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I grew up during a time of civil war. My childhood was among the casualties.

Conflicts like the one in Ukraine and the one that marred my youth in Burundi create generations of children who aren’t children anymore.

A child is comforted on a bus headed to a hotel after she arrived in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, from Mariupol.LYNSEY ADDARIO/NYT

A few weeks ago, I saw a television news broadcast about a Ukrainian boy of about 10 who had been injured in a Russian bombardment. He lay in a hospital bed while a journalist sat beside him, asking him to describe what had happened to him and his mother.

The explosion had set the boy’s mother’s clothes on fire, and she died. It was obvious — at least I thought so — that the child didn’t want to recall the details and that he was struggling to be brave and not to cry. He kept saying to the journalist, “You understand,” but the journalist was relentless. He finally asked, “What do you want the world to know about your mother?” Then the boy began to weep.


I don’t believe that any TV spectacle should be staged at the expense of a child, but I do believe that the evils of war should be spoken of publicly, and these include war’s effects on children.

The boy’s tears brought back memories of my childhood in the midst of Burundi’s 13-year civil war. I remember watching my family’s house burning and school friends being murdered and animals lying maimed by the dirt roads in our village, and I remember trying to be brave and not to cry by repeating a traditional saying that I had heard from the elders: “The tears of a man flow inward.”

Burundi’s war began in 1993, when I was 4. By then, my curiosity had already begun compelling me to ask questions about everything. Once the war started, however, my questions were prompted by fear and confusion. Before, if I had asked an adult why people die, or if I had asked, “Am I going to die?” I would have been told that a time comes when God calls you to live with him in heaven. This answer would have been delivered in a tone that made dying seem like something I needn’t worry about because it was not imminent.


With war raging, rather than answer my questions, adults would try to comfort me without saying a word. The fear in their eyes intensified my own. Perhaps they were asking themselves the same questions, I told myself.

Before the war, I had been terrified of scary animals but never of people. So when I heard an adult refer to those who killed by saying, “People have become animals,” this seemed to explain it. They were no longer people.

Eugene Yevchenko wept as he bid farewell to his daughter Maria at a train station on May 7 in Lviv, Ukraine. His wife, Lilia, is traveling to Warsaw with their two children, with no plan about where she will go on arrival. Leon Neal/Getty

This only led me to more questions, though. How could people transform into animals? I wondered. How could you tell which person was capable of transforming into an animal? And when they became an animal, why did they remain in their human form? My country’s fables about creatures that were part human, part animal could not explain this. In my young mind’s eye, it was easy to imagine a killer with human legs and arms but only if it also had a monkey’s tail and a pig’s head.

Of course, what the adult meant, I realized, was that people became animals on the inside. I could not see in there. All I could conclude was that the inside of a person was a mystery.

Eventually, I ceased asking questions and became very quiet. There were other changes. I had been eager to explore the world outside my house and to play with other children, but with the war, I didn’t feel like a child anymore. I no longer felt like playing. So I skipped a step of life, and I think it is that missing step that for a long time left me feeling like a stranger among people my own age. War of course has many other consequences for children, and it creates a whole generation of children who aren’t children anymore.


During the years of war, evenings were no longer story times but times of terror. I recall this every time I am confronted with news about the war in Ukraine. I imagine what children there must feel, children who until just the other night had been enjoying bedtime stories.

Pacifique Irankunda is the author of the book “The Tears of a Man Flow Inward.” He lives in Brooklyn.