06.30.134:45 AM ET

Finding Inner Peace in Afghanistan

Author and humanitarian Marianne Elliott on dealing with trauma, living in Afghanistan, empowering women, and learning to find peace where it seems there’s only stress. As told to Kelsey Meany.

I never knew what I would have to overcome. Trained as human-rights lawyer, I started working in international human rights in 1999. But any type of skill set can’t prepare a person for emotional turmoil—no matter how strong a person they may be. That’s something I learned, though it took some yoga classes, personal reflection, and writing my book to fully understand myself.

I took a job in Afghanistan to work in human-rights research. In late 2005, near Christmas, I arrived in the country. Three months turned into six months, and I decided to stay, this time working with the United Nations as a human-rights officer.

So why am I telling you this? This is where my journey, and book Zen Under Fire, begins. But this book isn’t a “woe is me” manifesto. Rather, it depicts my journey as a peacekeeper in a time of turmoil. Hopefully, it’ll help people understand a bit more about Afghanistan and learn how to overcome adversity.

Soon after beginning with the U.N., my boss needed someone to cover the position as acting head of the U.N. office in the western part of Afghanistan. I took responsibility, and sure enough, within a few hours of him leaving, there was an assassination of a prominent tribal leader.

This killing sparked outrage and retaliation I felt ill-equipped to handle.

A tribe went on killing sprees through villages. I didn’t have the proper skill set and, honestly, didn’t know much about my surroundings to understand who the key players were. I was a human-rights lawyer, not a political negotiator.

I couldn’t have stopped it. But I felt myself feeling responsible for the murder of about 20 children—despite the hundreds of peacekeepers working in the area. I wanted to know how something like this could happen and how effective what we were doing actually was.

It took days to come to some sort of peaceful resolution, but all the while I felt a personal sense of failure. I lost confidence in the mission, and I also felt completely alone. I felt like my problems weren’t big enough to talk to someone about. It was embarrassing because there was always someone I knew who had problems worse than my own.

I went through a period of depression—stressed and traumatized with an inability to enjoy myself or even realize I was in denial, which is no way to take care of yourself.

But then I had a revelation. Thanks to collaborations with other peacekeepers, acquainting myself with the local Afghans and getting key guidance throughout the way, I started to believe I was making a difference.

By the time my service in Afghanistan ended in 2007, I had learned more about what makes me tick. Yoga became my sanctuary. I was amazed by how something as simple as breathing can make all the difference. Everyone needs that sense of self-therapy. For me, before Afghanistan, it used to be running or going out with friends for a drink. Because of the change in environment, and security issues, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t have the type of fun I was having before.

That changed with yoga. I learned how to control my breath, calm myself and—in just 60 minutes a day—change the state of mind I was in. I removed tension and shifted my focus away from the scary, not-so-wonderful parts of my life. Finally, I could sleep. I could function.

I’m not perfect. I don’t have it all figured out, but who does? In the meantime, I’ve begun to refer to myself as a “Zen Peacekeeper.” I see myself as a greater part of this U.N. mission—committed to playing a role that betters the surrounding society.

Healing wasn’t easy. I spent a long time denying myself, but I finally started to give myself the permission to feel OK. If you’ve experienced trauma, the first step is to tell yourself it’s normal to feel affected.

The women in Afghanistan are experiencing trauma now. As troops have been withdrawn, these women may be losing their basic rights every day as politicians attempt to hold off the Taliban. When I returned to the country for research and promotion of my book, the biggest fear I took away is that women would have their rights traded away as political negotiations between the government and the Taliban broke down.

My goal for Zen Under Fire is for people to hear the stories that aren’t the ones sensationalized in the news. The stories of people are just like them—peacekeepers and locals—not politicians.

But I also want people to feel the pain of these women who don’t have a seat at the political table and are gradually being forced into a realm of silence disguised as “women’s security.” I want these laws to become finite, so the government cannot go back on the very important rights of women.

So what do we do? You don’t have to be a human-rights activist, politician, or even have visited the country. Just by speaking to America’s politicians, we become closer to a chance of earning these women the liberties they deserve.