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readytofight

The normality of war

Photos of war in the news, articles in magazines - they all try to paint a picture of what war is like. But what's it like if you actually live in a war zone? Six people share their stories.

The three young people from our episode on war are #

readytofight

in their own ways against the ideology of the "Islamic State". But what does war feel like when you're a civilian just trying to go on with your life? Six people living in Lebanon, Serbia, Israel, Syria, Sudan and Ukraine tell their stories of everyday life in war: how their routines changed as the bombing began - and how their lives have been different ever since.



"Since our hearts are beating, we've got to find a way to live"
- May, 25
LEBANON, BEIRUT

In July 2006, Hezbollah and the Israeli army

started fighting in Lebanon

. It began after two Israeli soldiers were captured by the Lebanese paramilitary group. Tension has long-been present between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. The 34-day conflict was another episode in the ongoing strife.

Lebanese citizens take pictures with mobile phones of debris in Haret Hreik district in southern Beirut after an Israeli missile attack in July 2006.

Lebanese citizens take pictures with mobile phones of debris in Haret Hreik district in southern Beirut after an Israeli missile attack in July 2006.

We weren't following the news that day, so we didn't know what was going on. All we knew was that a very loud sound blasted, followed by dark smoke. My mother then came into the living room to tell us that Lebanon was being attacked by the Israeli army and we'd have to pack our stuff and go to my grandmother's place (which was 10 minutes away). We asked her if we would be safer there, and she said, "No, but if anything happens, at least we would be with the family".

The shelling went on all night and it was really close because all around my grandmother's place were stores of weapons that the enemy's army was targeting. Although that night was the most intense in terms of shelling, novelty (my sisters and I had never witnessed a war before then; this was something very new) and anticipation, it also probably was the night where we laughed so much it hurt. We were scared (not petrified, just scared), I can't deny that, but when you're scared and confused and you can't do anything about the situation, you try to distract yourself with anything positive, such as "kids, as long as you can hear the sound of the shelling, know you're not dead" that leads everyone to cheer every time we hear a bomb. Either because of the fear or the excessive laughter, I'm not sure, the bathroom that night was always occupied.

When we wondered and asked why the grandparents were so underwhelmed by war and why they had no problem going outside during an air attack, our parents told us that it [the conflict] was old news. They said, during the big war in 1982 that even our parents used to stand on the balcony to look at airplanes dropping rockets and bombs and they'd play the "it'll hit us, it'll hit us not" game. That made us feel more comfortable and not so petrified of what was going on. If there was a 'worst' day in the war, this would be it - but it also was the funniest night!

Beach scenery between Beirut and Byblos in September 2014.

Beach scenery between Beirut and Byblos in September 2014.

Then in the morning, we all moved to our original village because it was "supposed" to be safer than where we were. There we spent the entire summer making melted cheese sandwiches, endless pots of tea, mocking our decision to first move to a house situated in the middle of targeted weapon warehouses and then to a village situated on a mountain where targeted militants had dug tunnels and were taking refuge.

Sometimes shelling would interrupt breakfast or lunch, which we thought was annoying because we had to reheat everything after the shelling is over. Sometimes [it would happen] late at night, making us stumble down the stairs to stand in the safest spot in the house and complain about the enemy's bad choice of working hours. What's so wrong with shelling at noon?

We got to know our cousins properly, we stargazed, we videotaped shelling happening on the opposite mountain hoping they were just sound or light bombs. My mother and I went to our place to pick up a few things, and we passed by a usually hyper busy 'piazza', which was ghost-town empty. It was like a Stephen King movie, so exciting!

Maybe during the war we weren't aware of its emotional impact, but after the war many people, including myself, kept dreaming about it, at least for a year or two. But that war was the cherry on the top of all the security problems we'd been having since 2005 and it numbed us.

Lebanon is constantly in a state of war or has security problems. It got to a point where we're tired of feeling afraid and stressed and angry. You can't predict who or when or what. You don't know where the next bombing is going to happen and when. No one can live like that but since our hearts are beating, we've got to find a way to live. If others died, stop and cry a bit, then carry on to party. A friend of mine once summarized the current Lebanese style of living with the best quote: "Anything can happen anywhere to anyone. So finish your drink".



