My War With Fear and the Fear of War in Afghanistan, and My Encounter with an Afghan’s Selfless Love


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Kabul had been a planned destination since the start of my Ph.D semester in Manchester. I had decided to examine drama/theatre as a tool for social change as an alternative intervention to the current military peacekeeping strategies in a war zone, specifically Afghanistan. I had largely been inspired by local Singaporean Dr Wee Teck Young’s (@Hakim) work in Bamiyan (see Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and Our Journey To Smile, which made me ponder on my own “calling” when I went into the prison to teach Drama (non-curricular), Lifeskills (curricular), and English (curricular) since 2004, and discovered how meaningful and transformative it had been for me, both as an educator, and as a person. Having gone back to a secondary school to teach for 1.5 years, the itch to answer a greater “applied theatre” call became too strong to ignore. Hence, I applied to research my Ph.D in an area that challenged me — war, refugees, IDPs, etc.

Within the last two weeks, I had gotten a visa from London for £70 and the tickets to Kabul had been bought. But the recent 6th Dec 2011 tragedy in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar threw me offguard. A series of terrorist attacks during a religious festival, Ashura, had killed 80 people and injured more than 160 on the same day in 3 different cities.

The Singapore Embassy had disapproved of my going to Kabul because of the chaos; even the Deputy Director spoke to me on the phone to warn me that should anything happen to me in Afghanistan, help would not be rendered because there are no Singapore missions there. The nearest 24h help centre was in Karachi, Pakistan.

Furthermore, my university did not approve of my going because I have not officially submitted my report to the Ethics Committee. But I didn’t feel the need to; after all, I was going as an independent adult on a tourist visa to visit a friend. And during that intended time, I was hoping to talk to NGOs, Universities and other local government agencies that might show interest in collaborating with me, without which, my application to the Ethics Committee would be harder. So I’ve called it a pre-research visit. I wasn’t there to collect data. I wasn’t going to interview people. I was hoping to make connections and contacts. That was all.

But that phone call from the Singapore Embassy shook me to my bones. Fear gripped me. I was so paralysed by the ominous fear of death that I cried myself to sleep for a few nights (They called me on Friday 9th Dec, and I was supposed to fly off to Kabul on the 15th). I woke up the next two mornings visibly shaking in my body. I had never felt so much fear in my life. It was a life and death decision which I wasn’t sure I had enough courage to make.

It was aggravated by the concern of people who cared for me:

1. “Do you really have to go? Can’t you make your connections from the UK?”

— No, I have tried. Many don’t respond via emails. I suspect it’s their lack of internet-savvyness, or perhaps the lack of a good internet service provider. Or maybe even the lack of proficiency in English that made communications “inaccessible”.

2. “Can’t you wait for a better time?”

— Yes, I guess I could. But I have already made plans with my Afghan friend who is going to be back in Kabul in December for a vacation. Without him, I wouldn’t dare go there myself. Besides, he was fluent in English, is a trusted friend (even though I had only met him at Dr Wee Teck Young’s talk in NUS 1 month prior to my leaving for the UK), and he was a civil servant. So, the answer is no. Besides, Afghanistan has been at war for years. How long should I wait? My PhD is only 3 years long, and the 2nd year is my research year. So again, it’s a no. I can wait, but my friend can’t. I can wait, but my PhD can’t.

3. “Can you consider another post-war country? Cambodia? Timor-Leste?

— Oh my God!!! Are you going to ask me to change my topic? Well, yes, I could consider another country — but I don’t want to. I will only do so if the University gives the red light. But I want to do what I feel “called” to do. How can we create new knowledge if we are not even allowed to go to war zones?

How will I know if I don’t try, right? But of course, this “try” is a one-time offer. There can only be 2 knowns – (i) you survive, or (ii) you die. Is the try worth it?

In my fear-ridden world, I never really articulated the above-mentioned answers. I felt like I was Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, so wrought with anguish and delirium that nothing made logical sense. I couldn’t think at all. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t consumed by the fear of dying.

