Supporting women survivors
Modern wars, like those in Syria and Iraq, take place, not on battlefields, but in narrow streets and densely populated cities. Airstrikes on buildings, car bombs in markets, snipers on rooftops – these don’t discriminate between fighter and civilian.
Over the 20th century the proportion of civilian casualties in war climbed from 5 per cent to 90 per cent, according to a UNICEF study. Women and children are affected disproportionately, either as direct casualties or as those who become vulnerable when their men are absent and law and order break down.
A SAT-7 series, co-produced with Beirut-based Lighthouse media, creates awareness of the experiences of women in wartime, and their central role in holding families together during and after war. Women and Wars highlights the weapons of faith and resilience that enable women to survive and work for peace and new beginnings for their families and communities.
Survivors speak out
Hoda Bitar, from Harasta in Syria, fled from home with her family when “terrorist” forces came to their area. Ten days later, when they returned, they found the house in ruins. Despite the dire living circumstances they now experience, she has faith in God and attends church regularly. “I forgive because Jesus taught us to forgive others,” she said. “We don’t have hatred. May God forgive those who knocked down our house.”
From Iraq, Banja, witnessed both the US-led invasion of her country in 2003 and the lawlessness and violence insurgent groups unleashed in the years that followed. “People were fleeing their homes frantically because the terrorists attacked them. There was a complete economic breakdown,” she said. Despite this, she too declared her forgiveness for those who brought such destruction: “I forgive because I am a Christian and Christ forgave. Terrorists don’t know Jesus but one day they’ll know Him.”
Karen Elia, a psychologist and presenter of Women and Wars says, “We made this programme not only to tell the suffering of the women we interviewed but to encourage other women who experienced tribulations, to tell them that they aren’t alone and that there are other women who have seen worse and survived. I hope this can help them tolerate their tribulations.”
While visiting and filming women in their home countries of Syria, Sudan and Iraq, Elia also trained some of them to be able to support other war-affected women in their areas. She explained that the women interviewees confided in her because she showed them compassion and empathy.
“We show God, not through our words, but with our presence and compassion. The humane role we express touches them and allows them to open up and share their stories. We are here to carry their burdens to help them so their spiritual life isn’t affected. The women we interviewed told us that sharing their experiences helped them get closer to God and made them feel the need to pray more,” Elia explained.
Not all the women the series interviewed were are able to forgive. For some the wounds are still too deep and too painful. With tears, Rajamy Kalil said, “I can’t forgive as I am in so much pain. I wish I’d see the person who killed my daughter and obtain revenge for her. How can I forgive the man who intentionally killed my daughter?”
Khalil lost her daughter at the start of the 2003 war in Iraq and moved to Syria for refuge after death threats were sent to their home. Only a few years after settling in Syria, the Syrian war broke out.
“My sons always say they want to revenge for their sister but I keep telling them that she is with Jesus. He chose her, we don’t know why but He knows,” Khalil says.
Dalal Hannah from Syria was held at gunpoint while returning to her home with her family. Militias wanted to kidnap them and steal their car but they were saved when friends of theirs came along and convinced the terrorists to let them go and take the car instead.
“Some things we can forgive, like everyday offences, but those who planned to destroy our lives are hard to forgive. They intentionally destroyed a life we had been building for years,” Hannah said.
As well as a PhD in psychology, series presenter Karen Elia is also qualified in community psychology – an especially effective method of supporting couples in warzones. She also works
for the ministry of social affairs in Lebanon as a health committee coordinator in the government department for childhood.
She says that material things lost through war can be replaced but survivors’ physical and psychological health is far harder to recover.
“Some of [the women] have lost their husbands during war and to this day they carry the burden of not knowing what happened to them: are they dead? are they still alive? What happened to them? Should they move on? I pray that the women will be reunited with their children and come out of their ordeals with minimal losses,” she said.
She is passionate about the goal of the series: These wars are destroying people! If we don’t empower, encourage and make women’s voices in war zones heard, we would be playing a part in destroying their communities.
Her hope is that women who are recovering from war “will know they have our support and the support of other women with the same sufferings. They will know they can share their stories and those stories will be documented and heard. In addition to that, I am hoping to establish a new mindset through creating awareness of the fundamental role women play in keeping families together throughout the toughest situations.
Recovery for survivors will not happen overnight. In time, though, Elia said her prayer was that the women shown in the series, and those who watch, will “find peace of mind, stay strong and reach a point where all their burdens are behind them and they can start a new life full of hope and happiness.”
Find out more about how SAT-7 raises issues and unpacks stories, like those featured in Women and Wars, on our Advocacy page.