“The women and the girls of Afghanistan have earned the right to be heard, to take their place in society openly, as they have done behind the scenes for decades, if not centuries."
Nada Al-Nashif is Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and has been serving the United Nations for almost 30 years. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, her life was turned upside down with the Iraqi invasion of 1990, when her family was forced to flee and leave everything behind to rebuild their lives in Jordan.
Following her uprooting, Nada took her first UN job in Libya during Gaddafi's rule, and then served across other conflict zones, including Lebanon and Iraq. In the late 1990s she travelled to Afghanistan as part of a UNDP team negotiating with the Taliban to open girls’ schools.
Nada also experienced one of the darkest days in the UN’s history. On 19 August 2003, a truck packed with a tonne of explosives blew up the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 colleagues, including the UN’s Special Representative for Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello.
“It's hard to accept but you need to because you cannot keep asking ‘Why was I there? Why me? Why not me?’” she says. Nada explains how her own injuries act as a constant reminder of human vulnerability and the blessing of having survived to tell the story.
Melissa Fleming 00:05
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. This is Awake At Night. Joining me today from Geneva, Switzerland is Nada Al-Nashif, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nada, much of your life has been marked by the turbulent Middle East. Where were you born and, also, where did your parents come from?
Nada Al-Nashif 00:40
Thanks so much for having me, Melissa, and it's lovely to see you. I was born in Kuwait in 1965. That's a confession right up. My parents were working in Kuwait, part of a very large Jordanian Palestinian community. My mother was born in Gaza, educated at university in Cairo, and came to teach in Kuwait. And that was a large part of actually the professional community there. My father, also educated in Cairo but knew my uncles. So when they came to Kuwait, he followed up on the lead. And they met and married in Kuwait. I was born and my two younger sisters as well. So it was really home growing up.
Melissa Fleming 01:27
What was it like in Kuwait those days?
Nada Al-Nashif 01:30
Well, you know, it was very, in a way, cohesive. It was a large Palestinian Jordanian community, we were about half a million, a very vibrant community. Kuwait was really a very hospitable place at that time for these communities, in particular, we were fully integrated in the day-to-day, let me say, so we had like, fantastic cultural institutions. We were very much part of the education system. You know, it is one of the most generous welfare states. I guess, all of it changing a little bit over the last couple of decades. But certainly when we grew up, and fantastic education.
So we were… we went to a British School, 52 nationalities. And I was in that school for 14 years and I think it was very formative. We're still in touch with some of my friends from that time. But to grow up in such an environment, it really, I think, marked us in the way that our outlook to life was very, very international from a very young age. And it was a privilege to be there, of course, not for everyone because, again, these were societies, that in the end, you know, you could not really become Kuwaiti. But at that time, it was very easy to belong in many different ways. And until now, it's a large part of home. It's where I got my first driver's licence and my first real job when I graduated and came back.
Melissa Fleming 03:00
You are of Palestinian descent? What was the experience of being Palestinian, what did that mean for you and what did it mean for your family?
Nada Al-Nashif 03:10
So, I mean, we are a very tight-knit family, but also a community. And I think that very strong sense of belonging was not a choice. From very early on, I think the moral compass, the identity was very fixed. And to be honest, at school, it was a plus, because there were so many of us, in many, many ways. At home, we were part of a diaspora. My mother is one of nine. My father, one of three. But they are spread all over the world. And so it meant growing up with a network of cousins, of family, that spun the globe effectively. And that was a very strong thing.
A very strong emphasis, like all Palestinian communities, particularly those that were migrants as we are or refugee, in other words, on education. So that was the thing that was not compromised, we went to the best school. When it came time to make decisions about University, there was no choice. I mean, we had to aim for the best. And if we got there, you know, my dad passed away the year before I went to university and others were saying, ‘Oh, maybe you should not Nada another go.’ But my mother, it was not a question for her. I got accepted, and I would leave for university. So I came to England and I think that was part of how we were oriented.
