Marianne Elliott has worked as a human rights officer in the UN mission to Afghanistan and with the New Zealand and Timor-Leste governments as a human rights advocate. She is the author of "Zen Under Fire: A Story of Love and Work in Afghanistan", the national co-director and co-founder of Action Station and is co-director of The Workshop, public narrative researchers and communication advisers.
I was born in Putaruru, in the south Waikato, to a young dairy farming couple and, when my sister and I were pre-schoolers, my parents moved to Papua New Guinea for a year, as missionaries. As a rural Brethren farming family, there was a strong missionary tradition, and service has always been a significant part of my life. Because I was so young, my memories are visual as opposed to narrative. Things like, what we ate and the green-ness of the bush. I also remember a snake on the veranda and enormous stick insects on the mosquito net over my bed. It seems extraordinary, now that I'm the parent of a small child, to think that mum and dad moved to the highlands with us. It was a great adventure, but there were also significant hazards. That experience definitely gave me an early sense of what is safe and normal, and possibly also an appetite for living in places that are very different to home.
At high school in Tokoroa, I wanted to be a writer or a journalist and in sixth form, when I was 16, we had to organise our own careers day in Auckland. I wrote to Warwick Roger [Metro editor] and asked to meet him. We were a bunch of bumpkins from Tokoroa, and I visited the offices of Metro and North & South where Warwick gave me an hour of his time. We talked about long-form journalism and investigative writing and what path I might take. I never saw him again, but I've often thought about how generous he was to do that and, while I didn't become a journalist, I am a writer and a human rights investigator and my work overlaps with those ambitions.
My parents had a lawyer friend who said if I liked writing and thinking and reading, I should study law, so I went to Waikato, to this unorthodox little law school. I was part of the first intake, and it was staffed by extraordinary feminists and Māori activists and they explained how law was made by the people with power, and how those people used law to maintain power. Studying jurisprudence in the context of colonial history was incredibly engaging and I became a research assistant for a lecturer investigating human rights law. I don't think law would've captured me if I'd gone to one of the other schools.
After graduating, I worked for a big corporate firm in Auckland because I needed to find my confidence, and make a living. It was a great team with a fabulous partner but it wasn't where I wanted to be. I didn't care about any of the cases, which isn't a good thing and, after two years I went travelling through West Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
At university I was still going to church and I married really young, at 20, to another Brethren. But that didn't last and, when that marriage ended, that was the catalyst for me to leave the law firm and go on my big trip. Before then, I'd done all the things I was "supposed" to do, and that hadn't worked, so I started doing all the things I wasn't supposed to do which opened me up to a whole new range of opportunities. I wouldn't say I did those new things with much grace or aplomb, but I had a survival instinct, a sense of self-preservation, so I didn't get completely lost.
I stayed in Palestine longer than I'd expected and I was there when the grandfather of the man who ran the hostel was planning a trip to The Sea of Galilee. This involved several crossings along the West Bank, and his grandson said someone had to go with his grandfather, that he couldn't make that trip alone, so I went with him. Before we'd even left East Jerusalem, we reached the first Israeli check point. I saw this lovely elderly man who spent his days sitting in the courtyard, children sitting on his knee, being treated like the beloved respected elder he was, I saw him being shoved out of the van and forced to his knees on the side of the road by an 18-year-old who held a gun to his head. That trip was a series of shocking interactions. Although, years later, when I became a human rights researcher in Gaza, I realised they were everyday occurrences for Palestinians.
I returned to New Zealand to finish my masters. Paul Hunt, now our Chief Human Rights Commissioner was my supervisor and he'd worked in Palestine and Africa. Learning from Paul was perfect for me, but I just couldn't finish my masters so Paul said, "you can either stay here, or get your first field job" and he hooked me up with a Palestinian human rights lawyer and my first job was in Gaza.
