Zen under fire

21:36, Feb 26 2012
Marianne Elliott
Diagnosed with an acute stress condition, Elliott said it was useful, to name the anxiety she’d been feeling.

Marianne Elliott is vacuuming. It's such an ordinary thing for her to be doing, seeing as we're here to talk about the extraordinary things she's done in her life. Outside, builders are clambering about the bones of her new writing and yoga studio, perched on a rise above the cottage she shares with her partner, Lucas, and some flatmates, in Paekakariki. A light rain falls. Trains screech on the rails down at the station. She puts away the vacuum and makes tea.

This is the most settled Elliott, 39, has been since forever. At 26 she went to Gaza in her first posting as a human rights lawyer in the field, monitoring the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers. She saw the brutality of the conflict firsthand at what are known as flashpoints, or places where Elliott delicately puts it, "Palestinians express their resistance to the occupation". She saw children shot. She attended autopsies where the victims had allegedly been tortured. "The work was gut-wrenching," she says. She was also involved in a case in which a mob had broken into a police station and lynched two Israeli soldiers. "To see that kind of thing is very hard to process."

There were nightly shellings when the al-Aqsa intifada broke out in 2000. She coped with it all by smoking, drinking cheap Israeli wine and dancing all night with her colleagues. "And I got really, really angry."

After two years, it was time to come back to New Zealand, and Wellington, where she held more human rights jobs, most significantly helping the New Zealand government and the government of East Timor develop their own human rights strategies. She got fit, quit the fags and took up yoga.

But five years later, she was drawn back to working in a conflict zone - this time Afghanistan, where she took a posting with a network of organisations undertaking human rights work in Kabul, and after nine months, with the United Nations in Herat in western Afghanistan. As well as documenting human rights cases, she facilitated workshops for local prosecutors dealing with such cases, and in the final six months of her stint, established a UN office in the isolated and mountainous Ghor province. The final part of her mission, here at home in Paekakariki, was to write about her experience in her book Zen Under Fire.

"Near the end of my time when I was leaving Afghanistan, [I told] one of my close Afghan colleagues [that] I felt I was leaving without the job being finished, which obviously it's probably never going to be finished. And he said to me: 'Well you know your job isn't finished, your job is now to go back to where you come from and communicate what you learnt here and share your story. That's the job of people once they've been here.' I took that to heart really."

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Elliott's sense of wanting to serve the world formed when she was a child. "I've always been very susceptible to the suffering of other people," she says. "I notice it, and I feel it and I can't ignore it."

She grew up on a dairy farm just north of Tokoroa in Waikato, with two sisters and a swag of close cousins. Her earliest memories are of living in Papua New Guinea, where her parents were missionaries, and she credits them for influencing her.

Her father, Ian, is chairman of the Prison Fellowship New Zealand board, an organisation advocating for prisoners and their families. It's work Elliott says is "not particularly glamorous or a socially acceptable cause. They live in rural New Zealand near Tokoroa and there are plenty of people who think prisoners get what they deserve". Her mother, Margaret, is the "kind of woman in the community who notices if someone is sick, if there was a new mother who didn't seem to have any support".

Elliott's dream had been to work for the UN but, as she writes in her book, her role as human rights lawyer took her on a journey she hadn't expected, as she sought to find how she could help anyone find justice in a country "full of impossible situations and diabolical choices".

For example, she was faced with a dilemma when a young man came to her office saying he had converted from Islam to Christianity, and as a result, his father was threatening to kill him. He wanted Elliott's help to leave the country as a refugee. Should she give him some money and help him to flee the country because his life is genuinely in danger? Or is he pretending to convert to Christianity to secure himself a ticket out? If she helps him, does she risk getting scammed, but can she live with it if he's genuine and she doesn't help him?

"That was a particularly intense example, " Elliott says. "His life was literally at stake. That puts you in the position that the choices you make have to be right, so that's a pretty heightened situation."

She faced problems like that every day. "Whether it's a matter of a woman coming to you who has fallen in love with somebody and her family want her to marry somebody else and she wants your help to get to Kabul. You believe fully in her right to make a choice as to who she marries, but you know that once she gets to Kabul there's unlikely to be much of a future for her, at least a safe future. So choices are always difficult.

"[There was the] realisation pretty early on that you don't give up [trying to find justice], but you're unlikely to see in the course of a one or two-year cycle in a country, or even 10 years, a lot of these things resolved. You have to find elements of the process that you think are useful in themselves."

One of the complexities involved the UN itself. Her role as a human rights advocate seeking justice for victims was often at odds with the role of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations whose job was to secure stability for the country. Often the picture we get in New Zealand is misleading.

"We see a story about international forces including New Zealand Defence Force doing this great job of reconstructing; building bridges and rebuilding orphanages and it's a very nice story and it makes people feel good about having our troops there when the reality is there . . . is a lot of concern about the effectiveness of having international military personnel doing what is essentially civilian reconstruction work.

"I don't think in New Zealand that debate has been explored by the public in much detail. What are the implications for people receiving those services - what does it mean if you live in an orphanage that had foreign soldiers coming and help reconstruct it if somewhere not too far away there are anti-government elements who consider those foreign soldiers to be the enemy and a legitimate target, and now your orphanage is associated with it?"

The intricacy of the situations, further complicated by a tumultuous relationship with her then boyfriend, a fellow humanitarian worker, and the restrictions on freedom of movement by UN staff - she wasn't allowed to walk anywhere in either Kabul or Herat - slowly eroded Elliott's mental health.

A counsellor diagnosed her with an acute stress condition, and it was useful, Elliott says, to put a name to the anxiety she'd been feeling.

"Those moments when you feel like you're really gone, and you're never going to be yourself again, there's something restoring when someone says to you, 'this is actually the response of your psyche and your emotional centre to stress that goes beyond what it could cope with, and it will be restored one day'."

Practising yoga and meditation helped her find her way back, and also the realisation that just talking to people who were vulnerable to human rights violations was helpful.

"Simply listening to somebody who's telling you about something truly horrible that's been done to them, knowing that there's little, if anything, you can do to remedy the situation, I came to the view that listening in a way that gave that person a sense that somebody took their situation seriously and didn't think it should have happened to them was value in itself."

Listening and documenting their cases for future trials was all she could do for a man who came to her after two of his daughters had been kidnapped by a local warlord, and for a group of women and children who had been displaced by fighting between tribes.

Back from Afghanistan for four years, Elliott is still tempted, from time to time, to work in the field overseas again. "But I've made the choice to stay. I got home and was coming up 36 and I had been working in the field on and off for 10 years. I wanted to give a relationship a chance, and spend more time with my family, and it's difficult now to work out how I can reconnect with that work which I love, and stay based here. I haven't quite figured that out yet."

* Zen Under Fire by Marianne Elliott, Penguin, $34.99.

The Dominion Post