THE WAR IS OVER
The war is over. The peace is signed. From where I sit, I can see a crew of construction workers working on a bridge that was blown up. The landscape of my home-town is still scarred by the jagged edges of burnt and broken structures. The little gardens on street corners are a dusty brown with neglect. But the rubble has been cleared and what we lack in ornamentation, is compensated by the bustle of human traffic, so long interrupted by curfews or riots or random violence.
A long time ago, as children, we would sneak up on him and enjoy his terrified reaction to our little prank. He would duck under the nearest bed. We would laugh with the cruelty of children who could not comprehend the trauma of literally walking away from a theater of war, dodging mines and air-raids. Lying flat on the ground and hiding in trenches had become involuntary responses and he could not shake the war out of his soul. As I watch the reconstruction of that bridge, I am ashamed of my amusement.
Defined by a conflict that spans your life. Born at the outset, coming of age when the violence begins and spending your adult life, alternately acting in and reacting to this inescapable reality of your life. Who would have thought that would be us?
They waited for their loved ones, in camps and other shelters. Some had been able to get a ride and some took the boat and some were simply lucky to leave in time. And now they waited. In a life before instant communication and instant news—and in zones where cables and wires have burned to death, it is that life, is it not?—there is either despair or fervent prayer. News trickled in as rumor. One group had narrowly escaped an ambush. They did not think that those who followed were so lucky. No, they could not tell you who that was, or whether any of them lived and in what condition. It felt great to have made it and terrible to have survived.
And so they waited. Children growing up unseen by their parents. Parents anxious to keep their families together. Wives, husbands, brothers, sisters. Friends and neighbors. Living every moment in the hope of good news and the dread of bad. Good news brings guilt and bad news grief. And after a while, not having the energy to care either way, they were concerned only with getting through, getting by and getting on with what remained of their lives. Some left the camps and shelters to join the fighting. They had nothing to lose but their lives. Waiting makes a habit of dread and a virtue of risk-taking.
We are a people in mourning. We have been for decades now, depleted by the fighting for causes long reduced to routine incantations. Yes, people have died, been maimed, disappeared. The tears don’t come easily any more. There is stone in our hearts. We hear, but we move on. Another encounter? Oh well, do we need to get more rice? 55 hurt in bus attack? Don’t forget to put your things away before you go to bed. Was another leader assassinated? Does that make 4 this year? But we mourn in our tired, benumbed way.
Everyone has lost something, and every loss snowballs into so many others. Yes, many members of her family died, one way or another. But it would bearable were it the only loss. Others left—such emigration is also like death. And around her, familiar streets became dotted with checkpoints and sandbags. Like the symbols of her faith that she always wore, she now carried identification and the knowledge that this may be her last errand. Ate at a dining table with the promise of political conversations for which no one had the energy any more. She picked up her phone to call, but the lines only worked when they were tapped. She would have gone out to be with friends but curfew had been imposed and so she sat alone, remembering the world she was raised to live in.
Over the years, like the memories of someone you loved and lost, this world had become a fiction of her lonely imagination. Every evening she tried to spin this little world into existence, but in recent months, it seemed always to be stained by rust-like anger and acid-like acrimony. This world that was once her future, then her escape, was also to be lost to her. Oh, well. What remained? A few heirlooms that no one would inherit. Papers that may well burn down. Jewelry that it was not safe to wear and not easy to sell. And books that were a luxury you did not flaunt if you could both read them and own them; certainly not in the face of a generation that had only been to school in the interstices between the fighting. Black-outs, either due to electrical failures or as a precaution against attack, meant no reading in any case. And no news broadcast worth mention with all the censorship. So she would give up on the evening and crawl into bed, to dream of other lives.
Her sister thought her pitiful. Her set seemed to thrive in the war. The uncertainty of everything around them was compensated by the certainty of the escape offered by the drugs that were now everywhere available to those who would buy them. Living in the moment, living for the moment made so much sense. Particularly on the evening that one of their own was caught in the crossfire on his way to his lover’s apartment. So they took their comfort and their release where it came and held out no hopes for the morning after. In hope and in dreams, lie heartbreak and pain. So shut them out and get through the moment, and if you are lucky, you will not notice that you are alive and you will never have to confront your reality. It worked well for them, and secretly, she envied them but was too inhibited to follow their lead.
