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Growing up in wartime

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April 30, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College students Htar Htar, Zohra, Bilal, Mahmoud and Chinyere gathered last Thursday to talk to a small audience about their childhoods. From four very different countries one thing tied them together: all five grew up in war zones.

The panel discussion was part of a week-long symposium on Sex and War, sponsored by the college’s Women and Gender Studies Department, that intended to highlight how women and men experience and participate in war differently.

Junior Htar Htar Yu grew up in an armed conflict area in southern Burma, where a civil war has raged for the past 13 years. Her parents were a soldier and a nurse in the Tavoyan United Front, a militia formed by what she called a “sub-Burmese” ethnic group to which her family belongs.

Yu never went to school. She lived in camps in the jungle with her family, growing rice and vegetables for the soldiers and caring for her younger siblings. Between chores and nighttime ambushes, her mother taught her to read and write.

She recalled the fierceness with which her mother urged her to be quiet at night so their camp would not be attacked. She was told she would be raped if the enemy found her.

“Your spirit is in prison because you can’t speak loud, you can’t move around,” she said. “There are so many children just like me out there, uneducated and scared. For the next generation, who’s going to lead Burma?”

Zohra Safi, a sophomore from Afghanistan, echoed this sentiment. She spent her childhood and teenage years in exile in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban.

“When there’s a war in the country it affects everyone — men, women, children — but personally, I think it affects most the young generation because they are the ones who will be leading the country in the future,” she said. “Our generation was raised in poverty, they were raised without education and they witnessed atrocities that they weren’t supposed to witness.”

Another student from Afghanistan, Bilal Sarwary, who at 23 came to Middlebury after seven years as a producer and reporter for BBC Kabul, stressed that his life before the war was no different from the lives of children anywhere. 

“My mom and my sister, as well as many others, were killed,” he said. “But just like you guys, we woke up to warm breakfasts, we went to school, and the next day nothing was there.”

Once war comes to children, however, the students agreed, everything changes.

Sophomore Mahmoud Abdou, who is Palestinian and came to Middlebury via the United World College in Norway, spent most of his childhood in refugee camps in Saudi Arabia and Gaza. 

He talked about the deeply rooted hatred he has seen not just in the Palestinian and Israeli adults fighting the war, but in their children, too.

“Four years ago, I saw a news program and they were interviewing a little Israeli kid, asking her, ‘What do you think about the Palestinians or Arabs?’” he said. “And she was telling them — five or six years old — ‘Arabs are like animals, I wish they would all die.’”

This is the most destructive side effect of war, the students agreed.

“It might take maybe a decade or two decades for the international community helping us to rebuild our infrastructure, but it will take generations to build the minds of the people, to build their behaviors,” Safi said.

The fifth student, Chinyere Amadi, never experienced war first-hand. But she grew up in Zambia, where refugees from neighboring Rwanda, Congo and Uganda became part of her everyday life. In school she befriended a Rwandan boy named John, who told her stories about coming of age during genocide.

When he was very young, John and about 300 other people were rounded up in an open field. The soldiers told the people that they had come to organize a prayer group.

“They asked them to close their eyes and pray, and when they did so, they opened fire on the whole group, Amadi said. “(John) said he only survived because he was so small. Every time he tried to get up, a body would fall on him, so he had to stay under there for close to 24 hours before he could move.”

When the panel was opened for questions, Middlebury Union High School teacher Frankie Dunleavy asked what was burning on the minds of most of the hushed audience: How do you balance these vastly different worlds — the war zone that was your home and your new life in Middlebury, Vermont?

“Do you feel that you would like to leave your past behind you, or would you, sometimes, like to just shout at the people around you and say, ‘Wake up!’” Dunleavy asked.

Growing up in a war zone means life revolves around surviving from one day to the next, the students agreed. So for many of them, their time in Middlebury has been their first chance to really process what is happening at home.

For Amadi, it took leaving home to attend the United World College in Canada before she realized what she’d left behind in Zambia.

“When you’re at home, everyone has their own problems,” she said. “You’re too wrapped up in your own family situation to actually go and interact with other people who might teach you something.”

“Everyone has their own story and some people just need to be spoken to … Talk to people,” she said. “You need to ask them, ‘What’s going on, what have you been through?’”

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