When I arrived, the Madrid Peace Process was still in place, negotiations were ongoing, but it wasn't real peace, more a sort of stasis. The people I worked with, we were all quite young and at the beginning of our careers, and there were extraordinary emotional and psychological lows. Going to the autopsies of children, seeing things that stay with you forever, and not see just seeing things, but processing, interviewing, writing up, confirming that that bullet went into that body. We were trained to conduct investigations but we knew nothing about keeping ourselves healthy in that space. We were this close-knit group of internationals working for a Palestinian organisations inside the Gaza Strip, and our coping mechanism was drinking and smoking at our Friday night dance parties.
The big problem with that line of work is figuring out when to leave, and it can't be when you think you've achieved something useful, as you may not have. I left Gaza when I no longer felt useful. This was during the second intifada, the reignition of Israeli defence force attacks on the civilian population. Helicopters would hover over my apartment. They shelled the apartment next door. I did feel fear, but even stronger than my fear was my anger, I got to the point where my anger became an all-consuming rage. That it was happening and the world didn't seem to care. How could Israel do these things and still have all their allies? I reached an unmanageable level of anger, which was understandable when seeing such massive injustice.
I still feel anger. I am extraordinarily angry about our government's failure to take more responsibility for the people in Afghanistan, but my anger is no longer all-consuming, it's motivating. I learnt that from my early Palestinian colleagues, but I was a bit too young at the time to grasp what they were trying to teach. My Afghan colleagues later taught me more, and it has taken a lot of practice, but I would have gone mad if I'd not learnt to channel my rage.
It is hard coming home from those places. There have been times I've felt viscerally frightened, literally scared for my life, then to be walking around Wellington where people don't realise we're in the middle of a war, it is challenging. But I've learnt to have empathy, to realise it is completely unrealistic in the midst of everything else that is going on, for me to yell and scream. Having spent a lot of my life learning to be a good advocate, if I want people to be interested and engaged in these issues, there is nothing to be gained by telling people they don't care or they're ignorant for not knowing, because why would anyone listen if they were just being berated?
When I returned to New Zealand, to an advocacy role with Oxfam, I had an opportunity to work on climate change which I hadn't thought of as a human rights issue until I'd lived in Afghanistan. I thought of it as important, but when I was in Afghanistan, and I saw how when the rain changes, the water supply changes, I quickly saw how climate change becomes a human rights issue.
Action Station is an organisation that supports New Zealanders who want to take political action on issues that matter to them. It is harmful to our sense of agency to read about all the things that are happening here and abroad, and to feel there is nothing we can do because, when people have no idea what to do about those things, they disengage. So Action Station gives people a chance to engage on issues like child poverty, or lobbying the Government to increase our refugee intake. Action Station offers the public political power outside of voting and it builds momentum. Rather than have their energy dissipate, when they ask, "what can we do", they can sign a petition and create a crowd because a crowd can do things an individual can't. When we work together, some problems stop being so big. Action Station is about movement building.
When I returned to New Zealand, it took me a long time to find my feet, and to think about having a child and, by the time I was ready, it was very late. After an unsuccessful embryo transfer in late November 2018, my dad got very sick and, as he lay dying in Waikato Hospital, he made me promise to try one last time. He knew how sad I was, and he knew I didn't think I had it in me to try again, if it failed, but I kept that promise. Lake was the very last embryo of the last possible round I could do. I know it's all a bit magical, but I like to imagine that dad was on the other side, nudging Lake to the front of queue.
It's hard to talk about how hard those years were, because once you get a baby, you lose your passport to the world of trying. The pain of wanting a child and not having one, of everybody else having them, but not you. And I never stop thinking of the people who don't get the outcome I did. I was 47 when I had Lake and I kept expecting someone to tell me I was too old to be a mother, but nobody did. Or if they did, they didn't say it to me, and I was the only person saying it to myself. And here I am at 49 with a 21-month-old. Lots of things in my life have been wonderful, but this is what I wanted, and one of the best things about having Lake at this age, I can actually slow my work life down, but still do purposeful, interesting work.