The anguish of mothers in a war zone

No matter how short, war tears at the most basic contract between mother and child -- the responsibility to protect the young from danger.

Published March 21, 2003 7:32PM (EST)

On a day 20 years ago when I had been in El Salvador less than a week, a woman carrying twin babies approached me in the upscale neighborhood where I had found a room. She looked poor, out of place, and had two other children, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, a boy and a girl, clinging to her skirts. She pulled back the shawl so I could see the babies' faces -- they looked like newborns, but she said they were four weeks old. "Can you take them ... together?" she asked.

I wondered: What would possess a woman to sell her children?

As if reading my mind, the woman said she wanted no money, only to give the baby girls to someone who might keep them together. Her eyes seemed absent, as if she were watching things that weren't right in front of her. She said her husband had been killed a few days before, near a town on the south coast, in a nameless skirmish in a war that eventually took 75,000 lives, mostly civilians. It was my first encounter with the terrible decisions of mothers in wartime, and I can't forget it as bombs begin to fall over Iraq.

That Salvadoran woman was freshly a widow, with two kids who had a chance to survive, even by begging on the streets, and she was looking for a way to help the infant girls to a chance. At least she might dream of them forevermore, truly or falsely, as being alive somewhere. Later I would hear of women who held their babies so tight they smothered, lest their crying give away a hiding place to the passing enemy, and that way they saved the lives of many others. I was under fire with civilians when I would hear these stories from women with infants, as if they feared such a decision would fall their way too -- if not that day then another.

To look at the photos and video images that are bringing us the conflict in Iraq is to see war as the sleek, black nose of a fighter jet silhouetted against a purple sunset, or an airman practicing his golf swing off the deck of the Kitty Hawk, or increasingly, iconic images of tanks or individual soldiers seen through the diffusion lens of fine Arabic sand. None will be the picture of war the women of Iraq will carry with them. Because war on the ground is about surviving, and of course civilians have few survival tools once conflict breaks out around them. The picture of war for women may be a dark hiding place, where you can gather your family whose survival depends upon you.

This is the ultimate test of the parent's ultimate responsibility -- to keep the children out of danger -- and control over success or failure is snatched from your hands. I think of a farmer in El Salvador, a guerrilla supporter, who showed me where he had hidden his 7-year-old daughter in a cave while he and others took a riskier hiding place in tall grass, only to watch a government helicopter land, find the girl and take off with her. Had he cried out, he would have betrayed the hiding place of everyone around him. "Do you think she knows I was just trying to protect her?" asked the agonized man. "Do you think people will know she is not an orphan?"

As conflict starts, the rule that says a parent protects her child is broken for her. Chaos becomes the rule. But the guilt and misery that come from failing to protect are permanent. Ten to 20 years after mass killing events in Central America, I've attended exhumations at sites surrounded by still-grieving families who lost loved ones, who tell the forensic anthropologists exactly what the husband or child was wearing the day the killers came, so they can help identify the remains.

U.S. officials are saying this Iraq war will be fast, days or weeks of shock and awe, then victory. The families under fire will time the duration of the war with a different clock.

© Pacific News Service.

By Mary Jo McConahay

Mary Jo McConahay is Central America editor of Pacific News Service.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East National Security