Life During Wartime: How Do Civilians Survive?

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There are countless wars being waged right now. Blood soaks the ground of almost every continent. Neighbors turn against neighbors in civil confrontation. Rebels and factions challenge governments, and governments return fire. And though life on the front lines, in the trenches, as an officer or fighter is horrendous in its own right, civilian life is not much easier. War takes a great toll on the minds and bodies of the innocent people in its crossfire, and still these people persevere. How?

A Day in the Life 

During Israel's campaign in Gaza, The Daily Beast interviewed five young Palestinians about their lives during the 2014 war that claimed 2,104 Gazans (70 percent of those estimated to be civilians). Their fragile existences teetered between "moments of sheer terror and abject boredom." The five holed up in their homes to while away the day while the outside world was under siege, or the threat of it. 

And the imminent threat, for many, is more terrifying than the bombs. A mortar that lands is a known danger. It can be comprehended, it ended. But all the missiles that are bound to fall, their targets and the extent of the damage they are set to unleash are left unknown. For the time being. 

This anticipation of future destruction is what grips much of the civilian psyche in the midst of the constant terror. Neither child nor adult is spared. Palestinian kids had trouble falling asleep, even when cuddled up next to their parents. They pee their pants, become incontinent. 

Some old enough and with the means to document the war did so: photographing Israeli offensives and uploading those pictures to social media, and doing the same with play-by-play reports. These accounts have since circulated the globe, offering more, always valuable, always heartbreaking insight.


Destruction in Gaza Dan Kitwood / Getty Images News

Though somehow, in the face of such extraordinary hardship, many civilians manage to stay strong. Civilians living in Asian countries while WW2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam war waged found solace in teahouses and barrooms. Similarly, during the Civil War, Americans both Northern and Southern dealt with the atrocities of war in comic fashion: joking privately and publicly about the magnitude of death. Abraham Lincoln himself was known to have a particularly morbid sense of humor. Comedians on both sides grew outrageous. For many during that period, their ability to laugh got them through the perilous days. 

But while Gaza was being pummeled by Israeli rocket fire, civilians found little opportunity to do anything else but fear for their lives. During ceasefires, civilians like 16-year-old Farah will step outside and "keep walking walking walking till I get exhausted & miss home," she wrote on Twitter. Sometimes a ceasefire means she can go visit friends, other times they're spent taking stock of the gruesome damage.

Still, in other more fortunate warzones, children are able to attend school and even escape to summer camp. Though neither can promise safety nor easy access. Schools in Ukraine and Gaza suffered attacks. Summer camps in Ukraine can be expensive. One story on Reddit about the Irish Civil War at the turn of the last century paint a slightly less drastic picture of children's lives during conflict: two young girls needing to cross a bridge bookended by soldiers in order to get to school found that a temporary ceasefire allowed them safe passage. When they had passed over, the fighting resumed. This kind of human decency is, sadly, not always shown towards civilians. 

In Nazi-occupied France during WWII, civilians were even guilty of looting and committing other crimes while the social structure was on a temporary pause. Some even impersonated police officers to extort, cheat, and terrorize the hypersensitive public out of money and security. Real officers of the law rounded up Jews and turned them in to the authorities. Many civilians took their day-to-day activities in stride, not getting caught up too much in an uncertain future. Moviegoing hit record highs during the time, as the French needed an escapist outlet. And restaurants continued to operate as usual. Civilian life under foreign occupation is different from life on the battleground.

The Language Becomes the Language of War 

As you might expect, when something as unsubtle as a prolonged, militaristic conflict breaks out in a territory, the civilians living there will have a hard time not discussing it. Conversation, like the front lines, is infiltrated by war talk: when will hostilities cease? when will the next round of artillery fall? 

But at the same time, the civilians understand that obsessing over the war, when it will end, how it's getting on, can make current life meaningless. But other issues seem insignificant by comparison. Parents try and keep their and their kids' minds off the conflict without giving in to naiveté.  

Still, depending on their age, children can be consumed with thoughts of war. A matriarch of one family caught in the crosshairs of the Ukrainian crisis says that her children have even, unknowingly, mentally absorbed the symbols of battle. Before they used to doodle pictures of flowers, trees, images of life and the natural world. Now they scratch out sketches of planes and tanks, the manmade machines of destruction, the new (hopefully temporary) normal.

 
The baseball cards of war? Rick Gershon / Getty Images News

During wars past, it was a regular pastime for children to collect shrapnel and other leavings of combat and trade them with other kids "“ like baseball cards or marbles. This was especially common during WWII, during which children would scavenge for sometimes rainbow-colored bits of bullet cases and metal scrap made beautiful in explosions.

At the same time, parents caution their children against picking up anything they find on the ground, for fear that whatever it is could still be active ammunition. While walking outside, children are also taught to keep their heads down, and how to seek out safe shelter. There are certain living requirements that must be met, and meeting them is made much harder in a hot conflict. 

