YouYou suddenly feel 12 years old and are suddenly thrown out of bed by explosives that shake the entire building. You are suddenly rushed out by your mother, who screams at you and lifts you from bed. Within seconds, you’re stumbling down the dark staircase, crowded with crying children and panicked neighbours. You race down to the dingy basement, which just days ago served as storage—not salvation. There’s no electricity, so this nightmare unfolds before your gaping, dilated pupils while the spotty bursts of yellow from someone’s flashlight make you squint and wish you could go back to sleep just to wake up to any other reality. I have lived this scene repeatedly as a child in Sarajevo some three decades ago, and now, children in Ukraine—and many millions around the world—are forced to endure a similar fate.
Before I left Bosnia, at age 16, I had lived in constant fear for almost four years. I also felt lulled into believing that I would be free from the conflict if I ran away. I now realize that war is a costly affair, even after tanks are destroyed and sniper rifles retired.
Nadja is 14 years old, standing in front the National Radio TV Station of Sarajevo.
Courtesy Nadja Halilbegovich
After hearing the initial reports of Ukraine flooding the media, my normal sensitivity to sound like door closing, sirens ringing, or utensils creaking, as well as the sounds of a coffee cup being put on the counter loudly, became a severe reactivity for any noise. My heart rate increased and I became hyperadrenergic. Then my brain went back to wartime mode and quickly assessed if it was dangerous.
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At night, my sleep was marred by nightmares that had me dodging blasts and bullets on a breathless mission to reach my parents before some tragedy struck them, but I’d wake up before ever reuniting with them. Weeping and exhausted, I struggled with finding a way to balance keeping up to date on the news and taking care of my mental well-being during the day. I found it extremely disheartening that even after so many years of dealing with the war’s aftershocks, I can still be caught unawares of their intensity.
From the 13-year-old wounds, seven pieces of shrapnel remain in my legs. After much pleas, I was finally allowed to go outside. My legs were pelted by a torrent of metal rain after an artillery shell was fired nearby. The images of that day—the sight of bloodied tiles and the hospital brimming with the dead and wounded—have not yet begun to fade. The stench of torn flesh and the smells of iodine have not subsided. Nor is the intense pain that I experienced for several weeks as I tried to walk and heal. I have made a complete physical recovery, but I cannot say the same for my mental health especially since the remaining three years of the siege and the relentless onslaught of terror made it impossible for my brain to secure even a moment’s reprieve.
Recenty, I felt the war in my flesh. In the past, I’ve rarely had an ache in my legs, but now I felt pricked and needled by the shrapnel. I felt more pain than severe, and it also caused me a lot of emotion. This has made it difficult for me to make peace with my silent stowaways and to understand that they could cause further damage if I had to have them removed. Now that they have stopped being silent, it is time to visit a specialist for my ongoing health.
Nadja, a young girl sitting in the rubble inside the National Public Library of Sarajevo. This was 1996.
Courtesy Nadja Halilbegovich
Also, I need to attend to the emotional distress that this has caused: The 13 year old girl within me is still bedridden and covered in bandages, and beating on the mattress with her little fists from fear and frustration at not being able to move around and find shelter as mortar shells batter her community. I came to a heartbreaking conclusion: no matter what age, you’re still a child war.
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Flashbacks of explosive flashbacks started to occur several years ago. They usually happen while I’m gazing through a window, daydreaming. Suddenly, there is a blast and my body instinctively braces for impact—my shoulders cave in, I bow my head, fold at the waist and await decimation. Initially, these episodes would leave me shaky for days, but over the years I’ve worked hard to suppress them. To avoid embarrassing anyone or letting them know, I’ve learned to internallyize them. These incidents are now less frequent. When they do occur, I quickly jerk my body and give my eyes a crumpled look, almost making them invisible to the rest of the world. And yet herein lies the gravest injury of all—the fact that in its aftermath, the war continues to rage and devastate, but this time without a single witness. When the body and brain become one, the battle moves inward.
Through writing about my own experiences, I’ve spent my entire adult life fighting for the rights of children who have been affected by war. My work teaches me lessons about individual responsibility, resilience and teamwork. Warnings of the fragility in peace and the importance empathy are some of the lessons I share. Also, we need to be grateful for all the blessings that come with it. Watching the war stories and reading about children trapped in it, I feel a familiar fear in their eyes. I also see desperate pleas to live. While some have suffered for many months or years of fire, others are still alive and have not experienced peace. While they may have lost their homes or family members and/or limbs to fire, the extent of the injury will be revealed over time. Yet, I am certain that these children will be strong and passionate individuals who make positive changes in the world. However, as someone who has survived war and still fights for peace, I have to wonder what price these children will have to pay, and how much longer.
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