When will this be over? The story of a fictional civilian in the aftermath of a conflict

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“What I do know is that for me, for many, the war will not be over until more is done to bring us and our city back to normalcy.” Conflicts are not just about international humanitarian law (IHL) and how it is applied. During and after conflict, the voice of affected civilians must be taken into account.

In In this post, the fourth in our “IHL in the post-war” series, Kelisiana Thynne, Senior Legal Adviser at the ICRC, discusses post-conflict challenges for individuals and their families through the fictional prism of a person living in post-conflict with his family.

Author’s note: Thanks to Anna Greipl and Thomas de Saint Maurice for the initial concept of this post. All quotes in italics are from actual people interviewed and recorded by the ICRC in the 2017 report, I saw my city die. The reason for using these quotes is to demonstrate that although the blog is fictional, it is based on real experience.

They say the fight is over, the war is over. There are winners and losers. They say those of us who are still here are “free”. What does it mean when my house has been reduced to rubble and we are struggling to survive day to day? Of course, we no longer hear the constant noise and fear of bombs (for now), but we still fear for our lives in those aftermaths.

It’s like we’ve been here before.

Bombs, mortar shells and bullets whistled above our heads. Everyone in the neighborhood was fleeing. It was horrible.

Last summer, our town was taken over by the rebel group. My husband was a government official on a business trip across the country. I had heard rumors that he was being held, but I wasn’t sure. Our neighbors had also worked for the government; they left. We haven’t heard from them since. I didn’t want to leave in case my husband came back.

The destruction around us that first week was enormous. I don’t have a kitchen anymore – this side of the house was blown up one morning. One of my children still complains of ringing in the ears and headaches, but I had no money to take him to the doctor. Anyway, the doctor had no electricity or water. None of us in this neighborhood did. And the doctor was needed for more serious emergencies.

We then had relative peace – after a week of intense fighting, huddled in our homes desperate to survive, it suddenly stopped. There have been no more attacks and yet no more real peace. Dead and dying bodies – our neighbours, our close friends – were trapped in the rubble, calling out for days until we could hear their cries no more. It took a long time for the soldiers and us neighbors to detect and find our friends under the rubble of the destruction. The wounded had lost a lot of blood, if they were still alive. The nearest hospital had no electricity or water – they could barely function. Bodies were eventually recovered, but it was difficult to identify them, the soldiers said. I don’t know where they are buried. Sometimes I wonder if my best friend got out, escaped and fled with her two children, rather than lie down in the rubble, but I guess I’ll never know.

I wish…we could see the children go to school. I want to see them playing and having fun, like before.

I had forbidden my children to go to school during the week of fighting. After that there was no school to go to – it had been bombed. One of the teachers was killed; others fled. For a year, we tried to keep up with my children’s education – constantly reading the books we already had, trying to play games. But my energy was gone by the end of the year. Now the children are running in the streets.

Cluster bombs were used during the conflict – both sides deny it, but I saw it with my own eyes – a friend’s child, a son to me, lost an arm picking up one bright yellow shells and throwing it. We’re lucky no one else was hurt. I’m still scared every time my kids go out, but I can’t keep them inside forever.

I don’t want to show our faces or ask the authorities any questions because it could put my husband in danger. One of the good results of this uncertain peace was that I received a message from him – the Red Crescent Society passed it on. He just said he was alive and as good as he could be. I knew it was from him because he drew a picture of our family together. He has always been a good artist.

People eat out of garbage cans because they can’t feed themselves. We saw women boiling tree leaves just to give hot soup to children.

Tanks and bombs returned a year later. Now the government was fighting the rebels. We had just gotten used to the strange calm and were again gripped by fear for our lives every time we strayed too far from home to find food or medical help. The rebel soldiers, some not much older than my son, were unpredictable in their reactions. And while some people said they were delivering justice, they never did anything to help us get on with our lives – never provided reconstruction materials, never helped with food or water. What can we talk about justice without basic services?

After two weeks of further fighting and destruction, we were back under government control. And it seems that peace is coming to the whole country. With this peace, I expected to feel safe, but the government has not put in place the usual security measures – instead of the police, we still have young soldiers – fresh from the attack and ready to start over. No one controls them it seems. Nor is there justice on their part.

Cluster bombs still lurk in corners for unsuspecting people to find. Someone on the street came home last week from a displaced persons camp, only to have her legs ripped off as she walked through the door of her house – she was trapped. People find unexploded bombs everywhere. No one comes to take them away.

People are returning in droves to the city. But their homes were destroyed. And the government is suspicious of them – what side were they on and what were they doing during the conflict? They have no official papers from the IDP camps, or they stayed with distant relatives and have no documentary evidence of where they were. The papers of their pensions, of the school of their children, even of their rent were lost. At first I thought they were worse off than us in many ways.

But now it turns out we’re in as precarious a position as they are. I waited for my husband to return. He was held by the rebels but now they have been defeated so he should have gone home. The place where he was being held was taken over by the government, so surely they released all the detainees? Now I learn that the government has detained all of the prisoners, again on suspicion of collaborating with their captors. My husband’s salary had been paid until then, but recently it was cut. I get another message from him from the Red Crescent – ​​a little drawing of a shaking hand. How is it treated? When will he finally be released? Isn’t this conflict supposed to be over?

I saw a well-known local rebel leader in the market the other day – he had negotiated an amnesty. Why can he have one and yet my husband, who has never done anything wrong, is still a prisoner?

I just want to be good. It’s hard to be “good” when you’ve seen so much. I saw my city die. I saw myself breaking down. I don’t know if I’ll ever be fine, but I want to.

Even now that the war is over, I have nightmares every time I manage to have trouble sleeping. I want to get better; I want my body and mind to heal. I want my children to have a trouble-free life from now on. I want to see my husband again.

There are things you can’t get over. But for those we might, like physical and mental pain, we still don’t have access to medical help. My friend’s son, who is missing an arm, is struggling to access any kind of physical rehabilitation – he’s sitting at home staring at the walls. He was once such a bright and active kid. My neighbour, raped in a government-run IDP camp, has no access to much-needed special mental and physical services. I check her every day to make sure she’s still alive. Her son is so furious that he has joined the rebel group. There is talk of them regrouping and starting to launch attacks again.

I do not know what to do. I don’t know who to believe – should we take sides now that the war is supposed to be over? Who should provide these essential services, who should do this reconstruction, who should clean up these bombs, restore electricity and water, who should release or find the prisoners? The government? The country that supplied the bombs? The country that flew the planes above us and dropped the bombs? The Red Cross or the Red Crescent? The UN?

What I do know is that for me, for many, the war will not be over until more is done to return our lives and our city to normality. It may be a different normal – still a little bruised and damaged – but it will be better than these permanent scars of conflict, with its relentless fear of a return to war.

See also

  • Kelisiana Thynne, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”: the story of two cities in the aftermath of conflict, 18 August 2022
  • Ramin Mahnad & Kelisiana Thynne, Silent Weapons Don’t Mend Lives: What Does the Law Say About Human Suffering at the End of Conflict?, July 21, 2022
  • Kelisiana Thynne, Thomas de Saint Maurice, IHL in the aftermath of battles and conflicts: what do we want to achieve?, 14 July 2022
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