What happened to my home? 5 stresses that war brought to a happy 8-year-old.
Posted February 23, 2012
Some months ago an article I posted on my blog drew a remarkable number of fascinating comments. One of them especially intrigued me:
"I have had my good share of stress in childhood ... The stress I am referring to was from a war tearing apart my country when I was 8, and my entire family getting chased out of our homes into perpetual refugee status around the world. We moved to 4 different countries before I was 14. But before I was 8 and happily sucking away I had a storybook childhood some kids only dream of."
I responded by asking the author of the comment if she would be willing to write about her experiences growing up as a child of war. It's my privilege now to share this story from Lily Everlast (pen name) with you.
It's the late eighties in Europe. Shoulder pads and mullets are giving way to denim jackets and acid-washed jeans. Life is good. I love taking frequent family picnic trips where my dad and uncles pick mushrooms and I run around with my older brother and cousins. Dad has been talking about buying a weekend house in the mountains where I could have horses and I am about to get two German shepherd dogs. I am very excited about them as I want to be a vet one day.
I live in a four bedroom apartment on the second floor of a four-story building overlooking a river walk lined with big shady linden trees, their fragrant blooms and leaves reaching into my bedroom window. On the opposite side of my building, about a block down the street, is a tall city hall building opposite the city's College of Philosophy that my mom graduated from.
Behind the college within walking distance is the National Museum of natural history, one of my playgrounds and where my dad and his brothers used to play as kids. Right in front of my building is my preschool at the bottom floor of a high rise with a kiddie playground in front of it. I scraped my knees there countless times, I picked raspberries from the bush behind the playground and ate walnuts that had just fallen to the ground in their big green prickly shells.
I learned to drive my purple bike somewhere between the river walk and the city hall. I rode my roller skates in circles from home, on by the river, to the museum, then to the college and back home by the city hall. I walked through the city to school a few blocks away, and loved going for longer walks to my cousins' or my grandparents' further in the city center. It was a blissful childhood many kids only dream of. Until....
#1 Stressor - Conflict
I woke up to the sound of gunshots coming from across the river, some two hundred feet away. Armed men in uniforms were shooting at a fleeing car for some reason. I am utterly confused. Did that really just happen? I walked into the living room where my bewildered parents were watching the breaking news. My question was: "So, no school today?" Yes, I'm only eight and I just want to make sure that I get a day off while the silly adults have their "war". I thought this was just a temporary thing and it must be over in a few days.
I remember my brother and I peeking out of our window with our toy helmets and binoculars, playing war commandos when my mom shrieked at us to get away from the windows. We didn't go near windows for a long time after that. They all got boarded up, which was a lame excuse for protection when the bullets and shrapnel came blasting in piercing our furniture then lodging themselves into the various walls of our home. Apparently we were on the front lines of fire between two sides dividing themselves with the river as a mote.
A sniper made himself at home in the abandoned apartment above ours, which meant we were now an active target for destruction. After the gas pipes of our heating system got shot up it was high time to leave our home. In a crouched over hustle expecting sniper fire from somewhere above we ran into a van that took us to my grandparents' two bedroom apartment on the third floor of a residential building in the center of the city. This was meant to be a bit safer. We were not getting shot at as often but we certainly did not escape the grenades and bullets.
It is here where I first come face to face with a home version of the conflict brewing everywhere outside. It's all a faded memory now but I remember my dad's and my grandpa's voices raising, no idea what they were talking about exactly but it was either politics or religion or both. They obviously didn't agree and grandpa became so enraged he ran into the kitchen pulled a carving knife and started charging at my dad who was leaving out the door. I cried in my mom's arms in the hallway watching daddy go down the stairs asking where he's going and if he'd take me with him. He just yelled he'll be back for us.
Understanding conflict like this was almost impossible at the age of eight. Realizing people can get so angry with each other about ideas and beliefs as to want to hurt each other over them was possibly my first step towards swearing off political or religious stands later in life, but also towards open-mindedness and respect. I never resented my grandpa for doing what he did, I still loved him just the same, just like my dad, I only wish they had it in them to have respect for each other's opinions and agreed to disagree. Just as I wish the war-waging parties had done and spared so many families in the process.
# 2 Stressor - Fear of loss of life
I don't remember even trying to understand all the violence surrounding us. Why people were killing each other, why innocent people and children were dying in the streets... I took it as a fact of life at the time. The entire building running down into the basement when the firing starts was a fact of life. Not being able to get bread was a fact of life. Not going outside was a fact of life. The sound of fighter jets meaning death and destruction was a fact of life. Terrified screams and cries of people shot or dismembered carrying all the pain and fear with them straight into your soul were just facts of life. Coming back upstairs from the basement and finding your makeshift bed in the dining room covered with glass and shrapnel was a fact of life. Knowing you might not live for much longer was a fact of life.
