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The Donegal woman who talked to the Taliban: ‘There was one leader with only one eye. He made me move so I would be out of the line of sight’

From Afghanistan to South Sudan and Nairobi, the practical and dauntless Mary Ellen McGrogarty of the World Food Programme focuses on respecting the dignity and individuality of people in desperate need

Mary Ellen McGroarty was a Leaving Cert student at home in Mountcharles, Co Donegal on the October evening in 1984 when Michael Buerk’s BBC package from Ethiopia was broadcast, becoming one of the most evocative and famous news reports of the late 20th century. McGroarty belonged to a generation of young Irish for whom the subliminal messages of the future suggested emigration. Many of her classmates left: to London, to the Irish quarters of United States. “And you’d still meet them when they are home for Christmas.” She headed for University College Galway.

She adjusts her screen in her office in Nairobi whenever our connection freezes. Michael Buerk’s BBC report comes up in our conversation about her latest role with the World Food Programme (WFP), where she is a director of the emergency effort in South Sudan. Buerk’s report had an instant effect, reducing viewers to tears, prompting a public outcry. It was broadcast by 400 different news stations around the world. Among those watching was musician Bob Geldof: by Christmas, Band Aid was the number one single and plans were afoot for a massive aid-related concert. I note that there has been precious little recent coverage of South Sudan, a country that has for years teetered on the brink of a humanitarian disaster after a decade of internal conflict, mass displacement and disastrous flooding.

“Yeah, if you look at the Sudan crisis today and other crises, the words of the song Comfortably Numb always come to my mind. I worry that we’re entering a new era in the world, you know, in terms of our tolerance, or our obliviousness or our malaise. I don’t know what word describes it, but certainly what we’re seeing on the South Sudan side – because we’re getting a lot of South Sudanese coming home to a very desperate situation – is that our ability to be able to support them is constrained by resources. So, you know, you’re not seeing that sort of lift that you would see happening in a sudden onset.

“I do think, with all that is going on in Europe and the US, we have to wonder if people are getting tired with these protracted crises. Where is the hope? When I look back on when I started many years ago, the great crisis was the Great Lakes region. West Africa was very quiet and calm. And the WFP ran very small programmes. And you look at it now and, I mean, the Sahel [region] is on fire. Our ability to solve these problems doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Or are we not incorporating the lessons from different experiences? And I do worry that there is a new shift in tolerance of acceptability of crises like this.”


Before arriving in Sudan, McGroarty spent two years in Afghanistan, remaining in Kabul when the Taliban rolled into town to reassert their rule after a 20-year abeyance. Since signing up as a volunteer with Goal and travelling to Goma in the wake of the Rwandan crisis in 1994, McGroarty has had a ringside seat for the series of geopolitical crises and disasters that have flared across the developing world. She has worked with the WFP for 25 years. And she sometimes wonders if the age of instant-access media and images has served to cloud our collective judgment and instinct when it comes to crises. What made the Buerk report so memorable, besides the presentation, was the fact that nothing like it had been seen before it was seen; at teatime on two consecutive nights, in millions of homes. That sharp, shocking impact no longer seems possible.

“You are now comparing one tragedy to the next. How does one prioritise the needs in Chad over Burkina Faso over South Sudan? The scale of humanitarian needs has grown exponentially. It is not that the news is not getting out there. The question more needs to be what the solution is. All of us in humanitarian work know that it is only a band aid. It is really about saving lives and hopefully transforming a bit. But that deep-rooted development that you need to move forward a country and its people involves more than humanitarian aid.”

Decades of living abroad and dealing with countless languages and translators have not diluted McGroarty’s accent at all: it remains 100 per cent south Donegal concentrate. Mountcharles is still home. Her husband lives there: although he is visiting Nairobi this week, South Sudan is a non-family workstation, so she is out there alone. She is due to spend another two years there and isn’t sure what her next step is. “Pushing on a bit! Maybe Mountcharles.” She is cheerful, chatty, practical and, you can gauge within 20 minutes of chatting over a Zoom link, quite dauntless.

