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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Prison of War

Those tanks were coming up my street, past my home, and yet, I have no memories of seeing it in person. 

I've felt lost ever since. 

I crossed the Croatian/Bosnian border early in 2001.  I have clear memories of the slow ride up, the dark, snow-swept plain pock-marked by bomb craters.  At that time, the wreckage of vehicles still rested at the sides of the highway, the detrius of a recently-ended war.  I remember how scared I was to be pulled off the bus by a soldier with a firm grip on his rifle, though it ended innocuously enough.  The ride down to Sarajevo was equally tense - convoys of tanks and the feel of war was everywhere. Sarajevo itself was a shattered city; UN troops on the streets told me to avoid going near sewer grates and the like, in case there were still mines.

A week later, I was sitting in a cafe in Zagreb, talking about the impact of war on civilians with a couple of local English teachers.  They had been high school students during The War.  

"You must understand, we weren't 'war people"" they told me.  "We did our homework, we talked about boys, we led normal lives.  The war was over there, on the other side of the country.  Then it was in the next neighbourhood.  Then, the other street.  One day we were doing homework, and the fighting came to our street.  The window blew up and we hid under the table, crying; we couldn't pretend the war was somewhere else any longer."

As you might know, my grandfather is a World War II survivor.  He was Canadian airman, yet ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  For him, The War was something he fought, but also something he experienced from the other side.

I've only skirted the edge of war.  I have known and cared for people whose lives have been scarred by war; I've even been in places of conflict, both past and present.  Even with that minimal contact, I still have that odd feeling that living a normal life is a bit like inhabiting a movie, like it's somehow artificial.

Part of me wonders if this is a bit like how seasoned political operatives feel in the off-campaign season; something is missing, something is not quite right.  I don't know a single political operative who has spent time in real war, either as a soldier or a civilian.  The use of military terminology is almost a game to them - they love The War Room; one wonders how they would feel to truly live in a war zone.

Real war is not a game; it is a prison from which a part of those who survive it will never escape.  There's the survivor's guilt; there are the emotional wounds that ever thrive just beneath the surface, needing only the slightest trigger to surface.

It's easy to say "get over it" or "live in the now", if you have never lived through war.  

I've never lived through war - I can understand this in only the vaguest terms, but I see it in the eyes of every person I know how has lived through conflict.

This doesn't mean that you can never escape the experience of war - I think it's a bit like a disease that can be kept in remission.  A strong constitution and willpower help, but these things do not suffice on their own.  I've spoken with plenty of soldiers about emotional resilience and even with the finest training, there is still no definitive answer on how to cure PTSD or overcome survivor's guilt.

The treatment for war, from what I can tell, is the simple things - family, friendship, the little acts of love and comradeship that weave the fabric of community between us.  Even still, there will always be moments of relapse where all loved ones can do is be there, supportively, and bare witness.

This is what I think about as I consider the Syrian refugees who have made Canada home, and the many more to come.

The prison of war is something they will carry with them, like a chain to a horrific past.  The best thing we as their new country can offer them is community, and a place to belong.

A place where the lost may find home.  

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