This is how I remember it: There were missiles coming down, and it was pitch black. It wasn’t the missiles that scared us, we were used to them. It was the darkness, mostly, not being able to see what happened if something did hit the house. It was also the emptiness, knowing that most of the neighbours had already left, that there would be no one to call out for help. The morbid anticipation of what could happen was one of the worst parts of the war.
We packed in the dark, consoling our fears with the plan that we’d leave at sun-up, that we couldn’t stay anymore. We had no idea where we would go and we didn’t care. We just had to go.
One thing I vividly remember is that we didn’t lock the doors of the rooms. My dad said, “If we lock them, they’ll break the doors down to get into the rooms.” He didn’t want them breaking our doors. We had accepted the fact that our house would be broken into, that there would be thieves who would try to get into our rooms, take our stuff, vandalize. We moved anything valuable to the roof’s stairwell, in case a rocket hit, in case the house went up in flames. We did this mechanically, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t the most absolutely horrifying experience we had ever been through, that the idea of displacement, of being homeless, possibly losing our house forever, wasn’t so maddeningly awful that we wanted to drop to our knees and cry.
We left in the morning, with whatever we could fit in the car. I took one last walk around the house, the street, not really believing that we were going. The neighbourhood was dead. The stray cats and dogs we had been feeding were walking around aimlessly, brushing against my ankles. We were one of the only families left in the area, and there was no one else to feed them.
That feeling of disbelief stayed with me for a while, as we moved from house to house, country to country, living out of suitcases. Surely we’d be back in a few months. It can’t go on this long forever. We read every news story, every rumor, desperate for any shred of information. We scanned countless pictures on countless social media pages to see if we could recognize our house. Months turned into years, and we settled uncomfortably into the fact that we weren’t going back anytime soon. We sought out the stories of families who eventually went back to their homes, listening with hope to the stories of those who found their houses untouched, listening with poorly disguised misery to the stories of houses found in ruins, houses robbed of everything, even the windows, even the doors. I thought of our doors, and how my dad was afraid that they would be broken.
Fear turned into anger, and anger turned to depression. I had a recurring dream where I would drive into the neighbourhood and go back to our house. Sometimes it would be destroyed, sometimes there would be a mound of dirt preventing me from entering, sometimes I would find people living in it, zombies, bodies of dead soldiers. I would stand on the roof of the rubble and look at the burned trees and red sky and feel helpless. And then I would wake up.
I was always angry when I read the stories of displaced families. “They packed their belongings and left in a rush,” “100,000 families fled,” “They traveled to look for a new life and a safe place.” Families don’t leave everything behind in a rush, the thought is there in the back of their mind as soon as the fighting breaks out, they think it over a million times, even in the space of a day. You can’t just leave your old life behind, you can’t just forcibly start over. They never talk about that in the news stories, they never talk about the dreams and the constant feeling of disorientation. Every aspect of our lives was on hold, every plan put off, because we were waiting. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, we didn’t know what we’d find after the guns dropped and the smoke cleared. But we couldn’t move on, bound with thousands of other families in the excruciating wait.
Every meeting with neighbours ended in tears and sighs. Every time someone asked me, “Have you seen your house yet?” made me want to scream, to tell them that I didn’t know because of the fighting, how could I know?
The backdrop to this personal struggle was the war, the city exhausted by all the fighting and death and chaos. A bullet broke through the window of a house in one of the neighbourhoods we were staying in, killing a young girl. Her sister found her sprawled on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood soaking the textbook she was reading. A missile fell onto the living room of another house, destroying everything. No one was in the room at the time. Hearing these stories while you’re in your own home is one thing, you are able (to some extent) to dismiss it and create your own reality inside those four walls. But when you’re floating, un-anchored, there’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability.
I feel almost guilty talking about such a material thing, but there’s no way around it. Our house wasn’t just the place we lived, it was my sanctuary. I longed for my bed, my books, my old familiar comforts. Before this house, we had never lived in one place for longer than a year. I grew up unanchored, but at least that was something we did willingly. This house was the first place that belonged to us. The bedroom was mine, it was built for me, the garden was made for us to run in, every inch of the house was designed for my family’s use. Knowing that I could go anywhere, and this place would always be there when I came back, was my comfort. Having that comfort unexpectedly taken away was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. My relationships with friends outside this context because strained. What could I say to them outside of the reality that consumed me? One friend got married, another got her Masters’ degree, one started a new job he was passionate about. Me? Homeless, aimless, waiting.
The most maddening thing was not knowing. If we knew what had happened to the house, at least we would have some peace of mind. Even if it was destroyed, even if there was nothing left, we would know, we’d have some closure and could start planning for what comes after. But the guessing and speculating and being told to expect the worst took a toll on our psyche.
I applied for a job outside the country, because I had to break out, but mostly because I couldn’t wander in my city anymore. The idea that my home was a few neighbourhoods away but completely inaccessible to me filled me with impotent rage. I was already an expert in the suitcase life, it was just a matter of putting some distance between me and the misery. My parents didn’t protest, knowing that there were no good argument they could come up with for my staying. So I moved and tried to forget. But I still scanned the news and the pictures every day, still asked around for any new updates.
Last month, after the area was finally freed, my dad was allowed to enter. He went alone because they would only allow one person from each family. He came back, his face drawn. The pictures he took on his phone showed our rooms in shambles, everything taken out of the drawers and dumped on the floor, holes in the wall from the bullets, glass shards from the windows strewing the floor. But it was standing. It had survived the war, even though we barely did. My mom sent me the pictures, and I let out the first breath of relief in two years. The only thing my dad brought back from that first visit was a textbook from his library that he needed for a course he was teaching. I guess the shock had made him revert to that matter-of-fact mechanism.
He went back a few more times, bringing out more stuff, but when the fighting escalated in the nearby neighbourhood they wouldn’t let him back in. It was enough though, enough to give us a new dose of hope. Around us, the city is healing.