Gaston documents victims of war in Afghanistan

Erica Gaston ’07 in Kabul, Afghanistan

Erica Gaston ’07 in Kabul, Afghanistan

For those who work in the field of human rights during times of war, Afghanistan is the front line. For the past year, Erica Gaston ’07 has lived in Kabul as a Henigson Human Rights Fellow, assisting victims of the war and studying the conflict.

Her work is varied, important, and often dangerous. In the late fall, Gaston began organizing so that a group of 30 children injured in the war could come to the U.S. to receive medical care paid for by a benefactor in North Carolina. “I’m working to identify children who would benefit and can go – everything from an amputee to someone who suffered severe burns due to rocket attacks. If I can have 30 kids stay for six weeks in the U.S. and get treatment not available in Afghanistan, that would be wonderful,” she says.

Gaston is also working on a project to identify local families eligible for financial compensation for their injuries or the deaths of loved ones. She is documenting their losses, and advocating for them with the U.S. military. She meets with victims in their homes, noting the limbs they’ve lost to bombs, or listens through an interpreter as they describe the family members who have died.

Obtaining compensation for them can be frustrating, she says. The military, for security reasons, tends to wait for victims to approach them; victims, meanwhile, may not know of the compensation programs or are afraid to go near an American base. “In Afghanistan, nothing is as simple as, ‘The money is there, the victim is there,’” says Gaston, who will be issuing a report in February that includes interviews with 140 civilians affected by the conflict.

Daily life is dangerous. A friend of Gaston’s was shot to death in October, and a former housemate narrowly missed being kidnapped a few weeks later. “There’s an enormous kidnapping threat in Kabul, in addition to suicide bombs and a huge crime problem,” she says. As a Western woman, “I stick out like a sore thumb.” There’s not much she can do to hide who she is, “short of wearing a burka, and even then they can tell who is a foreigner,” she adds. She can’t walk around the city alone and has a driver.

Kabul has only two hours of electricity a day. Gaston lives with eight other young adults in joint housing without central heat, and she takes a shower with a bucket. Still, she says, “It’s been a really great year.” Afghanistan “is the best place for me to practice given my field, human rights in conflict, which is at the nexus of humanitarian law and human rights. It’s really exciting to be in my first year out of law school working on the issues I’m working on.”

With her fellowship, Gaston is working with two organizations, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), and the Welfare and Development Association of Afghanistan (WADAN). In addition to interviewing civilians in their homes, Gaston has met with ambassadors, written legal briefs, and been interviewed frequently by the media, including Public Radio International. She’s the only woman and the only foreigner in the WADAN offices. Just a couple of her colleagues speak English, so she is working hard with a private tutor to learn Dari, an Afghan dialect of Farsi, and she can exchange pleasantries in Pashtu, the other predominant language.

Unlike many foreign nationals who work in war zones, Gaston doesn’t enjoy the adrenaline rush. “There’s a huge international community in Kabul, and most are war junkies,” she says. She is not. The danger element “is the thing I hate most about the job.” Still, she has met many interesting people, and last summer she connected with three other HLS alumni in Kabul, all involved in the HLS Human Rights Program: Rebecca Agule ’10, and two former Henigson fellows, Nicholas Grubeck LLM ’06 and Rebecca Wright ’07.

Gaston credits the HLS Human Rights Program with giving her unparalleled opportunities. After graduating from Stanford University in 2003 with a degree in international relations focused on international security, Gaston, a native of New Orleans, lived a year in Cairo working at the American University as a Presidential Fellow. The next year, she matriculated at HLS, drawn by the Human Rights Program and the school’s many clinical opportunities. “I wanted a graduate program that let me look at legal issues, policy issues, and that also gave me practical experience,” she says.

As a 1L, she jumped right in, joining HLS Advocates, and as a 2L and 3L, she was deeply involved in clinical programs. Her 2L year, she traveled with four other students in the HRP to Geneva to work with the U.N. Committee on Torture on a ban of cluster munitions. That January, as a student in the International Human Rights Clinic, she traveled to Ethiopia and Cairo with clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty to work on a project related to ethnic-cleansing on the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. In the fall of her third year, she went with Docherty and other students to Israel to evaluate Hezbollah compliance with international law. In Winter Term that year, she traveled to Afghanistan to work on her 3L paper, which examined the accountability of private security companies in war. She published an article on that topic in the Harvard International Law Journal.

HRP and related clinicals “allowed me to push my own comfort zone and do things I might not have the opportunity to explore,” Gaston says. “When I went to Ethiopia, it was the first time I’d spent extended time in that level of rural life. Would I have had the courage to do that on my own, if HRP hadn’t set it up and sent [Docherty] with us, who’d been there before? It gave me the courage to do my own thing in Afghanistan the next year,” Gaston says.

Gaston’s Henigson fellowship concludes at the end of March, and she’s trying to decide whether to remain in Afghanistan. “It’s such a tough situation,” she says. “It involves much more security risk than when I arrived a year ago. It’s lots worse in terms of the quality of life, and your ability to actually get something done and make a change dramatically decreases. So it would have to be the right job where I feel able to do something positive, as well as a personal learning curve that makes it worthwhile.”