a country that is under seige from within.

This is an honest, moving and at times terrifying true story of a woman’s time peacekeeping in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

What people are saying about Zen Under Fire...

'Marianne's story is touching, relatable, informative, and, to boot, fantastic story-telling.'

Susan Piver

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