Back from the borderlands

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This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

It is difficult to write about ending a mission while on mission. It is difficult to write about taking a break when the breaks one is able to take are too short to notice, too quick to be able to unwind. Working in isolated and dangerous locations takes a toll on a person’s body and mind. We come here to help people, but forget about taking care of ourselves.

I am guilty of this, of not making time to rest and re-energise. I think this is important, even in the midst of a demanding mission. It makes it easier for us to re-enter “normal” society after the mission is over, to meaningfully reconnect with those we love and who love us. I have been continuously working in so-called “deep field” locations for the pastseven years, with fluctuating levels of remoteness and insecurity. I count myself fortunate that only one person I care about was killed. I have had several friends kidnapped for extended periods of time; some of them only a day or two after enjoying a lovely evening together, with music, laughter, and dancing.

I speak with my family, my parents and my sister, about once every two weeks. I don’t speak with my non-aid worker friends on the phone anymore, but we exchange messages on social media and messaging apps. I speak with displaced communities, fellow aidworkers, journalists and donors almost every day. It is my business to manage refugee camps and coordinate my organisation’s activities with our partners. While doing this, I have had several serious romantic relationships fail.

I’m writing this now at 0338 hrs from another isolated place in the north eastern desert of a middle eastern country. It is not dangerous, but we are quite close to ISIL territory. It makes me wonder about the relative sense of insecurity that I felt when I was recently on holiday in a western European capital city. Perhaps I have become paranoid. Perhaps I felt there what it’s like to be seen as a minority, a foreigner, someone who is ‘obviously’ not‘from’ there, even though I am quite privileged compared to many people in the world.

I spent a week in this western European capital city. It did not seem sufficient to disconnect from work. Often I take two weeks off between rotations… but when work is so intense that you forget about meals and lose noticeable kilograms on every mission, it becomes difficult to reintegrate into the normality of everyday routines in a cosmopolitan European city.

::one week later::

I have now completed this field mission. There is nothing in particular I’d like to do except rest. Again I’ve taken a week off, lodged myself in a fancy hotel in the nearest ‘safe’ capital city and take long walks daily. I do not talk to anyone, only the minimal interactions needed to get food. I want to be alone, to regroup with myself, but I don’t know how. I feel a bit lost. I’m searching for a meditation centre to sit and re-centre myself. In a week I’ll be back at work, in headquarters, where things move at a different pace. It is also where I have some friends that I can talk to about my experience during this emergency. But I need this protective bubble, this time alone, before I begin interacting with friends again.

I imagine it as a driver having to shift from fifth gear to second gear while driving very fast – the car’s engine would probably blow up, or grind to a halt. This is the reason some people say it is best to get off the bus a stop or two before your destination. It is also the reason our organisation allows staff to take a week off after a tough mission. The problem is, even with the best of intentions, not all of us know how to use this time to truly begin to decompress, let alone recharge.

It is difficult to write about ending a mission while on mission. It is difficult to write about taking a break when the breaks one is able to take are too short to notice, too quick to be able to unwind.


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