I worked as a humanitarian in conflict and post-conflict situations, through famine and the aftermath of earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami. My first mission as a humanitarian was the Indian Ocean tsunami response in Indonesia. This set me off on a course, that I never imagined as a youngster growing up on Dublin’s northside.
In September 2009 I found myself working for the coordination arm of the United Nations in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. For the most part, non-government organisation workers and UN staff, lived in guesthouses on small compounds around the city. In the early hours of the 28th October, Bakhtar Guesthouse was attacked by three Taliban. When I stepped into the garden that morning to go for breakfast I became aware of the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Over the top of the compound walls the billowing smoke rose high into the sky, matching my increasing sense of fear and panic. My stomach knotted and descended into my shoes as I felt the blood drain from my head.
Five colleagues, two Afghan security guards and a civilian died that morning.
A stop was put on all staff movement as we went into immediate lockdown, unable to leave the compound. Information on the situation was sparse as senior management scrambled to inform headquarters. The logistics teams went to work to evacuate the injured. Two of my own colleagues jumped from the roof of Bakthar guesthouse to the roof of the neighbouring building, both breaking their ankles.
As the news made headlines across the globe, the TV became our main source of information. There was a sense of frustration not knowing what was happening to colleagues. Real fear that we could be the next target, created tension and incredible stress for the residents inside our compound. Adding to the stress was the fact that the telephone network crashed. Colleagues became desperate to make contact with loved ones at home to reassure they were okay. I seemed to have the only working internet connection so my room turned into the equivalent of an internet café with a queue outside in the first 48-hours after the attack.
Winter, which can be brutal in Afghanistan, hadn’t yet arrived. We gathered each day in the fading rose garden, comforting each other on the loss of colleagues and putting together pieces of information gleaned through various sources. Those afternoons in the garden became therapeutic as we spoke of our grief, our fears and our families at home, all the while transitioning from familiar acquaintances to friends.
My time in Iraq was not so different. In Baghdad we lived on a compound in windowless containers, packed high with sandbags for protection. Each container had a Tannoy that triggered when a rocket was headed in our direction. We were frequently woken by the automated response with a mechanical voice repeatedly shouting “take cover, take cover, take cover.” Our personal protection equipment consisted of a helmet and a 10 kilogramme bullet proof vest, which we dragged to and from work each day. Concrete shelters to provide protection in the event of an attack, dotted the empty roads of the ‘Green Zone’ – the diplomatic area of Baghdad. On more than one occasion I froze in fear lying in bed listening to the rockets land across the Tigris River and thinking they were inside the compound.
Colleagues acted differently to this daily level of stress. Some choose to disengage and rarely left their containers except to go to work. Others choose to gather after dinner in the area outside the canteen known as the piazza, pulling together tables and chairs around the large yellow swing. There we found our tribes and consoled each other when the stress of living in confinement and fear became overbearing.
Being confined to barracks in Ireland is somewhat different to lockdown in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is the pure luxury of an early morning walk when the sun is re-introducing itself, as it slithers around Howth Head when I march down the Clontarf seafront. Daily meditation helps me cope with the fear of Covid-19 and I increasingly appreciate the safe space my own home provides. When I lived in Kabul, my wise Australian colleague and friend would take out her lipstick when the going got tough. She believed that when we had our lipstick on, we could put the world to rights. Before I step outside the door each morning to take my walk, I take out my brightest red lipstick and apply liberally.