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In the same way that Americans have trouble seeing their neighbors’ faces in pictures, we have difficulty comprehending the facial expressions of other peoples during conflicts. When you’re talking to people who’ve just killed someone in wartime, their faces turn into a blur and seem like they aren’t making eye contact. People don’t speak with the same urgency, intensity, and passion unless they feel their own lives are threatened.
That’s why war zones can be especially hard to watch. We’re accustomed to soldiers screaming “Allahu Akbar, Muslim”, or firing their guns in a “don’t tread on me” sort of fashion; we may even take it for granted that there’s always some sort of physical threat. But war can be a very quiet, meditative and peaceful affair. The quiet, meditative and peacefulness can get lost in the fighting.
In most war zones, the only sound is gunfire, but this doesn’t mean a peaceful place is impossible. In fact, war can often be a time full of life and love. As part of a group of students studying the Holocaust in Rwanda during the late 1980s, I made a stop to watch the local farmers in the town of Banda Aceh make their living from farming. Before our trip, I was shocked to learn of a war where everyone is dying of hunger. It wasn’t just the poor farmers; most were elderly farmers who lived off the land. These farmers were in dire straits; many were crippled, elderly, or both. They had no resources, little money—no credit cards and no insurance—and in many cases little place to live. They lived in constant fear, living on the edge. They were constantly at the brink of starvation. They had many of the same needs that we do today.
My first step into this world was to buy some food. I had no way of knowing how hungry these farm owners and their families were on a week-to-week basis. I was afraid to buy just a little extra. I could have stayed away and not taken the time to learn what the situation was like in their little community. I could have just been a tourist. That would have been my choice, but we are social animals. After that, I went to the nearby city of Taba, where the locals were also dealing with starvation.