"We had the longest school holiday ever"
- Darko, 29
SERBIA, BELGRADE

When NATO bombed what was then Yugoslavia in 1999, it was in an attempt to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. It went ahead with the campaign despite not being given approval by the UN Security Council. As a result of the strikes, which lasted from March until June 1999, Yugoslav forces were withdrawn from Kosovo, and the UN established a mission there. Up to 4,000 civilians died and several civilian and governmental buildings were destroyed.

After being forced to leave the train, ethnic Albanian refugees continue their journey from Kosovo to Macedonia by foot in April 1999.

After being forced to leave the train, ethnic Albanian refugees continue their journey from Kosovo to Macedonia by foot in April 1999.

The worst was the night of April 23, 1999, when the building of the Radio Television of Serbia, which is in a densely populated area, was hit. I live 200 metres away from it. I remember me and my little sister were sleeping when a huge explosion woke us up. We were 11 and four at the time and everything was full of dust - our mouths, eyes, and ears. I could hear only one high frequency beeping sound inside my head. After that sound cleared out it was just silence for what seemed like a long time and only later people started yelling and screaming.

The bombings lasted for 78 days. But we were all expecting it to happen earlier during 1998 - the suspense and expectation of the beginning of war was more troubling than the bombings itself.

But there are a lot of happy memories from that time. You know, being a kid you don't need much to be happy. We had the longest school holiday ever, it lasted for five months. I remember that all my friends from my neighborhood used to sit on top of the tallest building every night and watch red dots in the sky (planes or tomahawks) being sprayed by anti-air guns from all over the horizon. It was very fun, pretty much like fireworks. I was surrounded by my friends and we used to invent exaggerated stories that we "heard" over the radio.

Off the coast of Croatia, a Tomahawk cruise missile launches from a US navy cruiser at targets throughout Kosovo in March 1999.

Off the coast of Croatia, a "Tomahawk" cruise missile launches from a US navy cruiser at targets throughout Kosovo in March 1999.

Of course, it was fun only until one building was actually hit. We had a moment of shock with our eyes and mouths wide open and then we ran down the stairs. But it didn't stop us from being there the next night. What stopped us was the mum of one of our friends who discovered what we were up to.

It's odd with Serbs. We have that trait that we are so proud of and it is called "inat"- spite in English. So as a nation we are really proud and stubborn. During the bombings that was especially interesting. For the first couple of days people were all confused, nobody really knew what it means to be bombed. After the first night of bombardment, my father took me to school in the morning - that is how much people were not aware that we were actually at war.

After the first couple of weeks people started acting like there wasn't an imminent threat for their lives. People were in parks, at the riverside, walking their dogs, concerts were held everyday on the main square and Belgrade bridges. Here's a clip of a concert from the main square - that's how crazy we were.

And of course there was a darker side. There was no electricity - two million people in the city lived in total darkness. That was pretty apocalyptic. There was a shortage of water. Then there was no bread and no food on the shelves in supermarkets. But it wasn't "such a problem" since we are an agricultural country so everyone knows someone living in the countryside producing food.

Darko (11) with his little sister (4).

Darko (11) with his little sister (4).

Everyone tried to make their own daily routine to not think about the fact that last night, a NATO plane flying away from anti-aircraft missiles dumped a bomb and killed a family of seven in Arandjelovac (a tiny spa town in Serbia with no industry) and other grim news that were coming in daily. As for me, I was a kid, I continued taking English lessons from the coolest professor from Liverpool (he stayed in Belgrade throughout). I went discovering shelters with friends, went to my waterpolo training (I remember the water was really cold) and that didn't stopping even when bomb sirens were going off.

I think I learned to cherish the importance of life and to enjoy every day of it. We also had to study on our own for school since we missed half a school year. Studying without electricity, with candles and lamps only teaches you that there are no excuses. That makes you a tougher kid. But I would lie if I said I don't have an instant reaction in my stomach when I hear something that sounds like these sirens.

An old photo from September 1985 shows a Danube pier in Belgrade.

An old photo from September 1985 shows a Danube pier in Belgrade.