Melissa Fleming 04:38
Tell me about your parents. I mean, what was your relationship like to them, and especially your dad, who you lost when you were very young?
Nada Al-Nashif 04:47
My mother would be very happy that I mentioned Gaza early on because she gets very upset whatever the interview she says, I don't understand why you don't say you're half Gazan. It's a very strong identity to the rest of the Palestinians. It means that they're very stubborn, number one, but they have a great pride of belonging. I think Gaza has had a history of resilience long before, I mean, obviously more recent history, more tragic history, of course, but you know, they are people who grow up by the sea. So for her, this thing of having the breadth, the openness of the ocean was very important; the Mediterranean.
She was a teacher, as I said, in Kuwait teaching English language. She had a BA in English literature. Great sense of humour; a great family maker; a great homemaker. And well, you know, we take more things from our mothers than we would have cared to admit, at some stage. I mean, some things that I swore I would never do, I find myself doing again, you know, clearing up the table within two seconds of sitting down at it, making sure that we have stock, we have stock of everything for months as if the world is gonna run out. [She was] very orderly, very disciplined, very generous, very inclusive. And very egalitarian.
In the end, it was my mother who really made sure that we did not get stuck on where we came from, or what we had. But that really, we were looking at the essence of what makes us human, particularly with the family. She was always a very gracious thing. My dad was the one who could provide some rationale with my mother, it's ‘Because I say so.’ My father tried to reason with us. ‘Because if you do this now, it will help you in the future. And you may not see the point of it, but eventually, you will get there.’ You know, he was the intellectual influence in my life, although I lost him at the age of 18. But he took us to Russia very early on, because of Russian literature and music. And I mean, he had a different, I think, trajectory. He was a businessman in the end. But I think that the combination worked well and it was nurturing, despite their differences. Maybe because of them.
Melissa Fleming 07:07
It must have been very hard for you to lose them at the age of 18.
Nada Al-Nashif 07:11
It was the night that I was actually Head of School and I had to give my first speech. And that evening, there was a big event and I spoke I gave my first speech and I remember writing it with him. I mean, you know, asking him for his advice on the phrases and then we went back home. And apparently at night, he had a heart attack. And my mother just took him to the hospital. We never saw him again.
And so yeah, it's one of those things, you know, we have very serious also traditions in the Gulf, in particular, where we don't go to cemeteries and we don't go… There is no lamenting the fact of death because it would be... It is God's will and you know, we accept it. So we've never recon… It took us a long time to reconcile, let me say. I mean, I went to university, and it took all through my first year of university to actually internalise that he was gone. But I am very grateful for all that he left. Sad that my youngest sister was five at the time, so she didn't really know him growing up. But I think of him often. Still, all these years later.
Melissa Fleming 08:27
So where did you end up in the UK when you went to university and what did you study?
Nada Al-Nashif 08:32
Yeah, so one of the things that we had always talked about was that I would apply to go to Oxford. And actually three days after my dad passed away was my Oxford entrance exam. And I did obviously well enough to be admitted. So I went to Balian College at Oxford University and it was a remarkably transformative journey.
Melissa Fleming 08:58
Nada Al-Nashif 09:00
Well, it was the first time that I'd ever been on my own, totally on my own. And I think that British education, you know, it's a tutorial system. You get thrown in at the deep end. You have to read about fifteen books a week and then sit and present your thoughts to the professor who's probably the guy who wrote the books in the first place and enter into a discussion with him. So it was amazingly challenging in that way.
But also, I mean, so much discovery about yourself. I had never been without all of the support of family. I did philosophy, politics, and economics for the first year, and then I did politics and economics and this was the beginning of my interest in development economics. And the people, the friends, I think, maybe undergraduate for everybody is special and I must say, I'm going on holiday next week with my friends from Balian. So we've persisted for two years now, it's a long time but we're… and I have two goddaughters from my closest friends at that time there, and yeah, so that's why transformative.
Melissa Fleming 10:15
Okay, and I believe you then went on to study at Harvard?
