March 20, 2009

Simin Wahdat, 'Women of War' panelist

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Simin Wahdat and her sister joined the line at 5 a.m. for a chance at getting some bread to eat. The bakery did not open for another two hours, but the borders of Afghanistan were closed, and no food was being imported into the capital city of Kabul. Only a limited amount of bread and water was available to eat and drink. 

"Suddenly, we heard a very bad explosion," recalled Wahdat, who was 8 years old at the time. "There was very thick smoke and dust. After a while, we saw people lying in the street, in a pool of blood."

Neither Wahdat nor her sister, Alya, 11, moved.

"You see people getting killed, but you don't leave the line, because it is your only chance to get food," Wahdat, now 24, told an audience at Bucknell University Thursday night. "Bombs are dropping, but you are hungry. Only a few people could get bread. I was behind my sister, and I didn't get any bread. Only she got bread."

Wahdat was part of a panel discussion, "Women of War," sponsored by the Women's Resource Center, International Student Services and the Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict (CIVIC). The discussion was intended to increase awareness about atrocities innocent civilians face during times of war, said Rudo Mawema, a fourth-year international relations major who organized the event.

Other panelists were Zumra Balihodzic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Class of '09 and Sowande Parkinson of Sierra Leone, Class of '11.

"I'm humbled by these students coping and managing to be such positive and productive students on this campus," Mawema said. "They are change agents while carrying the scars of war."

Beyond crumbling buildings
Every aspect of life becomes unraveled in a country engaged in war, said Wahdat, who still has nightmares two or three times a week about growing up at a time of civil war. Kabul was divided into seven sections, and no one was allowed to pass from one town to the next. She was 8 years old when the civil war ended, but other conflicts have continued "with no break" for more than three decades. Basic necessities such as food, water and electricity become rare commodities, and fear is a constant part of life.

"War is not only about the destruction of a building. I wish it was about material loss," Wahdat said. "It is about killing people and leaving the rest of the people with a dead soul."

Wahdat recalled another day from the war when she and her siblings went to bed hungry. Her mother put a pot of rice on the stove in the hope that the electricity would come on long enough to cook it. Late at night, Wahdat's mother sent the children to bed, promising to wake them when the rice was cooked.

"We woke up, and the rice was still on the stove, and it was not cooked. My mother was sitting next to the stove crying," she said.
 
A second-year international relations and women's and gender studies double major at Bucknell, Wahdat said she feels like "a bridge between the communities" of Afghanistan and the United States. She wants to go back to her home country and help other women.

Continuous fear
Zumra Balihodzic's earliest memories of Bosnia are of a scenic mountainside town where people of diverse backgrounds coexisted in harmony and children played freely outside. Those images faded into continuous fear as the sounds of grenades became almost constant and going outside meant taking your life in your hands.

Balihodzic, now 28, was 11 years old when she watched her best friend die. The two were running to class, hiding behind trash cans as a sniper shot at them. The bullets missed Balihodzic, but they hit her best friend.

"He died while I was holding him on the street. I was found covered in blood and holding him," she said. "I see it. I relive it. I dream it. I live my life for both of us. And my story is just one of many stories."

Balihodzic became determined to bring about change in her country. As a child, she dreamed about becoming "the first female president" of Bosnia so she could be part of reform there.

"Through my classes at Bucknell, I learned that the prime minister has more power in my country," she said. "Now my goal is to be the first female prime minister."

Balihodzic said she also has learned to appreciate the simple things in life.

"In the United States, we take things for granted, moments," she said. "Every day is very, very beautiful. Being surrounded by people you love. I feel we take life for granted, food for granted, little things like water, air and love."

Fear of losing loved ones
Sowande Parkinson, a second-year student, grew up in fear of leaving the house and of losing loved ones in Sierra Leone. His greatest worry was that his mother would be taken from him.

On Thursday, he talked about the effects of war on women in his country, who he said were raped and assaulted even by relief workers in exchange for food and aid.

"The group of people who suffered the most were the roots of our society, our women," Parkinson said.

The worst part for Parkinson was hearing the stories "and just waiting, waiting as the clock was ticking,"

Parkinson is studying civil engineering at Bucknell with the goal of going back to his country to rebuild.

"As I moved out, it was like an abandoned city," he said. "Since then, it was my dream to come here and study civil engineering and go back and rebuild what was my country before."

Contact: Division of Communications

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