It was 2013 when I visited Afghanistan; Finn and Paddy were 3 and 2 respectively. I still have the letters I wrote to them before I travelled – only to be opened in the event that I didn’t return. I’ve never been brave enough to read them since. Even as I write this, I can feel the emotion rising and swirling in my chest. Why I went, what I saw there. The fact that I bottled it all up in order to uncork and unpack another time when I felt more mature and more able.
I entered motherhood with my familiar baggage of crushingly low self-esteem. It settled on my back like a dull sickness when I was about 6 years old and never left my side. I don’t know how much of it came from our tempestuous family life troubled with alcoholism and violence, or the sullen atmosphere that enveloped our corner of the island steeped in conflict; most likely a tangled mess of both. All I know is that I rejected every aspect of my life in Ireland and in doing so cut off facets of myself.
The journey to Afghanistan started the process of reclamation. It was profoundly cathartic to meet women from all walks of life living, thriving and scraping by in a tumultuous mess of human misdeeds, conflict and tragedy. Of course I was drawn to that ravaged place by my own scarred upbringing – the flinching fascination with war. The one I will never forget is Nouria, a beautiful sad light shining out of her deep brown eyes, she had been raped by her father at a tender age and forced to bury the resulting stillborn baby in the back yard. Utterly sobering. A reminder that there are levels of suffering that make our own lives look like a picnic. In a selfish sort of self-obsessed panic I came back to the UK and thought about adopting her, but wiser folk reminded me that this would be an impossible task.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, I was seated at an intimate talk in Hastings with Dr Hakim and Maya Evans, a local Labour MP who has visited Afghanistan approximately 15 times since 2010 and who was kind enough to take me on my life changing trip. Hakim is the irrepressible supporter of the Afghan Peace Volunteers; an organisation that he lives and works with that promotes peace across Afghanistan. He explained in touchingly simplicity how the planet is experiencing a relationship crisis; a breakdown in our understanding that all humanity is connected. When one suffers we all suffer. I was reminded of the thing I knew unshakeably before that dark ache settled on me at the age of 6 – that love is the most important emotion we can ever hope to feel.
You can read more about the Afghan Peace Volunteers here:
You can read more about Maya’s Voices for Creative Non Violence here:
You can watch the film I made in Afghanistan here (containing interview with Nouria and others):
You can read the blog I kept during the making of the film here:
Let me be clear here; I didn’t know the Troubles the way some did. I didn’t lose a loved one, a limb, a life. But there is no war that affects only a few. Scars ravage deeply, tearing at the psyche of a nation. No-one looks out their window at their red, white and blue painted street, UVF flags fluttering innocuously on the breeze and thinks, ‘I’m safe.’
This most recent trip, I went back to have a careful, lingering look at the council estate I lived in until I was almost 7 years old. I remember it so clearly; playing with other children in the mainly car free streets that snaked round the houses, their kerbs painstakingly marked in the colours of the British flag. I hadn’t a clue what it meant. I didn’t understand the complexities that marked our estate as the property of the local UVF paramilitaries. But I can remember with a clear metallic taste in my mouth how heavy the air weighed around all of us, my family very much included. A patchwork of wispy recollections are knitted together in my mind; the sweet sound of John Denver’s country melodies, the vibrations through my chest of the Lambeg drum, the adults dancing and swaying drunkenly past me as I played with my dolls at their feet. The clinking of glasses as they poured more Vat 19, the tribal beats of the drums louder until I thought I would burst, great gusty lungs belting out old classic songs that harked back to a different and simpler time.
I remember the walk home from school, the short bike ride to the corner shops, the area of green where I planted some apple seeds, our patch of garden where my mother dug up potatoes, the holly tree at the front of the house, making mud pies with cow parsley sprinkled on top. A house burned out because there were informers living there.
We just didn’t know anything different. That was life, and I thought the whole world existed with that dense, dark atmosphere.
I was able to visit Northern Ireland this summer for some further probing into The Troubles, pondering how the conflict has shaped me alongside the stark, brooding landscape and slate grey roaring skies. One powerful morning I spent on the beach as my children sledged the sand dunes and I felt the elements full in my face; blustering, pummelling, crashing around me, with loud emotive wind borne cries - full of equal measures of hope and despair. It is a powerful place.
It's no wonder then that I've always been drawn to gritty, difficult places; coping with the births of my children by travelling to Afghanistan to make a documentary about the lives of women living there; thriving amongst the detritus of war and corruption. Living and working in Doha, Qatar, I eschewed the glitzy sanitised shopping malls for the smells and grime of a place I fondly nicknamed 'Little India'; where the many thousands of Indian workers would gather together to set up street corner restaurants, mend shoes and vend elaborate fabrics.
It's been 26 years since I've lived permanently in Northern Ireland and that's given me enough distance to return and investigate the environment with some objectivity. The trouble with residing in a place is that you can normalise the unacceptable - you no longer see what an outsider would see. The inherently threatening, intimidating imagery that surrounds during years of conflict can become invisible to weary eyes. During my visit I wanted to gain an understanding of what we all looked at as we walked the streets; going to school, the shops, church. The landscape on top of the landscape.
I hired a black taxi driver to take me the length of the famous 5 kilometre long Peace Wall in Belfast; separating staunch Protestant and Catholic areas, providing an uneasy peace in the form of an edifice towering higher than the Berlin Wall and covered with the markings of locals and tourists. What does this wall say? Protection? Defence?
For me, of course, it says fear. A haunting quote from a local child is printed on one section, 'We all love the 11th Night.....I like to carry the banner and the flag.' Another generation growing up to love the oppressive presence of hundreds of flags fluttering lightly on the breeze.