Nada Al-Nashif 10:18
Yeah, so then I came back because it was the thing to do, to come back to Kuwait and the best jobs were in the banking sector. But I was obviously an economist so I went into banking very lightly, and realised, almost immediately that, you know, how to make $1,2 or 4 or 10 was not going to get me out of bed every morning. So, within six weeks I had applied for graduate school. I mean, I learned a lot, but I did not want to do anything relating to banking, really. And, yeah, I guess when you get Harvard, you don't really consider others.
Melissa Fleming 10:56
I believe during that time in August 1990, your life was turned upside down with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when you went back, I believe. Can you tell me about what happened?
Nada Al-Nashif 11:07
Yes, so in between the two years at Harvard. Summer, normally, I went back home as I had done before that and we were, I remember very clearly, preparing to go to Spain for a few weeks. And so the good news about going to Spain was that we had a lot of cash at home that we were going to go change. There had been some rumours of disagreements of some imbalances, some differences between Kuwait and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, it was the rumble of the tanks rolling into the city.
But we were woken up at like five o'clock by one of my cousins from Texas who had just seen on CNN, the tanks crossing the border into Kuwait. My mom answered, and she said, ‘What's wrong? Why are you calling?’ and he said, ‘Well, you're being invaded.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, no, this is all exaggeration. Don't worry.’ We went back to sleep for two hours. By the time we woke up, the country had been overrun.
So it was bizarre. We spent a couple of months trying to understand what was going on. There was a curfew, of course. We could, because we were not Kuwaiti, move around in our car so we were trying to help other friends. Making sure that people had food. Soldiers would come to the house. My mother was incredible to stand up to them to say ‘This is a house of women, you're not going to come in.’ And in the meantime, communications were cut with the outside world. So it was very difficult.
We ended up sending my two sisters out in a convoy with some friends of the family to Jordan where my uncles were. And I waited a few more weeks with my mother than I had to go out with some of our belongings. We got stuck on the border. It was a remarkable… a week at the border I spent in the open air in the car and then my mother came out, later on, a few weeks after that. That was the end of our home as we knew it. My mother, her husband, her mother [were] buried in Kuwait. It was a big thing. She never went back. I have gone for work and I, one time, took my boss and a whole convoy past our house and my school. The first time I went back and I still have incredible memories and great friends there when I do go and visit.
Melissa Fleming 13:31
What was that feeling like when you saw your house that you had to abandon so abruptly and forever?
Nada Al-Nashif 13:38
Yeah, bittersweet. You know, this thing of the house now changed beyond the old recognition. I think just this smell for me. There is a smell about, you know, I love the incense of Kuwait. I loved how the national dress was and we have a very close kinship with my Kuwaiti friends, with the Kuwaiti people, as I recall them. And I think this is a difficult thing. It got complicated, I think, how Kuwait dealt with it, in the end, how Palestinians behaved was very complicated. But in the midst of all that, the human dimension remains and it's forever for me now a series of memories that are very, very special.
Melissa Fleming 14:25
I can imagine that it was very difficult for you to just leave behind everything that you grew up with; your family home, your memories, never knowing if you could return, and especially probably to see your mother having to do the same. What was it like then, you know, arriving in Jordan and having to restart your life?
Nada Al-Nashif 14:47
Yeah, it was difficult for my mother. You know, I would say that my mother took easily five or six years. There's also the context. My mother as a widow had just, you know, re-established her own life in a way, [she] had put in place her own markers, was becoming totally independent, and then had to go again to a country she had not lived in before to become dependent again on my uncle. To understand the bank, the phone system, the rents. It was very difficult for her, plus the fact that she never really wanted to leave.
I mean, I think this involuntary eviction, in a way so she was a very complicated relationship with her. For me, the contrast was going back into the US where the world was seized by this invasion and I was immediately taken by my professors of political strategy who wanted me to describe what I had seen. Where we immediately entered into these discussions of how expendable Kuwait was in the end. I mean, it just... it was a bizarre thing because we moved to this geopolitical discussion and I was worried about my people, my home, my family, my friends, our possessions, and it was a very confusing, a very disconcerting few months on return. This is it. Uprooting is not a detail. It's really fundamental.
