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Food Comforts in War Zones

Breaking bread together opens doors to people's lives

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Faiza Elmasry

Najibullah, Badkhen's bodyguard in Afghanistan
Najibullah, Badkhen's bodyguard in Afghanistan

War correspondent Anna Badkhen has covered some of the world's most brutal conflicts, from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Chechnya and Somalia. However, her memories are not only of the devastation she witnessed. In a new book, "Peace Meals," she shares her memories of the people she met, and explains how they are able to sit down and enjoy a meal in the midst of conflict.

Wherever Badkhen went, she broke bread with the people she wrote about. Those meals, she says, helped her open the door into those people's lives.

"You wake up, you see your family, you spend the day working or trying to survive," she says. "Then, at the end of the day, if you're lucky, you eat. That's where most of the important conversations happen."

'Peace Meals' author Anna Badkhen
'Peace Meals' author Anna Badkhen

While meals are usually a time for families to reconnect, she says they become even more significant in a war zone.

"Imagine a day you spend navigating a mine field. Imagine a day that you're not sure will ever end. And then the day ends and you come home and you sit down with your family and you celebrate," she says."You celebrate your survival of that day in a war zone. And you share what families share at dinner tables: How was your day? What are you thinking about? What are you hoping for? Most intimate conversations, I think, happen around dinner tables."

Sometimes, she says, dinner was bread and fried egg in a farmer's hut. One time, it was a lavish four-course meal at the home of a local warlord. There is a story behind each of the meals.

"One of the most memorable meals in my life was actually a handful of raisins that a very poor shopkeeper in a village in Afghanistan gave me," she recalls. "The village was about to starve. There was no food. The nearest market town was 17 hours walking away. Nobody had a car. And this man saw me and immediately assumed the role of a host because as a stranger I was his guest. He shared with me the only thing he had, which was a handful of gnarled, green, sandy raisins."

In 'Peace Meals,' war correspondent Anna Badkhen shares her memories of the people she met while covering conflicts around the world.
In 'Peace Meals,' war correspondent Anna Badkhen shares her memories of the people she met while covering conflicts around the world.

The subtitle of the book - "Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs" - came from a very different sort of encounter. In 2001, Badkhen was assigned a group of gunmen who were supposed to get her safely from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan to Kabul, the capital.

"Sometime along the road, my bodyguards became robbers. They tried to rob me at gun point," she says. "And the guns that they pointed at me were wrapped with various different candy wrappers - pink and yellow and blue Hubba Bubba [bubblegum] wrappers, Donald Duck stickers - pointing at me from the muzzle of their Kalashnikovs. I thought it was a very surreal situation where I'm about to maybe get killed, but the gun looks like a cartoon character."

They let her go when other gunmen showed up on the road and scared them away. She managed to reach Kabul unharmed. Money was also an issue in a marketplace in the Iraqi capital, but this time, basic human decency won out.

"A little pickpocket reached into the backpack of my colleague and tried to steal his wallet and immediately a crowd surrounded us, a crowd of people who said they were there to protect us. Imagine a country that's burning, looting is everywhere, people are being shot at, things are blowing up, cars are blowing up, buildings are blowing up, and here is a group of lower middle class Iraqis who are standing around us like a wall, telling me that they don't want me to think that Iraqis are not a hospitable people. What mattered to them is I understand that they are good people."

In a chapter entitled, "Spice Girls," Badkhen introduces readers to the two female Iraqi translators she worked with in 2003.

"Shatha and Thanaa, they are two wonderful young Iraqi women. We became friends very quickly," she says. "We shared love of arts and had wonderful conversations that had nothing to do with war and everything to do with life. We talk about what women talk about: children, parents, boyfriends, husbands, marriage. Over the next seven years, our lives took us to completely different places. Shaza ended up living in Northern Iraq as a refugee. Sanaa married a Bahraini man and moved to Bahrain. And I moved to the United States, but we kept in touch. And it amazes me still, that despite the fact that we so rarely will see each other and we live under such different circumstances, our friendship has persevered."

Badkhen feels she learned many lessons from people she met in war zones, not only about food and friendship but, more importantly, about life.

When the possibility of death is so close every day, she says, you appreciate life all the more.

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