Postcard From The Edge: Shelley Thakral On Working Through A Humanitarian Crisis

Shelley Thakral is a humanitarian aid worker, working with the UN World Food Programme in Afghanistan.

I was making coffee on the morning of 9/11 with CNN on in the corner of my Washington DC apartment. The news, just before 8.45am, said that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. In my head, I thought perhaps it was a light aircraft, a Cessna? I cycled into work, the same as any other day.

As one of the BBC’s Washington producers, I worked the breakfast shift, so I normally finished after 1am (New York time) and the night before we had covered the US reaction to the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Afghan politician and military commander. On that morning, I saw several missed calls from the office so decided to head in. Twenty-one years later I still have the skirt and top I wore that day – partly nostalgia for who I was in my career and partly a reminder of how normally the day began but how it would also shape my life.

I arrived in Baghdad two years later with a very different wardrobe. I finally understood combat trousers, where you could line your legs with gadgets and phones. I never thought I would become someone who gravitated towards places where history was unravelling but when I look back on the last 25 years, I don’t think I would change a single day. I have just turned 50, which prompted plenty of self-reflection on where my life had taken me and posed the question of what wisdom could I pass onto people starting their careers? “You still have half of your life ahead of you,” a dear friend reminded me, and it made me feel like I could still be this productive and adventurous when I am 80. Now is the time to flourish and live every day in the best possible way.

Shelley Thakral of the UN World Food Programme, meeting families in the Badakhshan region of northern Afghanistan.

One of my favourite postings was working in Iraq in 2003 for the BBC. The job was tough. We witnessed suicide bombings and a scale of unimaginable hardship for so many Iraqis who endured a brutal war that cost millions of lives. You remember the smell of burning human flesh, the images of body parts strewn across the road and the cries of broken families whose lives will never be the same again. You don’t go home and forget this. We went to our temporary home in Baghdad and created stories to remind the world what living hell these people were facing.

I did suffer my own trauma and bouts of PTSD from years of covering violent acts against humanity. The trigger now is people who are aggressive and an unsafe working environment; I have a low tolerance level for bad-mannered colleagues. There is always a risk of loneliness and no life balance. These are signs of burnout and, once they set in, can be tough to shake off. The sacrifices are huge also – I have missed family birthdays and friends’ weddings, and I struggle to plan beyond a month in the future.

How do you recover from this? The intensity of the work we do is often too great to step aside from and although I did try to have a “normal, settle down in one place sort of life”, when I joined Facebook in India in 2018 to head policy programmes I realised that it was not for me and left two years later. I am not an endless meetings person. I needed to be back in the field as close to the story and people as possible.

You need a support network wherever you are, especially if you live in a country where home is a heavily guarded compound, with high walls and loops of barbed wire keeping you safe from the unknown. For some, time out is the gym, running, yoga, playing football, backgammon or playing the guitar. For me it is walking, Netflix and meditation.

It is lovely to see people come together over dinner, catching up over trays of selected bites. My favourite conversation tends to end up being about what TV shows people are binge-watching? Or where are you planning to go for your next rest and recuperation?

When I left the BBC after 17 years, I joined the Gates Foundation – it was a huge leap leaving a family I had grown up professionally with over the years. But it was an incredible experience to brief Bill Gates on the media he was about to meet, talking about the importance of vaccines and explaining to him, in the 15-minute drive to a TV studio in New Delhi, flanked by his close protection, why doing a live show with Bollywood actor Amir Khan is a smart move to help influence our strategy on the value of vaccines and saving lives. You get very little time with Bill on these missions, so I had practiced my talking points a million times and knew to be prepared for everything. What if he asks me about medical clinical trials in India? Or wants to know how many children die from diarrhoea every year?

Shelley Thakral of the UN World Food Programme, meeting families in the Badakhshan region of northern Afghanistan.

For the last couple of years, I have been working with the UN World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian agency in the world, and I still get goosebumps thinking about what my teammates do every day. We save lives. We give food to people. And we change their lives because we help women impacted by decades of conflict, the global pandemic and climate change. So many mothers tell you they had to skip meals to make sure their children had food to eat and we help give them skills training so they can sell their tailored items in the market. I have been based in Bangladesh covering the Rohingya crisis, Yemen, the Southern Africa region, and now Afghanistan.

My boss in Afghanistan, Mary Ellen McGroarty, is an amazing Irish woman who stands up for the rights of women and girls – her passion is what drives us all and her humanitarian spirit is why we do what we do. These are the colleagues I love working with. Every day, no matter how difficult the challenge is, they push us all to find solutions to make sure people do not go hungry.

So how was your day? I left our compound at the crack of dawn to catch a WFP plane to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan and travelled for four unforgettable days through the Wakhan Corridor, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. We passed through small villages to see food distribution sites, nutrition clinics and speak to women. My female travel companion had brought her brother on the mission, her mahram; because now under the present de facto regime women must travel with a male relative as an escort and the Taliban has also recently issued a decree saying women need to cover themselves and wear the veil. We had travelled together before, back in December 2021, not so long ago, but even in these last five months the country has slipped further into darkness. She sat close to me and whispered: “I hate the idea of wearing a burkha. Why should I have to hide in this cloth prison? The fabric is so hot and uncomfortable, I can’t breathe.”

Some women later told me they can’t afford to buy a burkha – these are families who have no jobs, no income and can’t find food to feed their children.

In the evenings we have dinner all together; the cook has made kebabs, local tea with salt and my favourite is his chunky chips! The hospitality is overwhelming and the green tea flows as we sit and talk about our day under open skies, next to snow-capped mountains. There is even talk of snow leopard sightings in the surrounding areas. This is my work-life balance; seeing the world, having adventures, helping people and learning from our hosts.

I often think back to the morning of September 11, 2001, when I was cycling through my neighbourhood in Adams Morgan, DC, on my way to work. I knew about the thud of a plane hitting the Pentagon, six miles away, and heard the horns of traffic trying to escape the city. My eight-hour drive to New York in a rental car let me see clouds of smoke layering the Manhattan skyline. This altered the course of my life and led me to where I am today. I wouldn’t change a single day and I cherish everyone whom I have met along the way.

Shelley Thakral of the UN World Food Programme, meeting families in the Badakhshan region of northern Afghanistan.

LESSONS FROM A LIFE SPENT WITNESSING HISTORY UNRAVEL

  • I learnt how to listen to people who just need to talk, rant and get it off their chest
  • I learnt how to sleep in my clothes, sitting up, anywhere at any time
  • I learnt how to cook
  • I learnt how to say “Where is the bomb?” in Arabic
  • I learnt how to live every day like it’s your last
  • I learnt how to let go of anger and forgive people
  • I learnt how to keep in touch with my family and friends
  • I learnt how to ask for help
  • I learnt how to say “I am sorry, how can I help you?”
  • I learnt how to try new things and never give up

Photography by Shelley Thakral. Taken from Issue 69 of 10 Magazine – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – out now. Purchase here.

@sthakral @shelleythakral @worldfoodprogramme

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