Melissa Fleming 16:21
I wonder what home means to you then after having this experience?
Nada Al-Nashif 16:26
Yeah. So I mean, now it's coming back, of course, because as many of my cohorts at the UN are now thinking of retiring, and we have to solve this one. Where do we go? But for me, the salvation came later when I actually moved to Lebanon on assignment. And we have a lot of family. My uncles who came from Gaza also, many of them went to the American University of Beirut, studied married Lebanese. And so we have a large part of the family is based in Beirut, anchored in Beirut and even if they've gone further, they've come back to Lebanon. And so… and my mother loves it so I decided to make that my home.
Melissa Fleming 17:13
But it must be incredibly hard for you to watch the unravelling of Lebanon, that horrific explosion that killed so many, injured so many, destroyed so many homes, and now the economic implosion of the country where people can't even afford to buy bread.
Nada Al-Nashif 17:34
So Lebanon is a little bit of a conundrum, quite honestly. I mean, when I first arrived there in 2000, we were working on the reconstruction after the Israeli withdrawal. It was a time of great euphoria. There was great possibilities. Since then, we've had many ups and downs. But I think we are at an all-time, I think, trough. I had not thought it was possible to go to where we are right now. I think it's scary.
I was in Lebanon a year ago when the port explosion happened and my house is right there. And so we lost all the windows and the doors of my home. Luckily, my mother was in the house and totally untouched because she was in a part that had no glass. I was with a good friend, also a UN colleague, but a great friend and we heard something go off. We were in an old neighbourhood. We thought it was you know, a gas explosion, like a gas leak or something because it was a little bit... the neighbourhood was a little bit older and so we stopped the car and then the rocks started coming down on the car. Luckily, we had not disembarked and, and then we immediately called our homes. In our home, they answered wailing, you know, I could just say ‘Is Mama okay? They said ‘She's fine, but the house is gone.’ And she was asking about her children.
We turn the car around and started to see the people covered in blood, barefoot, the damage in the streets. We were not far away so, within 15 minutes, I could be back home, walking over the glass, the crying, the screaming, and going up to find indeed that the home had been wrecked. I mean, it was not recognisable inside the house. But most importantly, my Mum and her caretakers were in the middle of the house shaken but, you know, okay. We're dealing with issues of accountability and immunity from here now, but it's, yeah, I mean, enough to make anyone really, really angry as well.
Melissa Fleming 19:57
When did you first start working for the UN?
Nada Al-Nashif 20:00
Well, I joined UN DP in ‘91. Officially my starting date is January ‘92. So next January, it will be 30 years!
Melissa Fleming 20:08
And the UNDP is the UN Development Programme and tell us about your first job. I believe you were posted to Libya in the 1990s?
Nada Al-Nashif 20:20
Yes, the UN Development Programme is my home, really. I mean, I love it because it was very much about being in the fields, [there’s] a very strong field presence. I was shipped off to Libya despite the protests of the Head of the Office there who said, ‘What, you’re sending me a woman? I don't want here.’ They gave me the challenge of convincing him in New York when we were doing our training. I had to convince him. They did. And he became one of my best mentors and friends, but I think he hadn't bargained on what he was going to get.
Fascinating time. It was three and a half years of living under embargo, at at time for Lockerbie, so Libya was under UN embargo. And so, you know, there were no flights after a while we had to go everywhere by car, we had to travel through Tunisia. But again, you learn a lot. The Libyans are fantastic people. It was unspoiled 2000 kilometres of pure beach. No industry, no agriculture, so no tourism, either. This is the Gaddafi days and total unpredictability.
Melissa Fleming 21:33
And what were the conditions? I mean, people have a lot of views about Gaddafi and probably images of Libya that were only from dramatic news reports on the television. If you were to describe Libya, under Gaddafi, for the people, for an ordinary citizen, what would that be like?
