War never leaves you

It was two years and a bit ago. I broke a bone and was waiting in the emergency room at the hospital to have it x-rayed. Coalition forces were entering Mosul to rid it of Daesh troops. Like in Afghanistan, and in Baghdad, there were embedded journalists following the soldiers, into people’s homes. People in the waiting room with me were watching this on tv.

All I could think is why is this on tv? Why is the whole world able to see inside these poor people’s homes, as they are being removed from the only place they thought was safe? I couldn’t watch, but more than that, I couldn’t bear the idea that this intensely private affair, for these innocent families who never agreed to be filmed, and were now appearing in their naked fear and desperation for all onlookers to gawk at. It’s not a movie, I kept screaming in my head: these things are actually happening to people, these are regular folks, just like you! How can you bear to watch this indignity?

I felt the shame, the violation of it all crawling all over my body. It made me so terribly uneasy, I moved, from one angle of the room to another, hoping to find a corner of the waiting room where I wouldn’t be directly facing the disgrace. But no matter where I sat, it followed me. I began to shake. Tears started forming in my eyelids. Why is this normal? And if it’s supposed to be normal, why does it affect me so? I don’t even know any Iraqis!

A woman appeared in front of me, snapping me out of my daze. “I told them to change the channel, sweety.” She had a kind, gentle look on her face. She must have startled me, because I was surprised to see such an expression before me. I was sure I was hiding well. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but when the figure appeared before me I thought I’d see anger, bewilderment, confusion, annoyance, indifference… not kindness. I hadn’t realized my reaction was so visible. I was trying to keep to myself, dry my tears before they fell, look away from anyone. Burry my nose in my notebook, as I wrote everything that was happening. Why hadn’t I thought of it myself? Why didn’t it occur to me to ask them to change the channel or turn it off completely? Why was I simply suffering in silence, hoping nobody would notice? Why was I so surprised that somebody did notice, and did something to remedy it? Of course, you’d say, it changes nothing. Changing the channel is like diverting a toddler’s attention, it doesn’t change the reality of the matter. But it’s something, and I couldn’t even bring myself to do that one thing.

I got moved inside, they’re finally going to take a look at my broken bone now.

It’s been five years since the Revolution, I think to myself, and I was safely tucked away with my kids for most of it, and when the going got tough again in 2014 we moved away for good. Why is this affecting me so much? I guess once you’ve been there, it never leaves you. You may be able to flee the battle, but the war continues to quietly rage inside.

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It took me several years to be able to hear a helicopter without feeling anxious: sweaty palms, shaking all over, eyes welling up, fear and flee reflex taking over me. It doesn’t matter how far you go, or how safe you think you are, it now belongs to you. It scars you. Like with sweet memories, all you need is a reminder. Thankfully reminders now need to be more direct now, I’ve been able to associate positive thoughts to most negative triggers, but some catch you unawares, like this live news stream in the heart of Mosul.

Fireworks used to get my kids in a tizzy. Now they love them. Maybe Mosul looks a bit too much like the parts of Libya that I had gotten to know, the Libya I knew was ailing, the Libya that continues to ail to this day. How fitting that I should open one of the many journals filled with notes from years of writing, and find this entry today, as “the NYT reported that the Pentagon carried out its first ever drone strike against alleged Al-Qaida militants in southern Libya over the weekend, this drone attack signals a possible expansion of the US military involvement in Libya, which has previously been restricted to targeting alleged IS militants in northern Libya.” (A. Goodman, Democracy Now, March 26, 2018).

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I was talking to an old friend about the Revolution recently for this blog. She lived through it, she didn’t evacuate, she was there for the worst of it. To this day she doesn’t know how she got through it with her sanity intact, but she remembers that her kids were very small, and for some reason they all slept, almost non-stop for days on end, during the intense bombing of Bab Al-Azizya (General Geddafi’s compound, the last stronghold of his supporters, near downtown Tripoli). Once this base fell, the country was officially declared liberated. [We kept our Skype on all night for days to get instant news.] Her husband feared there must be something wrong with them if they can sleep through all that. But they did, and she wasn’t about to argue with this God-send. They’d wake up to eat, use the bathroom, and then they’d go back to sleep. I remember shutting all the windows and shudders, turning on the air conditioner, and if necessary the tv, too (if we had electricity) and this was during the regular street fighting, small shells, and the like! During electricity cuts we’d sing and play shadow games at candle-light.

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When we returned after the first elections, everyone looked like they had crawled out of a meeting with death itself. They looked tired, disillusioned, anxious, but at the same time hopeful that it had all meant something, and better times lay ahead. We all thought that.

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It’s been seven years now, and things are worse than ever. People aren’t getting paid, and even when they do get paid, they can’t withdraw more than 200 dinar per month, considering that now the dinar is worth a tenth of what it was worth six years ago, and the fact that all prices have skyrocketed, it’s a real mystery how people are able to cope. Obviously drugs have become an issue, as have weapons, and now, it is no longer the exception to see Libyans begging on the streets, kids selling trinkets, and people resorting to bartering to get by.

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As before, water and electrical shut downs are frequent and unannounced, sometimes they last for the greater part of a day. Water shut downs can run for days. And Ramadan is coming. People will be fasting in the dead of summer, perhaps without water to cool down, without air conditioners, or even fans. Generators buzz all over the country, but many run on fuel, and there’s little of that going around too, sometimes. At times people line up for days to fill up their car, just so they can go to work. Schools are constantly disrupted: no books, no money to buy supplies, no salaries for teachers, teachers aren’t able to gas up to get to work, highways are closed due to heavy fighting, the safety of the kids can’t be guaranteed, too much cross-fire in the adjacent areas… the list goes on and on, and kids now spend half the year at home, waiting for the situation to stabilize, so they can get back to school, and get on with their lives.

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I was there after the sanctions had been lifted, and I didn’t stick around for the worst of the war and its aftermath, yet what I did see, hear and feel remains with me to this day, nearly a decade later. What of all those who couldn’t leave? Those who endured the whole lot, thinking that they’d start living soon, only to find out that they’d have to hang on by a thread for a few more years, then a few more, and now the light seems further than ever, and there seems to be no end in sight?

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I was in the safety of the hospital, and the fighting in Mosul reawakened my worst nightmares, what of those families in Mosul, Iraq; in Tripoli, Misrata, Banghazi, Tajoura, Libya; what of those families in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia? I wasn’t there, but they were, I was able to leave, but being so close, I always feel that it could have been me, those kids with terror in their eyes, could have been my kids. It wasn’t us, but it could have been. It’s not us, but it is us, because war is the enemy that binds us, it’s the foe who never leaves your side.

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