Like many people, the last few days I have been fixated on the news coming out of Ukraine – doom scrolling Twitter, discussing the events with my husband, and spending many hours thinking about the people – the families fleeing, the civilians taking up arms, the baby born in the metro station. Over the coming days and weeks, we will hear hours upon hours of political analysis. We will see leaders around the world condemn the violence and call for calm. News reports will be filled with images of missiles, distant explosions and dispatches from foreign journalists. We will hear appeals from humanitarian workers for aid. We may see some images of individuals fleeing or injured. In the coming years, the history books will include speeches from world leaders, details of military operations and statistics on the number of casualties. But in all of this, we will probably hear the least from those who are really on the front lines – civilians. Sure, we may hear some stories here and there. But most will remain anonymous. Numbers on a page. We will never really know what they went through.
I have never lived through war. I don’t know what it is like to feel fear for days, weeks, months on end. I don’t know what it is like to have to be constantly be on edge, making life and death decisions every single day. I don’t know what it is like to see troops on my street, tanks coming down the road, missiles raining down. I don’t know what it is like to say goodbye to my husband and brothers while they take up arms, not knowing if I will see them again.
I don’t know what it is like to have to flee the only home I have ever known, to be made a refugee, to have my life and future suddenly at the mercy of international organisations, people smugglers and foreign governments. I don’t know what it is like to lose multiple members of my family to a senseless war.
There are a lot of things I don’t know. But there are a few things I do know.
I know what it is like to have lived through a massive explosion, which decimated an entire city. I know what it is like to see my home and everything I own destroyed in an instant. To see doors blown off hinges, furniture upturned and the ceiling collapse.
I know what it is like to see cars crushed, buildings crumble and metal twist. I know what it is like to see dead bodies on the street, people with drenched in blood and to hear sirens and blood curdling screams fill the air.
And I know what it is like to watch my child die in the most horrific manner. To race through the devastated streets for help and to not make it in time. To have his scared and confused face burned into my memory.
I know what it is like to suffer PTSD. To have flashbacks so real you feel like you are back in that moment and danger is everywhere. To have panic attacks in public induced by seemingly innocuous things – like seeing the same highchair that my son had – the highchair he was sitting in when the blast hit – in the display window of a baby store.
And I also know that no matter how much we at home try to imagine what it is like, no matter how many news reports we read or how much footage we see, the reality will be far worse than we think and it will be incomprehensible to those who have not lived through it. I know too that when the guns fall silent and the troops go home, the world will move on relatively quickly. We will turn our attention to the next crisis or latest trend. But things will never ever be the same for the people of Ukraine.
In my former career, I worked in national security, war crimes and peacekeeping. For years, I read about war, conflict and terrorism on a daily basis. I read horrific accounts of the impacts of explosions, attacks on civilians and brutal crimes. But none of that prepared me for what it is actually like to experience an explosion, to think you are in a war, and to deal with the devastating consequences.
So while I don’t know a lot of things, I know that I can imagine more than ever – more vividly – some of the events happening on the ground. I can’t help but be fixated on the parents who have lost or will lose their children over the coming weeks. On my last check the head of the Ukrainian Health Ministry reported at least 198 Ukrainians, including three children, had been killed. At least 33 children had been wounded. Who knows how many more are to come?
I imagine the fear the parents will be feeling – fear in every fibre, every cell of their bodies. Fear, not for themselves – they will be pushing concerns for their own safety aside – but for their children. They will be putting on a brave face for their kids, singing songs and telling stories to keep them calm, while having hushed discussions on the side about what they are going to do – do they stay, or do they go? They will do their best to hide the fear in their voices from their children as they prepare for the worst. The adrenaline coursing through their veins will be of such intensity, that they will not feel their own pain, hunger and exhaustion for hours, days, maybe even weeks on end. They will have to make split second decisions – potential life and death decisions – with no information or clue whether they are doing the right thing. One day they will look back and wonder how they got through.
I think constantly about those who will be incredibly unlucky, like I was, and suffer the death of their precious child. I think about the lifetime of emotions they will have to grapple with. There will be the inevitable all-consuming grief. Grief that makes you wonder how you will ever be able to put one foot in front of the other. There will be extreme anger, an anger that burns inside of them like they have never felt before. Anger at those in power who treated them like pawns in a sick game, the global community, the universe, God and even themselves. Anger that at the knowledge they will probably never get justice for their child.
They will constantly question, why me? Why my child? This may spill over to intense guilt. Because while it certainly will not be their fault, they will likely question every single thing they did that led up to the moment of their child’s death. Questions like why did we stay here and not go there? Why was I standing in this spot when the bomb hit and not that one? Why did I step out of the room at that exact moment? Did I do enough to get help? To save my child? They will question why others managed to protect their own children and ask, what did they do right, and I do wrong? They will always wonder if that road hadn’t been blocked or that hospital wasn’t overwhelmed, could my child have been saved? Did I do enough? They will never be able to erase the images of their child in pain – pain they never could have imagined. They will wonder if their child hates them and feels abandoned. People will tell them not to think these thoughts, try to reassure them that they did everything they could, but even if God himself sat down in front of them to reassure them that there was nothing else they could have done, they will never shake the feeling that if only they had made one different decision, their child would still be here. It won’t be their fault, but grief and trauma don’t always see logic.
They may suffer from PTSD, suffering flashbacks when they hear a loud noise, waking up night after night drenched in sweat from frightening nightmares, and feeling like little things that they once did with ease, like driving or letting their kids go to the playground, are now terrifying endeavours. And they may have to confront all of these feelings – the anger, the guilt, the grief, the fear – while still caring for their other children and while trying to figure out how to put their entire lives back together. Some may not be able to cope, it will all overwhelm them, others will be holding on by a thread. All will need support.
For those parents who are lucky enough to come away from this without suffering any losses, it will not mean that things just return to normal. They too will have to rebuild their lives. They too may suffer from PTSD. I think of how they will spend many nights soothing their child, calming their nightmares, reassuring them they are safe, all the while not knowing if it is true. They will emerge from this as different people, different parents, with their own demons to grapple with, and yet they will put all of it aside to tend to their children’s fears and anxieties first.
Why do I write this? Why do I share what I imagine it will be like for those parents in Ukraine? Am I projecting? Possibly… The news and images of Ukraine over the past few days have brought up a lot of memories and feelings for me – some that I haven’t yet been ready to tackle myself. But as I said, there is a lot that I don’t know, many things happening in Ukraine that I have never experienced. But maybe, just maybe it gives a slight insight to what it may be like for the parents in Ukraine (and, it must be said, for anyone who has experienced war, whether it be in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan or anywhere), both today and in the months and years to come. And perhaps it is a reminder that while we will all inevitably move on, they will be living with the war for the rest of their lives, in one way or another.