Nada Al-Nashif 21:57
Oh, it was waking up every morning to a new dictate, to a new set of rules about who was eligible to participate in what system, when, and where. A lot of uncertainty in the movement of personnel, you know, he insisted there was no government. There were only these popular committees that were running, we called them different things. But really, he governed by perpetuating uncertainty and huge volatility. He had crazy schemes, like, you know, ‘Why do we each need a car, you know, you can just drive your car and stop and keep the key in it, and then someone else who needs it will come and take that car.’
I mean, this is all it was it played out, Melissa, it played out every day. I mean, it was not a joke. And of course, there was a very dark side, I mean, a very dark side to jail, and imprisonment and disappearances, and the inability to express anything; to have a view, to have an opinion so we operated in the margins, obviously,
Melissa Fleming 23:06
I believe also, in that period, you went to Afghanistan and there you met the Taliban to negotiate for girls’ schools. Can you tell us a bit about that? It must have been extraordinarily challenging.
Nada Al-Nashif 23:21
That was after, when I finished Libya, it was a great assignment, but I was looking for the next one. And I got a great job as a Special Assistant to the Administrator of UNDP and, at the time, in those years, between ‘95 and 2000, one of his missions was indeed to go. We flew to Islamabad where all of the UN was operating having left Kabul, of course. And we chartered a plane to go to Kandahar and the idea was to offer 10 schools for boys to the Taliban if we could also construct 10 schools for girls. This was the theme of a one-day negotiation. We went in the morning, we came back at night.
And I think a couple of things. The incredible diplomatic tact, I mean, Mullah Omar was in the meeting. It was remarkable to me that this cast of characters, how they presented themselves, how they argued. It was very calm. It was very political. And the whole argument ended up in a place of polite regret on the part of the Taliban to say that, You know, ‘Women are like jewels.’ I'll never forget you, ‘You put them in a box, you protect them. You must take care of them. You don't expose them.’ And this went on for some time. And obviously, while we were there, we did not speak. I mean, one: I was still very junior, so not a member of the delegation, I was supporting my boss. But we were two women. And, by the end of that day, because we had not spoken and we had not participated we had become invisible to our own group of men as well.
It's really remarkable how if you're silent enough for a whole time so that by the end of that day, they were not really looking back to see if we were behind them. They were not talking to us anymore. They were talking to each other and nobody was disrespectful. But it was, I will never forget that feeling of just being gradually forgotten. I mean, it only lasted a few hours in our case. But you think about what that means for public life. When day after day you're not included, you're not recognised. Of course, I find women are vibrant and vital in their own domains, and in their households, when they are allowed and as they function. So it is not oppressive across the board everywhere, of course, but this was an interesting exercise for me that we could be there and just generally fade into the background and then fade so far back that at the end of the day, I said, ‘Did you notice that we were there all afternoon with you?’ And then they had to think about it. So yes, I'm thinking on those days now as we go back to maybe another round of hopefully more successful negotiations on what we can do next in Afghanistan.
Melissa Fleming 26:25
What would your message to the Taliban be on behalf of the women and girls of the country?
Nada Al-Nashif 26:31
I think the women and the girls of Afghanistan have earned the right to be heard, to take their place in society openly, as they have done behind the scenes for decades, if not centuries. And I think all of Afghan society owes them this debt, at least, that they can really emerge and stay out of the shadows now once and for all.
Melissa Fleming 26:57
In 2003, you were deployed to Iraq, as the Country Director of UNDP, and you were part of one of the darkest days in the UN's recent history; the bombing of the canal hotel. That's where the United Nations was headquartered in Baghdad. What happened? A truck packed with a tonne of explosives blew up and this was 19 August 2003 and it killed 22 people including Sergio Vieira de Mello who was heading the UN mission then. Can you tell us what you experienced the moment when the bomb went off?
