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Human rights work in a conflict zone: Julieta’s insights from Afghanistan

Deciding to work in a conflict zone is a tough choice. On the one hand, recent graduates often become frustrated with office jobs, feeling like they are not making any actual changes for the betterment of the lives of those whose human rights are endangered. At the same time, organizations working in particularly unstable countries prone to civil conflict or terrorist attacks are always in need of staff members and highly skilled personell. On the other hand, those considering making such a career move expectedly worry about their safety and whether they will be able to cope with everything that living under constant threat of an attack brings. Essentially, it is a career move that affects not only you, but your family as well.

Taking these concerns into consideration, how do those who do end up doing human rights-related work in a conflict zone make their decision? What does working in a conflict zone really look like? Is it worth it? These are some of the questions we asked Julieta Nikolova, a Young Professional working for the EU Delegation in Russia, in the attempt to better understand this aspect of human rights careers.

Native to Bulgaria, Julieta decided to pursue her interest in Central Asia soon after graduating from her interdisciplinary Master of Laws (LLM) in Germany, having specialized in international security. As a result, she spent two years working in Afghanistan. She started in a law firm, and then moved to a non-governmental organization to work as a research project manager. More specifically, she was working on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda for Afghanistan. Her work was to follow, analyze and measure how far Afghanistan is progressing with regards to the promises the government made to meet certain targets of the global agenda and women’s and human rights in general.

Living and working in the human rights sector in Afghanistan for so long was both rewarding and challenging, Julieta says. She spoke to us about how she made a decision to go, what her life in Kabul looked like, all the challenges she faces and the rewards she got out of the entire experience.

Getting ready to work in a war zone: books, blogs and emergency manuals

Preparing well for your big move is absolutely necessary, even if you are only at the applications stage. Oftentimes things will move very quickly and you might be in a position to accept an offer within several days. We wanted to know how Julieta went through this entire process.

I: What inspired you to apply for a job in Afghanistan in the first place?

J: Before Afghanistan, I worked for the UN Women in Tajikistan for a couple of months. I wrote my Master Thesis on Central Asia, so I wanted to go and experience the region myself. My experience in Tajikistan was fascinating; I could travel and communicate with the beneficiaries of the projects, women and men, who understood that they could make a change in their society.
I had to go back to Europe and finish my studies but I already knew that I liked the field experience, and I was ready to risk with something bigger, namely going to a war zone. I liked the region, the people and the culture. I started searching and applying for different positions in local and international NGOs in Afghanistan, but in the end I decided to use my legal background and go to work in the legal sector.

I: How did the application process go?

J: Of course I made all applications online. The interview for my first job was via internet as well. When I received the offer, the rest of the administration-related work started. Sometimes, visa processes for Afghanistan can take time, so be ready for that.

I: How did your family react?

J: My family knew from the very beginning that I wanted to go to Afghanistan. They couldn’t understand this decision, and they were not happy about it either. But my family never restricted me in any way. It is true they were not particularly happy that I received a job there, but they didn’t stop me from giving it a try and fulfilling my wishes.

I: How did you prepare for moving to Afghanistan?

J: While I was waiting for the visa, I read a lot of blogs online about the country, written by both locals and by expats. In addition, I read a lot of manuals about what to do in emergency situations and I watched movies about Afghanistan just to get to know the country culture-wise.

Working in a war zone: “No one can prepare you for this”

Packed with book knowledge and the essentials, Julieta flew off to Kabul. Besides the obvious cultural shock, she also had to adapt to distinct conditions applicable to both her work environment and her daily routine.

I: What was your first impression when you came to Afghanistan?

J: My first impression was that in Afghanistan everything was different. I had to change my work habits. I had to adapt myself to the working way of my colleagues, clients and partners. For this, no one can prepare you, no books or blogs. You can either observe carefully and learn, or at some point it will become evident that you don’t fit in the environment.

