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I woke up in the middle of the night with the sound of heavy explosion. It was deep at night. I do not remember what time it was. I just remember the sound was so heavy and so very shocking. Everything in my room was shaking -- my heart, my windows, my bed, everything. I looked out the windows and I saw a full half-circle of explosion. I thought it was just like the movies, but the movies had not conveyed them in the powerful image that I was seeing full of bright red and orange and gray, and a full circle of explosion. And I kept on staring at it until it disappeared. I went back to my bed, and I prayed, and I secretly thanked God that that missile did not land on my family's home, that it did not kill my family that night. Thirty years have passed, and I still feel guilty about that prayer, for the next day, I learned that that missile landed on my brother's friend's home and killed him and his father, but did not kill his mother or his sister. His mother showed up the next week at my brother's classroom and begged seven-year-old kids to share with her any picture they may have of her son, for she had lost everything.
This is not a story of a nameless survivor of war, and nameless refugees, whose stereotypical images we see in our newspapers and our TV with tattered clothes, dirty face, scared eyes. This is not a story of a nameless someone who lived in some war, who we do not know their hopes, their dreams, their accomplishments, their families, their beliefs, their values. This is my story. I was that girl. I am another image and vision of another survivor of war. I am that refugee, and I am that girl. You see, I grew up in war-torn Iraq, and I believe that there are two sides of wars and we've only seen one side of it. We only talk about one side of it. But there's another side that I have witnessed as someone who lived in it and someone who ended up working in it.
I grew up with the colors of war -- the red colors of fire and blood, the brown tones of earth as it explodes in our faces and the piercing silver of an exploded missile, so bright that nothing can protect your eyes from it. I grew up with the sounds of war -- the staccato sounds of gunfire, the wrenching booms of explosions, ominous drones of jets flying overhead and the wailing warning sounds of sirens. These are the sounds you would expect, but they are also the sounds of dissonant concerts of a flock of birds screeching in the night, the high-pitched honest cries of children and the thunderous, unbearable silence. "War," a friend of mine said, "is not about sound at all. It is actually about silence, the silence of humanity."
I have since left Iraq and founded a group called Women for Women International that ends up working with women survivors of wars. In my travels and in my work, from Congo to Afghanistan, from Sudan to Rwanda, I have learned not only that the colors and the sounds of war are the same, but the fears of war are the same. You know, there is a fear of dying, and do not believe any movie character where the hero is not afraid. It is very scary to go through that feeling of "I am about to die" or "I could die in this explosion." But there's also the fear of losing loved ones, and I think that's even worse. It's too painful. You don't want to think about it. But I think the worst kind of fear is the fear -- as Samia, a Bosnian woman, once told me, who survived the four-years besiege of Sarajevo; she said, "The fear of losing the 'I' in me, the fear of losing the 'I' in me." That's what my mother in Iraq used to tell me. It's like dying from inside-out. A Palestinian woman once told me, "It is not about the fear of one death," she said, "sometimes I feel I die 10 times in one day," as she was describing the marches of soldiers and the sounds of their bullets. She said, "But it's not fair, because there is only one life, and there should only be one death."
We have been only seeing one side of war. We have only been discussing and consumed with high-level preoccupations over troop levels, drawdown timelines, surges and sting operations, when we should be examining the details of where the social fabric has been most torn, where the community has improvised and survived and shown acts of resilience and amazing courage just to keep life going. We have been so consumed with seemingly objective discussions of politics, tactics, weapons, dollars and casualties. This is the language of sterility.
How casually we treat casualties in the context of this topic. This is where we conceive of rape and casualties as inevitabilities. Eighty percent of refugees around the world are women and children. Oh. Ninety percent of modern war casualties are civilians. Seventy-five percent of them are women and children. How interesting. Oh, half a million women in Rwanda get raped in 100 days. Or, as we speak now, hundreds of thousands of Congolese women are getting raped and mutilated. How interesting. These just become numbers that we refer to. The front of wars is increasingly non-human eyes peering down on our perceived enemies from space, guiding missiles toward unseen targets, while the human conduct of the orchestra of media relations in the event that this particular drone attack hits a villager instead of an extremist. It is a chess game. You learn to play an international relations school on your way out and up to national and international leadership. Checkmate.