Nada Al-Nashif 27:38
You know, I hadn't... I didn't really want to go. I think it's remarkable how most people who were there didn't really want to be there. I think it was such a difficult thing, the way it happened. It was not really a UN operation. We were, you know, the US took a decision and we all had to be there. Certainly, I felt that as an Arab, as someone who had [been] working on development in the region, I was very conflicted. So that day, I had been working with Sergio. He was in the canal hotel with his team. That was the UN headquarters, the canal hotel. And I should have been there. I should have been there not where I was, I should have been somewhere else in that building.
But, in that morning, I always went to my own office, which was in, my own office in that hotel, the UNDP had two rooms so that we could be there. And then I went to see the Special Advisor to Sergio, who was this former Minister of Culture of Lebanon, Ghassan Salameh, and Ghassan was harassing me. ‘I don't understand why you just don't stay and we'll just finish this, half an hour, we'll finish this thing, then you can go.’ I said, ‘No, no, I have a meeting on the ground floor. I have to go.’ I left him I said I'd come back. He remembers, until now, my famous last words: ‘I'll come back.’ I, of course, didn't went downstairs.
We were sitting down with just there was a knock on the door because we had ordered coffee and tea. And then the apocalypse. A scene like from Mad Max, you know, just dust, endless layers of dust. Dust, dust, dust, and choking and, and there must have been blood. I looked at the table. I must have been out because actually one of my colleagues around the table told me that I had spoken to him and asked him to stop bleeding which is, you know, this is how the mind works. He says he remembers that I said ‘Jason, stop bleeding, just stop bleeding.’ He was very, very badly injured. We were seated around the table, I remember looking around. Probably it was a blessing my glasses had blown off, flew off my face. So I didn't really see very clearly but I could see men's shirts; white and blue with blood everywhere.
And then I looked at my hands and I could see that something was wrong with my left hand but, you know I didn't. I thought it was a finger but I didn't understand, I don't think and then someone came and as I was getting helped me out and took me out and put me on the grass lawn and my eardrum had been burst so there was this terrible, terrible clanging. I could only think of the bells of Notre Dame, which was a bit strange, but the bells of Notre Dame in my head. The guy who took me out was actually our Field Security Officer and I asked him to go back and look for the Head of UNDP Henrik [Fredborg Larsen] who was in his desk. He did go back. Henrik was in a very, very bad state. And I understood later we were taken by helicopter to an American Hospital. I mean, but I…
And my next impression is I was then in that American Hospital. As they were taking off our, you know, blouse, and all my left side was very badly injured. I remember saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, I need to throw up’ and he said, ‘Just go ahead.’ And then there was surgery and I was there three or four days. My face was all, all my left side was totally shattered. I had a big hole, a gaping hole, in the back of my shoulder. And, I mean, I was badly injured. But I mean, and I lost a finger, but very, very lucky, very lucky to be alive, number one. Very lucky that the damage was not more, because I mean, in the end, that was fixed. And then we were evacuated to Jordan, to Amman after four days.
Melissa Fleming 31:52
When did you realise what happened and how severe the damage was and the colleagues that you lost?
Nada Al-Nashif 32:02
Well, the first realisation must have been a little bit because I... The first person to find me, because we were just picked up, right, and we were lucky because we went to American hospitals which had equipment. Some of the colleagues were taken by others to Iraqi hospitals which did not have anesthetic. I mean, it was really horrible and they had to put up with a lot more than we did. These hospitals that we went to were obviously equipped for exactly this kind of injury. I mean, for the blast. I tried to find the doctors afterward, and I sent them notes and cards, but you know, they did a fantastic job.
But my first response, Ghassan Salameh came to find me, and he found me in some hospital wherever I was. And he says, also reconstructed memory, he says that I told him not to tell my mother about my hands. So obviously, early on, I mean, I don't remember this. But he says very clearly that the first thing you told me was, you know, ‘Don't tell my mother.’ So obviously, the fear of my mother. She hated that I was going. We had arguments every day the last week before I left so I think this was weighing on my mind that, you know. I mean, I didn't want her to be proved right I think somewhere so that I wanted to say I came out of it.
