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TEDGlobal 2010

Zainab Salbi: Women, wartime and the dream of peace

July 16, 2010

In war we often see only the frontline stories of soldiers and combat. AT TEDGlobal 2010, Zainab Salbi tells powerful "backline" stories of women who keep everyday life going during conflicts, and calls for women to have a place at the negotiating table once fighting is over.

Zainab Salbi - Activist and social entrepreneur
Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi founded and runs Women for Women International, and has dedicated her life to helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives and communities. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I woke up in the middle of the night
00:16
with the sound of heavy explosion.
00:18
It was deep at night.
00:21
I do not remember what time it was.
00:23
I just remember the sound
00:25
was so heavy
00:27
and so very shocking.
00:29
Everything in my room was shaking --
00:32
my heart, my windows,
00:35
my bed, everything.
00:38
I looked out the windows
00:42
and I saw a full half-circle
00:45
of explosion.
00:48
I thought it was just like the movies,
00:50
but the movies had not conveyed them
00:52
in the powerful image that I was seeing
00:54
full of bright red
00:57
and orange and gray,
00:59
and a full circle of explosion.
01:01
And I kept on staring at it
01:03
until it disappeared.
01:06
I went back to my bed,
01:09
and I prayed,
01:12
and I secretly thanked God
01:14
that that missile
01:17
did not land on my family's home,
01:19
that it did not kill my family that night.
01:23
Thirty years have passed,
01:28
and I still feel guilty about that prayer,
01:30
for the next day, I learned that that missile
01:34
landed on my brother's friend's home
01:36
and killed him
01:40
and his father,
01:43
but did not kill his mother or his sister.
01:45
His mother showed up the next week
01:51
at my brother's classroom
01:53
and begged seven-year-old kids
01:55
to share with her any picture they may have
01:58
of her son,
02:01
for she had lost everything.
02:03
This is not a story
02:09
of a nameless survivor of war,
02:11
and nameless refugees,
02:15
whose stereotypical images we see in our newspapers
02:17
and our TV
02:20
with tattered clothes,
02:23
dirty face, scared eyes.
02:25
This is not a story of a nameless someone
02:29
who lived in some war,
02:32
who we do not know their hopes, their dreams,
02:34
their accomplishments, their families,
02:36
their beliefs, their values.
02:39
This is my story.
02:41
I was that girl.
02:45
I am another image and vision
02:49
of another survivor of war.
02:52
I am that refugee,
02:55
and I am that girl.
02:57
You see,
03:00
I grew up in war-torn Iraq,
03:02
and I believe that there are two sides of wars
03:06
and we've only seen
03:09
one side of it.
03:11
We only talk about
03:13
one side of it.
03:15
But there's another side
03:17
that I have witnessed
03:19
as someone who lived in it
03:21
and someone who ended up working in it.
03:23
I grew up with the colors of war --
03:26
the red colors of fire and blood,
03:29
the brown tones of earth
03:32
as it explodes
03:35
in our faces
03:37
and the piercing silver
03:39
of an exploded missile,
03:41
so bright
03:43
that nothing can protect your eyes from it.
03:45
I grew up
03:49
with the sounds of war --
03:51
the staccato sounds of gunfire,
03:53
the wrenching booms of explosions,
03:56
ominous drones of jets flying overhead
03:59
and the wailing warning sounds
04:02
of sirens.
04:04
These are the sounds you would expect,
04:07
but they are also the sounds
04:10
of dissonant concerts of a flock of birds
04:12
screeching in the night,
04:15
the high-pitched honest cries
04:17
of children
04:19
and the thunderous,
04:21
unbearable
04:23
silence.
04:25
"War," a friend of mine said,
04:28
"is not about sound at all.
04:30
It is actually about silence,
04:33
the silence of humanity."
04:36
I have since left Iraq
04:41
and founded a group called Women for Women International
04:44
that ends up working
04:47
with women survivors of wars.
04:49
In my travels and in my work,
04:52
from Congo to Afghanistan,
04:54
from Sudan to Rwanda,
04:57
I have learned not only
04:59
that the colors and the sounds of war are the same,
05:01
but the fears of war are the same.
05:04
You know, there is a fear of dying,
05:08
and do not believe any movie character
05:10
where the hero is not afraid.
05:13
