I was allowed to stay up late and watch the Muppet Babies movie on television by myself on the night of Jan. 16, 1991. I was two months short of being 12. I went to bed quite late, only to be startled shortly afterwards by my mother. She was attempting to wake my father. She was yelling, “The war has started!” Years later I can still clearly recall the fright with which I got up. The haunting sound of the sirens still rings in my ears when I think about that night.
I wrote the following poem a few days into the Gulf War, perhaps as a means to cope with a new emotion:
Missile Attack Siren
So frightening when heard,
It is what we all feared,
Quick you have to seek refuge
To avoid casualties, small or huge,
Perhaps you have to wear the gas mask,
Agreed is a difficult task,
It is a great relief when all is clear,
Then, it is not the missile attack to fear.
My father worked as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. We were expats. We lived very close to the city of Dhahran when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Most of our neighbours and friends had left the city before the war started. Our apartment building was deserted. We had never felt more alone.
My parents had “sealed” the master bedroom in preparation for the war. Windows had been taped up with layers upon layers of duct tape. The minute opening under the air conditioning unit was sealed with old rags and then plastered with duct tape. We all slept in the master bedroom. Every time the siren sounded, we would seek refuge in that room. My parents would close the bedroom door and put wet rags under the gap beneath the door. We would then proceed to wear our harrowing gas masks and await anxiously for the “all clear” signal to be broadcast on radio.
My seven-year-old brother would, without a doubt, refuse to wear his gas mask and my parents would engage in a scrimmage to put it on him. My baby brother would be outfitted in some sort of a yellow suit that resembled a space suit. It was a horrendous feeling not knowing what the outcome would be after the sirens were sounded. My mind could not help but regurgitate the question: “Will we live?”
Every time the Scud missiles were intercepted by Patriot missiles, the windows of our home would rattle just as if they were about to shatter. It felt like an earthquake. There was one Scud that fell at a barracks merely a few kilometers away from our home, killing 28 soldiers.
There were reports that there may be a water shortage or the supply could be tainted, so we filled a few buckets and our bathtub with water. For weeks, we used to bathe outside the tub since it was being used for the water storage.
Schools all over the city had been closed for more than a month after the war started. I had not stepped outside the house for that duration. And when my school finally opened, with only a third of its population, gas masks were a requisite. Imagine carrying a gas mask to school instead of carrying a lunch bag.
I penned another poem during the war. It should provide further insight into the multitude of first-time emotions I was experiencing at the time.
No War, Please
We don’t want to live with wars,
It’s like being stuck behind bars,
Really annoying to hear jets and explosion,
It’s so much of a tension,
Nice it would be….
To be again free!
War causes great destruction,
Enormous loss of population,
Our homes should be filled with happiness,
Not loneliness and sadness,
Better to have peace,
We don’t want wars, please!
We were lucky that the war did not last long and the casualties were not visible. There are others who were not so lucky. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were also fortunate to not have been forced out of our home as the war was short lived. It spanned a total of only about six weeks.
Each day, war forces thousands of people to flee their homes: people just like you and me. They are forced to leave everything behind, sometimes even their hope for a future. I had to neither leave my home nor my belongings behind. I still to this day have many of my toys from my childhood, including my Barbie dolls and countless pieces of Barbie furniture. I recently gave my Barbie treasures to my daughter and she was simply ecstatic. She does not realize yet that I am lucky to have been able to pass them on to her.
By the end of 2015, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. This means that one out of every 113 persons in the world were forced to flee their home. In other words, every minute 24 people are displaced.
As individuals, we may not be able to necessarily change the dynamics of war or alleviate the terror that a child caught in the middle of a war feels. However, we should be able to make a difference in the lives of refugees.