Yeah, I mean, obviously she wasn't any happier for what happened to prove her point. But yeah, she continues to say, I don't know what's good for me. But anyway, I mean, he told me that was the first time. And then in Jordan, I was, for two weeks, in the hospital and everybody who came out of Baghdad came to see me so, you know, I started to hear the news of the colleagues. One of the young men around the table. Chris [Klein-]Beekman lost his life immediately. He was facing the window so he was sitting to my right and he, you know, we didn't have blast film on the windows. That's what it was. And the glass becomes like flying daggers so it flew into him. So I could tell he was not well, he was inert when I looked without glasses.
Another one of my colleagues, Jason, also suffered terribly and is now fine but he wasn't and then I heard about Nadia, about Rick, about, I mean, the young Comms person who arrived two days before and died, Reham Al-Farraou, you know, you have to have a lot of faith, I think, because if not, I mean, some people really lost it, even though they were not injured. I learned that also. That it's very hard to accept but you need to because you cannot keep asking ‘Why was I there? Why me? Why not me?’ I mean, feelings of guilt are the other thing. People who had left and their replacements died, very hard. And I think in a way that when you're injured yourself, you don't have the luxury of thinking about all these things. You just need to get better. You know, you can't because there's a lot of pain. So I ended up doing about six surgeries over four years. But simply to be able to talk about it, of course, is a gift.
Melissa Fleming 35:31
What does it mean to you to lose one of your fingers?
Nada Al-Nashif 35:34
There was a little bit of a joke. I will take my boss's, it was Mark Malloch Brown was the administrator and he was briefing all staff at UND, you know when this happened, and he had a joke about it, it was my ring finger. And he made a joke about ‘Well, you know, I've always told Nada that if you don't use it, you lose it.’ And you know, so it became a little bit of a joke. I think some of my friends thought it was a bit distasteful. But Mark, you know, has this way and, and he said it so charmingly that nobody…
So I didn't, I mean, we did corrective surgery. The good news is that now nobody would ever, ever think that I was without the finger. It's it looks fine now. But it's a little reminder until today, every day, of the vulnerability and the blessing that we live so I'm very grateful.
Melissa Fleming 36:32
The bomb killed Sergio Vieira de Mello who was very well known in the UN system and he's been the subject of a book by Samantha Power, a couple of films. What was your memory of him? And how did you feel when you knew that he also lost his life?
Nada Al-Nashif 36:54
Sergio was as, and I’m sure you knew him better than me but I got the privilege of working with him those days in a very intense environment and he was as charming, as thoughtful, as intelligent as everybody said. And one of my most vivid memories of him is that, I will not name the country, but a senior diplomat had been in to see him and I attended his meetings if they were talking about the reconstruction conference. And this very pompous diplomat came in and came in and proceeded to lecture Sergio for about 25 minutes on how he saw events evolving in Iraq.
And Sergio was so cool. He just had this facial expression which said nothing, you know, he was just immaculate. And when this man finished, almost as an afterthought he asked Sergio if he had anything to say, and then he left, and I turned to Sergio, I said, ‘I cannot believe you let him go on, how could you?’ And he just loved and gave me this amazing lesson in what to do with pompous people. And he said, ‘You know, I'm saving my energy, don't worry, he'll say the same things again, next time to someone else. Don’t worry about it. So what have we got to do next?’
I mean, he was remarkable. And I just thought, ‘Huh!’ so I think we were robbed, robbed of that potential. But more importantly, that the Iraqi people were robbed. Because what followed was mayhem. And I would love to have thought that we gave all of that, all of those sacrifices of lives for something. But unfortunately, all these years later, we're still dealing with the same so that's my regret.
Melissa Fleming 38:41
You touched on the issue of trauma and how many of the colleagues who were in the Canal Hotel even if they weren't injured, suffered feelings of guilt feelings of trauma? I mean, how did you manage to overcome the shock of what you went through what you saw, your injuries, the loss?
