Happy New 2010!

 
 
 

The Road to Oxiana or
Happy 1388



2009 brought many developments on the job front for me, but for the Schneider-Fuchs family, the year was entirely overshadowed by the death of my Omi Mechthild. Taken ill in the summer, she spent some four months in intensive care, unable to communicate and growing weaker every week. When she died on 25 October, I was surprisingly unprepared. You think you know what’s coming; your head agrees it’s for the best; you accept that she has had 84 years of a fulfilled life. And yet, the enormity of the loss can literally be breathtaking - I miss her every day.   

Surprisingly, maybe, the year nonetheless ended on a happy note with a real family Christmas and  guests from Syria and Norway. I will be spending New Year’s with Oussama in Beirut - my third one in the region in four years. My Arabic still isn’t quite up to my desired level, but I remain m3a amal w fi mazaj jeid said - hopeful and in good spirits.

Remembering Omi Mechthild

Mechthild Maria Magdalena Frische née Fuchs was born in 1924. The oldest of 8 siblings, she spent her entire life as focal point for her family. The doer, the shaker, the maker, and yet the carer, the feeder, the provider - she was hunter and gatherer all in one. 

When I was young, I loved my Omi because she took me for walks, did my homework with me, made fruit salad with quark (quite literally the only thing she knew to make in the kitchen), and told me stories about European nobility. She fueled my interest in history and my skepticism about religion, was the first to make me aware of political power-games and conspiracies, aroused my curiosity with a steady flow of postcards, pictures and stories from her travels all over Europe, prevented me from ever even questioning whether women can have powerful careers, and im-pressed me with her dedication to humanitarian causes and sincere distress at the injustice of the world.

She also made me blush with embarrassment when she loudly lectured strangers in public (“god, is there nobody in this store who knows how to treat customers properly?”) or called me “Conny-Maus” in front of friends during my teenag
e years. She would not budge from her fixed views of right and wrong (sometimes quite outdated) and was stubborn as an Elk caught in the headlights. It drove me crazy when she gave me another set of pink pyjamas or expensive patterned tights that I would never wear. And she must have despaired whenever she tried to beat one ounce of fashion sense into me (“even if it’s your favourite T-shirt, red really doesn’t go with pink...”). I thought of her dress-sense as old-fashioned and stiff and it never occurred to me to consider her beautiful. Today, I know that she was extraordinarily elegant and following the latest fashion all throughout the 50s and 60s. And her photos reveal an attractive woman with an acute awareness of her femininity - and a little bit of vanity...

Her life always fascinated me. Teenage years destroyed by the war. Post-war conventions and family obligations that tied her down in an unwanted marriage. Eventually the liberating decision to follow her own path, against all odds. Death of another fiancee. A powerful job, the decision to put financial independence and best care for her children above any considerations for her personal happiness. It was only later in life that she grew softer; acknowledging that her choices had been tough, making up with the Catholic church that had abandoned her as a single mother, and spending time she never had for her children with her grandchildren. I never grew tired of asking questions.

And yet, as I stand in her empty flat, surrounded by the remnants of her life, it feels like I never asked the right questions, never asked all the questions to which I need answers now. I read letters she wrote as a 20-year old, as a 30-year old, as daughter, as lover, as mother. There is much I recognize in myself; so much I never saw in the 70-year old whom I grew to know, and I feel cheated for losing not just my grandmother but a confidante I never met.
32 years it took me, but with Omi’s death I know that I will never again experience those feelings of complete and utter happiness and carelessness that only children know. Of course I will be happy - I better had! But feelings of happiness will forever be tinged with the consciousness of loss: she is gone, I cannot share this with her, I will never speak to her again, I will never know what really happened. My friend Sylvia says she has similar feelings “in reverse” about the birth of her son: all these moments of happiness, and yet some vague but omnipresent sense of dread that something could happen. I guess both feelings are okay - part of growing up, part of life. Consciousness - or even fear - of loss is what makes you appreciate what you have. As such, I value this pain. 

