Jacky Sutton: A Life | HerCanberra

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Jacky Sutton: A Life

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I met Jacky Sutton in the summer of 2013 at a table outside Ricardo’s in Jamison: such an unassuming location for a meeting with a woman I would soon discover was quite extraordinary. I spent several hours with her that first time—far longer than planned—but she was utterly fascinating and I could have listened to her all day.

Jacky had found herself in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa after almost 20 years with the UN in war zones like Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan. Formerly a journalist with Vatican Radio and the BBC, the international development expert’s arrival in Australia was somewhat ill-timed, coinciding with the closure of AUSAID. Never comfortable with sitting still, she joined the committee of the ACT Vegan and Vegetarian Society, and volunteered to help with marketing for the fitness club she joined and dog walking for the pound. She was also itching to write…and that’s where HerCanberra came in.

She was a gifted writer, a born storyteller—someone whose words you could get lost in. In late 2014, I asked her if I could video a conversation with her to share on the website…and she agreed, providing a detailed account of her life so far for print and film…but the final product was never published, as she headed back to the frontlines and ‘went dark’ on social media. We touched base from time to time, and I loved that we remained connected even though we were worlds apart. In our last conversation, she said she’d be home in the New Year, and I said how much I was looking forward to seeing her.

We won’t meet again. Jacky was found dead at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport on the weekend and my heart breaks at the thought that this intelligent, passionate, driven woman is no longer of this world. Her words, however, will live on…so there’s perhaps no better tribute than letting Jacky share her own incredible story. This is her life, in her words.

I was born Jacqueline but became Jackie at six when I realised that the only time I heard “Jacqueline” was when I was in trouble. At eight years old I saw a copy of “Jackie” magazine and was enraged that this rubbish had usurped my name. I remember coming back from the High Street clutching my new birthday bag (denim with flowers of course), containing the change from my birthday money and a Beano comic and saying to mum “from now on my name is Jacky with a “y”. It took many years for Angela Robbie to identify the impact of Jackie magazine on British girls of the 70s – I certainly didn’t realise that I was doing anything emancipatory or feminist by rejecting “ie” for “y”. I just knew that lipstick and drooling over people like David Soul were not how I wanted my life to be.

As a child I didn’t really have any aspirations. Vet, perhaps, but my eldest sister had already claimed that role (she is a child psychologist in Holland). Soldier? I wasn’t a boy and girls weren’t allowed to think like that back then. Pilot? Ditto. I do remember telling my best friend that I couldn’t wait to be 40 because by that time I would have gone to university, got married, had two children (Oliver and Charlotte) and have been able to eat chocolate all day and got fat because by then my role in society would have been over (yes, the last 10 words were ironic contemporary editorializing). Actor? Everyone told me that I needed to go to university and that you couldn’t have an acting career and a degree. I still shudder to realise that marital rape was not a criminal offence until 1991 in the UK and that despite the middle class privileges to which I had access, gender equality in the UK was still a distant dream. Journalist? Mmmm – the parameters of that had not been set, and comments on Angela Rippon’s.

I was born in Hertfordshire in an estate built on the former grounds of Hatfield House, which was the childhood exile of Queen Elizabeth I. As estate residents we were given free run of the grounds of the house, and this was a weekend treat. In the summer we would pick blackberries and in the winter dare each other to tread on the frozen lakes. My mother’s ashes are scattered across Hatfield House park; my father’s ashes were inadvertently stolen from my sister’s house in London but in principle he should also be there.

We moved to next door to Essex when I was seven, to the picturesque town of Maldon. This was a new world for me. The streets were narrow, the people spoke really strangely and the water tasted foul. My parents had bought a school because they realised that dad’s job as a sales manager for ICI and mum’s isolation as a mother of four and with post-natal depression were destroying their marriage. I loved being in Maldon and this huge, old house we lived in had many mysteries (like a skull named Alice) and a swimming pool. My parents, for some reason, decided that only my brother Ian should go to Maldon Court, and the three girls should go to the local state primary, All Saints, where we were derided for our posh accents. I spent the first few weeks not knowing what people were saying. After a term my parents took us out of that school and we all went to Maldon Court until Ian went to boarding school at eight years old and kind of disappeared from my life.

