Feeling a War, The Vienna Review Feb 2009

Through reported numbers and bloody pictures, the media makes us believe we know what a war is. But the real tragedy of war you know only when you and your family have been in one.

CNN just announced that until now, 680 people were killed in Israeli attack on Palestina. This number made me angry. Not because it was high, but because it meant… well, nothing.

I am angry of the use of numbers to describe suffering. What do you do with this number? What does 680 tell you? Does this mean the conflict is bad? Or not so bad? We are constantly bombarded with so many numbers that they already made us immune…. Tens of Millions died in WWII, 110,000 in Bosnia and Croatia, 2974 in the World Trade Center. And now there is 680…

The numbers do not matter. We learned this lesson few weeks ago when the financial crisis taught us that numbers can be very different from reality. After millions, billions and then trillions were lost and the world was still turning, the numbers proved their true nature: they are virtual, invented.

We believe that numbers are a picture of reality. They are not. They are our attempt to rationalise reality. And in the same attempt at rationalisation, we think we know war because we know this “680” and because we take time to look at the pictures the media is feeding us. But that is not war. The horrors of a war cannot be rationalised. You only know the reality of war when you’ve been in one.

I remember the moment USA began its attack on Iraq. I was sitting on the floor of my living room, glued to my TV set, watching the black screen lightning up with green explosions. Each of those explosions was drilling a hole in my heart. I was weeping. I was thinking of Iraqi children sitting in their dark clod basements, pressed close to their parents’ bodies, trembling with fear, wondering what was happening – and why.

I know how it feels. I have been there.

I was sitting in the basement of my house in Zagreb in 1991, as Yugoslav war planes flew over, low over our heads, threatening to kill us in any second. I remember the fear literally freezing the blood in my veins and making my whole body shiver and my heart pump so fast I couldn’t catch a breath. I remember looking at the ceiling wondering if a bomb were to hit, which pipe would break first and if we would all die from suffocating or from drowning. I remember wondering about the explosions near by and wondering when the same thing would happen to us.

I remember sitting there wondering if we would starve to death in that basement and if not, how our world would look when we got out. I remember imagining our house in ruins and watching something horrible happening to my mother. I imagined being alone.

I was impossibly lucky. For me, those images stayed in my imagination – right after the strike, we were able to leave Zagreb. We had a choice and we took advantage of it. But it took years to get those pictures out of my head and stop jumping at anything that might have been an explosion. War is not just about the dead. War is about the living.

And this is what you cannot grasp by watching CNN. You can look at endless numbers of pictures, live reports of exploding houses, warm blood running out of massacred bodies and parents carrying dead children. You can say (and feel), “How horrible!”

But unless you have been there, you have no real understanding of what war really means. The number of 680 dead is horrible. But even more horrible are the millions who survive this tragedy, living through the years haunted by the horrors they have seen.

What matters are the children who sit in a basement, hungry and scared and ill and wonder if the bomb dropped just a few meters away has just killed a best friend. What matters is not only the dead body on the street but also those who witnessed him lose his life while struggling holding on to theirs. What matters are all those people who lost a beloved person, children who lost their families and homes.

What matters are all those who did not die, but carry the fear, the hatred, the bites of aggression sunk deep under their skin. What matters are the pictures and the sounds and the fear that haunt them for the rest of their lives. What matters is the indescribable humiliation of those who make it out of the basement and come into the ruined street, look at their destroyed house, face their dead relatives, face their ruined lives and crushed spirits and start their miserable life from a scratch. No one deserves this. And you will not see this on CNN.

Death is one thing, suffering another. The suffering of the survivors is mentioned briefly, if at all, and then forgotten. Maybe it is so deep and so painful that they are not able to talk about it. After surviving a war, many lose their minds. Many kill themselves.

The the real horror of war today is that through media, it is banalized. We see it, and we think we know it. We feel involved; we think we feel compassion. We think we feel 680.

But to us it is only a number. To those in the pictures, this war means the loss of a life, people and a world they knew and loved, and will never know again. A loss from which they will never recover.