Why civilians are the biggest losers in wars, through the lens of a Lebanese-American who survived 1980s Beirut as a child.
– PERSPECTIVE –
The end of the hallway in our condo, right by the front door, behind the walls of the building façade, the living room, and the hallway itself. The staircase leading to the front door, not on the landing, but closer to the elevator shaft with the added wall layers it afforded. These were the two locations my parents drilled into us, my sister and me, to run to. The purpose was to sit behind as many walls as possible if we didn’t have enough time to get to the underground bomb shelter — a luxury not many people had — should the bombing suddenly resume. To this day, indoor stairs remain my favorite place to sit and read, or to just be alone with my thoughts. They feel safe; I feel at peace.
Not this past week though. An overwhelming sense of helplessness has taken over peace. Pictures and videos of the senseless invasion of Ukraine and reports of the increasing number of casualties have triggered memories and emotions. Watching hundreds of people huddled in a subway station, parents clutching their children and their pets, feels all too familiar. I see my mother’s face in every mother holding a baby and fighting back tears, and I see my father in every man’s anxious eyes. I know what they’re thinking… I’ve talked to my parents endlessly about their experience having three daughters to protect. They are my heroes. My mom, with her rosary and miniature statue of the Virgin Mary; my dad, who had little faith in prayers and an inflated one in his ability to protect us. He was and is still a superman to me, and he most probably felt like one at the time. Parents are war heroes.
I was born in Beirut into the Lebanese Civil War in 1981. And while the war ended when I was 10 years old, in 1991, the psychological damage never went away. It never will. Once a child of war, always a child of war. The trauma resurfaces when I least expect it because I never know what will trigger it.
When the pandemic first started in March of 2020, I made a stop at a local supermarket to grab a few things before lockdown. Walking toward the paper goods aisle and arriving at completely emptied shelves, I found myself crying hysterically. I picked up my cell and called my husband, but I could barely find the words to describe the feeling. It was wartime all over again, and the empty shelves meant lack of safety. I realized right there and then how vulnerable life was again, and the uncertainty of it all shook me to the core. Friends around me joked about it, but I couldn’t participate in the shared humor. I probably should have, for my own sanity.
We’re all glued to our screens watching the horror unfold right before our eyes in Ukraine, but the sight is that much more painful and gut-wrenching for me, as I’m sure it is for every person who has been through a war: Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Rwandans, Polish, and the list goes on. Every one of them probably denounces the current conflict, because we all know there are no winners in wars. History has taught us better than to believe that nonsense. Civilians pay with their homes and their psyches, with their jobs and their livelihoods, while the powerful reap the benefits. The greed of the mighty is despicable, and their ego is abhorrent.
As a 10-year-old, I didn’t know it was an abnormal reality to spend most of one’s childhood in a war zone.
I lost my very first pet to war; I almost lost my dad that day, too. He and I had proudly saved an abused kitten together; we nursed her back to health, feeding her milk with plastic syringes as her broken leg bones recovered in makeshift casts we built with sticks and tape. I named her Minette and let her hide in my fuzzy slipper, where she felt the happiest once she could limp her way to my bedroom. She was fragile and broken, and I think I was too, in a sense, which made me all the more determined to protect her.
That evening, the familiar warnings of impending bombing sent us all down to the shelter. We had all gone eerily quiet, listening as each little boom announced the launching of a rocket, followed by distant whistling that marked its trajectory and caused terrorizing anticipation of its landing. It was the louder whistling that always put everyone on edge and sent kids into crying fits, me included, while parents wondered if this would be it, the time they would all get blown into smithereens.
And then it happened. The explosion, the screaming, the acrid smell of chemicals mixed with incinerated things, the thick smoke burning my eyes, and my mom yelling for my dad. He was standing by the little window where the rocket landed. I was certain I had lost him. Through the ringing in my ears and the water-soaked napkin placed over my nose and mouth to manage a few breaths, I saw my dad shoving his way through the panicked residents, tears running down his cheeks and arms wide open to hug us all. No one got hurt that night, but no one was the same afterwards either. We fled to the mountains above Beirut a few days later.
As a 10-year-old, I didn’t know it was an abnormal reality to spend most of one’s childhood in a war zone. People should not have to go through this to appease the vanity of evil warlords. The Lebanese joke that we are the happiest depressed people on earth. I am sure this applies to every population that has seemingly recovered from a war. We go about our days and are fine on the surface, but the indelible trauma left by an insurmountable fear of death — be it death by bombs or death by an angry officer at a checkpoint — is the background in the paintings of our lives. It was constantly around the corner, and the trick was to know when to avoid turning that corner.
