Chippenham mum balances her work in war-torn Afghanistan with life back home

This Is Wiltshire: Melanie Smart with the British Ambassador to Kabul, Sir Richard Stagg, and Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqqi Melanie Smart with the British Ambassador to Kabul, Sir Richard Stagg, and Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqqi

Melanie Smart has a tougher time balancing her career and home life than most mums.

It’s not just because she has four daughters, aged between ten and 20 – it’s because she regularly commutes to the capital city of Afghanistan for her work with the Foreign and Common-wealth Office.

Ms Smart, who lived in Chippenham for most of her life before moving to Canterbury, is the head of press at the British Embassy in Kabul, dealing with the strong media attention on the troubled country.

But Ms Smart, a former student of Chippenham’s Hardenhuish School, said Afghanistan is not the war-torn ruin many British people imagine it is.

“My job here is just amazing – of all the jobs I have done, this is the one where I feel I am making the biggest difference,” she said.

“I deal with both the international press and with the media in this country. The Afghanistan you see in the headlines is not the one I know.”

Ms Smart, who is separated from her husband, started her career with the Ministry of Defence before transferring to the foreign office. She has worked in Washington, Bulgaria, London and Saudi Arabia before taking on her latest role in Kabul, and from October next year will be the deputy head of mission in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Her two youngest daughters, ten-year-old Sydney and 11-year-old Madison, who attend a boarding school in Kent, grew up speaking fluent Bulgarian as a result of their four-and-a-half years in the country.

Despite her travels around the globe, all of Ms Smart’s girls were born in the Royal United Hospital in Bath and she keeps in touch with them over Skype in the evenings from her ‘pod’, the reinforced shipping container she calls home.

“I am really proud of all of them,” she said. “They are more like good friends than daughters – sometimes they are even giving me dating advice.

“But they do worry about me,” she added. Kabul has experienced a number of high-profile Taliban attacks in Ms Smart’s time at the embassy.

“Two weeks after I arrived, the US embassy just down the road was attacked. I had to get into hard cover with the rest of the embassy. You could hear the sound of small arms and rockets flying overhead.”

However, Ms Smart describes the people of Afghanistan as incredibly warm and friendly.

“The deputy ambassador here until recently was a highly experienced female diplomat, and I went along with her to a women’s school. We had the chance to talk to young Afghan girls. Ten years ago, these girls wouldn’t have even been able to go to school, but I was listening to them speak in perfect English about their hopes and dreams.”

Ms Smart’s career highlights include arranging the media programme around the visit of David Cameron to the country last month, and she will soon pay a visit to Number 10 to speak to the Prime Minister’s press office.

Ms Smart spends six weeks in Kabul, followed by two free weeks, when she returns home to see her children.

“There have been times when it has been incredibly sad and challenging. But there is a balance with the days when we see such positive change,” she said.

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