"Two photos of my friends accompanied me during the war"
- Daniel, 24
ISRAEL AND GAZA

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the most enduring in history - it has been going on for almost 70 years, since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.
The dispute

is rooted

in historic claims to the land. The latest attempt at peace started in 2013 and ended

2014 with the Israel-Gaza conflict

. As a consequence, the United Nations declared a

humanitarian emergency in the Gaza strip

.

I was 23 years old and about to finish my army service after serving three years as a tank commander when the war started. I was on my break release when I got a call from my commander who told me to return to the army.

The war lasted a month. During the first two weeks, we were situated near the border and waited while the air force attacked. After two weeks we entered Gaza with our tanks for 18 days.

There were two particularly horrible days. The first one was when two of my friends who were officers in the armor unit were killed by snipers’. I found out they were killed when I opened a newspaper which was sent to us in Gaza and saw their photos on the front page. I immediately cut the two photos and hung them up next to me inside the tank. Those two photos of my friends accompanied me during the war.

In October 2014 Palestinian children play on a swing near the rubble of houses that were destroyed during the seven-week Israeli offensive.

In October 2014 Palestinian children play on a swing near the rubble of houses that were destroyed during an Israeli offensive.

The second difficult day was a Friday. We were meant to get out of Gaza, and we were very excited as we couldn't wait to come back home. But then on Friday morning another soldier was kidnapped, which meant we were going to stay in Gaza for a long time and that made us feel extremely frustrated. We felt as if they had managed to make the country kneel.

On Friday night, when Shabbat (the holy day for the Jews) started, we were four non-religious men in the tank and we started singing traditional Shabbat songs. As a result of our hard feelings and frustration, we were shouting the words instead of singing them.

Palestinians sit outside their house. Witnesses said it was heavily shelled by Israel during the offensive, in the Shejaia neighbourhood, east of Gaza City in August 2014.

Palestinians sit outside their house. Witnesses said it was heavily shelled by Israel during the offensive, in the Shejaia neighbourhood, east of Gaza City in August 2014.

Every evening we got a logistics supply of munitions, shells and food, this is how we knew that a day had passed and that we were not still in the same long day. This was the only certain thing we knew during the war, knowing we could get out of the tank for a few minutes.

Daniel in the field

Daniel in the field

During the end of the war there were many small

ceasefires

, so we had more time to get out of our tank. During this time we stayed at some houses which were conquered by other soldiers earlier, and we even played cards.

It was crazy because I felt for a few hours like I was in my normal life and meeting friends but the truth was that nothing was normal. People were dying and we were in a war zone - most of the time in the tank.

We didn't really sleep so one of my friends went to sleep immediately when we had even one moment outside the tank. But for me the sleep wasn't important at all, I just needed to feel a little bit normal and those few hours gave me a lot of strength.

In those few hours we forgot that we were at war (not really because some of us needed to guard while the others played and we we're always ready for everything) and then in one moment we needed to go back to the tank and the war continued.

The city of Jerusalem in the 1920, before the ongoing conflict started.

The city of Jerusalem in the 1920, before the ongoing conflict started.

All of Israeli society is involved in the army, you can’t separate it from the Israeli experience and culture. The Israeli society is very supportive and in favor of the Israeli soldiers, especially from combat units. It was extremely touching to come back to Tel Aviv after the war and to see it was filled with supporting posters for the soldiers. Moreover, we got a lot of contributions from all over Israel of everything we needed during the war, like socks, underwear, food, towels and more.



"When you escape the war, it catches up to you"
- Emmanuel, 35
SOUTH SUDAN, BAHR EL GHAZAL

In 2011,

South Sudan

was declared independent from Sudan, which ended the longest civil war in African history. Two years later, a power struggle in the young country led to fighting between government troops and rebel groups. Many thousands of people were killed, and even more fled their home country.

Young children soldiers attending a ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor, South Sudan.

Young children soldiers attending a ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor, South Sudan.

The first time war 'happened' I thought the world was ending and that feeling didn't go away for a very long time. It was all terrifying. When war comes to your village it takes away the soul of your village and it chokes your spirit. When you lose hope you are just waiting to die. When you escape the war it catches up to you in a peaceful environment. It can catch up with you and chop you.