One day a parent who owned a large sheep farm turned up at school with three kittens whose mum had been killed by a fox and we adopted the one that no one else wanted. And a few months later my parents agreed to get a dog and we took the runt of a pedigree litter who was going to be killed because his head was too pointy. Tigger the Cat and Charlie the Dog joined our lives and they were very big influences on me – learning to interact with another species and seeing that they share so many emotions with us and are just as intelligent.

At 11 I was accepted to Colchester County High School for Girls. My two sisters went to the local comprehensive school. In those days pupils were segregated according to ability and I was in the “A” stream. It’s a horrible system because it fosters elitism and a sense that intelligence is the only identity marker that matters.

I hated my school. I hated the silly restrictions and the interdictions. I was very good at maths as a child (my dad taught maths) but by the time I was 13 I “hated” maths and was told that as a “Div 4” maths student (out of four divisions) I was not allowed to learn computers but condemned to “Home Economics” – cooking and sewing. Which, needless to say, I flunked.

By the time I was 16 I was miserable inside. I was the only child at home and my mum had decided to come off the valium that she had been prescribed after my brother was born. I had no one to talk to as my school friends were in Colchester so going round to their houses involved cars and buses so I would go for long long walks with Charlie or I would read. I went to boarding school for my final two years of school – it was a vegetarian boarding school and I loved it. It attracted a very odd mix of people – from John Cleese’s daughter to Iranian and Iraqi exiles. There I became very much involved in theatre along with Tanya Webster, whose little brother Jason would also tag along.

I particularly loved Shakespeare – still do – and read every single one of his plays. I went to Warwick University, which is now renowned for its business park but then was one of the hubs of literary studies and was just a few miles from Stratford on Avon. I studied English and American literature and Spanish (Arabic was not an option, which I regret now). During one of my classes I asked why most of the authors we were reading were white males and why we didn’t have any Canadian authors or Native Americans (I used the term Indians at the time). I was told that there weren’t any good Canadian authors and that Indians didn’t write. That spurred me to go and research Canada and I found an organization called Frontiers Foundation that had volunteer opportunities to go and work in Native Canadian communities.

I applied and weeks later I got a letter saying that I had been accepted and that I should come to Toronto. I had graduated with a First Class degree (my Shakespeare paper received the highest mark nationally and members of the Cambridge exam board came to congratulate me) and had worked in bars and shops during my university so had the 400 pounds necessary to fly off. My parents let me – I think they were a bit surprised. I arrived in Toronto airport and there was no one there to meet me. I had the address and saw that there was a tube map with a stop on Danforth Avenue so headed off. I was still thinking like a Brit, however, with my tiny island proportions. I didn’t think that any road could be so long. Eventually I came to a Native Friendship Centre and went in and asked for Frontiers Foundation. They didn’t seem surprised and rang up someone who came to pick me up. I stayed in his basement in Toronto’s Cabbage Town, and the next morning was put on a train to Wabigoon, a non-status Native community (non-status Indians are those whose ancestors did not sign a treaty with the British and are therefore considered wards of the provincial rather than federal government).

I spent two years in Canada – magical time. Went on long walks with the husky/wolf mixes, snow shoed, built houses, sweat lodges, the tremendous power of the female elders .. Long discussions with people about communism, the Miners’ Strike, individual versus communal rights.

I came back to the UK in time for the birth of my first nephew in 1989 and got a scholarship to do an MA in London. I studied constitutional law and wrote my thesis on Native Canadian land rights. It was an exciting time to be doing this as the Meech Lake discussions were ongoing to recognise Native People as a distinctive constitutional entity alongside the English and the French. I got another scholarship that allowed me to go to James Bay to meet the Cree people who had started one of the most momentous revolutions for land rights that led to the confrontations at Kanasetake, Quebec. I got a distinction for the MA and was thinking of going into constitutional law as a profession, but then got involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the UK, specifically the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and worked for the Angolan Embassy. I remember hearing that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait on the radio but I didn’t think much about it because South Africa was losing its war against sanctions.

