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Deborah Smith Headshot

Loving the Challenge

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Strangely enough I felt on a real high from the moment I landed on the tarmac. I thoroughly enjoyed being in Afghanistan. I loved the heady difference, the gripping change of scenery, the break from five years of deep emotional wrangling within the wider family dynamic, the food, the work, the appreciation of your efforts from Afghan colleagues. There was so much need in Afghanistan, the slightest effort you made was appreciated, the gratitude immeasurable.

Compound living was not a problem, initially. I was welcomed into the fold of internationals without question. The compound has a restaurant and café on site, and a juice bar making the best freshly squeezed juices I've ever tasted. Fresh food produce flows into Kabul regularly mostly via Pakistan, but Afghans are very proud of their home grown melons, strawberries and apples that flood the street stalls while in season.
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Although the compound was small, and we were effectively under house arrest, I made the most of my time when not working, figuring this was an opportunity to get fit, and write that novel I'd been working on for the last ten years. Initially I went to the gym every second day, including the sauna and heated salt water pool. In an environment like this it was important to train the mind to stay focused and strong. I enjoyed both the physical and psychological discipline. And thank goodness for skype; if I didn't have this daily window into my family's life back in Australia, I couldn't have stayed.

I loved conversing with Afghan colleagues about their history, language, faith, ethnic and cultural diversity and sensitivities - a constantly fascinating insight into their world. These people are stoic, brave, not to mention deeply humbling, with a wicked, contagious sense of humour. I also loved Afghan food made primarily for Afghan colleagues. The kitchen served pizza, chips and burgers for international staff which I loathed and would always ask for the Afghan food. Perhaps I never gave myself time to notice the underlying worry about personal safety. The experience initially felt surprisingly good except you were in a war zone - a bizarre, incoherent sense of disjointedness.

Initially I was reluctant to leave the compound, having promised my partner and two children I would stay in the relative safety of its walls. However some trips were unavoidable and I found myself regularly taking the drive to another compound along Jalalabad Road. One international colleague described Kabul as "a shithole". I guess you could say that, but I found the streets of Kabul fascinating, an insight into another side of life most will never get.
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I wanted to see what it's like on the other social and economic side before I die, to see if I can live my life better in some way. It didn't help my sense of piousness when we were all given an advance of US$3000 CASH in our first week to tide us over until our first pay cheque, and then hop into the armoured plated vehicle and see scrawny little children hopelessly begging, pleading desperately with their eyes. Yet I'm not allowed to open the window and give them any of my cash which I so wanted to do. The lords of poverty - it was frankly emotional torture being told to turn a blind eye. Such poverty, such desperation, such sadness, not the making of Afghans but of international players who opportunistically used, and continue to use, Afghanistan for their own political advantage. The CIA has a lot to answer for circa 1979.

I also felt shame for those who live in the west and shop and complain and indulge. What is wrong with our world that we can be so inherently selfish and turn a blind eye to those who have so little? I think of the obscenely glitzy and extravagant shopping malls in parts of the Middle East and wonder why one country can have so little, and the other an embarrassment of riches. Afghanistan, I fear, is a deliberately cultivated dumping ground for the Middle East's extremists.
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The work was fascinating - assessing the media post-Taliban, its impact, size, effectiveness, and current needs. I loved this sense of contributing to Afghanistan's nascent media and most of my colleagues, both Afghan and international, were warmly supportive and inspiring to work with.

I'm always disappointed however, when I encounter women in the workplace who don't support other women. Perhaps I'm old fashioned but as a feminist, and a relatively compassionate person, it's in my nature to automatically support other women. With D however, despite what she claimed to others, this absolutely wasn't the case and in some ways the next 12 months were truly disconcerting in that regard. The compound milieu created an unforgiving girls' boarding school mentality, a dastardly "Big Brother in a War Zone" environment, what a pity I couldn't simply go on line and vote some residents out.

I was determined I wasn't going to let D's behaviour spoil my professional relationship with my colleagues, and my enjoyment of this unique working environment. I focused on the job at hand and the engaging Afghans I was working with. How do they survive, these amazingly resilient people? I felt incredibly lucky to be working with people who I hoped would appreciate my expertise, and contribute to the rebuilding of their country, even in a small way.

In Kabul I felt alive - life is on a knife's edge, an edge that makes you savour every moment, and be grateful for it. No time for harsh, craftily construed accusations back in Australia, or cringe-making, tiresome bragging, or whining. It was such a relief to leave it all behind and embark on something completely unknown, that I hoped would challenge me, help me develop an inner fortitude. I've always had this underlying sense of being a pushover, too soft for my own good. In an obstinate way I believed a year in Afghanistan was perhaps where I could finally eradicate that vulnerability.