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Deborah Smith Headshot

Closer Now

Posted: Updated:
AFGHANISTAN
Getty

The time was getting closer to pack my bags, and my emotions, into a tight little bundle, and head into the unknown; a large chasm of life, waiting to happen. I wondered constantly if I was completely mad. I meet my partner and two children in the south of France and we drive through picturesque little villages, calm and contained with Christmas cheer, and I can't stop crying. My son puts on his favourite music, The Decemberists, The Shins, Coldplay, music that brings back memories of happy times travelling to various parts of Europe together as a family in the winter months.

My crying becomes inconsolable. I want to take on this adventure, and yet I'm not sure I can leave my family. I think of the article I read about guys serving in the military in Afghanistan and try and convince myself I'm not being a bad mother, but a good provider, as military blokes are portrayed. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I shouldn't take the job. I wonder if, (and hope) I'm being a good role model for my two teenage boys, and that I'm showing them that just because you're a girl/woman doesn't mean your only role should be in the home cleaning and baking.

A week before I'm due to leave to take up the position, there's a devastating suicide bombing in Kabul at a supermarket frequented by many foreigners. A prominent human rights lawyer, her husband and three little children were killed, along with a French film maker and two Afghan security guards. They were not the targets, simply unfortunate "collateral damage" as they would say in typical Orwellian military double speak. This is the first suicide bombing in Kabul after a nine month period of relative calm. I begin to feel afraid, extremely afraid. Was I being totally irresponsible, was it too late to pull out?

I talk with several women (child free) who have worked in Afghanistan, admittedly they worked there several years ago, but it helps demystify the "war zone" perception pervasive in western media. Interestingly they all say they loved it and would work there again in an instant given the chance, and most importantly, that Afghans are remarkable people. One of them makes a comment that stays with me - The media are very good at making it look scary.

It's as if all the work I've ever done as a journalist has been leading to this. My last contract job was training journalists in Kazakhstan which I loved; Afghanistan seemed like the next logical step. I try to stay strong and tell myself this will, if I survive, insh'allah, surely make me a stronger, better person and help me develop a tougher psychological backbone I've always felt I've been lacking. I'm hoping the experience might make me feel less afraid to be myself, less afraid to stand up for myself, to tell people who've treated me poorly where to get off. I want to take this job to toughen up.

Will I be judged as brave, or foolish? Time will tell I guess. If I am harmed in Afghanistan I'm therefore foolish, if I survive ok and with my immediate family dynamic intact, then brave. I keep reminding myself of a great quote I once read on the side of a railway station wall - I'd rather die on my legs than live on my knees. It worries me; this thought of being so afraid you render yourself incapable of making the most of life's opportunities. I don't want to live a life frozen by fear, of life itself.

Am I being totally selfish and unfair on my children, and my partner? Some would say loudly - YES. Was Aung San Su Chi heartless and selfish for choosing to stay in her compound in Yangon and stand up for her beliefs, her principles, to take control of her life? And she has children, now adults, and yet she wasn't harshly judged, she was/is seen as a brave hero.

I recognise I couldn't possibly take on this challenge, or opportunity, without the extraordinary support of my partner, who has always encouraged me, and my work, in a way that almost defies comprehension. A truly remarkable man.

The responses I find most telling are the messages that are ignored. Not even a -

Well done.
Congratulations, it's a great opportunity.
I think you're crazy but admire your courage.
Hope it goes well.
Stay safe.

Just silence. This makes me feel somehow wicked.

Basic politeness and consideration of others' feelings isn't fashionable anymore. It used to be called respect. Gordon Livingstone - Being ignored is the final insult to our humanity.