Some kids run away to join the circus. Paula Callahan ran away to join a war. Except she wasn’t really
a kid and she didn’t go to fight.
BY DAVID LENNAM
Paula Callahan was a 25-year-old nurse when she left her native Victoria. After four years at Royal Jubilee Hospital, she bought a one-way ticket to Ethiopia where there was constant war and famine.
“The only reason I got into nursing was to go to the third world. I just wanted to go help people.”
Arriving in Addis Ababa with a suitcase packed with naivety and idealism, a determined Callahan started knocking on doors — Red Cross, World Vision, all the international players — only to be told she couldn’t just show up in Africa and start to work. She had to sign up through her own country.
But Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) invited her in.
“It was a fluke that there was a mad, mad measles epidemic in the Ogaden desert between Somalia and Ethiopia, and they needed people.”
Almost simultaneously, a devastating civil war erupted in neighbouring Somalia, and Callahan was sent to the front lines.
“They couldn’t get anyone to go there and I said I’d go,” she says. “Somalia was such a dangerous war, building-to-building combat. I had no idea. If I had known, I would never have gone.”
On the way from the airport in Kismayo, Callahan recalls seeing mounds of starving, dying people, mostly children, lining the road into town. It was 1990, and her 10-year odyssey of staying alive while keeping others alive had just begun.
It was an experience that would take her to all the hot spots: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Libya, Afghanistan and Rwanda (which she won’t talk about). Callahan worked as an assistant surgeon in makeshift hospitals in bombed-out embassies and hotels, sleeping when she could, sometimes on a vacant stretcher. There were always more wounded.
“It was like a massive plane crash every day,” she says. “I remember literally sloshing around in blood on the floor. That feeling of viscousness. And slipping in it.”
No movie can capture the drama or horror she experienced. She was arrested by the President of Liberia, convicted warlord Charles Taylor, and assumed execution would follow. Horrific images of impaled heads, bowels spewed around for intimidation regularly surrounded her.
Then there was the irony of driving in vehicles with machine guns on the back “shooting people so I can get to work to save the people that they just shot.” There was no end to the human torture she witnessed.
Callahan returned to Victoria 15 years later, part of the team that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But broken. Hurt. Unable to return to normal. Closed off about revealing what she’d gone through. Few in town have heard the stories.
“Coming home was just as terrifying as going to war. I knew I couldn’t contact my old friends. They would never understand (what I’d been through). I paid a huge price. I came home in rough shape.
Any regrets? “Stayed too long at the fair.”
She threw herself into a difficult job working for the federal government as a medical adjudicator, deciding on whether applicants should receive disability benefits.
Sometimes her passion has been misinterpreted as intensity. She’s whip smart, doesn’t suffer fools and stubbornly stands behind noble principles gleaned from a decade of observing humanity at its worst.
Callahan admits she’s out of fashion with the price of real estate, or vegetables, or bike lanes or any of the minutiae of workaday lives in our community. She spends most of her time alone. Choosing an introvert’s solitude to hide in her downtown high-rise cave, as she refers to it.
Making art is making the hurt go away. She began painting in 2007, but only became serious about it three years ago when she started to sell her large abstract acrylics.
The new Tofino Gallery of Contemporary Art was the first to take on Callahan’s work. Gallerist and owner of the Tofino Beach Collective Leah McDiarmid understands where these paintings come from. “Paula paints from her gut, the place where fear, rage and love reside.
As such, her work is primal, sensual and absolutely visceral. Paula’s paintings reveal themselves as a personal narrative, a story of pain and reconciliation.”
It’s as if her wounds run with the blood of paint, informed by her time on the front lines, times of atrocities and horrors, times that have embedded in her mind like shrapnel. Callahan peppers our conversation, referencing the titles of her paintings, tying them into scenes she’s unable to forget, giving each a story that’s not immediately apparent to the casual eye.
“I have a lot of rage,” she says. “I try to go into a cathartic mind space and just put paint down. Almost every single time, something comes out of it that reminds me …” Her voice trails off.
“Every single piece comes from my soul, and it’s always a traumatic image. It’s never flowers,” she deadpans.
I ask if she still has nightmares.
“Yeah, of course I do … but my worst nightmares were never as bad as my reality — what I’d see, opening my eyes, whenever I could get any sleep. I would wake up and realize I’m not really dreaming. And it’s worse than your nightmare. You’re terrorized realizing what you’re going to witness.”
Would she have given it all up to have peace today?
“Up until three or four years ago I would’ve said no, but now I’m so f*cking tired, and I feel like I want to be rescued. I really want to be rescued.”