Monday, February 27, 2012

Zen under fire

KIMBERLEY ROTHWELL - DomPost -  27/02/2012Marianne Elliott

Photo - Chris Skelton - 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."
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.
Rest of story at DomPost

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