Monday, October 18, 2010

A Good Life

Linda Norgrove
attribution unknown

I've been thinking about writing about Linda Norgrove since last week. Her courage and her good work resonated so deeply in my thoughts. With a happier outcome of her kidnapping, she would surely have been counted an Uppity Woman on this blog. She did amazing things, all over the world in her brief 36 years. Sadly though, so many media accounts, instead of focusing on her amazing good works, have focused on the tragic mistakes that led to her death.

I can't even being to process just how brave Linda Norgrove was. 2010 has been a very bad year in Afghanistan. Deaths in the military have certainly risen. But, in recent months, it's especially been bad for humanitarian workers. In July, Shaun Sexton, a 29 year old security guard working with her at Development Alternatives, Inc., was killed along two Afghans and a German, in DAI's offices in Kunduz. In August, Dr. Karen Woo, who had been providing ophthalmological care to local villagers was killed along with nine other aid workers when gunmen attacked a village. Against this backdrop, Norgrove persevered until her kidnapping by Taliban militants in late September.

Linda Norgrove was a dedicated and very experienced humanitarian aid worker. She appeared to have a great love of learning. After earning a doctorate in ecology, she was completing an MBA with the University of Warwick, through "distance" learning, while she worked in Afghanistan. Norgrove knew Afghanistan very well, having worked with the UN there from 2005-2008 before returning to become the Jalalabad-based Regional Director of Development Alternatives, Inc. in 2010. After earning her doctorate she had first worked with the World Wildlife Fund before joining UN projects. She had worked in Peru, Mexico, Laos and Uganda, in addition to Afghanistan. She was fluent in Dari and Spanish and was learning Pashto. At the time of her death, Norgrove was directing DAI's implementation of the USAID project for rebuilding businesses and infrastructure in Afghanistan.

The best piece I've seen on Linda Norgrove was by Trudy Rubin, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Rubin met Norgrove this past spring, while traveling in Afghanistan. She describes a photo she took of Ruben:

"I have a photo of her dressed in a long, black skirt and loose tunic, her hair under an enveloping shawl, as she stood beside several Afghan elders. I recall the respect those grizzled men showed her as she discussed their new crops, which had replaced opium poppy fields."
~ Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer 

As Rubin points out, Norgrove's projects were successful while those of many others failed. One of the reasons for her her successful work with the Afghani people was that she  really lived among the Afghan people. She lived in a simple villa, not a razor-wired UN compound. Instead of driving around in Humvees with a string of guards, she went with a driver and a guard. She wanted to be able to freely communicate with the local people and while she realized they couldn't offer guarantees, the tribal elders in her area evidently really did try to safeguard her.

At the time of her tragic death, those same tribal elders were evidently bartering desperately for her release. They wanted her back, safe, because she had done so much good. However, intelligence reports had suggested that the Taliban militants holding her might either execute her or take her into Northern Waziristan (Pakistan), where there would be little chance of rescuing her. Reportedly, both locals and the US forces in the area were simply astonished that the Taliban had kidnapped "such a good person". I am still not quite sure that I comprehend their astonishment, since if you're going to kidnap someone to barter with or make a big display with, clearly taking someone who is a prize makes the biggest statement. The Taliban may be a group of barbarians but they're not stupid barbarians.

It really doesn't matter much how she ultimately died, whether because of a Taliban suicide vest or a misguidedly tossed US grenade. She's dead and the people who loved her, both at home in Scotland, and in the villages she helped, are much the poorer for her loss.

Days after Norgrove's death, there were a lot of announcements (see one example) that the Afghan government and the Taliban are in negotiations, that the Taliban are trying to reconcile with the Kabul authorities.

I really want to believe that the Taliban will be done mutilating women, stoning people to death, and kidnapping brave and goodhearted souls who wanted nothing other than to do good for the Afghan people.

I really want to.

Once again, I look at the past decade in Afghanistan, and even the role the US has played in the country for the past thirty years and I'm just so saddened. For the Afghani people, and for Dr. Norgrove's family and for all the aid workers who will look at recent months in Afghanistan and think no matter how much they want to help, or how much good they could do, that it is just not worth the risk.

There are a lot of things that I don't like in the Qur'an or in hadith. But one thing that I'm pretty certain of is that if we were to ask What Would Muhammed Do? it wouldn't be kidnapping female humanitarian workers, dragging them all over Afghanistan, doing who knows what to them in the process, and ending up, no matter who detonated what, responsible for the death of someone who had only done good for this planet.

I hope that the Taliban are as God-fearing as they say they are.

Because if they are right and there is a God, they should be.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment