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Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War

Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War

by Marianne Elliott

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I am about to be left in charge of the office.

I'm not sure I'm ready for the responsibility, so I double-check with my boss. He reassures me.

"You'll be fine, Marianne. As long as no one kills Amanullah Khan, you'll be fine."

By midday, Amanullah Khan is dead.

Marianne Elliot is a human rights lawyer stationed with the UN in Herat when the unthinkable


I am about to be left in charge of the office.

I'm not sure I'm ready for the responsibility, so I double-check with my boss. He reassures me.

"You'll be fine, Marianne. As long as no one kills Amanullah Khan, you'll be fine."

By midday, Amanullah Khan is dead.

Marianne Elliot is a human rights lawyer stationed with the UN in Herat when the unthinkable happens: a tribal leader is assassinated, and she must defuse the situation before it leads to widespread bloodshed. And this is just the beginning of the story in Afghanistan.

Zen Under Fire lays bare the struggles of a war-torn region from a uniquely personal perspective. Honest and vivid, her story reveals the shattering effect that the high-stress environment has on Marianne and her relationships. Redefining the question of what it really means to do good in a country that is under siege from within, Zen Under Fire is an honest, moving, at times terrifying true story of a women's experience at peacekeeping in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

"This is an amazing book, kind of like if Eat, Pray, Love had happened in Afghanistan and the stakes were life and death."—Susan Piver, New York Times bestselling author of Wisdom of a Broken Heart

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Veteran human rights lawyer Elliott relates her two years in Afghanistan working for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and monitoring human rights cases for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Beginning with the assassination of a powerful tribal leader on her first day, Elliott endures much in the war-torn country, from personal upheavals and triumphs to professional disappointments and achievements. Precisely recording her emotional states, she explains how yoga, meditation, and journaling eased her trenchant perfectionism and provided an outlet for her anger, guilt, and sadness. After directing successful workshops focused on ending violence against women, Elliott builds confidence in her new surroundings and begins to find humor in the absurd—while discussing religion with an Afghan driver she notices a similarity to debates about football teams. She also highlights the behavior of her Afghan colleagues and officials: their kindness, courtesy, generosity, and genuine desire for justice prevail against great odds. She points to disillusioned foreign aid workers, overlapping humanitarian and military efforts, and protocol-heavy U.N. initiatives as barriers to real change in the country. At times there is an imbalance between Elliott’s professional role and her personal journey. Yet overall, her eyewitness report presents a solid view of Afghanistan’s potential. Agent: Laura Nolan, The Creative Culture (June)
From the Publisher
"Elliott reflects on the psychological and emotional challenges of humanitarian work and the importance of bolstering the spirits of those who perform it." - Booklist

"An activist's candid account of the hardships she endured working as a human rights officer for the United Nations....Elliott describes her experiences with an open-heartedness that is admirable
" - Kirkus

"This book touched my heart, soul and intellect. Marianne is vulnerable and fearless in offering this sincere account of her experience in Afghanistan. She asks important questions and does not shy away from complex issues with no clear answers. Marianne takes the reader on an intimate journey that is raw and inspiring. I enjoyed every minute of it!" - Hala Khouri, M.A., Co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World

"This is an amazing book, kind of like if Eat, Pray, Love had happened in Afghanistan and the stakes were life and death."" - Susan Piver, New York Times bestselling author of Wisdom of a Broken Heart

"I could not put this book down...Marianne's story plunged into my heart but made me see I can make a difference, too. There is magic in these pages." - Jennifer Louden, author of The Women's Comfort Book and The Life Organizer

"In Zen Under Fire, Marianne Elliott doesn't just settle for narrating the dangers and dramas of her time as a human rights officer in Afghanistan, she displays uncommon skill in exploring the complexities and contradictions inherent in working across cultures and a rare and soulful vulnerability about her personal struggle to forge balance and find love along the way." - Lisa McKay, author of Love At The Speed Of Email

"A stark and valuable glimpse into one humanitarian's effort to bring peace to the Afghan people and herself" - Shelf Awareness

"For anyone looking for a better understanding of what it's like to live in a war-torn country, Elliott vividly explains the trials of daily life and the challenges to change in the region. It is easy to be enthralled by the perilous and picturesque villages of Afghanistan, ... both horrifying and inspiring." - Whole Life Magazine

"Elliott provides an excellent guide to the war-torn region in Zen Under Fire, taking readers by the hand and leading them into a new understanding of a part of the world that Americans know too little about." - Chicago Review of Books

Kirkus Reviews
An activist's candid account of the hardships she endured working as a human rights officer for the United Nations. In 2006, Elliott arrived in Herat, Afghanistan, thinking she had finally gotten her "dream job." But Herat proved every bit as challenging as Kabul, the city where she had been stationed before. Just one month after her arrival, she was called upon to defuse an explosive situation between two feuding tribes that erupted after the leader of one tribe was assassinated. Elliott was soon mired in the thorny politics of both her job and the region. U.N. bureaucracy on one side and the machinations of desperate Afghan officials on the other made the task of getting humanitarian aid to people in need extremely difficult. For a while, Elliott seemed to thrive on the excitement created by coping with challenges that "seemed well beyond [her]." But soon, the accumulated weight of years working in war zones, including the Gaza Strip, began to take its toll on her. She suffered from insomnia, anxiety and despair, and a romantic relationship with a fellow aid worker slowly fell apart. Worse still, Elliott began questioning whether her tireless work was genuinely helping anyone. Desperate to regain her balance, she turned to yoga, a practice that helped her come to terms with the personal limits she had ignored in her zeal to make a difference in the world. Elliott describes her experiences with an open-heartedness that is admirable, but her memoir tells more than it shows and often reads more like an interesting field report than a fully realized book. An earnest but fairly unskilled rendering of a humanitarian worker's trials and tribulations in Afghanistan.

