The long call

We received an email today from the widow of one of the people killed up in Nuristan recently. She wrote about ‘reaching the end of this long call to serve in Afghanistan’.

Apart from it being terribly sad and hard to read, it provoked some reflection from Julie and I. Why are we here in this country? So much effort over so many years is erased so quickly. So much goodness can be undone so easily  – in 2009, I evaluated a community development project working in the North East of this country. It was working in two remote valleys, where the staff showed huge commitment and substantial progress was being made. Since then, a bunch of Taliban moved down one of the valleys. US forces took note, and sent in a few drones, which bombed the place up. Everyone got hostile. One of the development team was kidnapped, then released; then they all had to pull out. Now they are working in a small, tight radius around the township. All their work in the valleys is pretty much over, the momentum lost.

It reminds me of our work in community development years ago, in the North. Long days, long years of work in remote, dusty places, which was terminated over night by the events of 9/11.

Why do we keep trying here? I am less and less sure that we achieve anything. I know, I know now that this work is not about us feeling good, or developing our CVs. And I am not an aid junkie, living on the high of the emergency, the thrill of saving lives. But I would like to see permanent progress here in some form, in my lifetime. I am less convinced that will happen, or at least less convinced that there is much I can do to expedite it.

It seems I follow a God of lost causes. I am not sure how I feel about that. As Nathan says, ‘I have joined the long defeat’.

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Also, because the room I am sitting in is badly built, one side is about 4 inches lower than the other. I have propped the right side of the desk up on boards but the chair is still on an acute angle. I am just wanting you all to know that should I develop some kind of horrible arthritis or malignant osteopathic condition because of unergonomic seating, I will be vexed.

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‘Be not content to merely look upon atrocities’: an explanation

This time tomorrow night, we should be flying to Dubai. A few days later, we should be landing in Kabul.

Given recent events, several friends have commented, and I am sure many others have wondered, about the wisdom of returning to live in such a country. The reasoning is something like that such move, if not unwise, is at least dangerous and possibly irresponsible, particularly given that we have three kids.

Well, maybe. But let me assure all the readers of this blog (and I know all four of you), that we have considered this decision. Not only us. The agency which is sending us, TEAR (www.tear.org.au) has considered also, considerably. So much so that it was not until three days ago that we got the final go ahead.

But TEAR aside, Julie and I have long discussed this move, and the possible ramifications. We have done the math years ago, and recently again. We are well aware that this time in Afghanistan could end unhappily, as could any of our previous times (and some of them did conclude with some major grief). But a bad ending is not sufficient criteria for turning aside from this journey.

‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him “Come and die” ‘. Thus said Bonhoeffer, and while he meant it in a spiritual sense – that is, the death of one’s private ego and aspirations – I think he also meant it literally. And as it turned out for Bonhoeffer, it was a literal and a spiritual command. I suppose it could turn out that way for us. We are ok with that. Shouldn’t anyone of faith be ok with that? Jesus, whom I follow, called people – anyone who listened – to abandon security and safety and the protection of their own life. Heck, we are going to die anyway, and who says my life is so tremendously significant that I ought to fiercely protect it? ‘Ahhh’, you say, ‘but you have children now. Fine to go and die for your dreams, but what about them?’ Good point. For what it is worth, the kids are very happy to be going back to Afghanistan. They are looking forward to the TVs on the plane, they tell me. And if I tell them to live lives of committed faith, but fail to do so myself, isn’t that some kind of hypocrisy?

That is not meant to sound trite, or cheap. It is simply that it is easy to turn away from atrocity and hardship: that is in fact the mantra for modern living – ‘take it easy, enjoy, relax, you deserve it.’ This is a particularly powerful message as you get older, when you are supposed to be settling down and end your youthful adventuring. ‘Let someone else go to Afghanistan’, is a message we have heard many times in the last months.

When we got married, Julie and I vowed to try to live lives of simplicity, pilgrimage and community. We have failed in lots of ways, but I think we are still mostly going the right ways. Now that we are parents, the equation has got more complicated, and it involves things like ‘responsible parenting’, but responsible family life was never meant to trump radical family life (thanks to Michael Duncan, and his excellent book, ‘Discipleship, Development and Pain’, for that notion).

I think what I am trying to say, is that if I follow Christ, then I have to be prepared to follow him anywhere. And I should be prepared to show that to my kids, my peers, my family. Afghanistan is not exempt. That doesn’t make God a tyrant and my faith onerous. I could say no, Julie could say no, and Jesus would be cool with that. But we are saying ‘yes’. As the Afghan proverb says, ‘Trust in God, but tie up your camel’. We will trust in God, and avoid men with guns.

Security, insecurity.

I met up with an old friend today at the Security meeting. He was with us in Mazar back in 2003. He is a rough Australian, an ex soldier, and fond of expletives. He has been the security officer for a big NGO here in Kabul for the last few years, and now on Thursday is going home. ‘Tired, stressed, frightened’ were his words. Though they were prefixed with other, ‘colour’ words.

 

As alert readers will know, in early August we travelled to Cambodia for a week of meetings with the Hagar International Board and staff. Phnom Penh, much like our first visit, we found to be restful and renewing: green, cool, cheap, wonderful. We took in the bookstores, a ride on the river, the quiet and the peace. This was followed by several days leave in Bangkok. In Thailand and Cambodia Julie and I both felt very tangibly the freedom of not having to constantly monitor security issues. It was freeing at a very deep level, and it has given me some pause to think about how in only a short time – 3 months that we have been back here – that the tension of insecurity has embedded itself in my psyche.

 

In Kabul we need to consider security all the time. Even if it is in the background, it never goes away: being frisked on entering banks and offices, shut and gated roads, the sounds of explosions, helicopters overhead, armed guards, watchtowers, guns on the streets, troops, scanning for car bombs, high risk areas, places to avoid, security alerts via email (3- 10 a day). It is wearying. In Taliban times, there was a front line and we knew where the danger was. And in 2003-05 when we were here, insecurity was largely limited to Kabul and the south. So we are finding ourselves in place that is familiar, but with new and difficult dynamics to consider. We need to work out strategies to cope with this. 

 

The best way so far seems to take short breaks from here every so often. However this is expensive and can be quite disruptive. It is disturbing too, that within only days of being back here from an excellent break, the tensions of insecurity can so quickly make themselves felt. Out on the Jalabad Road today, the scene of many carbombs and targetted attacks, I felt this nervous twisting in my gut every time a military convoy went past. I’d like to think God offers some protection to those who follow him, but the evidence is ambiguous.