We are missing a completely other side of wars. We are missing my mother's story, who made sure with every siren, with every raid, with every cut off-of electricity, she played puppet shows for my brothers and I, so we would not be scared of the sounds of explosions. We are missing the story of Fareeda, a music teacher, a piano teacher, in Sarajevo, who made sure that she kept the music school open every single day in the four years of besiege in Sarajevo and walked to that school, despite the snipers shooting at that school and at her, and kept the piano, the violin, the cello playing the whole duration of the war, with students wearing their gloves and hats and coats. That was her fight. That was her resistance. We are missing the story of Nehia, a Palestinian woman in Gaza who, the minute there was a cease-fire in the last year's war, she left out of home, collected all the flour and baked as much bread for every neighbor to have, in case there is no cease-fire the day after. We are missing the stories of Violet, who, despite surviving genocide in the church massacre, she kept on going on, burying bodies, cleaning homes, cleaning the streets. We are missing stories of women who are literally keeping life going in the midst of wars. Do you know -- do you know that people fall in love in war and go to school and go to factories and hospitals and get divorced and go dancing and go playing and live life going? And the ones who are keeping that life are women.
There are two sides of war. There is a side that fights, and there is a side that keeps the schools and the factories and the hospitals open. There is a side that is focused on winning battles, and there is a side that is focused on winning life. There is a side that leads the front-line discussion, and there is a side that leads the back-line discussion. There is a side that thinks that peace is the end of fighting, and there is a side that thinks that peace is the arrival of schools and jobs. There is a side that is led by men, and there is a side that is led by women. And in order for us to understand how do we build lasting peace, we must understand war and peace from both sides. We must have a full picture of what that means.
In order for us to understand what actually peace means, we need to understand, as one Sudanese woman once told me, "Peace is the fact that my toenails are growing back again." She grew up in Sudan, in Southern Sudan, for 20 years of war, where it killed one million people and displaced five million refugees. Many women were taken as slaves by rebels and soldiers, as sexual slaves who were forced also to carry the ammunition and the water and the food for the soldiers. So that woman walked for 20 years, so she would not be kidnapped again. And only when there was some sort of peace, her toenails grew back again. We need to understand peace from a toenail's perspective.
We need to understand that we cannot actually have negotiations of ending of wars or peace without fully including women at the negotiating table. I find it amazing that the only group of people who are not fighting and not killing and not pillaging and not burning and not raping, and the group of people who are mostly -- though not exclusively -- who are keeping life going in the midst of war, are not included in the negotiating table. And I do argue that women lead the back-line discussion, but there are also men who are excluded from that discussion. The doctors who are not fighting, the artists, the students, the men who refuse to pick up the guns, they are, too, excluded from the negotiating tables. There is no way we can talk about a lasting peace, building of democracy, sustainable economies, any kind of stabilities, if we do not fully include women at the negotiating table. Not one, but 50 percent.
There is no way we can talk about the building of stability if we don't start investing in women and girls. Did you know that one year of the world's military spending equals 700 years of the U.N. budget and equals 2,928 years of the U.N. budget allocated for women? If we just reverse that distribution of funds, perhaps we could have a better lasting peace in this world. And last, but not least, we need to invest in peace and women, not only because it is the right thing to do, not only because it is the right thing to do, for all of us to build sustainable and lasting peace today, but it is for the future.
A Congolese woman, who was telling me about how her children saw their father killed in front of them and saw her raped in front of them and mutilated in front of them, and her children saw their nine-year-old sibling killed in front of them, how they're doing okay right now. She got into Women for Women International's program. She got a support network. She learned about her rights. We taught her vocational and business skills. We helped her get a job. She was earning 450 dollars. She was doing okay. She was sending them to school. Have a new home. She said, "But what I worry about the most is not any of that. I worry that my children have hate in their hearts, and when they want to grow up, they want to fight again the killers of their father and their brother." We need to invest in women, because that's our only chance to ensure that there is no more war in the future. That mother has a better chance to heal her children than any peace agreement can do.
Are there good news? Of course, there are good news. There are lots of good news. To start with, these women that I told you about are dancing and singing every single day, and if they can, who are we not to dance? That girl that I told you about ended up starting Women for Women International Group that impacted one million people, sent 80 million dollars, and I started this from zero, nothing, nada, [unclear].
They are women who are standing on their feet in spite of their circumstances, not because of it. Think of how the world can be a much better place if, for a change, we have a better equality, we have equality, we have a representation and we understand war, both from the front-line and the back-line discussion.
Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet, says, "Out beyond the worlds of right-doings and wrong-doings, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' no longer makes any sense." I humbly add -- humbly add -- that out beyond the worlds of war and peace, there is a field, and there are many women and men [who] are meeting there. Let us make this field a much bigger place. Let us all meet in that field.
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In war we often see only the frontline stories of soldiers and combat. AT TEDGlobal 2010, Zainab Salbi tells powerful "backline" stories of women who keep everyday life going during conflicts, and calls for women to have a place at the negotiating table once fighting is over.
Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi founded and runs Women for Women International, and has dedicated her life to helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives and communities. Full bio »