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Read an Excerpt


The Road to Herat

October 2006

I came to Afghanistan almost ten months ago, in the last days of December 2005. Before that, I'd been home in New Zealand for five years since my last posting in the Gaza Strip. Having seen the struggle for dignity and justice that characterizes daily life for millions of people around the world, I found it hard to relax completely into my comfortable life in Wellington. Not that I'd been wasting my time in New Zealand. I came home from Gaza with three goals: to find a way to work on human rights issues in my own backyard, to get healthy, and to find a boyfriend.

On the first point, my job with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission had been both a challenge and a success. I'd taken on a project bigger than many people thought I was ready for, developing a national plan for human rights in New Zealand for the next ten years. Despite inevitable stumbles along the way, I did a decent job of it. The Minister of Justice even thanked me for my "steadfast and dynamic" approach. On the back of that achievement, I'd been appointed to help the government of Timor-Leste-the newest country in the world at the time-to come up with its own long-term human rights strategy.

My health goals had initially been more modest: I wanted to quit smoking and stop wheezing. Life in Gaza had been stressful and I'd adopted a typical aid-worker approach to managing that stress. I smoked an entire packet of cigarettes most days, drank coffee and Diet Coke to get through long working hours, and drank cheap Israeli wine or vodka every Thursday night to loosen the grasping fingers of anxiety from my mind. I was slim but constantly strung out, and if my jittery mind didn't keep me awake at night, my asthmatic coughing did.

Back in New Zealand I quit smoking and joined the gym in the same week, hoping to see twice the benefits in half the time. What happened was that my natural ambition and controlling tendencies flourished in my exercise regime. Within eighteen months I was running ten kilometers every morning before work, teaching aerobics several times a week and paying almost obsessive attention to what I ate and drank. By the time I left for Afghanistan, my running partner Wendie and I had won our first ten-kilometer race.

During this time I also discovered yoga, though it was mostly too slow for my liking and I resented the fact that I didn't seem to get any "better" at it no matter how hard I tried. I avoided classes with too much sitting still or breathing because they made me jittery, but I enjoyed the stretch I could get from a faster style of yoga. All told, my get-fit regime had been a resounding success.

The boyfriend project hadn't gone quite so smoothly. Before returning to New Zealand I'd dated gorgeous men from all over the world and thought I was ready to settle down. My first boyfriend back home was a handsome, kind architect who was ready to make a home, get married and have children. He should have been perfect. But I was so busy-with work, exercise, and a full social life that often didn't include him-that I struggled to make time for him and he eventually gave up on me. A better match for me was the Brazilian boyfriend who lived in Timor-Leste. We had fun whenever I visited Timor for work, and went on scuba-diving holidays together in Bali and New Zealand, but most of the time I was free to maintain my relentless schedule. In the end he went back to Brazil and I stayed on in Wellington.

A year before leaving for Afghanistan, I fell in love with a handsome Maori lawyer. Though he was only thirty-two years old, he had been selected to lead his tribe and was negotiating on their behalf with the government for settlement of historical land claims. I found his passion for justice as attractive as his physical beauty.

On our second date he told me he was married, although now separated, and had two young sons. I had also married young and divorced soon after, so I wasn't particularly shocked by his revelation. The boys and their mother were living with her family in another city.

After we'd been seeing each other for about five months I helped arrange for him to attend a workshop in the United States on community-based democracy and consensus decision-making. I drove him to the airport, kissed him good-bye, and never heard from him again.

It took me weeks to accept this was his way of ending things. I preferred to believe he had lost my phone number. Eventually I found out through a mutual friend that he had returned to live with his wife and children. Though I respected his choice, I was deeply hurt that he hadn't even spoken to me about it. I decided to take a break from dating and focus on my career.

I was in my midthirties and near the top of my professional game. When I had come home from the Gaza Strip five years earlier I'd said there was only one job worth staying in New Zealand for, and I'd now done it. I was ready for a new challenge. I was also losing patience with what I saw as a lack of perspective in my home country. After five years of biting my tongue while New Zealanders told me that our public health system was "third world," I was ready to work again with people who were facing more serious human rights challenges. I started looking for jobs in Palestine and Afghanistan.

I'd been following the work of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC, or the Commission) ever since it had been established in 2002. Several of the Afghan human rights commissioners had been out to visit New Zealand and I was impressed by the work they seemed to be able to do under incredibly difficult circumstances. When a job came up working with the Commission and fifteen other human rights and development organizations in Kabul, I applied.

