by Caroline Kennedy
Split was a town I knew quite well. My mother was from Dubrovnik just a few miles down the coast. At first the camera showed a distant view of it, clouds of dust and smoke rising above the 16th century rooftops, towers and turrets of this beautiful, medieval Italianate town. Then the camera zoomed in on a street of half-ruined houses and of soldiers picking their way through the debris.
So far it was a fairly average war report unlikely to change the rhythm of one’s pulse. Only when the camera closed in on a little house with two smoldering black windows did I feel as though I had been punched in the stomach. I recognized the house next door. I had been to that house just a few summers before. It was a particularly fine day and the burned shell of the house stood outlined against a deep blue summer sky.
A little further on, in front of the house, the television camera panned in on a child’s swing, its empty seat banging monotonously against the tree to which it was attached. I could imagine a child, only a short time ago, sitting there, laughing, looking up at the sky, legs dangling. And I could imagine the mother, a baby in her arms, perhaps, at the window of her house watching, smiling. And, as she turned her head away the bomb had dropped, her child had screamed, and then there was a terrible silence. She and the baby had died where they stood. No time to hug her child. No time to call her husband’s name. No time for goodbyes. This was a picture of instant death, real or imagined, and it struck an agonizing chord in me.
For someone who has never been in a war zone before it’s impossible to ever comprehend how war so easily becomes an everyday reality for so many people around the world.
At any given time, the UN tells us, there are at least 32 conflicts taking place. And we, in the developed countries, still manage to keep our distance, safe in the knowledge that it won’t happen to us, our generation mercifully ignorant of how it feels to be living in a country at war. The air raid alarms, the anxious waiting for news, the prevailing fear of going out, furtive men in uniforms with guns at the ready, empty unlit streets, endless queues for water and bread, shops dark, schools quiet and restaurants permanently closed. Hospital emergency rooms overwhelmed by people looking for relatives and friends, the persistent hum of planes overhead, the ominous screeching of bombs as they suddenly drop from the sky, children crying from hunger and fear, dogs whimpering, people running this way and that to avoid stray bullets, power blackouts on a daily basis and an engorging sense of dread that only grows worse with each passing day.
This is only part of the reality of living in a war zone. A whole generation of children who survive wars will always fear bombs falling from the sky, will always panic at an unfamiliar noises and will always run away and hide, in cellars and doorways, at the sound of an approaching plane. But the worst things they will suffer are the vivid images because they never go away. These images will stick in their minds and wake them in the middle of the night. Children’s faces, fearful and uncomprehending, a crying baby, like a rag doll, one of its tiny limbs missing, a child’s favorite toy abandoned in the street, a whimpering dog limping among the charred ruins, a newborn calf lying dead in a muddy field, its head strangely twisted, a single shoe left lying on the pavement, an old woman, riddled with arthritis, being hurried to safety in a wheelbarrow. These are some of the disturbing images that will haunt them for years to come.
Strangely enough though, watching it day after day, war teaches you to get used to blood, to the sight of injured and dying people. You are forced to cope with it. After a certain point you realize that people around you are dying in great numbers and bodies are simply piling up in the streets. In the chaos and panic there is no time to remove them or bury them. And in order to survive you have to become insensitive, hard and uncaring. You are touched only if you know the person who died. Because, in order to be able to comprehend the reality of death, you need to be able to identify it, to be acquainted with its face, to personalize it. Otherwise, you simply feel the pain but it remains vague, diffuse, almost unreal.
On that summer’s day in 1992 the footage of war from the TV screen hit home to me. It was not just anyone’s house that lay there in smoldering ruins. It was the next door neighbor of someone I knew. That moment was like an epiphany to me. It sent a rush of cold blood through my veins. It touched a raw nerve and made me think I must do something to help the victims of this particular conflict. I must get involved, I thought, before my mother’s own home in Dubrovnik was obliterated in similar fashion. From that moment on I had no choice. I was on a mission. With two friends I set up a charity and between us and our many contacts we raised funds, food and medical supplies to bring down to the hospitals, orphanages, refugee camps and residential homes for people with disabilities in Croatia and Bosnia.
Every eight weeks for 3 years I drove convoys back and forth from the UK to former Jugoslavia, as it was now called. And when the war was finally over – although it had created such deep divisions, such enduring hatreds and such lasting bitterness that it will never truly be over – I returned to London thinking, “That’s it. I must now get on with my life.”
But, just as it’s hard to adapt to life in a war zone, so too it is hard to readjust to a “normal” life back home. After the initial euphoria of people patting you on the back, telling you what a saint you are and how courageous you are wanes, doubts quickly set in. Doubts about how effective you have really been, how many people you have actually helped and how they are going to fare without you.
Questions start flooding your mind. Did I do as much as I could? Could I have done more? What will become of the people I looked after? Will I ever see them again? Did I make any difference to their lives? Did I raise their hopes too much? Did I make any rash promises to them I couldn’t possibly keep? Would they have been better off if I hadn’t gone at all?
These doubts are swiftly followed by a sense of guilt and fear – guilt that you are now living in comfort and security while those you tried to help are still living in squalor, pain and uncertainty. After that comes a nagging and terrible fear for the fate of those you’ve left behind. And then a curious impatience, an inexplicable irritation that your family and friends cannot truly understand your recent experiences, the horrors you have witnessed, the stories you have heard and how it may have changed you as a person forever.
All these feelings are extremely natural reactions but to someone recently returned from a war zone for the first time, they are unfamiliar, bewildering and unwelcome. There is an overriding desire to leave your creature comforts, to return to the war zone and see for yourself how things have changed, to make sure those you helped are still alive and to reassure yourself all is well.
And so when another charity invited me to help set up a surgical programme for refugees with disabilities in the camps of Azerbaijan, I accepted without giving it a second thought. And, thus, began another five years of working with refugees and displaced people, only this time in a post-conflict setting.
And when that too was over I was asked to contribute the final chapter to a handbook on working in hostile environments. The chapter was entitled, “And When You Finally Come Home”. It was designed to help humanitarian aid workers, medical personnel and logisticians make sense of those first few difficult months after returning home from a conflict zone, to help them adjust back to a normal family life.
And, by writing it, I found I had, in a way, not only completed the book, but also closed a chapter on my own life. I had freed this voice inside me which kept nagging me to seek out another conflict and help those caught up in it. I had finally accepted the time had come for me to move on, to take the next step, to seek out new horizons, a new career and a new life.