Real Ethical Dilemmas From A Horrific Event in Kabul

I left Kabul, Afghanistan, on 30th April 2013 [Postscript correction: 1st May 2013], twenty-four* hours after The Event happened. As I write this from my home in Singapore, I am plagued by conflicting memories and ethical dilemmas from an experience that would both scar and benefit me in the long run.

In an earlier blog titled ‘Social Theatre Questions and Peacebuilding Dilemmas’, I listed a few questions around ethics and advocacy. While many of those questions were raised by Helen Nicholson, James Thompson, Jenny Hughes and Michael Balfour in various drama literatures (see Applied Theatre: A Gift of Drama (2005); Digging Up Stories: Applied Theatre, Performance and War (2006); Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect (2009); Performance in Place of War (2009), etc.), they remained distanced from me as theoretical constructs, abstract notions that did not resonate deep within my core.

Today, my core has been shaken.

Hard as I might have tried to restore a sense of normalcy through familiar routines with friends through some of my favourite local delicacies and sporting activities, there are experiences that cannot be forgotten, memories that cannot be erased, feelings that cannot be denied. The effects of any volcanic eruption can be seen from the viscosity of lava outflows. The more acidic the molten lava, the steeper the formation of geological structures. In the same way, I am torn between revealing it all in an explosive manner and not revealing it at all, therefore keeping things under wraps. What are the chemicals bubbling from within me? How acidic are they?

Keith Horton and Chris Roche’s book Ethical Questions and International NGOs: An Exchange Between Philosophers and NGOs (2012) asks some important questions:

Should they [INGO and staff] attempt to provide emergency assistance even when doing so risks helping to fuel further conflict, for example? How should they manage any differences between their values and those of the people they seek to benefit? How open and honest should they be about their own uncertainties and failures? (p.1).

As an NGO worker and project manager for the last 5 months in Kabul, I had seen and experienced many things – wonderfully enriching but also demoralising and exhausting experiences – but The Event stood apart as an independent, but not unrelated, performance of security compromise.

A preview chapter by Conny Lenneberg in the same book aforementioned identifies “respect” as one of the ethical dilemmas in the INGO world:

It is important to first consider the question of what it means to ‘respect’. Is it possible to respect a person but not necessarily their beliefs? […] Are some beliefs so constituent of communal identities that trying to change them demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for their ‘dignity, values, history, religion and culture’? This is at the heart of this paper – how can social development practitioners with an agenda of social change respect a culture and yet still wish to challenge and change some attitudes and practices, which may be held to be fundamental to a particular culture? (ibid., p.194)

“Respect” is a big word, but not an unfamiliar Asian concept to me. I am, of course, reminded of an idiomatic expression that states: ‘Do not wash your dirty linen in public.’ By disclosing information, would I be disrespecting the Afghan culture that I have come to love so dearly? Would I be disrespecting the NGOs and other organisations that I had worked for and come into contact with? Would I be disrespecting my colleagues who had become close friends and brothers? What am I hoping to change? What am I hoping to achieve?

From the first-hand perspective of an NGO practitioner and witness-victim of a violent crime, I recognise the following tensions:

1. If I write about my experience, I am
a. Allowing people (future NGO workers?) to understand the immediate dangers and risks involved in conflict zones;
b. Putting my colleagues and friends who are still in Afghanistan (both locals and expatriates) in possible danger.

2. If I don’t write about my experience, I am
a. Complicit with the people and organisations that had committed the crime;
b. Protecting the reputation of the organisation(s) involved (and therefore sustainability and credibility of these organisations), as well as the safety of their employees.

3. If I write about my horror, I am
a. Exposing a crime; but by exposing the crime, I put Afghans in bad light, which if misconstrued, further exacerbates the media-projected negativity around Afghans (which might undermine all the wonderful relationships I have had, of which I had blogged about previously. See (i) Public Displays of Affection in Kabul; (ii) Chinese New Year in Afghanistan; (iii) Intimacy, Safety and Family: An Ethnographic Experience with Afghan Cultures; (iv) Kabul Police Check: A Question of Interrogation and Integrity; (v) My War with Fear and My Fear of War in Afghanistan, and My Encounter with an Afghan’s Selfless Love
b. Writing from an anthropological/ethnographic/firsthand account that could potentially benefit me from a researcher’s perspective, but by implication, involve other participants, witnesses or victims of the horror who might not want to be part of the re-telling of the story.

4. If I don’t write about my horror, I am
a. Silencing a large part of my experience and possibly never embrace the pain and recover from the trauma;
b. Sticking to a previous PhD plan (see thesis questions) that has little contextual relevance to my lived experiences, and will therefore produce a PhD that has no significance or value for future research.

Self-interest is always in conflict with a collective interest.

Adapted from the tagline from Phil Earle’s book Heroic, I confess:
Sometimes the fiercest battles are fought at home. Especially in our minds.


PS. *In my earlier posting, I wrote forty-eight hours. It was actually twenty-four to be exact. Time just froze.

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