blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A resolute and outspoken Canadian

There's an article in Diplomat about the Ottawa CFUW's UWHAW group that I belong to. It was written by our secretary, Dianne.

Eileen Olexiuk, photo by
Eva Hammond
At last week's meeting of the group our visiting speaker was Eileen Olexiuk, appointed as a "Political Counsellor" in Afghanistan in 2002, her mission being, as she saw it, to "talk to the man in the street." When the Canadian Embassy was established in August 2003, she served as Deputy Head of Mission under Chris Alexander as Ambassador (then only 34, "the best boss I've ever had," she said, who'd been educated at Oxford and had a "sense of history.") until August 2005.

Previously, Ms. Olexiuk had been a special adviser in another hotspot, the Balkans, so was used to "primitive working conditions."

She is known as a whistle blower who raised concerns (in 2005) about the torture of Afghan detainees in Canadian custody. She was told she was exaggerating and informed us that, on her return to Canada, neither CIDA nor the Department of Foreign Affairs ever debriefed her. She had written a report on Afghan detainees mentioning "every one of the clauses" in the Declaration of Human Rights; her report was apparently ignored by the parliamentary committees. "I don't think anyone gave a damn!" she exclaimed, when interviewed by the press, and of course that remark got published. She is proud of never having compromised her principles.

When first assigned to Kabul she had no official premises. She didn't even have a 'phone, but did have "two Rottweilers and a cat." She did her office work in taxis, spreading her papers over the back seats, borrowing "fixers" from a New York Times journalist to use as interpreters. The male interpreter was a Hazara, seen as neutral by most of the warring factions. She needed the female one for talking to Afghan women.

In Afghanistan nowadays, there are 20 people doing the work she used to do. That country is "crooked as a dog's hind leg," she says, undiplomatically. Police chiefs, for example, have a habit of inventing names on their pay lists in order to keep the international financial aid for themselves. "You have to have a bit of humour or you'll go nuts!"

In order to dispatch reports to DFAIT she was obliged to fly from Kabul to Pakistan on UN relief flights and claim her meagre expenses ($6.83 a day) later. She earned no pay on travel days and only took a half day's break on Fridays, because she always worked through weekends. The flight clearances, incidentally, came from a U.S. airbase in Qatar; there were no night flights, no radar coverage. Once in Islamabad she could make use of satellite communications which were none too reliable, sometimes still dialling Canada at 3am.

Later, when she was working at the Embassy, tribesmen would come to her for help, asking her to stop the soldiers from breaking down their houses when they paid a visit. The military side of the story was that they didn't dare come in through people's doors in case they were booby trapped, so they came through the walls instead. Her word for this was "disrespectful." She also introduced desperate women to the Women at Risk program, initiated by Lloyd Axworthy, that allowed some of them refuge in Canada.

She has met and liaised with Dr. Sima Samar, "a very brave woman." Asked about the future, Eileen kept repeating that the international community has to start speaking and acting with one mind; her hope for Afghanistan lies in the "good young people" of that country who are currently "keeping their heads down."

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