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I survived a war as a child, but life doesn’t owe me anything

This First Person column is written by Nadja Halilbegovich, a writer and child survivor of the Bosnian War who moved to Canada in 2002. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

As the pandemic enters its third year with no indication of wrapping up, I can taste a familiar cocktail of dread and anxiety made more sour by the fact that another year has begun. I have been forced to guzzle down this foul cocktail before, at 13, 14, and 15, each time ringing in a new year while living under siege in my hometown of Sarajevo.

I’ll admit to something right off the bat: Having lived through a war as a child, having been wounded at 13 and forced to flee my country by myself at 16, I thought life owed me a string of peaceful decades. Sure, I would have to face challenges that are an inevitable part of life such as an injury or an illness, the loss of my parents, perhaps financial or marital struggles, but somewhere in the secret annals of my mind was the following narrative: I have suffered enough. Surely, life would not put me through another large-scale, cataclysmic event.

Cue the pandemic.

Like many others, my losses have been varied and numerous, ranging from painful to merely inconvenient. Two of my relatives died from the virus, while a dozen others suffered, but pulled through. I have not travelled, hugged a friend or eaten inside a restaurant for two years. But the most insidious injury of all has been the assault on my mental health and my already hyperactive amygdala, which even before the pandemic instinctively clocked threats, both large and miniscule, with breakneck precision. The pandemic only gave me more reason to revert to the ever-wary siege mentality which I have worked so hard to subdue.

In the fall of 1992, I spent weeks wilting indoors as explosions thundered all around us. Finally, a rare peaceful October morning lured me outside for just a few minutes of crisp air and sunshine. Suddenly, an artillery shell exploded only a few feet away. A hail of searing shrapnel sprayed both of my legs. What followed were weeks and months of painful healing. At 13, I had to learn to walk again with the help of my ski poles, since crutches were in short supply. 

Soon, the first winter of the war descended upon us, and unbeknownst to anyone, I had another secret narrative playing inside my mind: Surely the blanket of snow will act as a cushion for any mortar that hits the ground. The carnage will stop and we’ll all be safe again! It sounds absurd now, but for a child it was a powerful narrative which helped me push through the recovery and summon the courage to walk outside again. I was a wounded bird, spooked by the smallest sound, but somehow trusting that life would be kind. 

i survived a war as a child but life doesnt owe me anything
The cover of Nadja Halilbegovich’s diary that she published as a 14 year old living in Sarajevo under siege. (Nadja Halilbegovich)

The first time I saw deep scarlet splatters against the sparkling snow, I stopped dead in my tracks and watched the last remnants of my childhood melt before my eyes. For a moment, I grieved my loss, but also for the unknown passerby who must have been struck by a bullet or some flying shrapnel. In the following decades, I’ve had numerous other illusion-dispelling realizations, though none as dreadful as that speckled path. 

During this pandemic, as the reality became more dangerous and uncertain, I felt tangled in anxiety despite taking every precaution. I hear myself narrating all the time: That isn’t safe. Careful! Check that again. Wipe this again. Wash your hands one more time. Don’t go there! Why is this happening to me? I could die. My family could die. On and on it plays, sometimes well into the night, robbing me of sorely-needed sleep. 

I have made great efforts to challenge stale and manufactured narratives that lie to me, harm me, or at their most benign, no longer serve me. It is very difficult because many of those same narratives played a life-saving role during the war. Since I couldn’t anticipate when a mortar shell would strike or a sniper would crackle, being cautious — even being overly cautious — was a way to survive. After being wounded and realizing I could have easily been killed, my brain learned from the trauma and went into protective overdrive. Perhaps it even saved my life on more than a few occasions — that I’ll never know. 

What I do know is that however many parallels there are between a life under siege and a life in a pandemic, it is simply not the same. The re-emerging narratives of war keep saying: “You see, I told you not to relax, the world is dangerous, people are dying,” but these only tangle me deeper into anxiety and make an already stressful experience even more arduous.

There is a technique I use almost every day. It’s called negative visualization and at first it sounded like it would make my anxiety worse, not better. It’s different for everyone of course, but I have found it helpful. I sit down for a few minutes and write out a single page with one-sentence scenarios that could have happened or that have happened to people I know, or people I’ve heard of. I always start like this: “I could be dead. I could have never been born.” Then, I continue with various statements: “I could have died during the siege. I could have lost my legs. I could have been wounded more than once. I could have been orphaned.” I let myself fill the page: “I could be in the hospital right now, waiting for test results and getting a bad diagnosis. I could be hungry. I could be homeless”. 

i survived a war as a child but life doesnt owe me anything 1
Nadja Halilbegovich, age 18, is pictured with her parents after she returned to Sarajevo for a visit. (Nadja Halilbegovich)

After I finish writing, I read everything out loud making sure these scenarios really sink in. I briefly imagine what it would be like to live them. These fates could have so easily struck me. For example, I could have been wounded more than once. In fact, my neighbour, a girl a little older than I was back then, was wounded twice. After shifting my perspective in this way, I am filled with gratitude, not dread. I am awake and acutely aware of how fortunate I am.

For a few moments, I contemplate the fact that for each path of loss and injury I have had to travel, there have been and always are, innumerable other thornier paths, of whose sharp pricks and brambles I’ve been spared and for which I am immensely grateful. My gratitude is not merely for the good and the pleasant in my life, but also for the absence of the infinite hurts and sorrows that could have been mine. 

Now I consciously replay a new narrative in my mind: Life does not owe me anything. No matter how much pain I’ve experienced or at what age, for every story of loss or tragedy there is another endured by someone else which is similar or worse. And although our predicament often feels unique, it is never singular in that ‘life has it in for me’ sort of way. It is simply the story of being human. 

If I am fortunate enough to be alive decades from now and can look back on this pandemic the way I can look back on my childhood under siege, I hope I will feel as proud as I am of the resilient child who saw and felt on her own soft flesh the darkest, most painful truths of life, but who still believed that life can be kind. Because in so many ways it was — and it is.

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