Nada Al-Nashif 39:07
They made sure that we all had to go see a therapist, you know, this was part of the protocol of, and even though I thought I was fine, but I went to see someone in Lebanon and Beirut, so I went back. One of my ways of coping was to try to come back to the office as quickly as I could. So when I did this, these sessions, the counsellor / the therapist, said that basically there are two kinds of people optimists and pessimists, and these incidents make you more of the same.
So if you were a pessimist, you would become, even more, you know, terrified and scared and just hopelessly introverted, and so on. And if you were an optimist, then it would make you more grateful, more thankful that you were alive, and you would be able to continue so I have to focus on getting better. So a lot of physiotherapy, a lot of correction, the surgeries took time, getting re-adjusted, you know, the eardrum comes back, but noise was difficult at the beginning. So I mean, you were a little bit overwhelmed and you want to prove that you're okay. I mean, I regret I didn't make more fundamental changes to my life while I could but I was just so keen to prove that I was as able, you know, to come back that I rushed back into it. So, yeah, that's how I coped, I guess.
Melissa Fleming 40:31
So you would have liked to make fundamental changes, what would those changes have been?
Nada Al-Nashif 40:36
Well, I will never know now. But I did... I mean, this is the time when I mean, you shouldn't… I keep thinking to myself that one shouldn't have to get blown up to decide that one's living pattern could do with some amelioration, you know; better work-life balance, better... I didn't do as much of that as I wanted. But everyone was so, so taken care, so looking out for me that, you know, it was not difficult then to go back to family and friends and colleagues who were so caring was was also a big blessing.
Melissa Fleming 41:12
You kind of switched careers, not careers at the UN you stayed with the UN, but you switched from development to human rights. And now you are the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. What is it about human rights that wakes you up in the morning and drives you?
Nada Al-Nashif 41:33
I mean, in the language of human rights, more and more, you know, I'm a Libra and so my sign is the scales, and injustice, very generally, is something that I find has been, through all these experiences that we've we've gone through [is] this sense of injustice that just accumulates, and I am finally relieved to be in a place where I can say, ‘I'm working on human rights,’ instead of couching it in other terms, calling it “labour rights” or “the right to science” or “the right to education” or “the right to be free from poverty”, you know, or “good governance” or whatever. So finally, we're doing it as it is and this is a relief. And I think more and more, of course, keeps me awake at night is how much we have yet to do and how much keeps unravelling.
Melissa Fleming 42:27
What about you personally, what is keeping you awake at night?
Nada Al-Nashif 42:30
I'm going to be very parochial, if that's the word, and think about my own region, which is traumatised, really, I have worked on it for such a long time. I know it so intimately. I am familiar with the setbacks, the moments of euphoria, the moments of depression, that we have had collectively as an Arab people across these countries. But I am now worried about Lebanon, most of all, because I think it would just be unthinkable for this one to also think into the abyss. It is my last thought at night, every night these days, and my first waking thought because of family and friends, but mostly because of our impotence there, all the goodwill and all the power of action in the world and we still can't make it happen as fast as we’d like. As fast as it needs to. So that's enough, I think, for anyone.
Melissa Fleming 43:33
I wonder, what do you do in your downtime?
Nada Al-Nashif 43:38
If there is any! Well, Geneva has been a blessing for the outdoors. So I've been walking a lot and trying to explore. I read a lot and I watch a lot of movies and they all have to be action movies where everyone good emerges victorious and everyone evil is hammered. So a lot of Marvel superheroes is all I can tell you, to make it really better at the end of a long day.
Melissa Fleming 44:16
Thank you so much.
Nada Al-Nashif 44:18
Thanks a million.
Melissa Fleming 44:24
Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of this global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Nada is @NadaNashif Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to rate and review us. It does make a difference.
Thanks to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Cheri Percy, Fatuma Khaireh, and Matt Nielsen, and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio.
The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.