Her late father spent his life as a monumental sculptor, crafting headstones. In the early years, her parents used to fret about the trajectory of her life. When she travelled to Goma in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1994, the city had become a gathering point for thousands of Rwandans fleeing the genocidal madness that swept their country. By that summer, the camps were in the midst of a horrific cholera epidemic. One of McGroarty’s first instructions was to go and buy a sleeping bag and be prepared to rough it out in a tent. Aid workers were given a stipend of 50 dollars a month. “That got us seven minutes each month on this satellite phone we shared, and you’d be trying to ring your mum and dad, friends, in that time, just to say hello.” Her time in Goma shaped her and what started as an experience became something closer to a vocation. Because of her father’s work, she was more closely acquainted with and observant of the rituals of the death rites in Ireland than most young people.

“Then you are seeing thousands of people buried in mass graves. You know, the different value on life, and are even their names remembered or is anyone remembering them? Compared to where I was coming from.”

The next place she visited always seemed to be more dangerous and remote than the last. Her parents fretted. “They’d say, when are you going to get a real job?” she laughs. They were joking – sort of. But her father, in particular, was interested in world affairs and became used to quizzing his daughter on visits home about what was really happening in the locations where she was living. And with each visit, she noticed the speed of change in Ireland.

“When you come home first it is a bit of a culture shock because you come from places where there is very little. And you see the choice and wealth we have as a society. And when you move between these two very different societies you become very conscious of how lucky we are to have been born where and when we were and the opportunities we have. That is what any mother and father want for their children – an education and a better life. Education is one of the great deficits in many of the countries I work in. And Ireland brought in free education in 1966 and that made a huge difference for so many of us. You just go back two generations before that and look at the age that many women left school. Life was very different. So, the lottery and fortune of birth has always struck me. And also, how the world has become more connected. When I went out first explaining what a place was like to people was almost impossible. But now, of course, the images are there.”

There was one particular Taliban leader who’s only got one eye. And he made me move so that I would be out of the line of sight

McGroarty started her post in Afghanistan in October 2020. By then, almost 60 per cent of the country was under Taliban control. Because the WFP had to try to get relief to people in those regions, she became accustomed to dealing with Taliban leaders, usually in Doha. But when they reclaimed Kabul, on August 15th, 2021, the rules of engagement changed. She had watched the growing fear and resignation on the faces of her younger colleagues as violence in Kandahar and Jalalabad confirmed an unassailable sweep of the country by the Taliban.

“Those cities fell like dominoes. The one good thing in Kabul was that there was no violence. They just walked in. I remember that Sunday morning, sending the national staff home, because we weren’t sure how the day was going to play out – and particularly the women and thinking they were never sure when they were going to see us again. For them it was really like being just catapulted back 20 years. Many of their mothers telling them about what life was like then and some of them not old enough even to remember anything about the Taliban. And suddenly they arrived in the city. So, it was just horrendous for them.”

The ignominious exit by American troops and bureaucrats and the mass exodus of civilians became the defining images of that summer. McGroarty had decided she would stay; that she couldn’t desert colleagues in what was, for many, the most desperate hour of their lives. And she is not easily fazed, reasoning that her position gave her a certain immunity. The big trick was figuring out how to conduct herself in meetings with Taliban leaders, which required her to engage in a bizarre game where they would communicate with her through translators while maintaining the pretence that she was not really there.

“You have to conduct yourself in the right way, but you also have to claim your space, right? So, the first thing you were looking for: are any of the Doha characters in town? Because they would know you. And you’d figure out who was sitting in which ministry and find out as much as you can about them. And then you meet. And you’re completely ignored. But I found then that sooner or later, two or three times you’d see them taking a peek. I mean, there was one particular leader who’s only got one eye. And he made me move so that I would be out of the line of sight! And they’re very soft-spoken as well, which throws you off guard. Because you have this vision in your head of the Taliban leader. And then it is like speaking to your grandfather or something.”

The surroundings – guards outside with guns, heavy security – could be intimidating. But it was the foot soldiers who worried her more because they had carte blanche to be repressive and aggressive and often didn’t have the same education or sense of the bigger picture as the elders. She had a few instances – her car was stopped and she wasn’t fully wearing her burka – when the communication was rough.

