Raising the flag on the first day of the ICRC Khost office being open
Before I met Pete I had been single for the best part of a decade. Things had got tough: I’d recently read The Secret and was starting to interpret the contents of breakfast menus as grim reminders of my rapidly declining fertility. It’s not that I wasn’t good at being single. I loved living alone. I had so much spare time I actually started a blog about all the books I was reading. My life was one glorious indulgence.
When a mutual friend introduced me to Pete in a bar I instantly had (a) a crush and (b) low expectations of that meaning anything. But I was proven wrong. Pete asked me out. He was smart, funny and humble. He worked for the Australian Red Cross as a Humanitarian Law Officer. He’d lived in India and Afghanistan and spoke Hindi and Pashtu. He didn’t just take me out to the same old bars; we went snorkelling and played politically incorrect Guess Who. He even met the shallowest requirements of the list I may have mentally drawn up after reading The Secret: he wore cardigans and reading glasses.
I fell extremely hard. All of my fantasies about being in love and having a relationship were actually happening. And it was even better than I imagined. All of a sudden life was like an indie pop song and best of all I felt good about my time in the single wilderness. I was right to have waited. To not have settled for the guy with the eating disorder from RSVP or the blind date who got a DUI on his way to the bar. And I didn’t care about my ovaries so much any more. This was IT!
Haji Qassim Tanai,the Branch President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Khost and Pete.
Until the single downside of loving a muesli eating, bleeding heart humanitarian who is in touch with his emotions and wants to contribute to making the world a better place revealed itself.
Pete was offered a career-making job in Afghanistan to set up a new International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in a small city called Khost, one of the most hostile and violent areas in the country and a region which the ICRC had not been able to settle permanently into before. The people there were in dire need of the kind of services The Red Cross can provide; tracing lost loved ones, transferring mortal remains, communication between captives and their families, and providing health assistance to people affected by the war. He would be gone for a year. He would leave in two months.
Pete had done a mission for the Red Cross in Afghanistan before. He’d spent a year and a half in Kandahar in 2007. He spoke the language, understood the culture and could answer all of my questions about what this might be like for us. But then, how can you really know what it might be like? To let the long awaited love of your life head off to a war zone? How much will the worry drive you crazy? And how many ice cream sandwiches will the loneliness make you eat?
Pete with Afghan Red Crescent staff and goat gifters.
There are no answers to those questions until you get into the rhythm of your Long Distance Relationship (LDR), though Pete had a plan I was unaware of to make things easier for me.
A few days before he left he took me out to dinner to the place where we’d had our first date and when I arrived home I was greeted by the most romantic scene I’ve ever encountered outside of the pages of a book. My coffee table was covered - heaving in fact - with identically wrapped gifts. “What are they all for?”, I said, my voice reaching a pitch only audible to hand-bag sized dogs. Pete ushered me over to take a closer look. There was a gift to open each month he was away. And a 13th gift to open that night.
Inside number 13 was an old, hard, brown box and beyond its rickety latch were hundreds of paper notes. They were hand written love letters, 365 of them. A love letter to read every day he was away. Even when his internet was as slow as the Sydney public transport system in peak hour - we would always be in touch.
At this point I was, to invoke Oprah, ugly crying. The work, the kindness, the fact that my gift to him was a set of Mad Men DVDs – it was all pretty overwhelming. The box also contained a red ‘in case of emergency’ envelope to open if I ever I got really sad. I opened it the night I returned from dropping Pete off at the airport. That night I was really sad.
I’m not a patient person. Pete’s absence creates a cycle of emotions from sadness to panic that can be tricky to control. Despite Khost being a very dangerous place – the guards at Pete’s compound don’t carry weapons (the Red Cross need to distinguish themselves as impartial, non-armed humanitarian presence in war zones – guards standing at the door with AK47s would make me sleep a little better at night but would contradict this a little).
Over time I’ve stopped worrying quite so much as I did in the early days. The stories from Khost in my inbox each morning are fascinating to read; Pete was recently given a goat by a family he helped – they ate it a few hours later for lunch. He has located missing sons and fathers of local families in Guantanamo and made it possible for them to speak (via Skype) to their loved ones for the first time in years.
And then there’s the simple stuff, like hearing how the locals reacted to seeing YouTube clips of tragic TV show (and cultural low point for America) Wipeout and the staff member who genuinely believes Australian Panadol has magical healing properties – he keeps the packaging even when the contents are spent.
There are some positives to LDRs too. The romance, the way it makes you appreciate your partner and savour their every word, the intensity of the moment when you first see each other again. It all tempers the absence of physical contact and the temptation to start reading self help books again.
Of course I could have asked Pete not to go. This isn’t the army – he has a choice about where his work with the Red Cross can take him. But I couldn’t. The kind of quietly compassionate person he is and the kind of difficult but satisfying work he does (without ever making a fuss about it) is why I fell in love with him in the first place.
I’m also extremely lucky that he gets a 10 day break every three months. Our first one was on January 27th and he returned to Sydney. It was quite honestly the happiest 10 days of my entire life.