You get caught up in it. One minute you’re grinding corn to make tortillas for your teenage sons, and the next, the army has arrived in your village and a colonel is marching all the men and boys into the square for interrogation — and summary execution. One minute you’re feeling a melon for its ripeness, and the next, a car bomb has sent dozens of severed limbs and heads flying over upturned market stalls, and all you can think about is getting home to the five children waiting for their first meal since curfew was lifted. One night you go to bed with your family in your small house in the middle of a battle in the middle of a war you can’t even begin to understand, and an hour later, you and your daughters are being dragged away to be used for the pleasure of the enemy’s victorious army.
Women’s experience of war and conflict is usually a bizarre juxtaposition of the normal and the outlandish. As heads of war-torn families, women are responsible for attempting to keep a continuum while everything else is falling apart. Everything is destroyed, undone, and you are trying to find a chicken for dinner. Or a heel of bread. Women are mending socks and feeding fighters and future fighters, running to bare markets through crazy crossfire, listening to war stories and pounding the laundry in the bloodied river, trying to suckle the new baby as artillery fire rockets overhead, trying to patch up the ruined fighters, pack a few treasured possessions, move the family along under the blown-out bridge, escape to somewhere better, or at least somewhere not so bad. Women are having babies at checkpoints and begging refugee workers for a bag of rice. This is what they are doing while armies cut off food supplies and blow up medicines and sell humanitarian aid on the black market to the highest bidder. This is what they are doing while armies are making what is called history.
There are other women. The ones who go off to do the fighting side by side with the men. They have been glamorized: the Israeli girl in her tight uniform, the brave Sandinista lieutenant, rifle at her side. These are the most visible female soldiers, but the women at home, who are seldom far from the center of battle in the world’s current explosion of civil wars, are the real women in conflict. The others are mimicking the men, or filling holes in the army, saving the skin of the last little brother in the family by going off to war themselves.
Women are on the wrong side, too. They harbor killers who happen to be their husbands or sons, their uncles or cousins. They offer no refuge to the children of the enemy. They watch silently while their own men slaughter other mothers and sisters and rape other women’s little girls. They have their own people to protect, their own houses. And they do not forget their justifications, their reasons for hating — their grudges, their resentments, no matter how petty and low. Nor can they forget their father’s father’s rage, and their mother’s — passed down at the kitchen table over generations — about centuries-old slights by the ancestors of the present enemy. In their flat expressions, you can see dull, ageless hatred.
As they cower behind walls and in closets and cover their children’s ears against the sound of gunfire, women exemplify the vulnerability and tenacity of the societies that are being destroyed. For them, going about their daily business is a direct challenge to the war makers. When you see them marching down a bare road in these pictures — holding the hand of a child, or carrying a load on their backs, or pulling a recalcitrant mule — trudging away from terror toward what they pray is a new future, you can only hope that they’ll make it, that the baby got across the field safely, that the mule didn’t step on a land mine, that somehow they avoided the shelling and found something clean to drink. And you hope they can survive what they never brought on themselves, and bring at least one valuable piece of what they did in their real lives, before the chaos began, through to the other side of the nightmare.