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In the staid streets of Hastings...Eileen Masters.

In the staid streets of Hastings…Eileen Masters.

Aid worker in another world

When Eileen Masters volunteered to sort out accounting problems at Oxfam’s Kabul office in 1992, she didn’t know just what she would be letting herself in for. Her five-month stint in Afghanistan is described in graphic detail in her memoir, A Dangerous Place To Picnic. Nick Terdre met her to find out more.

Afghanistan wasn’t an entirely alien place to Eileen – in the 1980s she had lived for several years in Pakistan with her husband and two young sons, including a period in Peshawar close to the border with Afghanistan.

But while there were unrest and occasional incidents in Pakistan, when Eileen arrived in Afghanistan she found herself in the middle of a civil war, as armed groups battled for power. Kabul was under almost daily bombardment by rocket.

Just getting there was fraught with danger. Kabul airport was closed, so Zia, a programme manager from Oxfam’s Kabul office, comes by car to pick her up in Pakistan. Soon after crossing the border they are stopped by armed men and ordered off the road. Hiding her face, and her foreign identity, in her chador (shawl), Eileen fears they might be held for ransom – Oxfam doesn’t pay ransom demands – or simply murdered, but Zia, ‘Mr Fix It’ as she dubs him, presents her as his simpleton wife and they are allowed to resume their journey.

On arrival in Kabul they are twice more stopped by armed men – or boys, the second time – and twice more saved by Zia’s gift of the gab. Finally arriving at the office, an exhausted Eileen soon makes for her bed. But she’s not in for a good night’s sleep – suddenly the bombardment starts. “The buildings shake and the windows rattle as artillery shells crash down from the Kabul hills. Rockets boom, whistle, are momentarily silent, then explode.” She presses spare bedding against the window in case the glass is shattered into a shower of diamond-sharp razors. “Still fully dressed so I shan’t be embarrassed if they have to dig me out, my passport inside my underwear so they can identify my body, the office walkie-talkie in my hand in case I wake up under a pile of rubble, I try to sleep.”

The only woman on the Kabul office staff is Nafisa, whom Eileen trains up in book-keeping. Nafisa is smart and funny, and lucky to come from a more liberal middle-class family, who allow her to have a job. In Afghanistan’s male-dominated society, many women are hardly allowed out of the home.

Nafisa is curious about women in England. “‘Is it true that in England women don’t have to marry?’ ‘Yes, it’s true.’ ‘Is it also true that a woman can live alone?’ ‘Yes, my three sisters all live alone in their own houses.’ ‘They don’t have to marry?’ ‘No, they can marry or not, as they wish.’ ‘I wish I could stay unmarried and live alone.’ Nafisa sighs with the weary realisation that she will probably never achieve this simple ambition.” (As it happens, she eventually marries the man of her choice – with her parents’ blessing.)

“In the West Nafisa would have progressed a lot more,” Eileen says. “But, as a woman, she was held back by the culture.” She is wary, however, of being too critical, recalling that when she worked at Woolworth’s in 1964 – just 50 years ago – there were different pay scales for women, and a low ceiling on how high they could rise in the job hierarchy. Even now women in the UK are still some way from achieving equality in pay and opportunities, she says.

Eileen’s memorable first night turns out to be no exception. When the bombardment starts up during the day, she takes, for safety’s sake, to sitting under the desk as she checks through the accounts. Less than a month after arriving, with the office barely able to function, she decides they must move somewhere safer – on the landlord’s advice, she decides on Mazar-i-Sharif. The night before they leave, “One of the factions declares victory and his fighters go crazy. There’s a frenzy of gunfire and bullets rain down on the roof like giant hailstones. It’s the most terrifying experience of my life…My body freezes. I cannot move…I attempt to make my right hand clench into a fist. It refuses to respond. I sit in petrified immobility until the gunfire begins to slow and my instinct abates, releasing my body from its grip.”

In Mazar-i-Sharif most of their time is taken up in organising relief aid for some of the thousands of internal refugees fleeing the fighting. By the time that Eileen’s assignment comes to an end in November, they have still not been able to return to Kabul. She knows that, as a temporary visitor, she was in a privileged position. “I could escape,” she says, “but the others didn’t have that option.”

And that’s partly why she produced the memoir. “The book idea was floating around in my head as a story that needed to be told,” she says. “I see Zia and Nafisa representing millions of people all over the world whose daily experience is the destruction and horror of conflict. My admiration for Zia and Nafisa and all those who, despite their own circumstances of personal danger and tragic loss still manage to help others, is beyond words.”

And she wanted to bridge the gap between the harsh reality of life in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries and the safe distance from which we Westerners view these tragic events on our televisions. That dulling distance, Eileen says, seems to vaccinate us against the reality.

It took a while before the story could come out. First Eileen had to retire, then she had to develop her writing skills, partly with the aid of Hastings Writers’ Group. All the effort was worth it – her memoir gives a vivid and moving account of her short time in Afghanistan, seemingly a world away but in reality closely linked to our own.

 

Eileen coverA Dangerous Place To Picnic: An aid worker in Afghanistan, by Eileen Masters. Published by Dilliebooks, price £2.49.

Hastings Writers Group

 

 

Posted 20:26 Saturday, Nov 7, 2015 In: Hastings People

1 Comment

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  1. Paul Courtel

    An outstanding book. Eileen takes the reader to a real but extraordinarily different environment, making us feel fortunate to be living in a place not torn apart by civil war. Her bravery and that of her colleagues in their dedication to helping others is exemplary.

    Comment by Paul Courtel — Sunday, Nov 8, 2015 @ 12:27

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