A Childhood Memory of War

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January
16, 1977

It
was around seven o'clock that morning when my mother walked into
the bedroom I shared with my little sister to wake us up. I had
just turned six years old and the little one was two and half. We
were living in Benin (Africa), where my father had taken a teaching
position a few months earlier.

As
soon as I opened my eyes that day, I could hear gun shots coming
from outside. From the look on my mother's face, I knew something
bad was happening and that whoever was shooting wasn't hunting
for food, and wasn't that far from our home.

The
three of us then quickly crossed the dining room of the third floor
apartment where we lived to meet my father in the master bedroom.
Closing the door behind us, we proceeded to sit on the floor between
the bed and the door, and to wait. The goal was to stay away from
the window, which was facing the door, but on the other side of
the bed. The window was wide open, with a screen covering one half.
We could clearly hear gunshots resonating on a regular basis outside
in the morning air. We knew we were surrounded and that whatever
it was, it was the real deal.

While
we waited, isolated in the apartment's bedroom, I remember us talking
about the possibility of a shooter entering the building and the
apartment, but I could not say who brought it up. Something I do
remember (and did understand although I was young) is that we had
nowhere to go and we were very unarmed. Simply put, we were
trapped like rats with no way of knowing what our fate was going
to be. All we could do was wait.

After
a couple of hours, and with no signs that the shootings outside
would stop, my mother attempted to go into the kitchen, only a few
feet away, to get the family, and especially us children, something
to eat. However, the shooters, who hadn't given us any time for
breakfast, saw the door move, and they immediately proceeded to
shoot in the bedroom, i.e. at us! And, not a chance that
they would have shot through the screen – they shot the glass, which
flew everywhere in thousands of tiny pieces. We screamed, we cried,
we waited some more…

The
shooting went on for about three hours. To us, it had seemed like
an eternity, and the bedroom now looked like a war zone.
Aside from the broken windows and the glass everywhere, there was
the damage done by the bullets after they broke the glass and entered
the walls. Over the headboard of the bed, there were two holes,
each 8 to 12 inches in diameter, where two of the bullets had found
their respective destinations. A third bullet had lodged itself
in the upper frame of the (guilty) door, only showing a small hole,
but it was probably the bullet that sent shell splinters into my
mother's back, thankfully the only injury my family had to report.

A
few months later, the four of us safely returned to North America,
having spent less than one year in Benin.

Following
the 9-1-1 events, and when the US retaliations were eminent, I thought
a lot about Benin and the events of January 16, 1977. I wanted to
understand what had happened that day and I wanted to know why
my family had been, even for a short period of time, in the middle
of a war zone.

Unable
to find much information on the Internet, I turned to the Benin
Embassy in Washington, where a nice gentleman took the time to chat
with me about the events of 1977.

Benin's
political past is, to say the least, tumultuous, involving a series
of political and army coups. But, in short, in October of 1972,
the government of Benin was overthrown with one of those coups,
and Major Mathieu Krkou seized power. His regime was Marxist-Leninist,
and Benin's nickname at the time was the u201CCuba of Africa.u201D Meanwhile,
a group of mercenaries (terrorists?), desired to take control of
Benin's government and, likely financed by other political powers,
organized themselves outside of the country (in other African
nations and in Europe) and they planned the event of January 16,
1977. That morning, they entered the country via the airport, and
from what I understand, the building where my family lived simply
happened to be on the road that goes from the airport to the government's
central office.

Because
the aggression came from the outside, the attempted government takeover
we experienced does not qualify as a coup (or attempted coup).
However, because it only lasted some three hours, it probably does
not make the war category either. It appears to have simply
been a small battle between the bad guys and the other bad
guys. For the civilians caught in the middle, though, I can assure
you that it's all the same.

On
January 16 1977, Benin's national army defeated the mercenaries,
however, many lives were lost on both sides and many civilians died
that morning, merely for having been in the wrong place at the wrong
time.

I
learned that they've since built a memorial for the victims of that
day, not too far from where we lived. They named it Place du
souvenir and the monument is called Monument des martyrs.
I learned also that the apartment building we called our home during
our stay in Benin is still standing.

Meanwhile,
every time I hear about a war, any war, my thoughts turn to the
civilians who inevitably get caught between the lines of fire. I
think about the families who might be isolated in their homes, scared,
unarmed, and trapped like rats with nowhere to go. I especially
think about the children who may be old enough that they'll remember
(if they survive), but who are too young to understand or to participate.
I know how scared they are…

When
I hear about the millions of Afghan refugees and the thousands of
civilians already dead in this war of terrorism, I sometimes
feel like a child again, in that I feel powerless and I wish I could
make it all stop and go away. But while I can't do that, I can hope
that my story will be yet another reminder to all of us, that the
civilians being terrorized and killed (on both sides) are not mere
u201Ccollateral damage.u201D They are people like you and I and it makes
no difference where on earth they live because it's never their
war.

In
my book, u201Ccollateral damageu201D is the stuff like the two big holes
in the bedroom walls, which stared at us every time we walked by,
for months after the battle was over. It's the damage one can repair
and the things that can be replaced, it is not the lives all
wars take and destroy, no matter what you call them, what names
you give them or in what name you are fighting them.

A
special thanks goes to the Benin Embassy in Washington, D.C., for
their help and their wonderful courtesy.

December
18, 2001

Chantal
K. Saucier [send
her mail
] is a freelance writer and full-time
doctoral student living in South Louisiana.

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