Surviving War or Pandemic?

Dead bodies were everywhere! At first, there were just pictures in the newspapers my parents bought each morning. I never cared to read them, before now. But something about the way the adults acted, spoke, and looked, drew me to the newspapers. The adults were buying and storing large quantities of toiletries and nonperishable food (in my home alone we had an entire bedroom filled with 100-pound bags of rice). They were talking about how long this “thing,” which then was never called “war,” would last. And, they looked very afraid. I was seven then and I’d never seen adults this way before. More than anything, I wanted to understand what was going on. So, I secretly turned to the newspapers for answers. Instead of answers, I found pictures of dead bodies.

As the “thing” came closer to us, the number of pictures of dead bodies increased in the newspapers. The pictures stayed with me long after I’d put down the newspapers. They marked my night with nightmares and my day with anxiety. Little did I know the pictures would soon become real, when our norm was disrupted by war and the newspapers were no longer available.

Before long, we lived surrounded by men with guns. Our once silent nights were filled with sounds of guns and bombs, sights of fire in the sky, and fearful restlessness. We stayed in our communities, with cars parked. We walked to connect and clear our minds. But, our quiet walks through town were loudly interrupted by sounds of stray bullets. Each one that you escaped managed to take some of your life away, leaving you with the knowledge that it only took one successful stray bullet to take all of you.

The walks were hard for a seven-year-old and on one of them, I saw a dead body for the first time. I wondered what happened to him. Did his family know he had died? Were they present when he died? Who would bury him and when? No past funeral, movie or newspaper prepared me for seeing a man dead from bullets. Still none prepared me for seeing the worst dead body I’d ever see, the walking dead, the person you’d see one day and know the news of his death would come tomorrow. Your last memory of him would be how he looked when you said, “see you tomorrow,” knowing you’d never see his dead body again — not walking, not in a casket, not being buried.

I became obsessed with death. With no more newspapers to read, I would listen to BBC News several times a day with the adults. There, I would hear what was happening around and beyond us, keeping track of how many had died and where they’d been killed. Location of death was important for knowing the proximity of one’s own untimely death.

Relatives were now walking many miles to find each other, to be together, to escape. When they came, they often came with the news of death, loss, and displacement. Inevitably, someone didn’t make it through the last fighting, someone was threatened or killed in front of them, someone was raped, someone was missing, someone had starved to death.

By then, the “thing” was called by its name — “war.” There was no more sugar-coating reality. There was no school. There was no work. Money didn’t matter (nothing was being sold).

We were all close to death, the poor and privileged, the civilized and uncivilized, the literate and illiterate, the natives and non-natives. If not death by bullets or bombs, then death by starvation. We longed for and dreaded the next day, grateful to be alive yet ever aware our gratitude and lives could expire. There were long hours to pass each day, scarce food to find, relationships to tend, losses to mourn, stories to tell, and death to fear.

Soon the war outlasted my parents’ planning (they couldn’t have known to plan for the displaced relatives and friends that would occupy our home and with whom we would share those toiletries and nonperishable foods). We ate the leaves of the hibiscus flowers I once played with. We replaced stoves with wood fire, when there was no electricity. We burned palm oil into vegetable oil for Sunday meals. We used paper when the toilet paper finished. We drank coconut water in our attempts to fight Cholera. We learned to survive, until we escaped. This all happened, 30 years ago.

Yet, this current COVID-19 chaos seems familiar to me, familiar enough to calm and alarm me at once. My brain tells me this is different, but my body tells me the opposite. My brain is right. There are no sounds of guns or bombs, no sights of dead bodies or displacement. But, my body’s not wrong — it can’t be! — as it eerily resuscitates the emotions I experienced during war and I’m left as overwhelmed by scarcity, anxiety, and death as I was 30 years ago. But I’m not in a war. I’m in a pandemic.

I arrived at the John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday, March 13, 2020 after my trip to Portugal was unexpectedly shortened by President Trump’s Coronavirus European Union Travel Ban. As we entered Customs, a tall African-American man smiled and said, “Welcome home!” I was taken aback by the warm welcome and reminded of my arrival, 23 years and 10 months before when my family and I arrived to escape another segment of the Liberian Civil War. Then, my welcome was less remarkable.

As I pulled out my phone to call my ride, I read a text from a colleague checking to see if I had returned from Europe and telling me that the stores were bare. I didn’t understand her warning until the next day when I stood before open shelves at a local Walmart. Initially, I froze when I realized there were no paper towels, no toilet paper, and no laundry soap in the entire store. Then, I went into my “war-mode,” immediately searching for substitutes for all the things we’d need that were no longer available.

Although there was no toilet paper, I found boxes of Puffs facial tissue on the back of the highest shelf in an aisle. I walked into the next aisle, grabbed a roll of aluminum foil, and used it to push the remaining tissues into my cart. They would work until we could find toilet paper. I found no hand sanitizers, rubbing alcohol or bleach; so, I got mouthwash with alcohol to use for keeping our surfaces clean. Largely because of the Liberian Civil War, I’d learned to quickly find substitutes when life required alternatives and, as I stood in the Walmart, amidst a scarcity I never dreamt of experiencing again, I felt prepared for anything.

But I wasn’t prepared for the anxiety that followed days later. As I work from home, with my children home from school, I’m anxious. I’m not anxious about contracting COVID-19 or losing money in the stock markets, which would be normal stuff. Instead, I’m anxious about how similar these days are to the days of my childhood. I’m unsettled by the quiet. Things always got quiet before they got worse in a way we couldn’t have imagined. I’m unnerved by the uncertainty. Before the war, my parents stocked up on food to last us for months. But a crisis that should have lasted months lasted for years. Now, I wonder how long “two weeks” out of school will really last?

Beyond anxiety there’s the ever-present news of death. When our war started, I remember reading the newspapers and being intrigued by how many people were killed and where they had died. Though the numbers were always troubling, as the war continued, the numbers grew but mattered less to me. I had less anxiety about how many had died and where they had died and more anxiety about all the things the war could take from me, my family, my community. Now, I’m intrigued by the pandemic — how many have been killed by it and where have they died — but I know the growing number will soon matter less and I’ll be anxious about all the losses the pandemic gifts us, our families, and our global community.

Amidst familiar scarcity, anxiety, and death, I remind myself that I’m in a pandemic, not a war, and this is new to me.

Samantha Divine is a writer and war survivor from Liberia, West Africa. Her writing engages readers intellectually and emotionally.

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