Losing my mother so early made me feel like I had no home. Nobody was there for me and I just went from one place to the other. It still affects me. Nothing can ever replace your mum but what can you do?

I probably fought for around four years until I escaped - but I only took part in four battles, I was still young so they kept me from the front line. I spent time at the battle camps and trained. But the training was terrible, it was like torture. They would lock you in a hole in the ground if you misbehaved.

Emmanuel, who was a child soldier himself once and is now a famous musician in South Sudan.

Emmanuel, who was a child soldier himself once and is now a famous musician in South Sudan.

We woke up at 5am with little time to eat, press ups, jogs to keep people fit all the time. Then maybe people are selected to go to the front line and if you are engaged in the battle you go to the toilet many times. But once you get going the adrenaline gets going. You fire your guns but you can't hear the sound of your AK47 against the bigger guns, but you can feel the vibration in your hands.

When the battle is on it sounds like music. When it finishes it is quiet, it's like hell. You count down the people that are gone, the bones that are broken you see people's heads chopped off and everything goes silent. Some people are crying, there are no painkillers and this is the worst moment. The only time you know these people are child soldiers are when they are hurt because they are crying like kids asking for their mums and dads. Everything smells like gunpowder and you lose your appetite for days.

My life today now feels like heaven, before when I couldn't fight away the demons it felt like hell. Now I can go to bed and not feel attacked by guns. I can keep my door open.

My current life is affected by my past. I choose to change my present because of my past. I want to do everything I possibly can to make positive changes through my music, through storytelling - whatever way possible. I don't understand people that have so much and do so little. There are so many people dying every day and they focus always on just having more and more.

Peaceful scenery in 2003, before South Sudan became an independent state 2011.

Peaceful scenery in 2003, before South Sudan became an independent state 2011.

I think my body has found a way to make itself happy. I don't have to think too much. But the only bad thing is that I can't hold my heart to anything or anybody which can make me seem careless. I always saw things that I cared for die and taken away. I choose to try and enjoy and respect but I don't hold anything close to me.

History is repeating itself and all these situations can be prevented but people benefit from [wars] and it's a business to people. People are blocked from requiring the right information and are exploited.

It's frustrating to see more people fleeing Africa because of war, drowning at sea is terrible.



"It's easier to run in between the snipers when you're light"
- Hayyan, 31
SYRIA, DEIR EZ-ZOR

The Syrian war started in March 2011 as an anti-government uprising and has since turned into a civil conflict, with fighting taking place between the Syrian army, jihadists, Kurdish fighters and rebels. More than

215,000 people were estimated to have died

, since the conflict in Syria started in 2011. Syria today is considered the 'biggest humanitarian emergency of our era' according to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

A man walks through a destroyed city holding a little boy by his hand.

A man walks through a destroyed city holding a little boy by his hand.

The area where I was living is completely destroyed. More than 250 missiles hit us per day. During the revolution, I worked with the coordination of the city "Deir Ezzor Coordination" as a photojournalist, and sometimes in relief.

I am a volunteer, everything I did was not to earn money. And before – in my normal life - I was an agricultural engineer, and practiced photography as a hobby, so I exploited this talent in the peaceful demonstrations.

Before the war started, I played the violin. I haven't done that ever since. During the revolution I couldn't do anything I used to do in my normal life, like swimming or reading.

Because of the bombing and my work as a photographer, when we made a plan of where to walk and take pictures at the beginning of each day, food was never part of that plan. We would eat when we had a little bit of time on the streets. Most of the time you forget about eating. At nights you feel hungry and suddenly remember you haven't had any food all day. I have lost a lot of weight. It's easier to run in between the snipers when you're really light. Lots of my colleagues died.

When we went out to take pictures we didn't know if we could come back or whether we would die. There were snipers all over the place. I always left everything prepared for the chance that I wouldn't come back. I wrote notes saying what belongs to who.

A market in Damascus. The photo is believed to have been taken in 2010.

A market in Damascus. The photo is believed to have been taken in 2010.

Usually I went to see my friend or called my family in my free time. There was no coverage in the area so you needed to get onto a high building. My family supported the Assad regime. A river divided us. It took 10 months to prepare a meeting with them that lasted for three hours. I'm in touch with them via Whatsapp.

