Why I want to go back

Source: Ottawa Citizen

By Mellissa Fung, The Ottawa Citizen

A refugee girl with her mother on a Kabul street. I wanted to put a face on the war in Afghanistan, to help people back home understand it a little better, writes Mellissa Fung. (Photo: Bazuki Muhammad/ Reuters)

In Afghanistan, as in any war, there is terrible suffering -and people need to see it to understand, writes Mellissa Fung

I thought that when I had finished writing my account of my kidnapping -published last week -that I would finally be able to close a painful chapter in my life. A chapter that started in October 2008, when I was on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was working on a story for the CBC on the plight of internal refugees in the country, when I was kidnapped by a gang of thugs, driven to another province, and dropped into a hole in the ground, where I would be held hostage for the next 28 days. I was stabbed, assaulted, and survived mostly on the cookies and juice that my kidnappers brought in. I spent most of my time praying, writing letters to friends, and talking to my kidnappers, trying to find out what motivated them. I fought hard against the dark moments, when I thought I would die in there, and that no one would ever find me.

I was finally released after Afghan security officials arrested the family of one of my kidnappers and threw them in jail. It was an exchange -his mother for my freedom.

I was anxious to put the experience behind me, and I went to back to work almost immedi-ately upon my return to Canada. I delved into some good stories, and kept myself busy with different assignments.

I eventually decided to write the book to correct some of the misinformation that had been circulating about what happened, and because -as a journalist -I wanted to have a record of it for myself, perhaps to prove that I was moving on.

But even as I hit “send” on the final draft, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that this wasn’t going to be the end.

How could it be? As a journalist, the story I had set out to do in the first place -the one at the sprawling refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul -was unfinished. What had happened to the families I had met there? The mother of five, widowed by a rocket-propelled grenade; the shoemaker with the mud-caked feet, who had fled his home in Kandahar because the fighting had got too intense; the little girl with the dark brown eyes who peered at me from behind her mother’s burqa?

It was their stories I had wanted Canadians to hear -their struggles, their needs, their hopes. I wanted to put a face on the war in Afghanistan, to help people back home understand it a little better. Instead, I became the headline in Canada -the kidnapped reporter and her ordeal. It felt wrong to me, and I felt guilty about having usurped their story.

I think that’s what’s at the heart of my desire to return to Afghanistan. It’s hard for people to understand why I want to go back, after everything that happened to me, after so much was taken from me there. But for me, it’s almost a need to return, to finish those stories, because they are still important and they still need to be told. And it’s not just Afghanistan. It’s any conflict zone. Where there is war, there is suffering, and people need to see it to understand.

I think that’s what drives many journalists who make a career out of war zone reporting -the idea that a story can make a difference, even in the most harrowing of places.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the special dangers that might lurk in these places for female journalists. Lara Lo-gan, the CBS correspondent, recently spoke about her ordeal in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where she was subjected to a vicious and sustained sexual assault by a mob of Egyptian men. It was an incredibly brave interview and she was extremely candid in describing what happened.

One thing she said struck a chord, and perhaps helped me to overcome a reluctance to discuss my own assault.

All female journalists hate the idea of being vulnerable to something a male journalist might not be. It doesn’t seem fair, and no woman ever wants to be held back from covering conflict for that reason.

Indeed, women have a unique perspective in countries like Afghanistan: We can talk to Afghan women in a way our male colleagues cannot. Women in many countries are more open to talking to another woman; they feel safer, more comfortable. And how better to measure progress in a country than by talking to the women who have struggled to hold their families together in the midst of war?

Like Lara Logan in Egypt, I don’t want the horror of my experience in Afghanistan to define me as a journalist. I am not the story -I am a witness; that is my calling. I hope desperately that this one event, which I had no control over, will not forever define my work, or worse, who I am.

I understand completely why my senior producers at the CBC are reluctant to let me go back to any conflict zone, let alone to Afghanistan. It’s similar to how my parents feel about my going back. They went through weeks of anxiety and stress to help secure my release. And perhaps they’re afraid I might have a post-traumatic stress relapse if I found myself in the middle of another bad situation. I understand that as well.

But it’s difficult to heal completely when one incident makes such a mark on your career. I worked hard to get the experience needed to report from those places. The day I went to the refugee camp to interview those Afghans, I remember thinking that this was what I was meant to do. I may be more idealistic than most reporters -I blame that on some of my early mentors in this business -but even then, as I was walking back to the car from the last interview at the camp, I knew I had an important story Canadians needed to know about. It was one of those rare moments when I felt like I was truly following my calling. And then, in a split second, everything changed.

I still hope to return to Kabul some day, as a reporter. That will be the day when I can finally close the chapter on my kidnapping and assault. Because going back means I’m finally moving forward.

Mellissa Fung has been a reporter for CBC National News since 2002.

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