Afghanistan wasn't much in the news before 2001, but by the time I got here, most people had heard of it, mainly as a war zone. When I arrived, in December 2005, the government of Afghanistan, with the support of hundreds of thousands of NATO soldiers from countries as diverse as the United States, Turkey and Lithuania, was fighting the Taliban for control of the country. Warfare has changed in the past few decades, and the Kabul I landed in didn't look much like the kind of war zone I'd seen in movies.

The government forces and their international allies were visible enough, rolling through the city in armored personnel carriers with young men and large guns mounted on top. Their "enemy"-antigovernment groups including the Taliban-was harder to spot, and fighting, when it happened, could just as easily take the form of a roadside bomb as an exchange of gunfire. The war in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency and, as such, has included not only military but also political, economic, paramilitary and even psychological operations.

It's a messy kind of war, especially for civilians. In 2004, five staff members of Médecins Sans Frontières, a humanitarian medical organization, were killed while traveling in northwestern Afghanistan, resulting in the complete withdrawal of MSF from Afghanistan. Many more Afghan civilians were killed in the same year, which is precisely why human rights monitoring, the job I came here to do, is so important.


You might expect people who go to live and work in war zones to be thick-skinned types for whom flak jackets and rocket fire are water off a duck's back.

Not me. As a preschooler I would get upset when other kids got hurt. I get choked up at the sight of a proud elderly man resisting help on the train. Despite my thin skin, though, I've ended up working in some of the most notorious conflict zones of our time.

I was in the Gaza Strip for two years, working for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. My boss in Gaza was Raji Sourani, a famously resilient Palestinian human rights lawyer. The first time I burst into tears over a child killed by a "rubber bullet," Raji said, "Marianne, if you want to do this kind of work, you are going to have to toughen up." Over the two years I worked with him, Raji did his best to toughen me up, but when I left he conceded that he had failed miserably; I was as "soft-hearted" as the day I'd landed on his doorstep.

In Afghanistan I hoped to make a small but meaningful contribution to a peaceful and just resolution to one of the twenty-first century's major conflicts. After a phone interview, which was postponed twice because of changing curfews and security restrictions in Kabul, I was offered the job. On December 28, 2005, I landed in Kabul.

I had thought life in Gaza was tough. I was there in 2000 when the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted and Gaza was shelled nightly. I got used to the sound of Israeli military helicopters overhead and to the constant fear that our apartment building would be the next hit. I was on edge and angry all the time, yet I thought I had figured out how to hold myself together in the midst of war. I thought Gaza and Timor-Leste had prepared me for pretty much any situation. But nothing had really prepared me for Afghanistan.

For my first six months in Afghanistan I worked for a group of human rights and development organizations in the capital, Kabul. These organizations formed a network to do research and advocacy on human rights issues of concern to ordinary Afghans. I was first adviser to, and then acting director of, the network.

Life in Kabul was challenging. I've struggled to explain to people what it was like. I can describe the physical desolation of the city, the houses with rocket holes in them like gaping wounds, or pockmarked by bullets. I can tell you that in winter, when I first arrived, the streets were a quagmire of cold, slushy mud through which the long-suffering citizens of Kabul picked their way in rubber clogs. I can describe the women, the hems of their dirty, ragged burqas trailing in the mud, who held their babies up to the car window for me to see as they begged for money.

But it's difficult to convey the insidious contraction that creeps into a person's body, mind and heart when she is banned from walking in the streets because of the threat of being kidnapped. It is not the same as the big explosions of fear that I felt in Gaza when the missiles were falling on the city. In Gaza, once the Israeli military helicopters were gone, the city would return to being a place where I felt safe. I could walk the streets of Gaza City alone without any sense of threat or danger. The risk there came from outside, and although when it came it wreaked havoc, when it left I felt once again at home.

In Kabul it was almost impossible to feel at home. The security situation made it dangerous for Afghan families to welcome foreigners or khareji into their homes. I could visit my colleagues from work, but we went to some effort to disguise my coming and going so their neighbors didn't start spreading gossip that they were harboring khareji.

So when my contract ended and I was offered my dream job as a human rights officer with the United Nations, I was relieved to learn the job would be in Herat, a large city in the west of Afghanistan, rather than Kabul. I was reluctant to leave my new boyfriend, Joel, who I had met in Kabul. Against the odds, Joel had helped me laugh and feel safe, in a place where laughter and safety were equally hard to find. But his contract was ending and he too would be looking for a new job. Hoping Joel would be able to follow me to Herat soon, I took the job.

Herat is no walk in the park. In fact, the security risk even here means I am forbidden to walk anywhere. But at least there is a park where local residents can walk and I will be able to watch them from the window of the car, trying to absorb a vicarious sense of freedom.

The UN recruitment process is infamously slow. It took three months for me to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, and by the time I arrived in Herat I'd been in Afghanistan almost nine months. I was no longer a newcomer to the country; but a new job in a new city had me feeling almost as green as the day I first arrived.

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