I have never seen war. I have never experienced fighting and I have never felt the cold wind of death blowing constantly through my life. I have never seen war, but I have seen it reflected in the faces of its innocent victims. I have been touched by the warmth of a story of family far away at home, and I have felt the chill of fear when one considers the danger that family is in every moment of every day. I have seen the images of a bullet hole in a computer screen that moments before was being used by the father of a friend. I have felt the heart wrenching pain of knowing that that friend has left me forever, to return to a land of chaos and destruction, a place where he can never be safe. I have shared in the desperate confusion of a boy whose life has been blown to smithereens, whose friends have been slaughtered, who has seen the blood run in the streets, and no one can tell him why. I have spent the last eight days with 24 Iraqi students and I will carry their stories in my heart for the rest of my life.
One morning we sit sipping tea in the peace of the Whitney prayer room. There are nine of us there – two American, five Iraqi, and two facilitators – idly discussing the differences between males and females in terms of the rules in Iraq. It is a pleasant discussion, and many interesting points are made, but there is a general sense of frustration among the group, for we all know what we really want to talk about, but no one seems able to bring it up. Five minutes to go in our discussion, and we have reached an awkward silence. No one knows quite what to say next, for we have exhausted the present subject, and for a moment we sit in collective bemusement at the discomfort of our group. Then suddenly, as the silence deepens, a new weight falls over the room and in the darkness of reality each of us is searching for what to say next.
“Why? Why do people have to look at the color of people’s skin, or their religion, or anything that makes them different? We are all the same. How can we do this to each other?” Most days is hard to find this particular boy without a smile on his face, usually dancing or singing along with his favorite Iraqi pop song. But today there is anguish and despair strewn across his tear-streaked face. His eyes seem to plead with me for some answer as to why any of this could have happened to him. Why? From that day on until the day he left me, I never saw that pain escape from his eyes. I understand now that it was always there, burning just below the surface, waiting for me to be ready to see it and him to feel it. In my mind I have always felt a sense of guilt for the horrors that my country has perpetrated against the Iraqi people, but now this guilt is burrowing a hole deep in my vulnerable heart. As time has gone on I have been able to supplement that guilt with a sense of empowered responsibility to correct the wrongs which I did not commit in the first place. But I know that all my life I will never be able to escape the desperation I felt that day – for wrongs I did not commit, wrongs I have not real power to right.
“I do not want to go anywhere without my family, because I want us to die together. If they died and I was to live I don’t know what I’d do — maybe I would kill myself.” This from a girl who was sent from her home to live with relatives due to the danger in Baghdad and has only recently been reunited with her mother and father. She shares with me a new fear, one I never hope to have to confront in my own life. It is the fear that accompanies the reality of living in war. The reality that on any given day one or more of your loved ones may die. That any time you say goodbye to them it might be the last time. That you have left home to spend a month in America, and they might not be there when you get back. My very dear friends spend each day on this earth, in good times and bad, even in the lightest of moments, with this weight upon their shoulders. And they will never walk freely unburdened until many things change about their reality and my country’s place in it.
“I was born in war. I have lived all my life in war and I don’t know if I will die in war.” Again I feel the oppressive guilt my good fortune settle over me. I have lived my life in peace. I have never truly feared for my life, nor that of a loved one. And there is a good chance that I will die in the same happy situation. I have always taken my security for granted, and to me, the opportunity to grow up in peace, to live one’s life in peace, and to spend even a single day just living without a cloud of fear hanging over one’s head seems an inalienable human right. And yet for so many these experiences are impossible — certainly today and maybe for their entire lives. I cannot comprehend the strength and courage required to rise each morning and face the day knowing that this is the reality you will be confronted with the moment you open your eyes.
I am paralyzed –beyond words – feeling more than I have ever felt in my life. And, though I sit surrounded by friends, I have never felt more alone. I am at the mercy of a form of grief and remorse I can neither own nor repair. It’s not my fault, yet I feel a responsibility. No one has ever apologized for the injustices, the horrors, the incomprehensible crimes perpetrated against these innocent souls. “I’m sorry,” barely audible beneath the stream of tears.
I rise and move mechanically towards the center of the room. Hands are held and physically we are reconnected, but emotionally we each share a similar yet painfully isolated experience. I shut my eyes against the pain and desperation in the eyes of my peers, unable to confront that which I am powerless to repair. And as my reality begins to tilt I find myself adrift at the mercy of my emotions.
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