Helena Mulkerns’ new short story collection draws on her extraordinary experiences as an aid worker, which brought her to the heart of conflict zones in Eritrea and Afghanistan.
Helena Mulkerns has been blessed – or cursed – with an interesting life. An arts journalist and performer, she lived and worked in Paris and New York before joining the UN as an aid worker.
It was her ten years with the UN peacekeeping missions that inspired her collection, Ferenji and Other Stories. Ferenji means ‘foreigner’ in old Arabic and Persian. As the name suggests, Mulkerns’ stories centre on the lives of foreign aid workers in various conflict and post-conflict zones.
“The stories are based on my experiences but they are all invented,” she explains. “There isn’t a character that I have delivered that is as the person was. People can get very upset with you if you do that!”
Despite her background as a journalist, Mulkerns resisted the idea of writing a memoir.
“As a journalist you are very aware of fact and of reporting things factually,” she notes. “Again, working in an organisation like the UN you’d be extremely aware of fact. That’s why I was never interested in doing a memoir. With fiction you are not restricted, and I much prefer the nuance of fiction.”
So how did an arts correspondent working freelance for publications such as Hot Press, The Irish Times and Irish Tatler end up working for the UN?
“I left Ireland and I went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne,” recalls Helena. “I wanted a change of scenery and I had a friend going to New York so I joined him. I was freelancing there, and I needed a rent paying job. I had Spanish and French so I went into the UN headquarters. I loved living in New York in the 1990s. It was a really special time, especially for the Irish that had immigrated in the last recession. There was an amazing vibe and a lot of arts – writers, poets, filmmakers.”
This creative energy gave birth to Banshee, an Irish women’s arts collective founded by Mulkerns and writer Emer Martin.
“We had a ball,” she enthuses. “We had a blast of a time for about two years. We did festivals and local venues. We’d had these wild two years and after that I was a bit burned out. I was ready for a change. I was already working in UN headquarters and I applied to go out working in the field. I had a great boss and he offered me a field assignment, so then I went to Guatemala.”
After two years in Guatemala, Mulkerns was offered a transfer to Eritrea.
“Eritrea had had an incredible revolution,” she says. “They fought hard to obtain their independence from Ethiopia. They were true revolutionaries, really dedicated, and Eritreans are an amazingly warm people. It was such a shame that what was seen as potentially the most successful new country in Africa was hindered by war again. Gradually it became evident that the president was not going to be holding elections any time soon. I really loved my time in Eritrea, but I write about the people who were in the field, not the politics. Perhaps that’s a bit cowardly, but what interests me are the stories of people and why they do things.”
A sense of futility pervades the collection – a despair that whatever has been achieved is not nearly enough. This experience is common amongst aid workers.
“I wanted to convey that because it is very prevalent in conflict or post-conflict environments,” says Mulkerns. “Most people go out there with the desire to do a good job and to help. But you are never going to change the world. Organisations, whether they are military or human rights organisations, the people in them want to do a good job. But sometimes the systems fail them, for various reasons.
“I’ve known people in the UN who were corrupt to the core. There are abuses and scandals that come out with the UN. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of that but you’re dealing with huge organisations, many countries and military contingents. But I think in general people go out into the field because they want to try and make the world a little bit better.”
As her story ‘Reprisal’ makes clear, civilian and military organisations are often at odds, sometimes with fatal consequences.
“In a place like Afghanistan, the civilians are there to help the local population, but the military are there with the basic idea that the local population are killers.”
This belief, alongside aggressive military strategies, can undo the work done by humanitarian agencies.
“We had an event in Afghanistan called Peace One Day,” recalls Mulkerns, “with the British actors Jeremy Gilley and Jude Law, who was a Unicef ambassador at the time. They came to Kabul. We basically had every organisation, every school, women’s groups, radio stations, mullahs, mosques – people were on board to create one day of peace. There had even been talk of the Taliban letting Unicef into areas where they hadn’t allowed aid workers for two years, to inoculate children. It felt hopeful and there was a really great spirit. Two days beforehand the military started an offensive. When we heard this at the press briefing, you could see people’s jaws literally dropping. They just did it because the attitude was, ‘Who do you think you are? You think you’re going to have a day of peace? With these people? Psah!’”