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Parenting at Wartime

How do you parent in a time of war and continuous conflict? How do you parent if you don’t even have a state, if multiple generations have grown in a non-existent country? At the time when Abbas is applying for UN recognition of the Palestinian state after a half of a century of not having a state, I am wondering how generations of Palestinians have done this?

I was born in the country called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a country that fell apart in the  early nineties. It fell apart in the worst possible way, in the flames of brutal conflict that lasted over a decade. Within that decade I went from calling my country Yugoslavia to Former Yugoslavia to Serbia. I was in my twenties, not quite a child, but without my own children. The whole thing was infinitely confusing, and emotional, and  painful. While I was growing up, of course, I knew I was a Serb, but the dominant label was Yugoslav. It was the Yugoslavian identity that was celebrated widely, it was the color scheme of the Yugoslavian flag that I still remember, it was the  shape of Yugoslavia that I could still draw pretty accurately. Not Serbia. Of course, in my twenties I realized that forming a country like Yugoslavia might have not been the best idea, that many things were quite different from what they appeared to be or from the way I was trained to see them, but all that didn’t matter. The fact that I was born in the country that no longer existed did.

It took some years of confusion and anger to come to terms with this change. Especially when I came to the US. People would ask me what country I was from. I kept saying Yugoslavia despite the fact that that answer didn’t feel quite right. After all, Yugoslavia no longer existed. I switched to saying The Former Yugoslavia, but that sounded silly. Incomplete. Inaccurate. Former – who cares about the former, what is it now? It took me years to start feeling comfortable saying Serbia, and to say it right off the bat, not just as an addendum. I am from Serbia, I am Serbian.

Of course, there was a much more complex process happening within me, but I had difficulty articulating it. I know confusion was the big part, but there was also guilt, and anger, and sadness, and  pain, and a sense of meaninglessness. A point where you stop trying to understand. You try to distance yourself from politics. You try to pretend you are apolitical, you can’t see, you can’t hear, you don’t care.

That’s the place where I was for almost ten years. Serbs were portrayed as the bad guys, and I am sure they did plenty of bad, very bad things that were beyond my ability to grasp (Serbs were killing, people were getting killed, and there were two things here that were difficult to digest: people were killing each other at the end of the twentieth century, and MY people were killers). But then, I knew that the other sides were responding by killing. It was awful no matter what. In addition to all that, Serbia, my Serbia that I still had difficulty referring to as my country, was ruled by a madman, Slobodan Milosevic.

The international community got involved. The US, where I was living now, was a big player.  First, the talks in Dayton. Then, the Kosovo crisis, the NATO forces bombing Serbia. For almost three months.

The international community and NATO were against what Milosevic was doing. So were most Serbs. In 1996 and 1997, students of the University of Belgrade demonstrated for months to get the madman out of his seat. We marched, we whistled, and we even banged pots and pans on the balconies of our apartments if we couldn’t make it to downtown. We didn’t get “international help.” Now, when Milosevic got into Kosovo trying to solve the problems there in the only way a madman could – madly – NATO decided to get involved. And how did they help? They bombed Serbia, they damaged the bridges and destroyed the economy, which probably didn’t affect Milosevic as much as it did the regular people. At the same time, the US was ready to send me home in the midst of that mess. I happened to be in the US when the bombing started, but the “temporary protected status” normally available to those who happen to be in the US when the conflict in their country starts for the duration of the conflict, was not available to Serbs. Despite the fact that NATO bombed Serbia every night. I felt I was treated as a roach, not as a human being.

Yes, I was very angry about that. And confused. And unable to understand. The same way I couldn’t understand how the international community led by the US recognized the independence of Kosovo (a region of Serbia that is mostly populated by Albanians). Simply because in a situation that I considered very similar to this, Srpska Krajina, a region of Croatia that was mostly populated by Serbs, didn’t gain independence (not that I thought it should have, but I expected the same types of issues to be resolved in the same way; it would have been only fair).  Something didn’t make sense.

Since then, I stopped expecting things to make sense. Since then, we’ve had the situation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seeking independence and the US government’s refusal to back them up. The US backed up Georgia. Was I surprised? Not really. ” U.S.-backed oil pipeline runs through Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while bypassing Russia and Iran.” After all, everything seems to be about the United States’ interests.

Am I surprised that the US is getting ready to shoot the efforts of Palestinians to finally have a state? Not really. But it makes me sad. And I wonder how it is to raise kids there. To parent while bombs are going off. I was a student at the University of Belgrade when the war in Yugoslavia started. It was not right there where I was, but that didn’t matter. I wrestled with that overbearing sense of disbelief and meaninglessness, and I had only myself to take care of and myself to explain the whole thing to. How would I have explained that overwhelming confusion to anybody, not to say to my two-year-old or five-year-old or ten-year-old kid? Would it have even possible for me to rise above the war to give the children the basic sense of security they need – a sense that they are OK, that they will be safe no matter what, that I will keep them safe at least as long as they need me to impart that belief on them? To impart a sense of hope and beauty of living and loving and being here in this world. How can you do that if you exist in a violent world ruled by injustice and anger? I don’t know if you can. I suppose you enter the survival mode and you just stay there. For twenty, thirty, or forty years. Without any hope that things will change. That the international community will get involved in any meaningful way. And you survive, if you do, and you raise your kids. Somehow.

Note: I’d love to hear from those who have done this – raised kids in a time of war.

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