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How the invasion of Ukraine affected me as a child of war


Iimagine you are 12 years old and suddenly catapulted out of sleep by explosions that shake the whole building. Your mother screams and yanks you out of bed, and seconds later you stumble down a long, dark stairwell teeming with panicked neighbors and crying children. You rush to the shabby basement, which just a few days ago was used as storage – no salvation. There’s no electricity, so this nightmare unfolds before your dilated, gaping pupils while the yellow flashes of someone’s flashlight make you squint and wish you could go back to sleep just for yourself wake up to another reality. I experienced this scene many times as a child in Sarajevo some three decades ago, and now children in Ukraine – and millions around the world – are being forced to meet a similar fate.

I lived under siege for nearly four years before fleeing Bosnia at age 16, and for a short time afterwards I was lulled into a comforting, but ignorant assumption that escaping war meant I was released. Now, I’ve come to an entirely different realization: war takes a heavy toll long after tanks have been silenced and sniper rifles laid to rest.

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 banging or even a cup of coffee placed too loudly on the counter turned into painful reactivity to any sudden noise. Each time I was startled and pumped with adrenaline, my heart started pounding and my brain reverted to its default wartime setting to quickly assess whether the sound signified danger.

Read more: A Ukrainian photographer documents the invasion of his country

At night, my sleep was marred by nightmares that had me dodging explosions and bullets on a breathless mission to reach my parents before tragedy struck them, but I woke up before I found them. During the day, teary and exhausted, I struggled to find a balance between keeping up to date with the latest news and taking care of my mental health. I found it extremely disheartening that even after so many years of dealing with the aftershocks of war, I could still be surprised at their intensity.

I have seven small pieces of shrapnel still lodged in my legs from injuries I sustained when I was 13. It was a rare peaceful morning, and after many pleas, my mother let me out for a few minutes. An artillery shell exploded nearby and a shower of hot metal bombarded my legs. The images from that day – the sight of bloodied tiles and the hospital overflowing with dead and injured – have yet to begin to fade. Neither the smell of iodine and torn flesh, nor the pain I felt for weeks trying to heal and finally walk again. I’ve made a full physical recovery, but I can’t say the same for my mental health, especially since the remaining three years of the siege and the relentless onslaught of terror prevented my brain from getting any would -what a moment’s respite.

Recently, the war literally began to stir in my flesh. In the past, my legs rarely hurt, but now I felt pricked and pricked by the shrapnel. It caused me more discomfort than severe pain, but it also triggered a litany of emotions. It was not easy to forge peace with these silent stowaways nor to accept the fact that surgery to remove them would likely cause more damage. However, now that they are no longer silent, I will need to see a specialist to ensure my health is maintained.

In addition, I also have to deal with the emotional anguish that has been stirred up: the 13-year-old girl in me is still bandaged up and bedridden, pounding the mattress with her little fists out of fear and frustration at not being able to move and seek cover as mortar shells hit his neighborhood. This brings me to another heartbreaking realization: you remain a child of war, no matter how old you are.

Read more: Ukrainian mother on TIME cover recounts fleeing her home with a baby

Several years ago I started experiencing flashbacks of explosions. They usually happen while I’m looking through a window, daydreaming. Suddenly there’s an explosion and my body instinctively braces for impact – my shoulders slump, I lower my head, hunker down at the waist and wait for decimation. At first, these episodes left me shaking for days, but over the years I worked hard to suppress them. I trained myself to internalize them so as not to mistrust anyone around me or embarrass myself. Luckily, they’ve become less frequent, and when they happen, I absorb them with a quick jerk of my chest and a slight scrunch of my eyelids, making it almost imperceptible to anyone. And yet, therein lies the gravest wound of all – the fact that after its aftermath, the war continues to rage and devastate, but this time without a single witness. Brain and body become the battlefield and the seat moves inward.

I have spent most of my life defending children from war by writing and speaking about my experiences. Through my work, I share lessons about individual responsibility and resilience. I give 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 or read about millions of children caught up in war, I see a familiar terror in their eyes and a desperate cry to live. Some have been under fire for months, others for years, while others have never known peace. They have lost their homes, family members or members, but the extent of their injury will only be revealed in time. Despite all of this, I have no doubt that many will grow up to be strong, passionate individuals who will make their own positive contributions to the world. But as someone lucky enough to have survived a war, but who still has to fight for every piece of peace, I have to ask myself: what price will these children have to pay and for how long in their tender future?

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