Return to A Simpler, Harder Existence 

That life is much more strenuous, and much less relenting. The UN estimates that millions of people have fled Ukraine for safer ground, but still there are those that have remained and struggle to persist. Predictably, quality of life in war torn areas is severely reduced. The pro-Russian separatists in the east have impeded coal flows to electrical power plants in Ukraine, cutting off energy supplies by 10 percent across the whole country. Consequently, power is an unreliable luxury in much of Ukraine, and many homes go without electricity and heat. 

Water too is in short supply. Running water, if it's had at all, is preserved. That means toilet flushing is discouraged as a way to conserve precious resources. Families take measures to sanitize the commodes with chlorine, but the stench can be overbearing. Likewise, many use winter snow instead of running water to bathe. 

Outside, it is a sad state of affairs. The Ukrainian locals have left dumpster lids wide open so that stray animals abandoned by their owners can have something to eat. The smell is pervasive. Fruit that falls from backyard trees goes unpicked, rots, and also putrefies. All around are the emblems and signs of disaster.

Destruction to infrastructure, and the throttling of power and water can wreak havoc on agricultural business and food suppliers. These utilities are necessary to sustain a function food industry. When they're gone, or facilities are destroyed by bombing or gunfire, food prices skyrocket and supply dwindles. 

In Aleppo, a once-flourishing city the raging Syrian civil war has for the past four years torn to shreds, the UN World Food Program has established a bustling food bank. It services roughly 800,000, and works double-time to cook up 48,000 hot meals a day. This is how so many Syrians survive. In Gaza, 66 percent of households depended on food aid, and 72 percent were food insecure or nearly so.

 
Angelina Jolie joins the humanitarian initiative in Syria, Handout / Getty Images News

The same can be said of the Ukrainians that have chosen not to flee to Russia or less hostile cities. Tons of aid from Russia, Germany, and other nations makes its way to Ukraine to feed the hungry. Family heads can wait hours on long lines for meager but necessary portions. Families there can no longer afford the sumptuous foods they once were able to feed their children with. No more expensive meats, no more sweets. Whatever surplus is scrounged up is often stored in the form of emergency kits. 

And in the absence of adult, usually male, breadwinners, many children will take to the streets to make a living for them and their siblings. During the War in Afghanistan, young teen Fawad Mohammadi had been selling maps and gum on the streets of Kabul for five years. He's keen to his surroundings, and steers clear of any areas that might be bomb targets. 

For others, the monotony can be hellish. On account of the lack of energy, the days grow shorter, and nights colder than ever. The range of activities formerly available to a family narrows. According to The Guardian's interview, one family in Ukraine's schedule runs like this: after waking up with the sun, a minimal breakfast is served. They fetch water using plastic bottles from a nearby well. Lunch. Some nap, while grandfather goes to fish. The children can go outside to play, but aren't allowed to stray far. As the day wanes, the neighbors will tune their boombox to a rebel-friendly radio channel. When darkness comes, it's time for a quick meal, and then bed. The days start to resemble each other in that way. 

And many are left without jobs to help break up the sameness of the days. During the Israeli-Gaza war, Gazan commercial infrastructure took a devastating blow. Israeli bombed businesses and factories that would need decades to recuperate damage costs. It's estimated that at least 30,000 people were left unemployed as a direct consequence of the conflict "“ and Gaza's unemployment rate was already at an alarming 40 percent prior to the outbreak. 

With the rise in job loss, breadwinners return home empty-handed. And promises for financial aid made by the international community have still not been satisfied. Delinquency in this case could cripple Gaza's economy for a long time to come. The financial repercussions of war are felt long after the last bullets have been fired. 

The Specter of War Looms Long After Armistice 

So too are the psychological consequences. Civilians, like the troops directly engaging in battle, can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) just the same. The stressors of war "“ bombings, shootings, displacement, loss "“ can all do grievous harm to civilians' minds and bodies. Refugees are at particularly high risk of suffering from PTSD, and those civilians that experienced six or more traumatic events during a conflict were 30 percent more likely to suffer down the road.

And there is much evidence to suggest that for civilians, PTSD does not fade with age. In one study, 46 percent of Jews who were persecuted in the Holocaust displayed PTSD symptoms. Decades later, a significant portion of them still did. Other scientific data suggests that wartime stressors can cause heart disease and negatively affect the immune system. The scars of war can be both external and internal. 

If there is any good news to be found in all of this mire, it's that though children are definitely affected by war, the majority will find recovery easier to achieve. One study found that the majority of kids in embattled Israel during the Gulf War had optimistic views of the future. Refugee children, and those exposed to more intense instances of stress, on the other hand experience worse PTSD, and less rosy projects for the future. 

Of course, the more intense the war, the harder it is on people of all ages. There's no two ways about this, no icing to be had: civilians that survive war will find it hard to escape it entirely. For whatever camaraderie a war might bring about in the people it touches, there is nothing romantic about any of it. Life during wartime is hard and unsympathetic. Life after it can be the same.  


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