If I’ve learned anything from my motherland’s still-tumultuous years, it’s that families are shattered in vain. Politicians deal the cards and negotiate behind the scenes. Troops and civilians alike are considered collateral. Human life has no value in this context; lost lives are the means to an end, a pathetic and infuriating, muscle-flexing end. The Russian invasion and the Ukrainian suffering are no exception.
I found Minette dead in my slipper that following morning. I wailed, I screamed, I cursed the soldiers… a little girl, mad at her own helplessness, at the unfairness of the world, at the cruelty of humans. My father helped me build a tiny cross, and we buried her in a shoebox. Minette’s was the first funeral I ever attended, with a prayer, a eulogy, and all.
I remember sitting on the futon mattress in the bomb shelter and imagining what each bullet was piercing, a human or a wall, wondering what that pain felt like and if people knew it when they were dying.
In 2006, I had just moved with my husband from Los Angeles to San Clemente, in Orange County, CA, not too far from Camp Pendleton. Little did I know that it was military-training central. Without any warning, I found myself one day under the dining table, arms wrapped around my head and ears while kneeling facedown on the floor. Once a child of war, always a child of war. It was a low-flying warplane going over our community, and I was paralyzed. All I could do was cry and pray. Silly, I know; I was well aware of my environment and that a war hadn’t suddenly broken out in the middle of Southern California, but the unexplainable crippling fear was so real, I was back in 1986 and my mind was racing to find the safest spot… “as many layers as possible.”
Today, I think of the Ukrainian families in Kyiv and those attempting to flee on foot in the frigid outdoors at the border. I think about the hungry children and the desperate adults. I pray that nonprofits are able to deliver basic supplies, but also know that under the intense shelling, these missions are not always timely. What are the children thinking? How are they feeling? I remember sitting on the futon mattress in the bomb shelter and imagining what each bullet was piercing, a human or a wall, wondering what that pain felt like and if people knew it when they were dying. No six-, seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old should have to ponder that question. One of my sister’s friends in the building played the guitar and would sing as loudly as possible when the bombing intensified so we could all find refuge in something universally beautiful in the midst of all that ugliness.
Oh, how vain must one be to justify the horrific end of children, women, men, and the elderly for the sole purpose of quenching one’s thirst for more power and fortune.
How egotistical must one be to decide it is time for others to perish on the frontlines.
Unprovoked, untouched, and unbothered, yet determined to wreak havoc and monstrously take away human lives in the name of authority.
Families mourned loved ones, mothers sobbed over their children’s and husbands’ graves, some perhaps appeased by the thought of a sacrifice well justified for the good of their beloved country, while rotten leaders plotted behind closed doors and negotiated deals that kept their bank accounts afloat and cemented their positions in power. Those same rivals have shaken hands many times since then and let bygones be bygones, while people’s lives were ruined for good.
The detrimental effects of stress and anxiety are long-lasting. My mother tells me that she lost her ability to focus on details in everyday life very early on and was rendered unable to remember most things, from items on a to-do list to words she read in a magazine or recipes she tried to learn. She took to wearing odd things on her wrist to help remember certain tasks, laughing at her sad attempts.
Along with mental health challenges, war brings physical health issues. People are inhaling toxic gasses on a daily basis and will later be growing crops in toxin-laden soils. I have not read about the long-term consequences of this particular aspect, but my family has lost and currently knows many loved ones with various types of cancer.
As a child, I cried myself to sleep on the hallway floor more times than I can count, helped build a sandbag wall, walked through a landmine-riddled street to flee the city, learned to calculate the approximate time I had to run to the bomb shelter from the second a missile was launched, went to the bathroom in cans and bottles behind a flimsy sheet, and understood that rationing was a necessity and being hungry was not the end of the world. Dying was.
This is not a pity party, but rather a little peek into the vanity of wars. The day I lost my kitten was the day I fully realized that merciless people existed. I can’t even imagine how others go on when it’s humans they lose to war. As I got older and understood how religion tore my country apart, I also decided that religion was not for me. No reason is good enough to cause the misery and deaths of the innocent. No god, no land, not any resource is indispensable enough to justify bloodshed.
Civilians should not be involved in any conflict. If the warlords are intent on waging fights, they should “take it outside.” Go have your fistfights and draw your guns at one another away from the rest of us. Some might join you out there, but that’ll be their decision, not yours. Pawns are for board games, not real life.