There is really only one thing left that I can do for her now, and in that spirit here is a fitting quote from my book of the year 2009:

“What do you want from me if I do go back?” “Just one thing,” she says, raising her head and looking me straight in the eye. “I want you to remember me. If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody else forgets.” Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

From ShAAm to VOOrburg to KabOOm

Back to the little else that will be remembered about 2009. My year began in Damascus, known as “Shaam” by the locals, where I set out to finish what I had started in June 2008 when I had moved there for a couple of months to work
With Mehyar, Omar
and Ausama
 
on my Arabic. The plan was to become an Arabic-speaking delegate, so my lessons were filled with useful humanitarian vocabulary such as “I am an economic security specialist - do you know how to plant sorghum seeds?” or “There are indications that the attack was non-proportional and that war crimes were committed.” As this was the time of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, I managed to impress many cab drivers by contributing big phrases to heated discussions, yet my ability to place a simple food order continued to be lousy. My Iraqi friends Mehyar, Ausama, and Khalida ensured not only that there was always somebody to order on my behalf or to cook for me - they also offered me places to live, in the Iraqi neighbourhood Germana and the Palestinian “Camp” Yarmouk, and the feeling of being at home.
I gained some vindication from the fact that after all the months of studying, I passed the ICRC’s Arabic language test in February. In the end, however, I opted against a continuation of my career as a pure humanitarian and for a different path altogether: ably advised by my life and car

Sofia’s Posse in The Hague

 
eer coach Melissa (who seemed to have flown in to London especially to watch the drama of me having to take a decision between Options A, B, and C over the course of one day), I accepted a short-term assignment with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or rather, in the illustrious Dutch suburb of Voorburg. I started in early March, just missing the major announcement of the year that the Court was issuing an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir, the first time that a sitting president has been indicted by the ICC. Nonetheless, there were enough other events to keep us busy - an examination into post-election violence in Kenya and the accompanying media attention, the first trial before the Court of a former Congolese rebel commander, and of course a visit by Angelina Jolie. My dear ELSA friend Sofia introduced me to half of my future colleagues before I even arrived in The Hague and continued to visit from Goma throughout the year.
Raphael and
his two ladies
 
Other welcome visitors included Kit from London, Tanja and Raphael from Duesseldorf, and ICRC Naile en route to Palestine, as well as my parents. The Hague also proved popular for “I’m just in the vicinity for coffee or lunch” meetings, for example with Michael fresh en route to L.A. from Liberia or ELSA Sussi from Helsinki. Since the world is so small, it didn’t really surprise me that Sofia’s good friend Lina was married to Kit’s good friend John, nor that Lina was one of my new colleagues, nor that they were both lovely and great friends to have.

For eight months, I lived a wonderfully civilized life with a beautiful flat in the centre of town; great colleagues and friends on the “11th and 12th floor” in particular my dear partner-in-crime Eugenia; Sushi dinners and Sunday brunches at Bagels and Beans; beach activities and Bikram yoga; Queen’s Day festivities; trips to Amsterdam for visits to museums, a special dinner or a Sudanese concert; girls’ nights out; weekends away; and riding my bike in all weather (and when it rains in Holland - boy does it rain!). That much of a regular life style proved just a little bit too much for me, and so I decided to leave the Court in early November to return to the field for my current job.

And here I now am, working in Kabul (cynically dubbed “Kaboom”) as a Rule of Law Adviser mainly on the training of police officers and prosecutors. In “The Road to Oxiana,” Robert Byron claimed that Afghans “carry rifles to go shopping as Londoners carry umbrellas” (I love good travel literature. One of these days I am going to try my pen at one myself: “Cemeteries of the World” or maybe “Selected Toilet Stories.”) Unfortunately, Robert Byron’s comment is very true for any nationality in Afghanistan these days - even I have to wear a flak-jacket and be accompanied by two armed men at all times, on top of driving in armoured cars... Every compound has “clearing bays” for weapons and the military canteens have rifle holders next to every table indeed as London restaurants have coat stands or umbrella stacks. I have nothing but respect for my Afghan colleagues
 
and government interlocutors who valiantly and untiringly work for their country, but the proliferation of weapons is something to which I’ll never get accustomed.

The Afghan new year won’t be celebrated until March, and so I am still happily living in the year 1388 (after the hijra, that is: 1388 AH. “Hijra,” for those who don’t know, refers to Muhammad’s “departure” from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. To finally confuse the hell out of me, the Afghan calendar is different from the standard (lunar) Islamic calendar used in most Arab countries - where we’re already in 1431 AH!). Welcome to my life - where many people don’t have a surname, might not know their birth date, and in any case, will have been born at least 600 years before me.

