I don’t know how equipped and informed I am as a bystander to write about wars. By bystanders, I mean those of us we are not directly affected by war. We do not live in a war-afflicted region, we don’t have to live with the constant fear of being attacked, raped, or killed, and our friends and family are not injured or dying because of an ongoing war. But as bystanders, we can research and reflect on the issues of war and seek answers. What is war, and how do you make sense of war and all of its heart-wrenching consequences, and explain them to a child who is not affected by war, and to another who is dodging bullets and daily treading the mine-infested ground?
I think the best I could do is to try to formulate my answer with three hypothetical questions in a two hypothetical settings—and see where they take me on my train of thoughts.
* * * *
It’s a warm day out in Vancouver, Chicago, Osaka, or Frankfurt, and I am in a park, comfortably sitting on the lush green grass, reading the latest current events in the International Herald –the war section. I heard someone yell, and I look up and see a soccer ball rolling my way, its owner—a small boy, not older than 8 or 9—running after it. He picks up his ball and catches a glimpse of what I’m reading. His eyes are curious and attentive. He looks at me and asks me this mind-boggling question: ‘Why are there wars in the world?’
I scratch my head… and while I question his ability to understand whatever I’m about to say, I start organizing these thoughts in my head:
Well, let’s see, wars happen because there are different groups of people who are fighting for something. Sometimes they call it ‘freedom’, but really, they mean resources like oil, diamonds or land or money. And most often than not, they are fighting for these things because they crave for power.
But then again, there are times when wars happen to offer people ‘security’-and there just seems to be no other way out of the danger they are currently living in.
The boy is waiting for an answer, so I blurt these thoughts out, knowing that my explanation is too brief and somewhat flawed. He listens intently, and he doesn’t even blink. He opens his mouth again, and already I am dreading what he is about to say: ‘So wars happen for both good and bad reasons? What about the people who are caught in the middle of a ‘bad’ war?’
Smart kid, I think to myself. And I try to speak, but I realize that no words I say can make sense to him, or even to myself. I then wish I knew the answer to his question, and realized that the only for me to find out is to actually be there. Suddenly, an idea came to me, and I folded my newspaper and handed it to the boy. ‘Come back here next week and I’ll see if I can answer your question.’
* * * *
It’s a hot day out in Kandahar, Mogadishu, Kashmir or Myanmar, and I am sitting inside a boiling car, and looking out the window. I pass by the remains of old and new buildings in the city, shattered glass and windows, and shadows of people running back and forth, as if they are running for their lives. I heard someone yell, and I ask the driver to stop. From a distance, I can make out the figure of a small girl, not older than 8 or 9—running towards me. She gets close and knocks on my car window. Her eyes are curious and sad. Unable to look away, I roll down the windows so I can get a clearer glimpse of her. She looks at me and asks me this mind-boggling question: ‘Why are there wars in this world?’
I try to think, to conjure up thoughts, all the reasoning, right and wrong causes for a war—and nothing comes to mind. I look at the clothes she is wearing, dirty and torn, and her frail body underneath it, ruthlessly bound by poverty and hunger, and I don’t know how to tell her the devastating news—that she was in the middle of the warzone because someone is fighting for her ‘freedom’. I look at her hands and I see wounds on her finger, probably from the shattered glass, and I am confused as to how diamonds that are borne out of wars can be seen as beautiful on our ads and our fingers. The girl seems to understand why I remain silent, and she reaches into her pocket, and pulls out a piece of old, crumbled-up paper. She shows it to me, and then I see that it is a photo. It is a picture of a young couple with their three children, and I recognize the little girl as one of them. In here, she is wearing a yellow dress and her hair is clean and pulled back. She turns to me and points at the young couple: ‘They are gone,’ a deep sadness overcasts her eyes, but her voice is very firm, and she points to the two other children in the picture, ‘And they are lost. Why did this happen to me?’
I find myself speechless for the second time. Again, I can regurgitate the history of her country, explaining how every little historical steps led to wars to break out one after another, but I am somehow sure that it won’t suffice. Nothing I can say will make sense to her, when she is broken inside and out, and having no family to lean on when she needs them most. I want to bring her back with me, and give her a voice to tell her story. I want her to meet the boy in the park and have her explain to him how it’s like to live through war, to scrape for food on the streets, to see her friends and family fade and disappear in this violent background, and to find sense in all of this nonsense.
The girl, seeing that I am unable to give her a satisfactory answer, steps back, and stands still for a short moment. With her sad and piercing eyes, she seems to be saying: ‘I know that you don’t know. But you should try to find out.’ And then, without any notice or signs of farewell, she runs back into the chaotic and surreal background.
* * * *
I am back at the park. The boy didn’t come back for an answer, and in many ways I’m glad that he didn’t, because I have none. But that doesn’t mean I will stop trying. I stare at the lush, green grass beneath me, I feel the warmth of my own body, safely nested in my clean, comfortable clothes. I breathe in, and breathe out. I close my eyes and I hear the wind breeze and the sound of children laughing in the background. I hear footsteps approaching me, and I look up. A little girl, not older than 5 or 6, wearing a yellow dress is curiously glancing at me. She grins at me, this unresponsive stranger, and tiptoes around me, the green grass tickling her feet. Then, I realized this. A few years down the road, she will have questions about the world we live in, with wars still raging on, and these will be hard questions to answer. I think back to the place I was at, and I am convinced that while it is difficult to find sense in the warzone, I need to first understand what it is like to be in the warzone.
I turn to find the little girl in the yellow dress, and I see her running back towards her family standing close by, exactly where they should be.