I Was a Child of this World but Never in It

I Was a Child of this World but Never in It

Peace from the Lens of a War Child
A Personal Appeal

by Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman

For the past few days, I have come across articles on how to address conflict in the
classroom from people who have never experienced war. I have noticed intelligent people, people I hold in high regard racing to write about conflict. Individuals looking at conflict through lenses of everyone but a traumatized war child. That’s privilege. Individuals writing about conflict without mentioning who is the victim and who is doing the victimizing leaving it to the audience to negotiate a meaning instead of constructing one. Your opinion on conflict may be distorted if you have distanced yourself from the suffering of a war child.

I was worried that there will be a day where I would have to write about this. I ask of you to stop treating the word “peace” like it’s a frisbee. You can have peace but not have freedom of expression. That’s not peace. You can have peace that simultaneously harms identity. Before you dive into the discourse on peace, social media misinformation, post-truth era and importance of offering multiple perspectives, here is something you should know.

Of all the horrific news coming out of Gaza, a particular image evoked a deeply painful part of my past. For the first time I felt like one of those rotating ballerina jewelry music boxes that never played its beautiful melody. And by the time I wished to play the melody of my childhood, the childhood was over. Gone. My childhood was disrupted by war. It is like the heaviness of this world had been pulling on me for decades now. It was an image of a fragile twelve-year-old girl underneath the rubble in Gaza that evoked something in me. Her frail body lay dead and helpless.

“She reached the abyss” I thought to myself, thinking of the young Palestinian girl. Then I remembered, a ten-year old child alone in an elevator descending into an abyss. She screams, she shrieks, bangs on the doors to be freed, but no one hears her. No one comes for help and no one ever will. And the worst part is, her ten-year old mind knows that no one ever will. That was me in 1992. And this particular photo of this sweet Palestinian girl resuscitated the darkest memories of my childhood.

The images of children in Palestine evoke the fear that I don’t remember having since Sarajevo and the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It is that fear where you don’t know whether you are going to see your mom again once she leaves the house to fetch some food. You tug on to your mother’s legs until she cannot physically leave the house. Because you’d rather be hungry than be an orphan. Those are the options you get as a child of war. But majority of the time you do not have an option because of the constant shelling and destruction.

Always being overly aware that this, this may be the last time. There is the fear of not seeing your friends again because there may not be a next time. To this day, I make sure that I never leave a day on a “bad vibe” with my family members. I have to hug and kiss them goodnight. I can never allow my family members to be upset with me. To this day, I am scared of the authority and anytime I see a police officer or a man in a uniform it reminds me of the first time I saw tank rolling in my direction. Finally, as a child, there is that false and naïve hope that someone will intervene and validate my experience, my suffering. By not acknowledging who the victim is, an educator adds to identity harm.

It was on April 21, 1992 when I parted from my father and left Bosnia together with my mom and my younger sister. My father was a doctor and had to stay in Bosnia. At that time, I didn’t know it was going to be forever leaving my childhood home. My mom made it look like one of those scenes from Life is Beautiful, as if this was an expedition or a week-long camping trip. I remember waiting with my mother by the phone for countless hours for my father to call. I remember being so sad and disappointed when the phone didn’t ring. Eventually, I did learn that my father was wounded by a Serbian sniper.

Little did I know that my years as a refugee in Germany would present other struggles. Struggles of living in a single-parent household, struggles of assimilation and inner turmoil. Not to mention I was surrounded by educators who were devoid of culturally responsive teaching. But I’ll save that for another time.

I was a child of this world but never in it. And today, so many children are alive but not living. Teach their stories. Amplify their voices.

Does your school teach about Bosnia? Do you even know about Bosnia and Herzegovina?

On April 22, 1994, I saw my father again. Even decades later, I remember that skeleton-looking figure that rang our bell at the refugee housing in Germany. This image is engraved in my memory. It was and is the happiest day of my life. And I was the lucky one. There are no shortages of Bosnian childhood horror stories to tell.

For us in Bosnia it took almost FOUR years for the world to intervene and by that time, it wasn’t an intervention. Genocide occurred. The world stood there and watched. At 1601 dead children later, the siege of Sarajevo ended. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 100,000 people died in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And here comes the painful part – you may be living in Europe and your academic institution has never mentioned or taught anything about Bosnia. For the past two decades I have been teaching literature and my whole career I have dedicated to giving voices to those who don’t have one. Sometimes, I think, subconsciously, one of the reasons I became a teacher is the ability to be a child again playing the melody of childhood that I never got a chance to play myself.

There are so many layers to my experience as a child of war and this is just a glimpse of it. It’s late to save all our children. It’s been late for years. For decades and centuries. It is imperative to look at Palestine and turmoil around the world through lens of a war child.

Now let me ask you this question…

Is anyone in your school teaching a Palestinian author? If not, what is preventing you from doing so?

As educators, I ask of you to amplify the stories of Palestinian children and all our children suffering around the world. Today, as you read this article you have given me a platform to remind you of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it means a lot to me. For melody of every child breathes life in us and is to be cherished. And there is no future without that sweet melody. And sadly, so many years after Bosnia, I find myself again yearning for an orchestra of sensible adults who are entertained by that childhood melody and that melody alone.

Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman is a Bosnian-American educator. She has spent over two decades teaching literature in New York City, Brussels and is currently residing in Vienna, Austria.