Dad’s Litmus Test

My 12-hour layover in London is coming to an end, and I’m about to board for Istanbul with a final leg on to Kabul. Here, I’d like to share “Dad’s Litmus Test” that was first published by Huffington Post earlier this month.

Before my father passed away, he asked me the same question before each of my trips to Afghanistan. “Afghanistan,” he’d repeat back to me, mulling it over like any father might and then after a pause he’d say, “Do you really think that’s necessary?”

My answer was always yes, along with a quick synopsis of the film I was working on and the footage I hoped to bring home. It was never a question of how necessary the trip was to me, but rather the simpler matter of following each story where it led.

As I prepare to return to Kabul in a couple weeks, my dad isn’t here to ask me about it, and yet I find myself posing his old question, seriously weighing it, perhaps for the first time. Do I really think this is necessary?

In the weeks leading up to this trip, my feelings swing from eager to anxious, and sometimes even to fearful. Why be afraid now, when I’ve been there before and worked safely? Maybe in some small part because I lost my father, who always represented safety and security in my life. Maybe because his passing makes me more acutely aware of my responsibility to provide that same stability for my own daughter. And more practically, maybe because Afghanistan in October 2013 is in countless ways not the same place I traveled to in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009, and this even this past spring. It is at the far end of yet another decade of war. Its citizens face a terrifyingly uncertain future. The outlook has changed for many Afghans from one of cautious hope for a better future to one of grim acceptance that this last painful, protracted period of violence and political upheaval may still not yield freedom from oppression. They are tired and scared and in all too many cases, more desperate than ever.

The risks feel greater to me than they have before. With just about a month left in the fighting season, U.S. commanders are planning for the worst — expecting enemies to try to achieve the objectives that have eluded them thus far. I’m not there to cover the fighting, but to document a ray of hope — my film is a documentary about a private girls’ school that is challenging centuries-old social traditions and taking a small step toward women’s equality in a traditional, paternalistic village. In many ways, the school represents bold aspirations for the country: a community coming together to support a shared goal; a cooperative spirit between citizens of differing backgrounds and genders; and a tentative consensus that education extended to girls might ultimately benefit the children, their families and their village.

As the mother of a six-year-old girl who was born entitled to a quality education, I have a profound respect for the people who are making the cause of educating these Afghan girls their own. In my previous filming, I’ve had the privilege of documenting students learning to read and to write, studying languages and math and religion and also learning that they could speak freely, ask questions and expect to be treated with kindness and respect. I was able to capture the dedication of the teachers at the school — some of them almost as young as their students — as they tread the fine line of trying to both empower the girls in their care and prepare them for the realities of their world. I was in the unique position of being admitted to discussions and meetings that would typically be off-limits to a journalist. As each filming opportunity arose, I felt the need to capture as much of the story as possible while such generous access was available. With the political climate shifting constantly, I knew it could be rescinded at any time. Our circumstances had, in fact, already changed. On a previous trip, Principle Pictures director of photography Kevin Belli had done the filming while I conducted interviews and coordinated. On this trip, Kevin isn’t allowed inside the school walls because he is a man, and I will have to take over the camera.

The worries of having a man within the school’s walls are, sadly, founded in a grim reality. Attacks on girls’ schools have been on the rise for months. Just since May, there have been six brutal attacks against schoolgirls — assaults ranging from a remote-controlled bomb explosion to mass poisonings through gas attacks and drinking water contamination. One school was burned to the ground. Recently a local news agency reported an incident as a “new anti-girl education incident” — the chilling wording a reminder that these events are becoming regular headlines.

In addition to targeting schools, extremists are also waging war on foreigners — especially Westerners. Not long after our arrival in April, the Taliban perpetrated the year’s deadliest day for foreigners in two separate incidents that left six Americans dead — including a young diplomat delivering books to a school. The Afghans I work with were visibly shaken by what such attacks say about the strength of the Taliban movement. “This is exactly how it started last time,” our translator told us, referring to the lead-up to the 1996 Taliban takeover of Kabul.

Already knowing the American troops are leaving steadily between now and the close of the combat mission at the end of 2014, people are closing ranks. Sources who helped me in the past are unreachable. Some have fled the country on student visas, then jumped the program to seek asylum — frantic bids for freedom that ultimately halted the program for others who might have used it to escape. But these are desperate times and far too many Afghans are finding that any collaboration with an American is coming back to haunt them.

Seeing their fear and holding my breath every time there was unusual activity in the street outside or a helicopter in the sky above the school, I have had to ask myself again: “Is this necessary?”

Despite the real changes in the political and security climate in Afghanistan, I think part of my heightened sense of foreboding has to do with recent events that have touched my life in more personal ways: A colleague was kidnapped while working in Syria this past November, and every passing day brings greater concern — and pessimism — about his wellbeing. A young family friend suffered a heart attack and is suddenly gone, leaving four children without a father and his wife alone to raise them. A friend from my teens — one who was never anything but kind and fun-loving — suffered a breakdown and snapped, committing an unspeakable, irreparable crime. My father is gone. All around me, the evidence speaks of lives more fragile than I’ve wanted to believe, even close to home. And I can’t help but worry about my own risk.

Ultimately it is my daughter, Isabelle, who inspires both my greatest fears and my commitment to the story of the Afghan girls’ school. My awareness of how vulnerable we all are seems to grow steadily stronger as my little girl grows and begins to venture further out into the world. And the weight of my responsibility to be here for her — to raise her with my own hands and provide the security she needs and deserves — hangs heavy over my decision to travel to a war zone. That said, the world I want to raise my child in is a world where every girl can go to school or get a job or book a flight to Kabul if she wants to. And I think my very small role in ensuring that world one day comes to pass is in telling the story of a girls’ school that is an anomaly — that has to fight to keep its pupils safe, that faces great uncertainty, but that nevertheless is full of a hope and promise.

Not long before he died, my father told me that his one regret in life was that he hadn’t taken more risks. It may be that one day I will regret taking too many. But in the case of my decision to go to Afghanistan now, I know my choice passes my father’s litmus test: It is necessary.

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