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16 Days

Friday, November 30, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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The wife of my colleague agreed to let me take her photo this week on the condition that her face was obscured. She was shy, but still friendly to a strange woman who turned up outside her house trying to speak Dari to her even though she only speaks Pashtu. Duh

This week I've been emotionally triggered what feels like a thousand times a day. I'm heading into my very last week in Ghor and my emotions are heightened, but the events of the week were fairly intense anyway.

Between last Friday and today the good people of Ghor have experienced tribal conflicts in Shahrak which had in the preceeding week culminated in an ambush on a police convoy killing the District Chief of Police and at least five of his soldiers, plus two tribal elders in the vehicle with him. The police this past week set out to rescue three men abducted in the ambush. Officially this rescue was to recover police officers but according to some local sources they were armed men from one tribe who had been travelling with the police to carry out attacks on the other tribe's villages. In any case the police operation seems almost certainly to have been complemented by reprisal attacks from the other tribe which were either ignored or actively supported by the police.

I don't know what kinds of feelings are generated in you when you read this kind of report. Pema Chodron talks about the reversion to numbness in the face of an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That seems to be a common response in much of the world, and understandably so. As for me I feel angry and sad at the same time about these events, and yes, I feel some hopelessness.

The week went on. This week was the first week of the international campaign "16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence against Women" (let's just say "16 days" from here on in, huh?). In my part of the world this week was marked by a grenade attack on the home of the Head of the Department of Women's Affairs, a grenade attack on the home of the female Provincial Prosecutor, renewed death threats against another woman holding a position of public office and rumours about the Head Teacher of the Girls High School.

I struggle to know what to do with the sadness and anger that is generated by these attacks. The morning after the first grenade attack I was at her house, and she was calmly showing me where the windows where smashed, where her car was damanged and where she shot a bullet into the door of her own car as she grabbed a gun and fired wildly in response to the attack. She took calls as we talked and thanked me for coming to see her and she asked me how my trip to America was – she herself having just returned from a trip away. I watched her and tried to learn from her how to behave under these circumstances.

Three days later she called me to her office, asking me to come alone and therefore without a translator. I went and we struggled to understand each other but in the end I got the point. She wanted to know what I was doing to push the police to find the person who attacked her. She was insisting that I should personally do more. My reaction? Not anything I'm proud of. I was overcome with a wave of anger.

It was anger born out of frustration because I have been meeting the responsible security officials, I have been exhorting them to do everything they can to find whoever is doing this, but they look me straight in the eye and tell me whatever they think I want to hear and I know that these meetings are achieving nothing.

So was I really angry at her for asking me to help? Of course not.

I was angry at the people who threw the grenade in the first place, for not having the courage and the decency to come out and publically speak their minds rather than sneaking around at night throwing grenades, putting children at risk and terrorizing those people in this town who are standing up for what they believe in.

I was angry at the Chief of Police for not putting an end to this – in a town of 10,000 people I cannot believe that it is impossible to find and arrest the person who has carried out five such attacks in the past month.

I was angry at myself for being so entirely useless in these circumstances.

I was angry at the journalist who had been visiting for two days, giving the impression that Afghanistan and it's stories of grenades and improvised explosive devices was a great lark, a 'boy's own adventure'.and who seemed disinterested and distracted from the real stories all around him.

For several days I allowed all these triggers to feed the angry, despairing wolf and by Wednesday as I sat in a special ceremony to mark the "16 days" I was on the verge of tears the whole time.

I was aware of the young Lithuanian soldiers patrolling the perimeter on foot specifically because I was here. Because by standing alongside the Head of Women's Affairs to give our speeches at this occassion I was now putting myself at risk of grenade attack. I thought about the risk that this entailed for those young men and I thought about their families at home.

I thought about why I needed to be at the ceremony and about all the other people who had agreed to come and stand up for women's rights. The Deputy Governor, one of the local Mullahs, the Head of the Provincial Council, the Head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. I thought about the people who, by sneaking about at night and throwing hand grenades, were trying to undermine all that this ceremony stood for.

I watched five young girls sing a song based on the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and I wondered which one of them might be killed, maimed, beaten, raped or tortured in the years to come. I watched five beautiful boys stand up along side those girls and participate in a battle of the genders quizz. And I thought about which of those beautiful boys would end up hating his life, beating his wife, consumed by anger and hopelessness.

I know! Great thoughts for feeding the despairing wolf right, right?

Finally when the ceremony was over I came home and let myself have a good cry. I just let the anger and the sadness wash out of me.

When the crying was over I wrote. I wrote for myself, I wrote to the journalist, I wrote to friends who would understand and share with me in the pain. I wrote out the anger. I wrote to the other side. Sometimes, for me, writing is what I can do when I am too filled with emotion to sit in meditation. Sometimes writing is what I need to do first.

Then I sat, and I tried to get in touch with my natural openness, my natural warmth, my natural intelligence. Here are some of the things that came up for me:

Maybe the journalist was not callous and shallow. Maybe he was out of his depth and a bit overwhelmed. Maybe the sarcastic humour was a cover for confusion or even fear. Maybe the distracted twitchiness was not because he found the people around him uninteresting but because he didn't know where to look first, he didn't know who to talk to or what to make of it all. Maybe a little more kindness from me would have made all the difference.

I have to confess I didn't get quite that far with the guy(s) throwing the grenades. But I did find myself much less overwhelmed with emotion everytime I thought about them.

When I think about how hard it is for me to deal with all these emotions I have to stop for a moment and give respect to the people who are more directly affected by all these events. If it takes me a week to figure out how to stop reacting to the triggers and get back in touch with my basic goodness and my belief in the goodness of others then what does it take for the families in Shahrak whose fathers, brothers, sons were killed in the ambush? What does it take for the women whose homes have been attacked by grenades in the night, scattering deadly shards of glass across the room where their children sleep?

