Forty Years and Counting

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A B khan

Luxury cars fluttering with country flags, surrounded by body guards and a red carpet welcome; from afar, a life of an ambassador looks too good to be true. Little, one does know how many storms’ this position has weathered in past decades pregnant with personal sacrifices to reach the end of the tunnel.  Istvan Szabo, the Hungarian ambassador to Pakistan is no different.  Ambassador Szabo was posted to Pakistan in 2012 and now after eight fulfilled years, his time has come to hang his boots as he reached his age of suppuration last year.

As we sat in his living room to talk about his stay in Pakistan over a cup of coffee, Ambassador Szabao and his wife Emilia who is also a diplomat by profession and Head of Counselor section in Hungarian embassy, Islamabad boarded the nostalgic bandwagon which took us back to the future. “It was forty years ago, on 1st March 1980 that I joined Foreign Service in Budapest, Hungry where my wife to be was already working” informs the ambassador as we switch the recording button “ON”.

Life was not all bed of roses for the ambassador during his illustrious carrier but lady luck was on his side from the very beginning. His first assignment was United Nations desk at the head office which took him around the world and provided an opportunity to be part and parcel of the discussions, decisions and policies- making; reshaping the world order.

UN General Assembly, New York was the epicenter for the new world order and Ambassador Sazabio was always present at the helm of the affairs. In his mid twenties, traveling around the globe, brushing shoulders with who’s who of the diplomatic community and  drafting MOU’s  was not less than a dream come true for any young Hungarian diplomat at the start of his career, Istvan Szabo was that lucky star.

After initialing spending first four years in Budapest as part of the job requirement, the couple  got their first posting abroad and it was not very good news.  They arrived in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria along with their first born son at a time when the African horn was troublesome news. Armed robberies, street crimes, extreme poverty, military   dictatorship and scarce food supply were the order of the day.

 “It was a hard posting and we had to manage things with great difficulty” adds Emalia.  After spending four years and welcoming their second son into the world while in Lagos, the couple moved back to Budapest and stayed at the head office for two years before being posted out to Cairo, Egypt.  The ambassador narrates fond memories of Cairo. They travelled around the country, digged into ancient Egyptian history and made friends while stationed in   Nile city.

Once back home, ambassador Szabo was assigned a very challenging task. “When I returned to Budapest, at that time Hungry was President of OSCE, (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and it gave me a good opportunity to travel in Europe and learn about the European polices from a diplomats perspective” he informs with a smile.

It was turning point in the history of Europe. The war in Balkans, Dayton Peace Process, disintegration of Yugoslavia, Europe was the nerve center of the new world order as things were moving with great dynamism between 1994 and 1995” ambassador explains.

Now deeply involved in policy making with  an enriched experience  and so many Accords, MOU’s and bilateral, unilateral agreements under his belt, ambassador Szabo opted for a posting in Brussels, Belgium looking after an important  NATO assignment .” It was a very important position at that time and my experience at UN desk and OSCE make handy.  Nato became an integral part of the process of annexation negotiations and its intervention in Serbia, during Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic rule became part of my resume”, he informs.

After playing a decisive role during the NATO posting, ambassador Szabo wished to opt for a   relatively calmer station and again thank to his lucky stars, he got his first ambassadorial posting in Prague, the Czech Republic. The couple went happily, leaving their two teenage sons in Budapest to continue their higher education. “I wanted a quiet and relaxed position after spending too much time in policy matters so Prague was the best option. It was close to home so we left our now teenaged sons in Budapest to continue their high education and made frequent visits to home” he adds. . In 2008 Ambassador was back home for four years working as Director General Balkans desk.

“It was in 2012 , one  afternoon, the deputy Secretary of State who was my boss called me. He just asked me directly over the phone, what would you say Yes or No on posting to Pakistan as ambassador.  Since I had never been to Asia and my profile was more of a policy issue expert especially during the Balkans, Nato, OSCE Presidency so I asked him to give me a week or so to discuss with my family. He said ok, you have till tomorrow” informs ambassador laughingly.

 “Arriving in Pakistan was a pleasant surprise. I had never served in Asia so I was also excited but at the same time, skeptical. Pakistan in 2012 was griping with democratic form of government after a militarily rule. Terrorism, blasts, no-go areas and restrictions on diplomatic movements was not happy news.  It took us a few years to settle down comfortably as things started to claim down and Pakistan moved into a much peaceful station as years passed by” ambassador informs .

As the couple was inching towards end of their four year posting term, the rules at the Foreign Office, Budapest changed from 4 year posting to five years. The couple got one more year life line in Islamabad.  “My age of retirement was approaching  in two  years time so I requested my boss, that If you are happy with my performance, I would like to stay two more years in Islamabad  and retire from here and they accepted it” he  adds while narrating how 4 years turned into 8 years in Islamabad. You are still short of one year? I asked.  “The last eighth year was an extension” he informs laughingly.

In the last eight years, the diplomatic duo, made many Pakistani friends, they were seen on private dinners, events wedding of Pakistani families.  Travelling was their favorite hobby and northern areas were their Mecca.”We are just spell bound by the beauty of Northern Areas especially Shijar, Khuplo, Dosaei Lands. The landscape is breathtaking” said the mesmerized couple.

Ambassador Szbao extensively travelled for his work assignments and many a times his wife Emilia accompanied him. “I had visited Faisalabad, Sialkot, Gujar Khan and other business hubs to explore opportunities of trade between Hungry and Pakistan. I had even gone up to South Punjab and mystified by the grandeur of Cholistan Desert” he informs.

The couple takes back home, very fond memories of Pakistan with them apart from   truck art furniture and other artifacts. “The cultural values and norms in Pakistani traditions are so well intertwined that it leaves one fogged.  Whenever there is trouble, I see Pakistani people rushing to help each other. There is so much unity and solidarity and willingness to help each other in time of need that is still beyond my imagination.  Having said that the couple also stressed that the country and the government needs to prioritize education facilities in Pakistan. Emila departing note was for the women of the rural areas to learn and educate themselves. “I see many educated women working in offices and private sector companies; I also meet women parliamentarians who are in large number now but when I meet the rural women especially the ones living in northern parts they need attention. They are confined to their houses and do not know a much about the outside world leave alone their rights. This needs to be changed” adds Emilia.

Both Ambassador Szabo and wife Emilia plan to settle down in their ancestral house in Budapest which has been refurbished already once they arrive back. Emilia wants to spend a couple of years in Budapest before accepting her foreign posting.