Curiosity, McGroarty believes, is the trait that transcends nationality and culture and religion. People want to know the most basic question: where are you from? Go to Mountcharles with a strange accent or unfamiliar face and you’ll last about five minutes without hearing it. The same was true in Afghanistan, in Chad and Burundi. And explaining that she was from Ireland almost always brought a jolt of recognition.

“Yeah, they would ask. Oh, Ireland ... And in some of the offices they have a picture of Malalai, the Afghan woman warrior who is legendary for motivating the troops when they were fighting the British. So, there is a bit of a throwback to the past then – oh, Ireland and England.”

The grand sweep of McGroarty’s job demands an organisational capacity for intimidating logistics. In Afghanistan, 19 million people were living in a state of acute food insecurity, spread across 34 provinces during her time there. A succession of severe droughts had devastated local agriculture. Of that endangered total, six million people lived one step away from starvation. The political turmoil meant the floor had fallen from beneath an emergent middle class and the violence had created more widows than in any other country in the world. Now, a generation of women raised in education and a degree of civil liberty faced a switch to a bewildering and punitive value system. Navigating this was her job.

The big figures obscure the personal stories. On a basic level, the WFP tries to make sure that food reaches the families who are in dire need of it. In Sudan, that is often quite basic and repetitive – sorghum and beans. But the WFP has started dealing in vouchers and cash to permit people a degree of choice and dignity in how they feed themselves. If there has been a change for the better in humanitarianism, McGroarty believes that there is a new emphasis on trying to respect the dignity and individuality of those in desperate need.

“Yeah, and I think you touched on something that that often doesn’t get the recognition. Because we all know what it is, like, sit around the table with family for the meal, and the rituals that go into cooking. That’s the same whether it’s a family in Chad or South Sudan, a family in Afghanistan. That gathering is, it’s the centrepiece.”

The true devastation of food poverty goes beyond immediate hunger. The helplessness and frustration of parents no longer able to provide is profound. But there is also the importance that food plays in society. The tradition of hospitality is deep rooted. McGroarty experienced it again and again in Afghanistan.

“If you are ever given the privilege to break fast at Ramadan – the fruit, the lamb and the bread,” she reflects.

“The same is true in South Sudan. They may have very little, but people want you to stay and have something to eat. It is the same in Ireland. Visitors come and have something to eat. It is an intrinsic part of being a human being.”

Flooding has decimated the agricultural and ecosystems in South Sudan, worsening the devastation caused by the internal conflicts. The WFP workstations tend to crop up in countries in the front line of climate change. She sometimes smiles at the Irish dread of our long winters: yes, the daylight hours are short in the northwest in the heart of that season, but the weather is relatively bearable and really, isn’t the worst of winter fairly brief anyway? It is impossible, too, for McGroarty not to be struck by the opulence which many living in western European countries take for granted. It’s impossible not to see the thriving Irish food scene – the restaurants, the lavish grocery options and the luxury of food as ‘lifestyle’ without being reminded of the places she spends most of her working life. She is not judgmental or po-faced about it. And she points out that the other intrinsic change during her time with the WFP has been the impact of phone technology.

“The news is out. And the young people in South Sudan can now see the young in Europe and how they live. And the impact of that is, I think, a desire to go find that life themselves! Like all of us when we are young. Everyone wants to have a good life and they can see the potential over here.”

Her fervent hope is that the work the WFP does offers a little help that might in turn enable a few to attain that dream in time. Although she is a deeply experienced figure at this stage, she says she sometimes feels as naive as when she first landed in Goma. It’s not naivety though: just a realisation that the forces that shape many countries are too unwieldy and anarchic to ever predict or solve and all you can do is your bit to shape the fabulous resilience she witnesses all the time.

“What struck me in Afghanistan, as the Taliban brought in their decrees, is that you can’t push back that tide,” she says towards the end of our conversation. She will leave Nairobi at the end of the week and return to the extremes of Sudan.

“Maybe you are naive or at least hopeful you can push it back a bit. But no matter what you say or how you try to explain it, you cannot. That stays with you. And just what you see at the nutrition centres in Sudan too, every single day. Just women struggling with young children and being unable to feed them. You wonder how they cope. They go from one crisis to the next. And yet they keep going.”