“Look,” she said, pointing to the space where her heel should be. “I am missing a part of my foot.”
I was 10 years old. Or maybe 11. I was playing in the living room with a new friend as her mother reconnected with mine after the years of disconnect and migration that followed the Iran-Iraq war. I imagine my mother was pouring her friend some tea, or stirring sugar into the teacup, clicking her tongue as they exchanged trauma stories.
As did we.
“There was a bombing and that’s why part of my foot is missing.” She was cool as mint as she doffed her white sock and I touched her scar without reprimand, tracing my fingers against the thick, irregular skin. She told me her mother stuffed a sock in the phantom space of her would-be heel so her foot wouldn’t slide in her sneakers.
I was born in Iran right before the war ended, and grew up surrounded by its aftermath. I have random memories like this stored in the recesses of my mind. I don’t talk about them often. But sometimes, when I am folding a towel or brushing my teeth, they visit me like unwanted guests.
There is the memory of a man, the adult son of a family friend, screaming, crouching in the corner of his home against a red brocade pillow as if hiding from an ambush. “They are coming to get me!” His eyes are wide open. He stares right at me, but through me. “Help!” he screams.
I am maybe 7 years old. Once again there is tea, sugar cubes, and clicking tongues. His mother explains, “He has never been the same since the war.” Adults sip, exchanging stories of loss and death as the man writhes in a web of psychological agony.
There are bananas — I am in awe of seeing them at a grocery store for the first time. I lip-quiver beg my father to buy one, which he does — a single banana — after much cajoling. It was expensive. I didn’t realize how far from scarce they were in other places.
On July 20, 1987, about a month after my first birthday, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 598, calling for an immediate cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. The countries accepted the resolution a year later. The eight-year war inflicted enormous human costs, as do all wars, each side sustaining hundreds of thousands of deaths.
My family eventually immigrated to Canada, and then to the United States. I became a doctor with expertise in immigrant and refugee health, documenting the medical consequences of trauma faced by those escaping war, torture, and persecution.
Now, when I reach into my bag of memories, I find medical tools, including new words to describe what I saw: The girl’s scar was likely a hypertrophic scar. That man was likely exhibiting psychotic symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is what I have been mulling over since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, another instance of a country invading its neighbor with catastrophic human costs. I know from my own experience that wars are not glorious or sexy. I feel anger at the naked racism in much of the commentary surrounding the situation, apparent in the different discourse and coverage between this and conflicts outside of Europe, but I also feel a pit-of-the-stomach dismay at seeing war glorified. At the same time that pictures and videos of glamorous women in Ukrainian military uniforms go viral, military aircrafts scream overhead, and people cram their belongings into a single piece of luggage to catch a flight out of a place that will soon resemble hell. At the same time that the Ukrainian president is celebrated as an unlikely sex symbol, deaths pile up, of people who will never get funerals.
War is more than an abstract tragedy. Those like my friend with her missing heel know that long after the war ends, as it inevitably will, there will be painful scars and memories that are hauled around for years, connecting survivors through an invisible cord of shared experience. Burrowed deep like cavities, these memories will visit and revisit parents and children alike, likely throughout their lives, as a reminder not of how glorious war was, but how utterly devastating.
Dr. Altaf Saadi is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.