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Career

Paula Penfold's fight for justice

The journalist is intent on uncovering the Kiwi link to the death of seven Afghan babies. "It's depressing, this job, but there is a responsibility to tell people's stories," she says.

By Hayley McLarin
Standing at the top of a valley overlooking Afghanistan's snow-capped mountains, journalist Paula Penfold tried to focus on the majestic view to fight back her tears.
But the sight of three mothers kissing their young children's graves was so powerful, she started to cry.
"When the mothers came up the hill towards that cemetery, where their seven children were buried, and started kissing the gravestones and kissing the flags and crying – I just had to walk away. I couldn't handle it. I cried like I have never cried before on a story," she recalls.
The sight of these mothers mourning their children at the cemetery brought Paula to tears.
"Other people's grief, especially when they are mothers, especially when their children are so little… I found it really hard to deal with."
A mum-of-two herself, Paula could only imagine how she would feel if she lost a child in an avoidable accident – and that galvanised her determination to seek justice for the women. Paula was part of an investigative team that had travelled to Bamyan to look into allegations of a fatal legacy left behind by the New Zealand Defence Force.
"That was the beginning of the filming and made me more determined to get answers – to hold those who are responsible accountable for what happened to their children," she says.
Their investigations form a documentary published on stuff.co.nz that implicates the New Zealand Defence Force in the deaths of the seven young children – three from one family.
In Afghanistan in 2017.
Paula and her Stuff Circuit colleagues spent 10 days in what is deemed the most dangerous country in the world.
"We were there in 2017 for 'The Valley', that looked at New Zealand's deployment to Afghanistan over 10 years," she explains.
"I didn't imagine we'd ever go back, even though the country is particularly beautiful and the people are wonderful."
To prepare for this recent trip, the group was given intensive first-aid training, including learning how to inject fluids such as medication directly into bone, along with self-defence training and situational awareness preparation. While away, the group always wore protective vests and rarely left each other's sight.
"We did a lot of training to be vigilant about what's around you," she tells. "We do careful scrutiny of where we stay and this time there was a sniper on the roof to protect the guests, as well as armed guards on the ground. That was a step up from when we were there last – it was a palpable sign that things have got worse."
Paula on her risky recent return to Afghanistan.
Before the trip, Paula spoke with her two children – Ben, 19, and Maia, 17 – whose father is Three broadcaster Mike McRoberts.
"They understand why it's important to me to tell these stories," says Paula.
"It's not easy for them, and the older they get the more difficult it is because they understand what is going on. But they see the bigger picture."
They also supported Paula's decision to reveal she had an abortion at 21, as part of her investigation into the abortion law reform bill earlier this year. In that Stuff Circuit documentary, she confronted the male doctor who refused his approval for her to have the procedure.
"I knew if I was going to talk about it publicly, I needed to tell my children about it in advance," she says. "When Maia watched the doco, she said, 'That's so cool Mum.' I love that my 17-year-old thought that. I like to do things that are meaningful for my kids' generation to hopefully help effect change for the things that are important to them."
"The results of the abortion story had a bigger impact on me than anything I have done – even now, months down the track, women want to tell me their abortion story. It feels like you have done something useful.
"There are different opinions on whether the law should be reformed or not. I felt that if I needed to take a bit of stick – and some was nasty and cruel – that's OK. I talked about my case because the law is the same now as it was introduced 40 years ago. It's wrong that there's paternalistic medical intervention that states what a woman can or cannot do with her body."
Justice is an unintentional yet strong theme of much of her work, and Paula has an unwavering moral compass.
She was among the group of journalists who stoically fought to overturn Teina Pora's guilty verdict for the murder of Susan Burdett, in a five-year crusade.
"It was just so wrong what happened to him," she asserts. "It's not easy for him – he was completely institutionalised after 21 years, from the age of 17. I'm still in touch."
Paula's still in touch with with Teina, who she fought to be released from jail.
She also keeps in contact with Kura Kaufusi, whose adopted son Ngatikaura Ngati was returned to his birth mother and her partner.
Six weeks later the three-year-old was dead after being beaten with an oar.
"That interview with his adoptive mother Kura was not dissimilar to the women in that Afghan cemetery," tells Paula, who was then a producer for 60 Minutes. "Other people's grief affects you. She cried all the way through that interview, and so did I. I wasn't the reporter – I was the producer and off camera I was sniffling away.
"It's depressing, this job, but there is a responsibility to tell people's stories," she says.
To unwind, Paula likes to meditate, go for a walk or a run, or spend time with her new partner.
She smiles, "I am seeing somebody and that is a really nice way to spend my time outside work. He is a builder and really loving and supportive, and authentic and gentle. He is a really nice man with a strong sense of right and wrong."
Now 50, Paula celebrated the milestone by taking Ben and Maia to Vietnam and Cambodia "as a present to myself".
She concludes, "I feel in a good, positive place and stage of my life. Sometimes I have this fantasy of having a clothes store because I like fashion, but in reality I can't imagine doing anything else as there are so many other stories I want to tell."

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