In 2008 CBC reporter Mellissa Fung did something that no journalist ever wants to do -- she became the story. On October 12, 2008 she was grabbed as she was leaving Charahi Qaambar refugee camp, northeast of Kabul, stabbed twice and forced into a car by men with guns. She would spend the next four weeks underground in a hole smaller than my bedroom closet. Under an Afghan Sky is her story in her own words.
I read Under an Afghan Sky while on a mini-vacation. I ignored motion-sickness to read it in the car. I curled up in my hotel room bed to finish it. I read surrounded by comfortable surroundings but I was really in that dirt hole with her. I'd pull my eyes away from the page to be surprised to find myself looking out at the sky and wonder what I would do in her place. Would I eat the cookies? How many cigarettes would I smoke? Would finding a new routine feel to me like surrendering or resisting? What questions would I be asked for proof of life? Would I beg to be released? Beg for food?
"I felt like I'd been begging since the day I was kidnapped. Begging them not to shoot me, begging to be released, begging God to hear my prayers, begging, begging, begging." (p. 233)
Mellissa Fung is not a beggar. She speaks about her normal self-sufficiency -- stubbornness, even. I have no doubt that she's tenacious. I think you have to be in order to be a good journalist. She has reserves of patience that I can only dream of possessing. (Somewhere my family just snorted. Patience is not my forte.) Spend 28 days in a hole smaller than a department store dressing room with someone who is keeping you from everything and everyone you love? You can't be self-sufficient. The most you can do is have faith that you will be released and keep a vice-tight grip on your sense of self.
Her begging didn't make her weak. She is one of the strongest women I've encountered. She has strength of character and patience in spades. She interviewed her captors. She found out about their lives. She prayed. She smoked cigarettes. She rarely broke down. She is someone who does not want this one thing, these 28 days, to define her as a person and a journalist.
Nor does she want to be defined by anything that happened to her in those weeks. When I heard her speak at a local Writer's Festival she talked about how she decided to write about being sexually assaulted at knifepoint by one of her kidnappers. She did not include it in the first draft of her book. She did not particularly want to speak about it, but then she remembered that writing about it was a choice for a her -- a freedom that not all women, including those in Afghanistan, have. Furthermore, she felt that she wasn't being completely honest if she didn't include in the book.
When you ask her what she regrets about that period she'll tell you it's that she never got to tell the story of those refugees she interviewed at the camp that day. She'll probably never get to tell that story. Her employer won't send her back to Afghanistan, believing she's at too big a risk to be captured again. Mellissa Fung will tell you that she wants to go back. She'll encourage you to write to her editor and say she should go back.
Mellissa Fung wrote Under an Afghan Sky because she needed to tell the story of those 28 days her own words. She wanted to dispel the myths about her capture and release. She needed to own her own story.
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