While war continues to ravage Syria, the world watches in horror. The question weighing most heavily on our collective conscience is simply this: What about the children?
Nadja Halilbegovich and Natasha Saade know the wounds inflicted on children of conflict first hand. Both women were young when war broke out in their home countries — Nadja was twelve when the Bosnian War shocked the once peaceful Sarajevo, and Natasha was fourteen during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
"I remember the first day that I realized something was terribly wrong," Nadja says. "I was all ready to go [to school] and I entered my family's living room only to find my parents in their pajamas, their faces long and worried… This was the beginning of something that, little did we know, would affect three and a half years of our lives."
And Nadja does not simply carry the psychological wounds of war — she still has shrapnel in her leg from a bomb that went off just a few feet from where she was standing. "The 20th anniversary is coming up of that 18th of October that I was wounded, and I must say, no matter how much time passes, and no matter how well the wounds heal, the emotional and the mental scars are indelible. At my very, very essence, no matter how old I become, I'll be the wounded child of thirteen."
Natasha was playing chess with her little sister when the first bombs fell in Lebanon. "I wasn't thinking about my future, I was thinking about the immediate danger at hand." She said to herself, "Oh God, please protect me, I don't want to die."
"You carry those pictures and those memories for life. You are scarred for life," Natasha says. "I'm trying to build my future." She is studying at a university now, and hopes to become an author and a professor.
"I guess what happens is that… children, you know, they're so resourceful, and they manage, and they find ways to thrive and prosper, even amongst that trauma," Nadja says. "But the heartbreaking truth of being a war survivor — especially a child war survivor — is that that devastating trauma grips and terrifies long, long after the bombs have been silenced."
"That's something that no child should go through, and that's what I'm thinking about when I hear about Syria" Nadja says. "Months and days are passing, just like they did in Sarajevo, and more and more children are losing their childhoods, their limbs, their lives."
It is difficult to imagine carrying on, even after surviving such tragedy. Nadja says, "It's almost a daily decision. Having gone through the war in Bosnia, and having seen so much ugliness, and having felt hatred on my own skin, having the scars staring at me every morning as I wake up." Still, she thinks it can be overcome. "We can decide to believe that there's so much goodness in the world as well, that we can focus on that goodness, that we can promote peace and tolerance through our knowledge of what war, what destruction, what intolerance does."
"Hope never dies," Nadja says. "That is the final, I think, and the main message. And if anyone keeps hope alive, I think it's the hearts — it's the hearts of children."
The diary that Nadja kept during the war was published under the title "My Childhood Under Fire." She continues to speak out about her experiences, and advocate for children of conflict everywhere.
Zainah Asfoor, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, and her sister, Lina Asfoor, began the "Letters for Syria's Children" campaign, to show children in Syria that there are people around the world who stand in solidarity with them.