You Never Stop Being a Child of War

6 minute read
Halilbegovich is the author of My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary

Imagine you are 12 and suddenly catapulted out of sleep by explosions that make the whole building quiver. Your mother screams and swoops you out of bed, and seconds later, you are stumbling down a long, dark stairwell teeming with panicked neighbors and crying children. 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.

I lived under siege for nearly four years before I fled Bosnia at 16, and for a short time after, I was lulled by a comforting, yet ignorant assumption that escaping the war meant I was free of it. Now, I have come to an entirely different realization: War exacts a heavy price long after the tanks have been silenced and the sniper rifles put to rest.

Nadja, at age 14, standing in front of the National Radio TV Station in Sarajevo.
Nadja, at age 14, standing in front of the National Radio TV Station in Sarajevo.Courtesy Nadja Halilbegovich

When the first reports from Ukraine flooded the news, I heard the all too familiar sound of explosions and sirens, and my usual sensitivity to sounds such as a door slamming, utensils clattering or even a coffee mug being placed on the counter too loudly morphed into a painful reactivity to any sudden noise. Each time I was startled and shot with adrenaline, my heart started thumping and my brain reverted to its wartime default setting of quickly assessing if the sound meant danger.

Read More: A Ukrainian Photographer Documents the Invasion of His Country

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. During the day, weepy and drained, I grappled to find a balance between keeping informed of the latest news and tending to my mental health. 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.

I have seven small pieces of shrapnel still lodged in my legs from the wounds I sustained at 13. It was a rare peaceful morning, and after much pleading, my mom let me go outside for a few minutes. An artillery shell exploded nearby and a rain of searing metal pelted my legs. 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. Nor has the smell of iodine and torn flesh, or the pain I felt for weeks while trying to heal and eventually, walk again. 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.

Recently, the war quite literally began stirring inside my flesh. In the past, I’ve rarely had an ache in my legs, but now I felt pricked and needled by the shrapnel. This caused me more discomfort than serious pain, but it also triggered a litany of emotions. It has not been easy to forge peace with these silent stowaways nor to accept the fact that a surgery to remove them would likely cause more damage. However, now that they are no longer silent, I will have to see a specialist to ensure my continued health.

A young Nadja, sitting on the rubble of the National Library in Sarajevo.
A young Nadja, sitting on the rubble of the inside of the National Public Library in Sarajevo in 1996.Courtesy Nadja Halilbegovich

In addition, I must tend to the emotional anguish that has stirred as well: the 13-year-old girl inside me is still bandaged and bedridden, beating the mattress with her tiny fists out of fear and frustration of being unable to move and seek cover as the mortar shells pummel her neighborhood. This leads me to another heartbreaking realization: you remain a child of war no matter your age.

Read More: The Ukrainian Mother on TIME’s Cover Recounts Fleeing Her Home With an Infant

Several years ago, I began experiencing flashbacks of explosions. 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. I have trained myself to internalize them so as to not clue in anyone around me or embarrass myself. Thankfully, they have become less frequent, and when they do happen, I absorb them with a quick jerk of my torso and a slight crumple of my eyelids, making it almost imperceptible to anyone else. 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. The brain and the body become the battlefield and the siege moves inward.

I have spent most of my life advocating for children of war by writing and speaking about my experiences. Through my work, I share lessons on individual responsibility and resilience. I impart warnings about the fragility of peace, the importance of empathy and our appreciation for the things we take for granted. When I watch the news reports or read about millions of children caught in war, I see a familiar terror in their eyes and a desperate plea to live. Some have been under fire for months, some for years, while others have never known peace. They have lost their homes, family members, or limbs, yet the full extent of their injury will only reveal itself with time. Despite all this, I have no doubt that many will grow up to become strong, impassioned individuals who will make their own positive contributions to the world. But as someone fortunate enough to have survived a war, but who still has to fight for every scrap of peace, I must wonder: How high a price will these children have to pay and for how long into their tender futures?

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