The Great In-Between

The fantastic thing about having a paying job in a place close to an international airport in the middle of Europe is that it is not only affordable, but easy, to travel. Early 2009, whilst still in Damascus, started out with a quick trip to Beirut for a great night out with UN-Katie and ICRC-Bruce, as well as coffee with Wissam. Once back in Europe, I managed to see friends in London, Cambridge and Geneva, and spent numerous night train journeys between The Hague and Karlsruhe to see Oussama. We also spent a weekend in Paris retracing some favourite places. In early 2009, I passed four days in special hostile environment training in the German Army/UN training centre in Hammelburg, which would come in handy later - at least I now know in which direction to dug on hearing the whistle of an incoming grenade. 
Paris
 

Another 2009 highlight were the Albanian parliamentary elections, which I monitored as a short-term observer for the OSCE. I reconnected with my friend Andre (a trusted source of wisdom on anything Afghan- and Islam-related), and used the opportunity to close another gap in my historic knowledge of the Balkans. Did you know, for example, that private cars only made it to Albania after the death of communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1985 and the end of the communist regime in 1992? For my mission, I was sent to Peshkopi in Northeast Albania, a town with 3.6 million inhabitants and a miraculous 3.1 million voters (many of whom actually live in Greece or other Western European countries). Most Peshkopians have at some stage been to Macedonia or Kosovo, but very few to Albania’s capital Tirana, telling something about local loyalties and alliances. Unemployment in the whole Diber region runs very high, in Peshkopi apparently at about 40%. Given this, the unbelievably large number of luxury BMW or Mercedes cars in town certainly raised more than one of my eyebrows. Nobody even bothered to remove their German/English/French/Swiss number plates - that’s apparently how remote Peshkopi is from the rest of Europe or the arm of the law! Albania had recently become a NATO member on 1 April, and potential EU membership played a large role during the campaign. Yet it is anyone’s guess what the EU makes of “fair and free elections” that started on 28 June, when the final votes were still not counted by the time we left on 4 July!

Fletcher and other Reunions

Fletcher always takes a special place in my heart, and so its reunions must take a special place in this letter. Plus, it simply amazes me how many people you bump into all over the world by accident!

My Fletcher record got off to a good start in Damascus, where Charlotte flew in to deliver a first hand account of the pre-inauguration excitement gripping the U.S. Despite Charlotte’s tight schedule, we managed to escape to Qunaitra for the day, a city in the Golan Heights previously occupied by Israel and today used by Syria as “open-air museum” in their
Best of Schiphol
 
propaganda war. Visitors are strictly prohibited from taking photos of any Syrian military installations, but are quite encouraged to photograph as much as possible of the Israeli side of the heavily guarded, usually closed, and UN-controlled border crossing, as if that somehow contributed to their Golan recovery endeavour. The Fletcher ladies quartet was later completed by Farrukh (F’08) and Nora. 
After that, Fletcher reunions accelerated. Watching the dazzling Jane (F’05) struggle with
In Geneva
 
half a pig in Berlin ensured a great night out full of laughs. An unexpected treat was to see Huria twice this year - once in Düsseldorf for Christmas and once on our road drive to Talloires, my first big Fletcher event for a while. As luck would have it, we also got to see Todd, fresh in from Sri Lanka and just before his big wedding.

In The Hague, we got visits from Rahul, Josh and Tanaz, Amy Senier, Brian Abrams, and David Raikow (in from Sudan!) twice! Delphine, on her typically American 3-day-flying-visit-of-all-of-Europe-trip, had a short stop-over in Amsterdam, giving us some quality time to catch up. And, how could I forget the GMAP residence coming to The Hague yet again, allowing me to see several staff and professors, including reconnecting with “Prof J.” My time in The Hague also coincided (just about) with Laura Zusman (F’09), Garth and Manal (F’12) working at various of The Hague’s tribunals.