I: What challenges does being in a conflict zone bring?

J: Well, to be honest, there are many challenges to living and working in a conflict zone. They start from how you do your work, because you are very restricted when it comes to going out for meetings, meeting people, travelling. Of course, at all times, there is a risk that something can happen to, whether you are behind the desk, at home, or going for a meeting.

I: And, are there additional difficulties you experienced simply because you are a woman and a young professional?

J: I would not exaggerate if I said that for a female expat, it is even more uncomfortable. I am a person who likes her freedom, and in a conflict zone, I had to give up a big part of it.

I: Did your education help you prepare for the work you did? What was your work environment like?

J: Education is important. I studied about different schools of politics, war theories, psychology of war and so on. Of course I didn’t need those in Afghanistan. But my degrees were important because they taught me a specific way of thinking, and this helped me a lot in Afghanistan. It helped me cope with both of my jobs.

When it comes to the work I did, the only thing I couldn’t do, was to be among the people, among these very women that need the government, Ministries and President to know about their needs. Nevertheless, thanks to the wonderful colleagues I had, I was able to have access to every piece of information I needed, to research the topics that were important to me and to write extensive reports.

I: In your opinion, how do professionals who live in conflict zones cope with the overwhelming insecurity? Did you experience any stress?

J: I think how one copes with the stress is very personal. There were many stressful moments for me, especially when I knew that I was lucky to pass the street where a blast happened just five minutes before it happened, and that many other people were not that lucky.

After such an event, you need time, time to reflect, to rest, to recover. For me, to maintain my contacts with people was important. I am a very social person, and although in a war zone it is not easy to be social, it is important that one meets people, talks and shares.

Julieta’s advice: “Be ready to realize your limits”

Living in Afghanistan was a real rollercoaster for Julieta but, speaking to her, one realizes she thinks it was totally worth it, despite the insecurity. Why is that?

J: To my mind, Afghanistan is really a special place, with different people, traditions and customs. Indeed, I have studied about war, politics of war, history of war, strategy, but never have I studied the social aspects of war. At the university, it was always just about the numbers. In Afghanistan, I saw the social aspects of war, how war reflects on individual lives, on families, on generations. I can say that it was worth going to the war zone even only for that because I could never get this experience and knowledge in any other way.

I: What advice do you have for human rights professionals who want to relocate to conflict zones to do humanitarian or human rights work?

J: Think about it! I have always believed that if a person wants to achieve something, there is a way. I believed that I can cope with everything. In Afghanistan, I realized my limits. And this was a positive exercise for me. We are not machines, we are human beings. We need to realize when we have reached our limits and then maybe step back. Otherwise, there could be very negative physical and psychological implications.

I: Last but not least, what is the most valuable lesson you learned from your experience?

J: I have learned a lot from my stay in Afghanistan. I learned a lot about my work, about myself and people’s nature. I do not know which is the most valuable. Maybe I have learned about the value of life.

There is no greater motivation to pursue a career path than getting to adopt a whole new perspective on your own life and what it is means to you, while at the same time investing your time and resources to help people who still put their lives at great risk every single day. Julieta’s inspiring story reminds us of that, and encourages us to work in the field. Making a decision to move to Afghanistan or another unstable country to do human rights-related work shouldn’t be too easy. After all, there are all these concerns Julieta mentioned to be taken into consideration. However, it shouldn’t be too difficult either, because it is the best way to put years and years of your human rights education into practice.

About the author

Maja Davidovic

Maja Davidovic is a Serbian-born independent researcher and Human Rights graduate. She holds her M.A. degree from Central European University in Budapest, and had previously lived and worked in Greece, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Maja mostly researches about women’s rights, child protection and transitional justice, and has been involved with organizations such as MSF and OSCE, as well grassroots initiatives. You may follow her on her newly-made Twitter profile @MajaADavidovic, where she aspires to open discussions on a variety of human rights-related issues.