Living in a war zone: What it teaches about surviving a pandemic

Why We Wrote This

In times of crisis, perspective can build perseverance. In this essay, our Martin Kuz beautifully explores how his time in Afghanistan has helped him see the response to the coronavirus differently.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A group of men clusters behind a store’s security gate in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 24, 2013, as militants and Afghan security forces clash a few blocks away.

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It’s common these days to hear people compare our responses to the coronavirus to war. Flaws abound in the comparison. But it is true that both reshape the order of life, disrupting cultural and social rituals and altering perspective on external and interior worlds.

Amid this new uncertainty, our Northern California correspondent, Martin Kuz, shares a different perspective. He covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan for three years, traveling to half the country’s 34 provinces. One memory that persists is how Afghans responded to the countless attacks they endured.

Their calmness defied the not-so-distant echoes of gunfire and grenade explosions. And their example of adapting to the constant presence of war – finding purpose, meaning, and joy within the confines of mutual hardship – holds useful lessons.

The willingness of Afghans to repair the social fabric whenever violence tears open their lives reveals a patience born of experience. They spurn cynicism to attend college, get married, and raise families. They cast off self-pity to gather in cafes, hold public celebrations, and worship together. They search for light in the shadow of war.

The city appears deserted. No cars in the streets, no pedestrians on the sidewalks. Shops closed up, restaurants shut down. The absence of motion surrounds me.

Walking past a storefront, I notice a cluster of men staring out from behind its metal security gate. They range in age from early teens to about 50, and when I offer a smile, a few respond in kind. Their calmness defies the not-so-distant echoes of gunfire and grenade explosions.

As the novel coronavirus forces much of America to hole up indoors, my mind keeps returning to that silent, fleeting exchange seven years ago in Kabul, Afghanistan. People had disappeared into buildings seeking cover during an insurgent attack. Yet four or five blocks from the fighting, the group of men reacted to their captivity with placid resolve, inured to war’s chaos.

The memory of that moment from the longest war in United States history surfaces when I stroll through my neighborhood in Northern California. Stillness has muffled the streets in Sacramento as people hibernate in their homes and wait for the threat of COVID-19 to subside. Here and there, I glimpse someone peering out a window, as if checking whether our old way of life has come back.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Flaws abound in the comparison of pandemic to war. But it is true that each form of calamity brings suffering and death, provokes anxiety and grief, and requires collective effort and sacrifice to repel an invading force. Both reshape the order of life, disrupting cultural and social rituals and altering perspective on external and interior worlds.

In our new age of uncertainty, the example of Afghans adapting to the constant presence of war – finding purpose, meaning, and joy within the confines of mutual hardship – holds useful lessons. As we confront economic insecurity, food shortages, and loss of personal freedom, as we worry about the danger of stepping outside our homes, we can take cues from a nation that has coped with those burdens for decades.

A sense of possibility

I covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan for three years, traveling to half the country’s 34 provinces. The attack in Kabul on May 24, 2013, fit a recurring pattern in large cities and remote villages alike.

The assault began when a suicide bomber detonated explosives near a Western aid agency. The hourslong firefight that followed between militants and Afghan security forces claimed four victims, including a 6-year-old girl. A plume of gray smoke swirled over the city of 4 million people as its public spaces emptied out and its daily bustle ceased.

Afghans have honed their shelter-in-place reflexes during multiple wars over the past 40 years. They know to stay inside at the sound of explosions and gunfire. They also know that, after the smoke dissipates, a pall of dread will linger.

The unease hovers for hours or days, weeks or months. But in time, by degrees, people reassert a measure of control as shops reopen, workers return to their jobs, and children again play in the streets. Life regains its normal rhythms – with the caveat that “normal” remains at once relative and fragile in war.

The willingness of Afghans to repair the social fabric whenever violence tears open their lives reveals a patience born of experience. They spurn cynicism to attend college, get married, and raise families. They cast off self-pity to gather in cafes, hold public celebrations, and worship together. They search for light in the shadow of war.

These acts of rebellion against despair and loss reflect an ability to acclimate to chronic turmoil. Even after generations of bloodshed, Afghans continue to nurture a sense of possibility, bearing their country’s privations with an enviable strength of spirit.

The day after the attack, Kabul’s residents started to emerge from hiding. In the afternoon, I rode by taxi to a university to watch its graduation ceremony, passing the store where I had seen the group of men. The security gate was up, and inside there were customers.

“We live each day”

The coronavirus has engulfed America. Hospitals struggle with patient overflow and equipment shortages. Demand at food banks soars in tandem with millions of people losing jobs or income. Stay-at-home orders cut us off from public spaces and one another. We tend to feel connected only in our shared isolation.

War splinters a nation, and in their distress, people turn to each other for solace and hope. By contrast, preventing the spread of COVID-19 requires us to stay apart, a concept at odds with human impulse and one that, in aiding the greater good, denies us the comfort of coming together.

Our retreat from the outside world, aside from complicating our economic and emotional recovery, conflicts with American notions of personal freedom and the desire to impose control over the future. We can look to Afghans for guidance in navigating our new reality.

Decades of war in Afghanistan have inflicted profound tragedies and social ills on its people. At the same time, their acceptance of uncertainty as the status quo serves as a wellspring of resilience. Rather than dwell on the unrest and surrender to a siege mentality, Afghans attempt to create a semblance of stability by devoting their attention to the day at hand.

The insurgent attack in Kabul in 2013 inflicted minor damage on a shoe store run by Samiullah Safi. When I visited him two days later, he was sweeping up bits of glass and plaster from the shop floor.

He had reopened that morning, and I asked how he endured in the face of endless war. His answer echoed what I heard from Afghans across the country during my years there.

“We know violence is always possible,” he told me. “But we cannot live thinking this way. We live each day until the next one.”

The West tends to view Afghanistan as medieval, a place with nothing to teach us about surviving our modern moment. Yet as the coronavirus blurs the future and magnifies the present, we might emulate the persistence of Afghans, who even under the yoke of war regard each day as its own reward, its own triumph.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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