It was surreal flying into Islamabad on the night of the 21st September 2012. As I traversed the world from Paris to Abu Dhabi to Islamabad, all the news was of Pakistan; ablaze with protests, demonstrators, bombs, gunshots, and killings and following the release of the infamous Youtube video denigrating Islam and the prophet Muhammad.
At every airport I thought an email would recall me, but no, and I arrived at 2.30 am, with no local money, nor an address to go to, only an assurance that someone would meet me. A little anxious, but I decided there was nothing to do but carry on, and stay calm! As it happened, within an hour I was in an unmarked car with a Pakistani man who showed me no identification, driving down the road in the early hours of the morning. I thought "well if this is a kidnapping, here goes nothing".
By the time he pulled up in front of some obscure house in the suburbs, it was 4 am and I was exhausted and beyond caring. Another man loomed out of the darkness and opened a gate and the car slipped up the drive way, gate closing behind me. Next thing I was ushered into a darkened house and was motioned to go upstairs.......into the most marvellous spacious bedroom, white-tiled floors, ensuite bathroom, double bed draped in mosquito net, and I was wished a quiet and polite goodnight!
In the morning, it turned out I was in the Islamabad Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) house. I met two lovely women - my French boss, and a visiting pharmacist from Paris. Mona immediately announced she was going to make scones. Scones! Who would have thought! Hours earlier I was flying into a veritable war zone, in a foreign and closed country, scared for my life, and next thing I’m sitting with two cosmopolitan French women cooking scones!
Two days later I arrive in my town, Peshawar; a seething mass of humanity, filthy streets filled with Pakistani men in long gear, and one or two women swathed head to foot in shawls. The streets I drove in on were crowded with brightly coloured buses and trucks, donkeys and carts, kids swimming in the filthy canals, shop fronts the size of a cupboard, jammed side by side, and all looking worse than a bad tip shop...I loved it!
I had joined MSF, consciously, because I had such a happy and fortunate life and wanted to do my bit for others, and, I recognise now, because I had an almost unconscious deep and unfilled love for adventure - physical, mental, and spiritual. Being here is brilliant. In terms of helping others, it ticks all the boxes. We work hard, ethically and professionally to fulfil the objectives of the mission. I can’t imagine any of us would be here if we didn’t believe in what MSF is doing. I’m the administration manager, and trust me, we consider every rupee we spend in the context of the mission’s goals, and MSF’s values, and account for the money with precision and transparency.
But make no mistake, its no picnic living in a nunnery (yes, we’re all women) for nine long months; being locked into the triangulated space between the house, office and hospital (all within 500 metres of each other, and we have to be driven, for safety); never seeing anything of Peshawar, or Pakistan. There’s no alcohol, no outside company, only spasmodic internet and TV coverage, and gunfire on most nights in the streets outside our house. One Saturday evening there was a militant attack on the airport just up the road from us, with missiles, 2 suicide bombs and gun battles during the night and the next day. The first missile shook the house and brought us out onto the front verandah; the force from the second, moments later, blew the hair off our foreheads and sent us immediately to the security room till it was all over. It was quite exciting, I can’t deny it, but it was enough to have me question my being here – was the mission worth it to me if it robbed my children of their mother – no. Needless to say, risk analysis is a constant.
And oh, the personal lessons are priceless! Nine months alone coping with exhaustion, fear, loneliness, boredom, frustration, with none of your close and intimate friends here to talk with, to spend time with, causes you to dig deep. And you don’t always find what you need, nor what you like, within. You can’t run, can’t hide, and can’t give up.
And with time to yourself, after the day’s work, what do you do for balance? Chat and laugh with your house mates, exercise as best you can, share the odd film together, enjoy the sunshine in the privacy of our roof terrace. I read, think, write in an endless circle – for me its about philosophy, the existence of god, and religion, and about the country we are in – its culture, economy, history, its pain, despair and spirit - and I try to put all the disparate pieces together. And I read the newspapers, talk with Pakistani workmates about their religion, their way of life, politics, arranged marriages, views on love, life, death.
Helle was here before, an older woman from Australia, who’s been with MSF for a long time. Every morning, as we drove the 300 metres to our office, I watched her notice something extraordinary, and comment on it - a smile on a local child’s face; a beautiful flower blooming for the first time; an over-laden donkey decorated with tinsel and bells. I don’t know if this attention to detail was a deliberate strategy on her part when we suffered for a want of stimulation, but from her I learnt the importance of taking notice, and valuing the small things in the face of limited opportunity. I’ve learnt something precious about living in the moment. And extrapolated from that the value of being disciplined, conscientious, and giving any task the time it deserves to be done well.
Saha, Crys and Amy are here too – our Syrian anaesthetist, Indonesian gynaecologist and Australian midwife. A recent Sunday, cold and raining, was a much welcomed and rare day off. We had just sat down to a hot lunch when their three phones rang for an emergency caesarean. They were up and out the door in an instant to bring a child into the world and to likely save a life – we are a hospital for high-risk pregnancies after all, and the women here are saddened, dismissed, old before their time, have each had many pregnancies, and are poor and poorly nourished. As my friends rushed out of the house, I could have wept for their willingness, their commitment, their brilliant skills in doing what they do, these gorgeous, powerful, intelligent and brave women far from home, rushing, together, to the aid of others, with smiles on their faces. Absolutely inspirational.