In these moments the cycle of violence makes sense to me, and I find myself coming back to the drawing board about how I can make my small contribution to peace in these times of war.


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11 Responses to "16 Days"

  1. Jennifer says:

    What a heartbreaking tale of events. It is absolutly awful that these things are happening in the world, and in America we never hear about them. I am new to your blog, and have not fully explored it in depth, but from what I have read it is amazing. I was curious how you got involved in what you do. Thank you so much for sharing so openly and honestly with all of us.

  2. Laini Taylor says:

    Oh Frida, I don’t even know what to say. I’m completely out of MY depth, but this is a truly beautiful and passionate piece of writing that conveys so much — about you, and about Afghanistan. In and of itself it is a contribution to peace in these times of war — and you have contributed so much more. Hugs to you, and please stay safe for the next few weeks!

  3. Myrthe says:

    This is off-topic, but, Frida, I just found out that both your photoblog and this one have been nominated for the Brass Crescent Awards. This one was nominated in the category Best South/Southeast Asian Blog and your photoblog has been nominated in the category Best Multimedia Blog.
    Everyone can cast their votes here: (You can only vote once and your vote only counts after opening the link you’ll receive in a follow-up email. Don’t forget that!)

  4. amy says:

    such a beautiful piece of writing – the words, the honesty, the spirit in which it was shared. thank you. the world is lucky to have people like you fighting for the things that matter most.

  5. Wow…talk about trials and tribulations that we over hear have nothing to compare with in our everyday…you are an amazing woman. After spending time with you on your visit to Swirly’s it is so hard for me to imagine your smiling face and love in a world filled with so much enmity…i hope you are safe and don’t ever stop being angry…it is sometimes what saves us and fuels our passions..anger tempered with compassion and love is a powerful thing.

  6. Swirly says:

    Oh my love…I am teary as I read this. I think Justin is right….anger can sometimes be a useful ally in our quest to create goodness in the world. If we stop being angry about these injustices and slip into ambivalence as a way to protect ourselves, we allow the grenade throwers to win. I think you are incredibly brave for allowing yourself to be angry, to cry and to be horrified at the overwhelming circumstances. This is why you are so good at the work you do, and also why you are such a beautiful writer. You are going to create an extraordinary book which will make a huge difference in its own way. You are a warrior and I am so proud to call you my friend. I love you.

  7. my brave and beautiful friend,
    i’m overwhelmed…unsure of what to say or how to say it.
    if we were sitting together you would see the tears streaming down my face…you would feel my arms wrapped gently around you.
    i am so very grateful for the world your friendship has awoken in me…your contribution to peace in these times of war is SO much greater than you realize.
    all my love,

  8. Kerstin says:

    I agree with with Christine – your book will be extraordinary, not only because of your perspective, attitude and insights, but also because you are an amazing writer. You are witnessing firsthand what – I believe – is at the core of so many of our world’s problems: Personal Involvement. When people are caught in the deadly spiral of violence and retaliation, when they watch their family and friends die within it (often brutally so), how can they not not feel the fear and the hatred, how can they not want revenge? World history shows how very very hard it is for those with Personal Involvement to be the first ones to stop feeding the angry wolf and to attend to the loving wolf instead. But it can be done, just look at Northern Ireland, peace there is still fragile and the wounds will take a long time to heal and leave visible scars for generations to come – but when you walk through the streets of Belfast these days you can see it everywhere: the fear has given way to a hopeful future. And it is people like you who have made this possible.
    Take care,

  9. Jeni says:

    Oh my dear… I am right there with you, on the other side of the world, in another set of circumstances, yet your feelings, emotions, confusions, need for help, all resonate with me. I understand them all, understand you, and am as confused by humans as you. I realize, like you do, that what is, just is…nothing is good, bad, it just is. I know you are doing what I would, trying to help, especially given what little time is left for you there.
    What I wrote before for one of your previous posts that got deleted was this, or the essence of this: you know, like I do, that the smallest of actions can make a difference. A butterfly flapping its wings in Japan can effect the air currents throughout North America. You, lovely Frida, our butterfly, have made an effect. It may constantly feel frustrating, feel futile and now with you leaving feel like you are deserting…but trust me…the tiniest of change can have a profound lasting effect. You have no idea how many people you have touched, what policies you have effected, how many smiles you have encouraged, etc. It may feel like nothing against the big “machine”, but remember that change starts at the bottom and goes up. You have done so much good.
    Yes, the big corporations and governments are in control – until change happens from the bottom up, which it always does and for which you have been influential.
    Cheers to you my friend, and don’t forget that, especially in your final weeks there.
    xo, jeni

  10. cath says:

    lovely frida, while i can certainly understand, and relate to helplessness/hopelessness, i think that anger is healthy. not always, but in this case, the passion i think is necessary to inspire any kind of change. anger is surely a greater catalyst than numbness.
    you are in such a unique situation… with such a unique perspective. i cannot even begin to imagine the whirlpool of emotions that must be swirling within you right now…
    kudos for having it within you to stand back and look at it from another perspective. to understand, or try to understand, the situation from another point of view. to quash some of the anger by understanding that not everyone sees things the same way. it must be terribly frustrating (among other things, of course) and difficult to take that step back…
    but… sometimes the despairing wolf needs to be fed. and if you don’t give him food, he will eat anyway.

  11. Rachael King says:

    My dear, this is one of the most powerful things I have read of late and I too am tearing up and once again marvelling at what you are going through, what the people you help are going through and what a different world it is to our safe little corner of the world.

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