Every humanitarian worker probably has an evacuation story, or a near-evacuation story at least, that we don’t talk about. It sits in our locker of strategic fog, and we don’t often speak of it. Because what is the point, really? It happened already. It is not a tale to regale at dinner. We were useless in changing the outcome. Whatever was our pain of leaving, it paled compared to the fate of those left behind.

The pain of evacuations comes in shards of things we remember and things we cannot completely forget. It comes in passing moments and finds life in terse sentences, where no explanation is offered or needed.

I know what you meant, my friend, when we met again in Geneva after last seeing each other in Dili, East Timor. I know why you went back to digging at your salad after telling me how parents rushed to UN grounds, desperate to throw their children over the fence. And you know why I cannot talk about the children who chased after us, so happy and oblivious to the pain that would come later. Why should children know of trauma?

Watching the news for the past two weeks has been the slow reliving of these shared pains. The rational mind simply cannot keep pace with the developments on the ground. A slow reel of a crash in motion that began with reports of U.S. forces leaving its key base in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, stealth mode. Equipment, food, and boots left in the wake of departure. In an alternate universe, there is another way to leave. With pageantry, medals and salutes that are long and formulaic, but provide some closure for both parties who have broken bread together. Guests and hosts saying a dignified goodbye.

Beautiful Sarajevo

My first job after undergraduate was serving with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a Human Rights Officer. I lived in Sarajevo, next to the old brewery in the Turkish Old Town where people queued for water during the city’s long siege. The mortar explosions on the old streets were filled with red tar that made them look like roses. I walked on these cobbled stones, with rose petals marking my way home, often with a freshly made, warm borek inside my coat from the friendly baker for dinner. I got my own happy meal, and I was happy.


Photo Credit: Dr. Bonny Ling

Sarajevo, ca.1999-2001.

Except one of our interpreters. No one could describe him as happy. As my memories of post-conflict reconstruction are laid over the cacophony of Afghanistan today, it is him I see from Bosnia. He never translated what I said. The meetings we went in together should be made into reruns and used for teaching materials on what to avoid in professional translation. He would deliberately omit. His sentences would be far too short. Meetings with him for interpretation assistance were stunted in conversation. They went nowhere, and we would drive back in silence.

One day, I confronted him. I told him I knew he wasn’t interpreting either what I said or what was said to me in meetings to arrange the return of ethnic minorities displaced by the conflict. I told him I had little confidence in him when we go into meetings together. His sullen face stared right back at me, a cigarette between his fingers. Long pause, but that didn’t stop him from blowing rings of smoke into my face. I wanted to scream. He eventually replied. He didn’t deny he hadn’t been interpreting. Quietly, deliberately. Choosing his words carefully, he schooled me in twelve words. And I reeled.

“It is because you can always leave, and I have to stay.”

Evacuation Bag

An evacuation bag is a normal part of field work. Evacuations are planned and drilled. Our bag-to-go sits next to the door, at attention, like a pregnant woman’s hospital bag. Yet, while we see the bag every day as a reminder of our privilege of leaving when things get dicey, that actual scenario of absconding abruptly without farewell is too painful to be a part of the everyday.

What are the chances that our local colleagues, neighbors, and friends can be left well and unharmed when all the journalists, humanitarian workers, and diplomats leave? This is the pain of leaving. Because we know with our heads the odds, but we cannot accept with our hearts. It hurts even if we had played no part in the grand geopolitical design.

In 2014, a former colleague from Liberia who later worked in the Central African Republic at the height of the country’s ethno-religious cleansing, where conflict still remains, would write at the end of her long day and ask about my humdrum family life. By then, I had traded fieldwork for a Ph.D. and childrearing. She said it helped her to stay anchored to another reality, the normality where children have stability and security. The ordinariness of happy childhoods, where kids can thrive and not live in fear.

I understood what she meant. Our mind is complex, and it has built-in mechanisms to help us cope with what we have experienced. In Harry Hongda Wu’s memoir about surviving as a prisoner inside China’s labor camps, there was a moving passage about how he and the other inmates imagined food. How they would speak of food in the most minuscule detail. Later, Wu learned this was how the mind coped as the body moved towards starvation.


We can dream in a different reality, literally, when we sleep. We put in the alternate reality that helps us in bits to cope with the pain of sudden departures when normality collapses. But seeing little ones hoisted over the barbed fenced perimeters of Kabul Airport has triggered waves of pain not unbeknownst to me, but they are more cutting now that I have children of my own. And I remember the dreams I had when I left East Timor and returned to the U.S. in September 1999 when widespread violence broke. I wrote these words then:

When I sleep, I dream of East Timor, of the East Timorese people…Last night in my dream, my teammate, another election observer from Japan, played soccer with the kids from the neighborhood where our team was stationed. I watched, cheered after them, and reminded myself to bring with me a real soccer ball for the children the next time I go to East Timor.

This morning, I watched the news, saw hell engulfing East Timor, and I am angry…I feel a sense of shame…A minute of gunfire can seem like an eternity. I cannot even start to imagine the horror that is going on right now in East Timor, where the militias are openly looting and killing people.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Indonesian troops block East Timorese protesters from getting too close to the hotel where three envoys from the European Union are staying in the East Timor capital Dili June 28, 1998.

The pain of evacuation is nothing like the pain of being left behind. Only my mind won’t even play along this time. Shame means there is no dream for deliverance, no sleep for the weary.

Damn it, my antihero interpreter. Of all the faces that can haunt me, of all the people I have met on the field, it is yours I see when I now turn away from the news. You internationals can always leave. And we locals have to stay. Your whisper gnaws at me, even twenty years later, and I have no clever retort.

But we are both older now, and let’s not pretend you are not pained by this too. Because we both worked in human rights and it doesn’t matter that we rarely agreed. This is no way to leave. The immeasurable, irreparable harm that this abrupt departure has caused is traumatic to all living it. To all witnessing it. And we will never be the same again.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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