As days neared, I spoke to a few more chosen friends and shared my fears. I really didn’t want to die. It was so real, I won’t know how to express it. I felt like crying whenever I saw them. I wanted a hug, a kiss, or whatever to make me feel loved and supported from anyone at all! I was that desperate — I needed to be understood.

All I know is that the army training I had received never prepared me for a real war. What an irony! Now, I am going in as a civilian/tourist, yet crippled by a fear I had never experienced. I suspected that experience was as close to “post traumatic stress” as I could imagine; this time, I think it’s “pre-traumatic stress”.

The psychodrama-counsellor side of me said, “Great! You know how to empathise with people suffering from PTSD now!”

There was no therapy to be had. Believe it or not, I psyched myself up, breathing in, and reinforcing good, positive thoughts. I must admit listening to “The Secret” DVD (on the Law of Attraction) which gave me much comfort, amidst some Christian songs I used to sing, notably Bobby Michaels. I soon realised that it’s the external voices that trigger crippling thoughts in my mind, and from there, it became an automatic trigger system to the rest of my body. When I shut down those negative voices (of concern and of logic, no less), I was able to think better, and breathe deeper.

Suddenly, email replies came back and the people whom I’d like to connect with in Kabul showed interest in meeting me. That greatly encouraged me. Soon, my decision was made. And here I am, in Kabul, having already won the war waged within me.

Having spent two days in Kabul thus far, and having met another Singaporean woman working in an NGO here (she is only 21 years old, I think!), and speaking to my Afghan buddy on the situation here, it is clear that the media have to justify their presence in Afghanistan — and any “tragic” event becomes blown out of proportion; tragically, there’s all we, in the outside world, ever see or hear about on Afghanistan: suicide bombers walking around the city, or that it is a training school for suicide bombers! It’s a stereotype that needs to be broken. By the way, women are also treated with respect here.

The moment I stepped out of Safi Airlines plane and into the customs at Kabul International Airport, their small wooden counters reminded me so much of Batam, Indonesia. Even the dusty roads and buildings resembled those of Batam’s. The traffic condition was slightly less chaotic than India’s, but the only difference, sadly, is the numerous number of security guards and soldiers at every turn and in front of buildings. They carry rifles. Whenever we stop the car to enter a building, we are frisked and checked. The whole city is like a gigantic army camp. But once you enter through those barricades, behind those high concrete walls and barbed wires are buildings that run “normal” businesses.

Life goes on as normal. Poor children play in the streets. They sell balloons. They wash cars. Not a lovely sight, but it’s “normal” — if you know what I mean. It’s not what the world want to see in Afghanistan; they’d rather see it through violent images. Or a romanticised version of children flying kites. But it’s true. People here lead rather normal lives, like what I had seen in streets of Batam, or India. In fact, I saw more beggars when I was in Varanasi, India, than here in Kabul. Yes, there is extreme poverty, but I sense a dignity that very few would admit to. A dignity of a people who are resilient, a people who are unafraid, and a people so generous and all-giving — especially seen through the gestures of my Afghan friend Omar — that it is a culture, if lost, would mean the loss of a civilised world.

Omar once said that they would protect their guests at the expense of their own lives; he was talking about dying for me. I was speechless.

The Bible verse that I remember states:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:3, KJV)

Regardless of one’s faith, I have never come that close to undestanding this verse in today’s political context. Omar personified a love for a friend whom he barely knew. As an Afghan, he bespoke more of love, than of war; of compassion, than of hate; of life, than of death. It’s a paradox, but it’s true. I feel very protected here. He makes sure everything to the smallest detail is well taken care of.

As the saying goes, the only thing to fear is fear itself. For there is no fear in love.

P.S. I have my mom to thank especially, for believing in my work, and relatives and friends who are keeping me in prayers. Your love pushes me on!

(Migrated from another blog,