After a while dad did come back for us and we moved to his brother's larger apartment not far away from my grandparents'. It was a bit more tucked in and on the second floor, so a little bit less exposed to gunfire. There my brother and I joined our two cousins. Going through the war together seemed to be a bit easier as our older cousin is three years my senior and kept us occupied with games of all sorts. We formed a theater group called Four Musketeers and performed plays we came up with for our parents and even for the neighborhood. But even with that sort of relief the threat of life loss was constant and we were all very well aware of it every minute of every day.
I remember my brother getting ingrown toenails that required medical attention so dad took him to the hospital. The day was quiet so far but we all knew that can change without notice at any time. They were gone for a while and we were expecting them back any minute, but instead of their footsteps we heard gunfire. The temporary truce was over once again and the boys were back at it.
The sinking feeling in your gut when you realize your loved ones may not make it home is cold and paralyzing. It's hard to remember any details now other than the relief I felt when they finally did hustle through the door. My brother was limping, his feet covered in bandages. His toe nails had been pulled completely out without anesthetics. He was no more than ten at the time, and was hurting so badly trying to walk home but he left the pain behind him and ran as fast as he could while gunfire blasted all around. Fearing for my family was always worse for me then being faced with possibility of my own demise.
After some nine months in the midst of the war zone our parents managed to get us onto a bus convoy for women and children heading for another country north of ours. This included only my mom, my dad's sister, my older cousin, my brother and me. My dad and his brother were to stay in the war with no real prospects of getting out while my younger cousin and my aunt, her mom, were to go somewhere else. Saying goodbye was hard, but we knew it was a rare chance for survival. We were off with a heavy air of somberness and worry about leaving our homes and heading for the complete uncertainty and unknown.
We got a jolt somewhere on the way out of the war zone. A group of armed men had stopped our buses. I was sitting somewhere in the middle, on the left side of the bus. All I remember now is a deep husky voice of a man yelling at the open door at the front of the bus. He was saying we were all to get slaughtered. The rest of the trip is now buried somewhere deep in my mind and I'm not sure how to dig it up. Some things are perhaps better left in the past. Being told our throats should be slashed by knives seemed surreal then, but the expressions on the adults' faces made it real and not just something you hear in the movies.
# 3 Stressor - Loss of dignity
We did not die that day. We luckily kept on going and made it safely to the new peaceful country. This was scary, unwanted, and resented by the eight year old girl who just wanted her home. There were two buses full of women and children of all ages wondering about this military camp turned refugee camp in the middle of the dark gloomy woods in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Trading a bus seat for a military cot was great until the initial exhaustion passed. Then it was cold and stiff and grey and it wasn't home.
A child is a very malleable and resilient thing and this too became a fact of life. It was very humbling but not as humbling as getting a medical exam. I can hardly recall details except the feeling of shame and disgust as we were told to drop our pants so stool samples could be collected with long q-tips. It felt like being treated like live stock. I had the image of a cow with a vet's hand up her behind. I felt stripped of all dignity by that simple medical procedure. It was that and seeing all the adults in this hopeless submissive state ever since we got on that bus that was a defining moment in realizing I am now a refugee. To be treated as homeless and in need of charity, which we now were.
# 4 Stressor - Adjustments to new lives and languages
After a while we were all transferred to a bit more dignified refugee center. An old horse stable turned hotel turned refugee center was now filled with refugees from our convoy. Life began taking a turn for better, safer. We were still living in small quarters, a family per room, so the five of us shared a room, but we each had our own bed which was more than appreciated. In the mean time my dad and his brother managed to escape the war zone barely making it with a group of reporters. Dad had arranged an apartment in the capital of our new country and so we moved after a few months spent at the new refugee camp.
None of us spoke the new language, and it was time for my cousin, bother and I to go back to school. I never attended third grade. First day, fourth grade, I am handed off to a middle aged lady with short wavy dark hair. She has a bit of a man like face, but she's exceedingly nice and talking to me in her language which I don't understand except for some intonations like if she's asking me a question or telling me where something was. She took me down a long wide hallway past classrooms with closed doors as class had already started. I was nervous, naturally, but the fact that I didn't speak the language was perhaps helpful because I could just sit quietly without being asked any questions or being put in the spotlight. And so I did, from the background I gradually learned the new language. At nine years old this drastic change in life happened somewhat seamlessly, the language was absorbed quickly and friendships followed.
