The other side of aid work (part II)

It was a routine day during a field trip to Western Afghanistan in 2007. I had not slept well, was feeling a little homesick and isolated after a few days on a UN compound in Herat with not much company and –well, I was just not having such a good day. Nothing out of the norm–just an “out of sorts” day, like we all have sometimes.

I could barely communicate with the driver as his English was not good and I did not speak more than a few words of Dari, and so we were mostly silent as we drove to a meeting with a community group on the outskirts of Herat. I looked out of the window feeling a little sleepy, wondering what the meeting would bring, whether I would manage to convince the community group that it would be good to merge with another group for the sake of coherent working towards a common goal.

We drove past the site of UNOPS’ road construction project . The driver pointed it out to me and I could see that it was, indeed, and as I had been told, all completed.  Brand new district centre road, brand-new culverts. This is why I was a little surprised to see a pile of freshly dug out earth piled up randomly by the roadside along one of the culverts.  Surely that pile of earth should have been cleared up? I tried to speak to the driver about it but as we could not communicate, I just left it at that, determined to check with the engineers later in the day. Either way, we had almost arrived at our meeting.

Just 15 minutes later, just as we had got past the initial meet and greet, with the elders, a huge explosion ripped through the area, making the windows shatter, sending a cloud of dust past our building, muffling any other sound for what seemed like an eternity. Then silence. For a second we all just looked at each other, then some of the  elders got up and rushed out before I could stop them–there could be a secondary explosion.  It turned out that a security company had been the target of an IED (improvised explosive device)  about 200m down the road. 200 metres–roughly in the area where I had seen that pile of earth.

Auto-pilot kicks in-the security rules flood into my head: do not rush to help. Check the road is clear. Evacuate the area immediately via a different , safe, route. Radio in to UN Base to let them know what has happened. It sounds so simple—-but it is not. My legs feel like lead, I do not want to move. I have first aid skills—perhaps someone is lying there dying and I could do something? How can it be that I am not allowed to do what my heart tells me to because it would put my team and myself in danger? Then there is the community: what does that look like–just rushing out and leaving them behind? When they have no choice but to stay in their district, which had just seen its first serious security incident in years, a historic moment for Herat?  When they have offered me hospitality and a warm welcome–how can I possibly just get up and walk out, drive off?  I don’t want to. I have to. I numb the emotions.   Split second decision; rapid departure after explaining why we had to leave, and apologising and promising another visit soon. They understood. I don’t understand how, but they did.

It was around 3 hours later. After our return to base, after the security de-briefings and the calls to Kabul, the assurance to my colleagues that all was well, after hearing from them that I did everything I had to do, that  I had handled it all well. It was then that the emotions flooded back and this time, there was no silencing them. The knot in my heart:  I was  alive and well and perhaps someone else was injured or dead. The pain  that violence is part of that community’s routine now. The realisation that I had not been the target–otherwise how could we have driven past that bomb unharmed? The guilt  at not having been able to help the convoy whose fate was sealed by that pile of earth.

The anger…….the deep sadness……. that a pile of earth was not just a pile of earth and never again will be.