By this time I was also involved with a man, author and journalist Michael Griffin, who encouraged me to write. We both got contracts with the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development and while in Rome I also wrote for the American Magazine and got a contract with Vatican Radio. I was the English language news presenter for a year, and then I was told that if I wanted a permanent contract I would have to convert to Roman Catholicism by my Jesuit supervisor, Father Anton. I explained as an atheist I couldn’t convert to any religion and while saying I believed was a technicality for me, it was an insult to those who did believe. I had seen in Native Canada how important religion is and while it played no role in my life, it was too important for others to disrespect. Michael and I broke up in Rome and he went back to London. I meanwhile had become friends with an Eritrean producer at Vatican Radio (the Eritreans are majority Christian and managed to finagle funding from the Vatican, Saddam Hussein and protestant missionaries for their revolution). Tewelde challenged me to go to Eritrea and disprove my Leninist theories of secession. So I did.

I spent five years in Eritrea, from 1993 to 1998. I went to BBC and the Economist in London and secured contracts from them to write the quarterly reports and send regular stories. I also helped to set up the Eritrea Profile, the government English language newspaper, working with an inspirational ex-fighter called Abenet Essayas, whose father had been one of the generals killed by Mengistu Heile Mariam in his coup. Abenet had left her middle class life in Addis to join the EPLF as a radio announcer.

Eritrea was another life changing experience. In 1995 Essayas Afewerki’s authoritarianism was beginning to take its toll on civil society – he was a brilliant guerilla leader but not so good at inclusive democracy. I was detained as a spy and deported and many people fled the country. I got an ESRC scholarship to do a PhD at Leeds University, but my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I think I had PTSD from the detention so I was unable to cope. Now there would be counseling, but back then I was given Prozac and told to soldier on. I took Prozac for a month, but it had some seriously weird side effects so I stopped. I heard from some Eritreans that my case was being used in Asmara and Addis to undermine the government. I decided to go back to Asmara to clear things up, and was welcomed back by the then foreign minister and the ministry of fisheries. The mayor of massawa asked me to go to Massawa and work with him, and I set up a library there. While working there I met my husband, Charles, who was working for NCIS and sailed into Massawa.

I stayed for two years in Massawa, but it was difficult to communicate with my family and it was clear that my mother was dying. So I returned again to the UK and found work with the BBC World Service in London and contracts with UNHCR in Yugoslavia, the World Meteorological Organisation (where there is a large picture of my grandfather, Sir Oliver Sutton, on the wall!) and IFAD in between.

Mum died in July 1998. Charles and I got married in August 2000 but we divorced four years later. We separated a year earlier – the invasion of Iraq was a huge issue as I was opposed and he was pro. Dad died suddenly in February 2004 – he had never got over mum’s death and drank himself to death. His liver collapsed and my brother found him dead in a pool of blood.

I was working at the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation by then and had been sent to Afghanistan to set up their information office. I was then offered a job by UNESCO in Iran, which covered Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan and arrived in Tehran in 2005, a week after Ahmadinejad took office. As a British ex-BBC journalist I was of great interest to the Iranian authorities, but I loved my work and was voted as the best international trainer by the Islamic Republic of Iran broadcasting in 2006. Late 2006 a British friend of mine in Kabul was handed over to the Afghan authorities on charges of trying to murder a Muslim. He had uncovered corruption involving UN officials which had resulted in the death of three Afghan children and I knew that they were trying to cover this up. I managed to get him out of prison and out of the country, but in the process the Afghan authorities tried to arrest me and put me in prison in his stead. So I was evacuated from the country – luckily I had two days notice and managed to get my cat, Genghis, smuggled out of the country across the Khyber Pass to Islamabad and she was put on a plane to Ghana, to where I had been transferred.

Genghis joined me in Ghana and the airport officials couldn’t believe that I had paid for this one eyed, no-toothed, raggy eared tabby to come all the way to be with me. But she had stuck with me during my troubles and I wasn’t going to leave her to die an agonizing death by starvation. She lived with me for another five years before I had her euthanized in Baghdad because she had cancer.