The other great coincidence was my friends Yadi and Pieter moving back to The Netherlands after three years in Chad.
Pieter with
“my” Latina, not his
 
They quickly became “my God, compare this to the desert in Chad” friends, as well as trusted Bikram yoga companions (if anybody had ever told me that I would one day see Pieter wearing so little and sweating so much...). :) We also managed to have a communal dinner with Naile, another friend from Chad who was passing through.
My JCE/ICTY reunions this year were also rewardingly numerous. Thanks to Melissa’s
Munich, baby
 
working for a German client, I got to see her both in London in the beginning of the year and in Munich in May. Being her usual self, she made me go for longer runs in two days than I have been for the rest of the year - but what a great way to see town! I’m just sad that  she didn’t bring along her Biene Maja to show how she had grown. In Geneva in the beginning of the year, I got to see Ugo, who successfully managed to keep quiet the news that he was about to be a father (it should have made me suspicious how he fretted over my friend Olivia’s son Enzo!). And in The Hague I was lucky enough that Martin, Rut and Lindy were still working at the Tribunal and still great fun.

Other People’s Kids

After Omi’s death it’s a revelation to be reminded that the circle of life continues - it is undeniable that the next generation is taking over. I am delighted to announce the birth of my second godson, Theodor Burkhard “Obama” Blum (born on inauguration day 20 January). Hard to believe that his mother Sylvia and I have known each other since we
Mom - almost!
 
were 3 years old, and now here he is, full of life and ready to conquer this world with his own little friends and dreams and aspirations. Theo is lovely. At the time of writing, he still hasn’t learned how to say “auntie Connie,” but I can feel it is about to pop out any moment now, in between his gurgling laughs.

My godson Dara and his brother Dade, on the other hand, have moved back to Nigeria and I’m soon going to take Bobe to court to fight for my visiting rights. :)

The other early arrivals of the year were Fletcher Laura’s Pen in D.C. and Freshfields Claude’s Magnus in Los Angeles. Magnus already speaks five languages fluently and is a travel enthusiast, so I look forward to seeing him in Kabul soon.

My ICTY co-interns all those years ago have also been keeping busy. In April, JCE’s Emi and Aidan had their second child Tancredi Lupo in Bangkok, followed by JCE Ugo and Marina’s Luca in September in Geneva. Both gorgeous as hell!

With Dara,
in better times :)
 
In May, Bea had her second child Zam, another multilingual baby who will go down in history as the happiest baby with the widest-smile ever. The same month, Fletcher baby Kãshi in Sri Lanka came into this world with a head of hair that most 30-year old men would kill for. Thanks to Rahul having a beer with me during a jazz concert in The Hague, I was able to celebrate almost in real time after seeing the news on Rahul’s iPhone. And lastly, UCL Ravi and Tessa in London had their Jaran - a total cutie!

The year came to a good end with two more Truro School babies! Lamorna will be moving into her parents’ chapel as soon as Jemima and Ellis have finished the renovation. No doubt Willow is delighted to have another playmate on her visits to Cornwall. In Oxford, little Elizabeth arrived just in time to brighten up 2009 for Sarah and Paddy. Congratulations!

Other than Theo, the only kids I’ve managed to meet this year were little miracle Enzo in Geneva and Celeste in Cambridge (who has really turned into quite a celestial little beauty). And in Munich I finally got introduced to little Karla by her parents Joerg and Michaela, my partner in crime from Beirut. But I promise I’ll do my best to meet the rest of you soon!

News of the Year

Damascus in December 2009 will look very different for me than it did in January 2009 - most of my best friends won’t be there anymore... :( As a matter of fact, this is a reason for celebration though, as the reason why they abandoned me is because after months or even years of waiting, they have now been re-settled in different European countries. The
Khalida
 
best news of the year, no doubt, is that Khalida’s baby daughter Swalin had her life-saving heart operation a few weeks after they arrived for re-settlement in Holland. All is looking good, and the fretting and worry from last year seems only a distant nightmare. I am so excited for Khalida and my other Iraqi friends, and look forward to following their journey and watching them speak Dutch and Swedish and become true European citizens.

My personal humanitarian story of the year was the successful return of Saleh, the teenager from Dogdore, to his village in Eastern Chad. You might remember that, as a child, Saleh had suffered from an infectious disease called Noma, which is in essence a vitamin deficiency and very easy to treat in its early stages. Left untreated, it is devastating. It occurs frequently among the very poorest and most mal-nourished families in the poorest and most mal-nourished nations of the world.