One month after the revolution started, I lost my best friend Marfak. He died during a demonstration in Damascus. He had a scholarship to study economics in the US, he was preparing for the course. I didn't even know he was in this demonstration, I was at another one in a different town. My phone was switched off because when you're in a demonstration your family keeps calling you to ask you to come back home. He tried to call me four or five times while the shooting went on.

We only found out he died a week later. I lost him, everybody was crying except for me. I was numb for eight hours until his mum called me and and said "Where is his brother?" She meant me, we were close like brothers. When I saw his body I started crying.

Hayyan fled from Syria to Germany.

Hayyan fled from Syria to Germany.

I had these two shocks, everything after that became normal. It was expected. Death exists everywhere so you should take your mind off it.

I am in Germany now. I hear the news, it's so difficult to throw out this thinking, I want to go to the Turkish-Syrian border. I feel like it's my responsibility to capture what's happening there.

I miss my friends and family. We shared a lot of fun times at the river. I miss that.

But there is also life next to war. When I opened my photo archive recently, I saw that I took a lot of photos of flowers and small children without even noticing at the time. Something to have hope for in the future. Our team was most interested in this stuff. We are looking for tiny flowers in the streets, looking for life. There is hope.



"The only physical home you ever had lies in ruins"
- Anya, 31
UKRAINE, DONBASS

The conflict in Ukraine is a result of division in the country between a

mainly Russian-speaking east and south and the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west

. There are many people who would opt for closer ties with the European Union (EU). However, there are also many people who would prefer to maintain closer ties with Russia. Fighting between Ukrainian government supporters and pro-Russian rebels began in the east of the country following the

annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea

by Russian forces in 2014.

A woman carries her shopping past a burnt out market stall near the main station in April 2015 in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

A woman carries her shopping past a burnt out market stall near the main station in April 2015 in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

I was 30 when the war started. Before answering I have had to calculate my age, because after the Revolution started in 2014, the events came over so fast, that I totally lost the feeling of time. One after another, they unfolded quickly and sometimes in a very unexpected way for me.

Though undeclared, what we call war is still happening right now. In spite of all the peace agreements, the military actions still take place and basically the major territory of Donbass remains occupied by Russia. For me it feels like forever.

Sometimes I think there are no limits for something in this war to get worse than it is. But usually straight after this it happens. Crashing of Malaysia Airlines plane in Donetsk region, which was followed by selfies with the rests of aircraft on the background. Locals walking through the field covered with dead people and searching for the artefacts and some staff.

I see Donetsk as a part of Ukraine and I love my country, that is why the actions of Ukrainian politicians are the most shocking ones, especially after all the victims which happened - in Maidan and during the ongoing war.

Ukrainian tanks taking part in exercises close to the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, in the Lugansk region in March 2015.

Ukrainian tanks taking part in exercises close to the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, in the Lugansk region in March 2015.

I did not lose my close friends, but I lost a friend of mine, who was struggling on the opposite side. He was very intelligent and nice guy, young and professional, so I really regret this loss.

During the active military actions I was very worried. I checked Facebook and some online newspapers every 15 minutes. I called friends, I took notes in my diary, I transferred money to help displaced people and to the Ukrainian army, I tried to go deeper into my work, which is very close related to Donbass and the idea of its cultural, social and economical development.

My routine has changed in a way, that you know that your apartment in Donetsk and the only physical home you ever had is severely damaged and lies in the ruins. And you cannot even access it, because the district is still unsafe and you do not have a convincing reason to apply for a permission to get to the city.

Donetsk city centre in December 2011, before the Ukraine crisis started.

Donetsk city centre in December 2011, before the Ukraine crisis started.

The life has got another taste. Thanks to my flexibility I got used to different prompt changes, so I just switch from one activity to another quite easy. I do same things I always did, anyhow I feel like I’ve become more helpful and open.

Violence is not the way out and the war has just strengthened this conviction. There are other ways for conflict prevention and reconciliation. To name a few - to develop the culture of dialogue and non-violent solving of problems, to foster critical thinking and understanding of one’s identity and personality, to encourage life-long education and self-education, to celebrate culture and arts.

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