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8 Things You Only Know After You’ve Lived in a War Zone

8 Things You Only Know After You’ve Lived in a War Zone post image

We hear a lot of stories about soldiers who have gone through combat and everything they have learned. But what about all of the civilians? They didn’t get any physical and mental training for warfare. It is these civilians which suffer the brunt of the war as they just try to go on with their daily lives, trying to find food and water, stay clean… Here are what civilians who have survived wars – like the recent ones in Bosnia, Ukraine, and Sierra Leone — have learned from living in a war zone.

You Will Do Anything to Retain Your Humanity

You might be able to imagine yourself going to extremes in a survival situation, like eating insects for survival or hiding out in a bunker for weeks at a time. Lots of civilians who’ve survived war have these stories and, while tragic, these stories aren’t exactly surprising. But what is surprising is how far people living in war zones will go to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

For example, during the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia, civilians would flock to the hairdressers for beauty treatments the moment the power or water was briefly put back on. They even held a beauty contest in which the contestants held a banner which read “Don’t Let Them Kill Us.” This isn’t just unique to Sarajevo. In war-torn countries across the world, people still keep up their appearances and organize social events. They trade meals for a bit of soap so they can be clean.

Why bother?

Because the moment you lose your sense of humanity, you might as well have died.

Miss Sarajevo contest during war

The Local Bar Will Be More Popular than Ever

Soldiers have games and practical jokes to relieve the stress. Civilians have drinking. Even though the local bars are often targets of enemy attacks, people will still risk it to go out and socialize. They will page huge prices for a beer or a shot. And it isn’t just because of the alcohol (though war can definitely create some alcoholism problems). They drink because it is a luxury and indulging in luxuries is like saying a big FU to war.

Your Brain Adjusts to the Fear

When our brains sense that we are in a dangerous or threatening situation, it releases chemicals which create the fear response. This fear response is designed to protect us and keep us from engaging in potentially-risky activities.   But, just like with drugs like cocaine, the body eventually develops a tolerance to fear chemicals. Basically, the more often you feel fear, the less of an effect it will have on you. This has been extensively studied by psychologists and neuroscientists and is known as “fear extinction.”

This is why people will be quaking with fear at the start of a war. But, several months into it, all of the people who couldn’t handle the fear will have fled. The remaining ones will be surprisingly calm even in the face of death – like when you see videos of pedestrians strolling idly by as bombs drop around them.

war fear

It is the Boredom which Will Really Get You

Your friends are gone. It isn’t safe to go outside. There is no TV or internet connection. You can’t even distract yourself with cleaning or repairs because all of the supplies ran out a long time ago.

Surprisingly, one of the things that civilians (and soldiers) who have survived war complain about is how incredibly boring the entire ordeal was. If you are a prepper, remember this and stock up on some board games and books along with your stockpile of food, water, and first aid supplies.

Plastic Sheeting Will Seem Like the Greatest Thing On Earth

One of the pesky problems that comes with war is that windows are always breaking. All those open windows creates a serious problem for heating homes in winter and keeping it dry when it rains. The solution? Rolls and rolls of plastic sheeting. Just nail it up around the window.

Plastic sheeting is also great on top of benches for making an impromptu hospital operating table.

Plastic sheeting will collect rain water.

Plastic sheeting is what you will use as a body bag while waiting for the shelling to stop long enough to bury the dead…

What else can you do with big sheet of plastic? Read this article about survival uses for a plastic tarp.

You Will Lose Hope

Your goal today is to find water. Your goal is to find something to eat. Your goal is to not get killed in the process.

Tomorrow? You’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes… If you aren’t dead, that is.

In normal situations, we take our small everyday hopes for granted, but they really matter for keeping up our motivation and morale.  For example, maybe you will stay at work a bit longer in hopes of getting a promotion later down the road. Or maybe you will take someone’s business card in hopes of working together on a project in the future.   Even small tasks are usually focused around some future goal – like how you buy groceries with next week’s meals in mind.

Until you live in a war zone, you don’t realize how important these hopes for a future area. Hope is constantly cited as what keeps people moving on through the misery of war. But, there is a limitation to how far we can be pushed. At some point, your life becomes a series of motions you take just to survive. As one Gaza war survivor wrote,

Yes, some people praise our “strength” and “spirit” despite the misery. But there is something that the world should remember: we are humans, and we are not able to suffer endlessly. We urgently need to achieve our most basic right: to live without fear, without war, without a blockade…to live without the need to put all our strength together for pure day-to-day survival.

Politics Don’t Matter In the End

In the beginning of a war, there’s lots of talk about loyalty, patriotism, and heroism. After years of scraping by and evading death, no one is shouting the party slogan anymore.  No one cares where the border is anymore. All anyone cares about is ending the damn war.

civilians in war

There Are Dangers Everywhere

When we think of the dangers of war, we think of bombs, mortars, shrapnel. We think of rape and torture. We don’t think of the horrors of thirst, the pain of an untreated toothache…

One story from a survivor of the Iran-Iraq war illustrates just how far the dangers of war can extend. He tells about how his pregnant aunt, who was incredibly hungry, bit into an unwashed apple she managed to get.   The apple came from areas where Saddam had dropped chemical bombs. The child was born with birth defects and her 2 other pregnancies long after the war were stillbirths. These are things that you simply can’t prepare for.  If you think you are prepared for war, then you will be shocked at just how unprepared all of us are going to be.

What do you think would get to you most in a war zone?

Image credits: “War” (CC BY 2.0) by  Moyan_Brenn
Ukraine Sepratists Crisis Slovyansk ATO” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  snamess
People walk on rubble of collapsed build” (CC BY 2.0) by  FreedomHouse