I lasted 7 months in Ghana, where I was the UNESCO regional advisor for Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I resigned to work for UNDP in Iraq – lots of reasons but mainly the director of the UNESCO Ghana regional office was mad, racist and corrupt and I was bored. I started an LLM in International Information Technology Law because I had time on my hands!

UNDP Iraq was fantastic. I worked with the election commission and journalists and we did some great things. But being in the Green Zone was really frustrating and working in Gaza (where I was sent for three months to help out after Operation Cast Lead) changed me again. During this time, in the middle of a sandstorm and while being bullied by my supervisor I applied for permanent resident status in Australia. The process of getting the documentation was so time consuming it helped me through the many “white cities” (lock downs). We had mortars coming in to the compound a lot, and I remember being on the phone to a friend in Baghdad when one hit the compound, killing two people and injuring 11. And being in the Rashid Hotel when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs next door was hit by a massive truck bomb. We were in a small room and I got everyone to barricade the door and turn off the lights because every window in the hotel was smashed, there was dust everywhere and soldiers, or perhaps terrorists it wasn’t clear, were running around shooting everyone. We kept very quiet and then when things were calmer rushed out to where our colleagues from the UN security were waiting.

I was head hunted by IREX to be the country director of their programme and spent two years outside the Green Zone in Iraq. Bombings were becoming more frequent and my staff had several lucky escapes – one was late because the cab driver had to clean the body parts of the windshield. One night there was a huge explosion next door and small arms fire and my bodyguards came to wake me to leave – we always had grab bags ready. I got up, brushed my teeth and went back to sleep – this was my reflex action by then because when death is so near and so unexpected there is no use in getting worried by it.

I got my permanent resident visa in April 2011 and had to come to Canberra before December. I had to live two years in ACT so flew in on Melbourne Cup day 2011 on the end of a holiday to New Zealand to see my aunt and her family. I have a large family in NZ. The first of my family came over in 1841 and set up a homestead in the Kaituna Valley outside Christchurch. The house is still there, and the church with my family buried. It is a beautiful place. My aunt came out in 1961 as a young bride from Edinburgh – it was two or three weeks on a ship. She came to the UK with her two children in 1976 and I can remember being so jealous that they had Christmas dinner on the beach!

The IREX programme was funded by the US government and in 2012 there was no more money for an international staff in Baghdad. I got a job with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, IFES, in Iraq and worked again with the election commission. I had wanted to set up in Australia but my nephew had a serious illness that required specialist treatment that my sister could not afford, so I stayed on to help with the bills. In addition my brother and his wife had finally had a baby (it was a difficult birth and Olivia required emergency care but she is fine and a future world leader now) and my brother had given up a very lucrative career as a chef so he could spend time with his family. He has never forgiven my parents for sending him away at eight and spends all the time he can with his wife and daughter.

My first weeks here were terrifying. I hadn’t been on a bus for ages, or on a bike. There were thunderstorms and I often woke up thinking I was back in Baghdad with the bomb blasts. But I was also worried about employment as I knew absolutely no one.

I did a RedR course and that was great – one of the scenarios involves situations that were completely normal to me (I won’t go into details because we have been asked not to) and I felt quite at home. I also got a scholarship at ANU to do a PhD and a part time contract working for the Australian National Committee for UN Women. I have done one year out of the mandatory two years for the permanent residency requirement and will be going off to Baghdad and Kabul next year – possibly Kabul at the end of this month. I am also a member of Vegan ACT, and this is important to me. I see animal rights as the next great struggle, along with disability and gender rights. This might insult some people but I don’t see the three as inseparable – how society treats its most marginalised is an important indicator and brutality in the slaughterhouse is reflected in brutality in the home.

That wasn’t the end of Jacky’s story. She sent me an email from Erbil in June.

Hi from Erbil, where it is hot, dusty and seems a world away from front lines. Having said that, I visited an IDP camp yesterday filled with people from Mosul and Beiji in the north; we run the “Iraqi Network for Youth for Peace” to try to help young people tell their stories. It was heartbreaking – and this is one of the better, smaller camps. It really brings it home to you when a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city like Mosul ends up being an abattoir. And this is a vegan talking …

The economy is definitely suffering here, which may not be a bad thing in retrospect were it not for the glaring and growing disparity in wealth. The Diwan hotel is still offering USD250 Iftar buffets and a spa and gym club. Exxon has taken over the top two floors and there are Cartier watches and lotsa bling (serious bling, with emeralds and rubies) in the foyer. Meanwhile some mothers and babies have managed to defy the Peshmerga and are selling single pieces of chewing gum at the traffic lights.