Thanks to the intervention of a wonderful NGO called Hilfsaktion Noma and the generosity of many of my friends, we were able to send Saleh for treatment in neighbouring Niger (just don’t be fooled - “neighbouring” doesn’t mean that it was easy to get there!).

As these stories go, the whole operation was much more difficult than we initially thought. Instead of a few months, the treatment took several surgeries and

In just over 1 year, Saleh went from boy with half a face ...

 
recovery over one year. The return of Saleh’s father to visit was impeded by rebel attacks in Ndjamena. The lack of cellphone

... to well-travelled, multi-lingual man with interesting scar.

 
communication in Saleh’s village and rebel activity meant we did not have news of his family for many months. Because of these delays, I was no longer in Chad by the time Saleh had recovered and had to activate “remote control” mechanisms to arrange his return. Long story and many sleepless nights cut short: Saleh returned to his family on 24 January 2009. Thanks to my tireless former assistant Ahidjo and his brother Simeon, I have news and photos from Saleh when he arrived in Dogdore, and I am simply delighted to see him reunited with his family. I hear that he bought a bike in Dogdore, which he now uses as the basis of a small family business. With his newly acquired French skills, he might also be a useful aid to international NGOs working in the IDP camp. In any case, he truly became a new person - a child no more, well-fed and strong, and with a new face.  

Talking about wonderful NGOs, check out the website of an organization founded by my friend Xanthe, Advancement of Girls’ Education. AGE-Africa works with girls in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, paying for their high school education and mentoring them throughout the process. AGE is small enough to ensure that your money really goes where it matters, but by now big enough to have a real impact - check it out!

Lastly, on a sad yet spirited note, I wanted to share with you the amazing blog of a fellow Fletcherite, E
Erica in fighting spirit
 
rica Murray who passed away at the very end of 2008 after a three year fight against leukemia. Her blog is a candid account of what it is like to live with the prospect of death, but it is also life-affirming and, believe it or not, full of stories of fun and laughter. I didn’t know Erica well, but her story has deeply affected me and many others, and my year 2009 continued to be filled with stories of her life and activities arranged by her family, friends and Fletcher colleagues. My friend Josh - Erica’s boyfriend - spent 2009 doing a year-long tribute in Erica’s honour. You can find information on both of their websites about how to register as a bone marrow donor, and I really cannot urge you strongly enough to join. I registered in 2008 - in Germany, you can become a donor by going along to any of the frequent Red Cross blood drives in your city and requesting them to register you separately (it’s free!).

Family News

My parents have still suc
Bruderherz
 
cessfully resisted retirement, but I’m hopeful that they might see the light in 2010. Of course we were all affected by Omi’s sickness, but it has also brought us all together, particularly with the Frisches. Even though, after the new kitchen and bathroom installed in 2008 we had tho
 
ught and hoped that we wouldn’t have any more builders in the
Almost 90
 
house for a while, my mother is now busy planning a much-needed renovation of my grandmother’s apartment.

In August, Thilo left Munich after (3?) years to start an MBA in Barcelona. He claims that his choice wasn’t exclusively influenced by the beach and the Ramblas... :) After our successful backpacking experience in Jordan last year, we’re thinking of planning another trip together - maybe in Asia - in 2010. On a positive Omi Note, my Omi Eva is imperturbably moving towards her 90th birthday and surprising all of us with her mental agility and continuous joy of life. My third Omi, “Tanti” Gerda, is similarly doing well.

We celebrated Christmas 2009 in a large group including all of the Frisches, Oussama, and Kerstin’s brother, girlfriend and “sister-in-law” from Norway. Even though Omi was sorely missed, we had a fun night, entertained by Julius’ and Theresa’s artistic performances and a semi-enforced family dance led by Theresa. At the end of the evening, looking around the room, I did feel happy and content, full and simply calm. To borrow from Robert Byron one last time, it truly was “one of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph.”
Now bring on 2010 - happy new year!

 
After my embarrassing silence last year, it was definitely time to reinitiate my New Year Letter. There were so many things to report: lives gained, lives lost - one painful one in particular. New jobs (two of them!), new homes, new friendships. 
In the end, this letter turned out to be just as embarrassingly late as last year’s was non-existent, and thus I didn’t “send” it by mail. But do feel yourself hugged if you chance across this: 
A very happy 2010!!!