Life became somewhat normal again but when the night came and it was time to sleep one phrase was constantly bouncing in my head: "I want to go home." Repeatedly, night after night, at the beginning it was a teasing feeling in my chest and core, that homesick feeling, but with time it turned into sort of a background noise in my mind. I still have it. Every now and then it creeps back in my mind. I should mention I have yet to live more than three years in one same residence, twenty years later. That's life I guess.
After three years re-establishing a normal childhood with countless friends and fun school field trips we had to move again, this time to join dad in another new country which language I did not speak but where he had better chances of taking care of us.
Being introduced to a new country and language all over again did not go as smooth as it did the first time. Starting school there was a nightmare for a kid whose mind is beginning to switch focus from family to social life at the age of twelve. First day at the new school was not a quiet walk down the hallway. It was more like an embarrassing run from the classroom to the bathroom while unsuccessfully attempting to hold my mouth shut and keep myself from throwing up all over. It was now nerve wracking and overly embarrassing to try and become part of a new class. It literarily made me sick.
I could even communicate some in English but a twelve year old mind is a lot different than the nine year old one. Learning the new language now involved feelings of being insulted and even rebellion. One of the school's teachers was trying to teach my brother and I the basics, starting with the alphabet. I remember taking such insult to that, as if she thought we were complete idiots not knowing how to read and write. Poor lady it wasn't her fault, but my parents did have to find us another teacher who took a different approach by reading books and having small talk. I learned, although perhaps not quite as fast as before and not with quite as good of a command of the language.
Before we could count ten months we were moving once again. I had turned thirteen by then and had my first kiss and my first crush, now I had to leave again. Not that it was a big surprise, I understood it was necessary for several reasons, but I still welcomed the move with resentment and tears.
I was officially a nomad and everything since has felt as a temporary arrangement. Home in its sense of comfort, contentment and belonging has become an elusive fantasy.
# 5 Stressor - Loss
Every time we had moved was a reminder that we are only refugees and our home was gone for good. I went back to my home town some eight years later. I was told there wasn't much left of my home but I had to go see. I needed closure.
My brother and I ventured out on foot from my grandparents' place, which remained exactly the same as we left it. We braced ourselves with small talk as we were both nervous but excited to "come home". At the sight of the blue summer sky looking up from the street into our bedroom window my heart and soul sank in. I felt sadness, rage and closure all at once.
The roof of the building had collapsed taking several floors down with it. The entire building was shoot full of holes of all sizes, from bullets to grenades and everything in between. It looked like Swiss cheese on steroids. There truly wasn't much left, the front door was boarded shut as the building was in danger of completely collapsing. Only my old linden trees still stood there in all their beauty, their crowns full with green leaves still leaning into my old window. A few scars on their trunks reminded of the horrors that happened years ago. I cried.
Upon returning to grandma's I begged my mother to let me get on a bus and go back to where we lived at the time in the neighboring country. I could not breathe and I could not bear to stay in my home town any longer. It was chalk full of reminders of all that got so wrongly and violently taken away from me.
The sense of loss can be overpowering and highly discouraging even to the most happy-go-lucky personality and it can scar the heart and soul for a long time. Yes, time does heal all wounds but it does not erase them or the reminders that crop up on us seemingly out of nowhere.
I have lost my home, my childhood, a future that I would have had, not to mention just about all my family's worldly possessions. My life in my home country was lost, my lives in other countries since then too had to be given up. They all feel like separate lives, with little connection to each other resembling a silk thread, barely visible and somewhat fragile. My dignity, sense of belonging and the sense of where my place is in the world all were lost but thankfully restored several times over.
The losses all hurt, still today, but they are all counterbalanced with all that I have held on to. I didn't lose loved ones to the war, I didn't lose any limbs of my own, I didn't lose my sanity nor did I lose my sense of humor. I have gained a rich life experience that has fueled my ever-growing interest in understanding a human mind from it's brightest to the darkest corners.
Thanks to my parents' fearless and adamant quest for a better future for their children, which at the time seemed as taking my lives away, I am now able to write about it all from a very comfortable and safe place with my little boy running round waiting for his daddy to come home.
Note from Dr. Heitler: In the US most families are safe from outbreaks of actual war. Most of us, to our good fortune, have not experienced war in our neighborhoods. Still, devastating circumstances such as illness, marital fights, abusive anger, divorce, crime, financial catastrophes, and bolts from the blue such as tornados and fires can suddenly upend the security of home. Lesser stressful circumstances also can trigger emotional distress.