Uncle defied the conflict for all the years of his adult life. Through meticulous legal and historical research, this businessman summoned the words that became his stock in trade to crusade against those who would wage and perpetuate this ghastly war. We lost him three years into the actual fighting. We were all sitting around the dining table, and the adults were discussing something. They burst in with pick-axes. I am sorry—I still cannot describe what I saw that day. I dream about it often enough, but…
Every evening, as the children sat down to eat, grandmother would sit with them and tell them a story. With the curfew and the blackouts, that was all the entertainment they could get. She was a good story-teller, making them up as she went along, with an eye on their plates and their attention spans. "The angel met this little old man in the forest…" "Grandmother, was he one of us?" Grandmother cannot speak. She comes from the time when really good people could fly if they wished, when trees could speak and rivers could sing, when everybody was an us, and before the war. She does not know the answer to the question, because she never cared enough to ask. But the fairy-tale is over now, and the children live in a very simple universe. The tears that she cannot shed wash out the rest of that story. The session meets with an unusually tepid and abrupt end.
The youngest uncle on the other hand, knows too many of these answers. He knows where everybody belongs, and the children assume that during the times that he disappears he is making sure that is where they stay. They are right. The story fragments that they hear are carefully strung together by them in their secret conclaves into coherent and convincing profiles of who they are and who everyone else is. Unlike Grandmother, they can tell the good guys from the bad. The bad guys are easiest to define—they are (guys and girls) the people who started the fight, people who look like them, people who moved away, people who disagree, and the good guys are the ones who fight back because their friends and family got killed. Easy enough. Old age must addle one’s ability to see reality clearly. Poor Grandmother! As if any one could ever really fly and there ever was a time before war!
We have been lucky in my family. Most of us are alive, educated and can make ends meet. Others are not so lucky. I see the pictures of the people in camps and those who were buried without ceremony. The dead, and those bereft of the chance to mourn them. Those who have lost their limbs or their vision or worse. They say too that those who survive the fighting and the killing fall prey to disease. Malaria, I should imagine is a problem. There are always mosquitoes in those photographs, and then god knows what else.
The children look ill and under-nourished, but most of all, they look lost. They are lost. Little wonder, when the grown-ups around them have exactly the same look—of shock, of bewilderment, of unspoken anger. Who is to console or comfort them? I wonder what dreams those children dream. And what do they dream of being when they grow up? Maybe they dream of growing up itself. I guess in these circumstances, that alone would be a miracle. But isn’t that sad? When my mother was a small girl, she and her siblings dreamt of travel, of fame and fortune, of chocolate and felt-tipped pens and of magic. If all you can desperately want is to survive, then what is the value and purpose of that life?
Or of mine. No, I will not consider that question. The men working on the bridge are taking a break for lunch. Such a normal thing. What are they eating? Who is left to pack their lunches or hear about their days? Where do they live? Who have they lost? Will the new bridge take them anywhere they need to go?
I want to fall in love. With a tall, dark, handsome man with a voice like rich velvet, a heart as large as the ocean and eyes that speak as they sparkle. We will live in a pretty little, unidimensional cottage with two windows flanking the doors and one in the turret, flower pots by the driveway and two trees sculpted like four-leaf clovers. We will have four children, two girls and two boys, and they will be perfect. There will be no war, no winter, no pain, no grief.
I crumple up the drawing and start putting away the crayons. I do not know how to be in love any more than I remember what life is about. In the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ universe in which I have come of age and lived as an adult, nothing lasts—not love, not dreams, not life. The best thing to do is to get on with the project (or the person) of the day, expecting nothing. Hoping for nothing. Dreaming of nothing. They say that love is exhilarating, but who has the energy for the loss and the hurt that must follow. And children—why, aren’t the ones you saw on television enough? If I cannot give my children the world, and I mean that quite literally, then I cannot give myself children. So I consign that little reverie to the paper-shredder that does not work. Dreams doomed to dust by dread, despair and death. All that remains of them is alliteration.
The construction crew is back. I cannot tell what exactly they are doing. It looks like they are actually taking the remnants of the bridge apart to put them back together. In three months, if the weather allows, we should have a new bridge. It will be inaugurated, photographed, cleaned and polished and visited by domestic tourists. It will be shown off to visiting foreign dignitaries whose countries contributed or may contribute in the future to our recovery efforts. But the smiles in the photo opportunities are smiles on the faces of a people lost. The war is over, the peace signed and the bridge rebuilt, but we don’t know how to cross it, we have nowhere we dream of going and the conflict has left our spirits leaden with sadness and bitterness. We sit on this bank of the river, content that we have built a bridge. And that the war is over.
East Lansing, 4-3-00