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Universities and human rights centres like the Australian Human Rights Institute are preparing the next generation of human rights defenders through pioneering programs and inspired teaching. But when it comes to human rights work in tough places, the classroom only gets you so far.

I’ve seen a few hotspots since law school. I served with the UN in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was a Syria investigator. Extraordinary, life-changing work, but it also exposed me to atrocities – school bombings in Afghanistan, Islamic State’s terror in Iraq, chemical attacks in Syria.

Whenever I visit my old university (the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia) to speak about these experiences, I’m often asked how I prepared, how I looked after myself, and what it’s been like coming home.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Ask yourself these questions first: ‘Why do I want to go to a war zone and what’s driving me?Each person’s answers will be different; the point is to probe self-awareness. Remember, there are plenty of ways to be a great human rights defender, short of going somewhere sketchy. If you’re convinced that frontline work is for you, then progress incrementally. Start with places that are challenging, but not warzones.

Next, it’s important to – as far as one can – go in open-eyed. When I left for Afghanistan I felt ready to assume the risks, but I wasn’t awake to the burdens it would place on my family. I certainly wasn’t prepared to lose colleagues over there. The Awake at Night podcast shares real-life stories – have a listen.

Looking back, the single most important thing I should’ve done was find a psychologist before leaving. Instead, I waited until I was red-lining and in bad shape. Search out a clinical psychologist who specialises in frontline work – if not in war zones then with first responders. I was ultimately very lucky to find a psychologist who worked with military and specialised in post-traumatic stress disorders.

Four UN staff were among those killed in this bombing in Kabul in 2014

Self-care over there

After the excitement of arrival, you’ll be quickly consumed by work and other pressures. You might be posted to a remote location. Sleep may be interrupted by gunfire and explosions. Daily trauma will seep into dreams. And you’ll be surrounded by people living with these same pressures. This can often lead to coping behaviours like excessive drinking.

Here, structure can be a saviour. As much as possible, try to eat (healthily), exercise and sleep at consistent times. Meditate. Plan holidays. Focus on your small achievements. These little things go a long way. And commit to regular psychologist sessions; mine taught me Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques.

Also, find a work buddy – someone who can relate to what you’re doing and experiencing. These relationships gave me particular comfort when my loved ones, as hard as they tried, couldn’t really get what I was going through. On that point, when in touch with your people back home, be clear that you need energising interactions with them.

Graphic pictures of torture victims from Syrian prisons on display at UN Headquarters in Geneva in 2015 as part of a campaign to demand accountability for human rights violations in the country.

When the war is over

The decision as to when to leave can be one of the hardest. There’s so much wrapped up in your role – the relationships formed, attachment to the people and place, your identity and sense of purpose. Walking away might feel like abandonment. I spent months working with my psychologist to choose the right time to leave. It involved an honest assessment of how much I had left in the tank, my trauma levels, the likelihood of my performance dipping if I stayed on (threatening any sense of accomplishment and potentially putting others at risk), and the state of other significant parts of my life (such as romantic relationships).

Once back home, the first weeks are elation. Besties, beaches, barista coffee. But the colour soon drains and – now that you’re safe and static – absorbed traumas surface. Suddenly, traffic makes you sweat, fireworks set you off, and you’re fuming that house prices make the front page.

A few things worked for me. Foremost, I continued sessions with my psychologist to process it all. It’ll take as long as it takes, so go easy on yourself. At the same time, be selective about what you choose to share and with whom. Experiences that are intensely meaningful to you might be too much for family and friends, which can deepen feelings of isolation. And be sure to keep up contact with your work buddies. Years later I’m still in touch with mine, as we navigate our shared dread of supermarkets and dating apps.

Finally, when you inevitably feel the pull to leave (because being back home is too hard, you don’t know what you’ll do here and because nothing moves you as much as the work you’ve just done), ask yourself two questions: ‘Why do I want to go back to a war zone and what’s driving me?’

A human rights team with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)
visits Herat province in 2013 to encourage implementation of a new law on
the elimination of violence against women in the country.
Photo: Fraidoon Poya / UNA

Ben Lee graduated from University of New South Wales Law an embarrassingly long time ago. He’s since been a human rights advisor, investigator, negotiator and strategist for the UN, governments, national human rights institutions and civil society.

This blog post originally appeared on the website of the Australian Human Rights Institute as 'How to Prepare for Human Rights Work in Dangerous Locations'.