On the plus side, if there was one, the mad, rampant construction has slowed down, in some places stopped entirely. There are skeletal high rises with tarps forlornly flapping in the dust – these were housing displaced people but they have all been moved to the camps.

I’m in a hotel at the moment – a low key one with hardly any guests. The accommodation that had been prepared was basically one room and a bathroom above the office with only one door in and out, and that off the street. So if someone came in uninvited I was trapped and, as my Kurdish friends said, “It just needs one whacko to hear in the Friday prayers that killing foreigners is jihad, and they’ll come knocking at your door in a heartbeat.” Erbil has grown but everyone knows where the foreigners are staying. So I am going to stay in the hotel until next week when I will move in with some Kurdish friends who live in a gated community. If Daesh wants to attack they will but it will take planning and I won’t be THE target; if the whacko wants to get to heaven he or she will have to contend with armed guards and a choice of targets, and the same with criminal kidnappers – a growth industry in Iraq.

It’s great to be back here and my friends in both Baghdad and Erbil have been calling me pretty much non-stop.

I won’t be posting on FB too much because there is no point in drawing attention to myself and my colleagues, but I will be keeping a diary and would love to write something for you once I get back to Australia. Ideally I’d like to do a “postcard from Erbil” but you never know who is reading HC …

Sadly, that postcard from Erbil will never eventuate, and if Jacky’s friends’ beliefs about the circumstances surrounding her death are true, her concerns about not sharing her location on social media were very valid.

Vale Jacky, I will miss you…but I will always have your words to comfort me. 


The Institute for War & Peace Reporting have released this statement on Jacky’s death. In it, they state “Based on an extensive review of the information provided by Turkish authorities, the family of Jacky Sutton and IWPR have reached the preliminary conclusion that no other parties were involved in her death.”

Jacky’s friend, Katherine Harrington, will be holding a get-together from 4-6pm this Monday 26 October at Tilley’s Devine Cafe in Lyneham. This is not a memorial service, and we understand the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies will be holding a formal service in November. It is more just a chance for people from all facets of Jacky’s life to meet one another and talk about what has happened. 

Please contact Katherine at arame2@hotmail.com for more information.

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6 Responses to Jacky Sutton: A Life

Tony from Australia says: 20 October, 2015 at 7:23 am

It appears that Jacky
Sutton may have been too principled to survive in this world posted and tweeted as follows under my incognito adopted when still an Australian public servant.
Joseph Kurtz @joe_K67:disqus @HerCanberra
AW JSutton apears 2B principld persn but+doer hav post Ur great articl
@CraigMurrayOrg site X-ambsador
Craig Murray was an UK Ambassador who was cashiered and smeared for having principles and speaking
“truth to power” which he continues to do. The people who comment on his site range across the spectrum and can be a bit self-righteous and sectarian. However [Making
a huge generalisation] most would subscribe to the Chomsky propaganda model and world view.

Leda says: 20 October, 2015 at 6:55 pm

thank you so much for making Jackie’s story available. It is such a fitting and perfect tribute to reveal the story of a outwardly modest woman leading such a contributing and exciting on-the-edge life. I was a fellow PhD student with Jacky at ANU and had had a few chats with her, plus interacted with her at various events. She was wonderful, so active and committed to helping the world. I am deeply suspicious about her death, a shock for someone so vibrant.
I never realised the depth of Jacky’s life experience, I’m inspired. Thank god someone ‘got the story’ of a quiet but brave heroine out. Thank you. RIP Jacky – a life so fully lived and thank you for all you did for others.

LittleOakSanctuary says: 21 October, 2015 at 9:48 am

Heartbroken to hear of Jacky’s passing, what an amazing activist for both human and animal kind. So beautiful to hear her story in her own words, thankyou for sharing.

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