In the interests of our veterans, I am departing from my usual blog to review Mellissa Fung’s Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity. This is one book that brings to life what our mission in Afghanistan means to our troops. Why they return and why they believe in its success.
Mellissa Fung is a correspondent for the CBC’s The National. You’ll remember she investigated the reasons behind veteran Steve Dornan’s protest against VAC and her persistent on-air questions showed the disconnect within the Review Board whose members have no veteran or combat medical background. I’m sure that broadcast helped Steve win his nine-year fight to get a disability pension from Veterans Affairs Canada.
In October, 2008, Mellissa was on assignment in Afghanistan. She left the safety of the Canadian base to pursue stories about the local people. As she left a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, young armed Taliban men snatched her from her interpreter, stabbed her in the shoulder and hand, and carried her off into capitivity for 28 terrible days. They took her blindfolded somewhere into the mountains and forced her to live in an underground hideout with only one hole to access it. The area tunneled out left little room to stand or lie down. One of her captors raped her. She expected to die there but fervently prayed for release every day. During those 28 days she survived on cookies and juice the kidnappers brought her to eat.
In Under the Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, Mellissa recaptures her ordeal but, in an interview following the release of her book, admits that writing about what happened to her wasn’t the cathartic exercise she hoped it would be. The images and smells are stamped on her memory for life.
What is amazing is the dogged determination she demonstrates throughout her captivity to survive the rancid dirty conditions of the hole and to remain an independent human being. Her spirit gains respect from the young leader of the group and they exchange unexpected views about their beliefs in God as she continually repeats the rosary while her kidnapper lays down his mat and prays to Allah. In the aftermath of her release, she is left pondering whose God was answering their prayers.
Through the isolated despairing days, she shares thoughts about her family, her upbringing, her friends and dear love for another journalist. I smiled when I read how she eavesdopped on adult conversations as a child because she wanted to know more than what she was told. I had done the same thing, so perhaps this is the first signal of a journalist in the making.
What also stands out is her sense of guilt for putting all those she loved through the worry of her capture. She determined that the kidnappers were expecting to negotiate a ransom for her release. No money was ever exchanged but eventully she was exchanged for the release of one kidnapper’s mother after a raid on his home near the Pakistan border by Afghani Police.
As you read each page, you live with her fear: Will she be murdered? How will they kill her? When? Yet the closer she comes to death, the more she challenges her kidnappers with persistent questions. She refuses to succumb to their bullying threats. And in that spirit of resistance, she also finds the grace to forgive them and to see them as flawed simple human beings caught up in their own troubled world of which she represents the “invader.”
In such isolation, Mellissa has time to think and reflect, not only on why she is a journalist– specifically a war correspondent–but also on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. In her Acknowledgements, she writes: “And to the members of the Canadian Forces–those who’ve come home, those who haven’t, and those who continue the mission in Afghanistan–and their families, you are all the true heroes. You inspire and remind us every day that the world can be a better place. We cannot thank you enough for your sacrifice.”
Mellissa, it is only through courage like yours that our armed forces are recognized for the earnest and dedicated purpose each soldier brings to this mission’s mandate: to help create a safer and better world for those under repression. Our soldiers interact with the local people. They see the poverty and despair. Often, the political outcome is not why our men and women serve. For most, it is for this loftier ideal that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives for others.
And the correspondent who tags along with them is there to give public recognition of their military service and in Mellissa’s case to bring her viewers closer to the victims of such wars: the why behind the political rhetoric.
Her concluding memory is of a little girl in a pink and black scarf that she observed outside the refugee camp the day she was taken hostage. She writes: “And I hoped I would be able to come back someday, to what might be a better, safer place, not just for me, but more importantly, for children like her.”
This is a five-star read, one that everyone can experience up close and personal. You can order it at amazon.ca.