Walking a fine line, from Kabul to Culdaff
WALKING THE BORDER: EDWARD BURKE’s experiences in Afghanistan taught him the difficulties in dealing with borders, but one man’s story inspired him to walk the Northern Irish Border. He starts today
I DIDN’T EXPECT that living in Afghanistan would lead me to the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal. In 2010 I took up a position with the International Police Coordination Board. My role was to forge agreement between the Afghan government and the international community for the development of the 134,000-strong Afghan National Police.
Like many Western officials, I laboured through the Kabul regime of security drills, lock-downs and donor-coordination meetings. I worked 16-hour days and held countless meetings in the Ministry of the Interior, Nato and foreign embassies. Nothing seemed to break the rush of activity. The US-led “surge” was in full swing; too much had been invested to cast doubt on whether the military strategy matched Afghan political reality. And then Neal Turkington from Portadown died in Helmand province.
Murder and atrocity fall upon Afghanistan daily. But certain deaths leave a lasting imprint. A group of school children were killed outside our camp in a suicide bombing. Wearing their lovingly washed blue uniforms, satchels and headscarves, they used to smile and laugh through the dust at the over-sized foreigners as we passed them.
I saw those children, waved at them – we used to take comfort that at least the girls were now going to school. So much had gone wrong. But that was definitely right. And then they were murdered by people for whom the death of a Westerner meant more than the life of an Afghan child. A great human flaw is an inability to empathise beyond the local.
Even though I didn’t know him, Neal Turkington was also local – a young Irish guy, my age, went to university in London at the same time. We both worked alongside the Afghan security forces – Neal with the Afghan army, me with the police. The murder of Neal Turkington by an Afghan soldier who turned on his British army advisers hit me.
Upon my return to Ireland from Afghanistan at the end of last year, I started reading more about Neal. He led a relentless life: learning Nepali; joining the famed Nepali Gurkha regiment in the British Army, working with NGOs in El Salvador and Nepal to build schools. I felt sedentary and selfish by contrast. I learned that his family had established the Neal Turkington Nepal Project to raise funds to build and maintain schools in Nepal.
And so this week I find myself at the top of Ireland, in Inishowen, having decided to walk 400km to raise funds for the Neal Turkington Nepal Project. Thinking of an appropriate activity wasn’t easy. Most people run up hills and into oceans to raise money for charity. I settled upon walking the Border. I am fascinated by frontiers and what they mean to people. I know very little about the line in my own country. But even growing up in distant Cork I heard echoes of the violence and recrimination that marked the Border. Perhaps it is now time for the border to be put to better use.