For cultures like ours that are prone to drama, we hold onto and mark all sorts of dates that – mostly – refer to a dramatic event. When speaking of national memory, this is at a whole different level to the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” question for a few simple reasons. Firstly, we don’t linger too long at the ‘it was just a regular day’ part of the story and choose to go into much more depth at how the world changed as a consequence. Second, although the Americans probably posed the question as an opener for a shared experience and shared grief, we tend to slip into a somewhat competitive discussion of which of us was affected more, closer to the event, or understood it at a whole other level and was thus more intimately touched by it.
All sarcasm aside, the main difference in our region is that we have far too many days to mark and remember, far too many events that provoke the question “where were you when…?” For stretches at a time, our lives were (are) defined by these rather than by our own regular life events. We don’t remember the year a cousin underwent surgery to remove his appendix because it was the same year that our 6-year-old lost her first teeth, but rather that that was the year of a particular conflict or bombing and the roads were closed, or the electricity was out. I suppose this is why you can never quite forget the war: it’s part of our calendar.
And, of course, the list goes on: I remember when one conflict broke out because it was exactly a week before the date of my PhD defense and almost threatened my chances for traveling. Similarly, I remember the years of a particular reunion, and a friend’s wedding, because I managed to slip out of the country and back right before the airport closed in both those years. This naturally brings back memories of the first time the airport closed because we were not so lucky that time around and fled the country by land. Yes, I remember that year as well for the same reason.
You never forget the war because fireworks continue to make your hair stand on end, and you recognize the sound of tanks rumbling through the streets at night. Because every summer reminds you of one you spent under siege, where you couldn’t go near the beach and, even though you’re not a regular beachgoer, you can’t forget how much your body missed the sun that year. You never forget the war because, every time you travel out of the country, you still can’t chase away that fleeting thought that something might happen while you’re away, and are you prepared in case it does.
I think, however, that what most compels us to remember the war is that we lived to reflect on it, we survived. After the war in 2006, one of my expatriate colleagues was part of the first convoy to go down to the ravaged South after the war had ended. For a week, most of what they saw in the villages was funeral processions for those who had been found amidst the destruction and rubble and this naturally overwhelmed him. During one phone call, he kept repeating that we (the national staff) really had to go down there, searching for the words he tried to explain “you have to come down and stand witness to this part of your compatriots’ history”.
So, yes, you never forget the war for all your personal reasons, but it is not (just) that we are unable to forget - we are actually duty-bound to remember.