It is very scary
05:15
to go through that feeling
05:17
of "I am about to die"
05:19
or "I could die in this explosion."
05:21
But there's also the fear
05:24
of losing loved ones,
05:26
and I think that's even worse.
05:28
It's too painful. You don't want to think about it.
05:30
But I think the worst kind of fear is the fear --
05:33
as Samia, a Bosnian woman, once told me,
05:37
who survived the four-years besiege of Sarajevo;
05:40
she said, "The fear
05:43
of losing
05:45
the 'I' in me,
05:47
the fear of losing
05:49
the 'I' in me."
05:52
That's what my mother in Iraq
05:54
used to tell me.
05:56
It's like dying from inside-out.
05:58
A Palestinian woman once told me,
06:02
"It is not about the fear of one death,"
06:04
she said, "sometimes I feel
06:07
I die 10 times in one day,"
06:09
as she was describing the marches of soldiers
06:12
and the sounds of their bullets.
06:14
She said, "But it's not fair,
06:16
because there is only one life,
06:18
and there should only be one death."
06:21
We have been only seeing
06:27
one side of war.
06:30
We have only been discussing and consumed
06:32
with high-level preoccupations
06:35
over troop levels, drawdown timelines,
06:37
surges and sting operations,
06:40
when we should be examining the details
06:42
of where the social fabric
06:45
has been most torn,
06:48
where the community has improvised
06:51
and survived
06:53
and shown acts of resilience
06:55
and amazing courage
06:57
just to keep life going.
06:59
We have been so consumed
07:03
with seemingly objective discussions
07:06
of politics, tactics,
07:08
weapons, dollars
07:10
and casualties.
07:12
This is the language
07:14
of sterility.
07:16
How casually
07:19
we treat casualties
07:21
in the context of this topic.
07:23
This is where we conceive of rape and casualties
07:25
as inevitabilities.
07:28
Eighty percent of refugees around the world
07:31
are women and children. Oh.
07:34
Ninety percent of modern war casualties
07:37
are civilians.
07:39
Seventy-five percent of them are women and children.
07:41
How interesting.
07:44
Oh, half a million women in Rwanda
07:47
get raped in 100 days.
07:49
Or, as we speak now,
07:51
hundreds of thousands of Congolese women
07:54
are getting raped and mutilated.
07:57
How interesting.
07:59
These just become numbers that we refer to.
08:01
The front of wars
08:05
is increasingly non-human eyes
08:07
peering down on our perceived enemies
08:10
from space,
08:12
guiding missiles toward unseen targets,
08:14
while the human conduct
08:17
of the orchestra of media relations
08:19
in the event that this particular drone attack
08:21
hits a villager
08:24
instead of an extremist.
08:26
It is a chess game.
08:28
You learn to play an international relations school
08:30
on your way out and up
08:33
to national and international leadership.
08:35
Checkmate.
08:38
We are missing
08:41
a completely other side of wars.
08:43
We are missing my mother's story,
08:47
who made sure with every siren, with every raid,
08:50
with every cut off-of electricity,
08:53
she played puppet shows for my brothers and I,
08:55
so we would not be scared
08:57
of the sounds of explosions.
08:59
We are missing the story of Fareeda,
09:01
a music teacher,
09:04
a piano teacher, in Sarajevo,
09:06
who made sure
09:08
that she kept the music school open
09:10
every single day
09:12
in the four years of besiege in Sarajevo
09:14
and walked to that school,
09:17
despite the snipers shooting
09:19
at that school and at her,
09:21
and kept the piano, the violin, the cello
09:23
playing the whole duration of the war,
09:26
with students wearing their gloves and hats and coats.
09:29
That was her fight.
09:32
That was her resistance.
09:34
We are missing the story of Nehia,
09:37
a Palestinian woman in Gaza
09:40
who, the minute there was a cease-fire in the last year's war,
09:42
she left out of home,
09:45
collected all the flour
09:47
and baked as much bread for every neighbor to have,
09:49
in case there is no cease-fire the day after.
09:52
We are missing
09:56
the stories of Violet,
09:58
who, despite surviving genocide in the church massacre,
10:00
she kept on going on,
10:03
burying bodies, cleaning homes, cleaning the streets.
10:05
We are missing stories of women
10:08
who are literally keeping life going
10:11
in the midst of wars.
10:14
Do you know --
10:16
do you know that people fall in love in war
10:18
and go to school
10:21
and go to factories and hospitals
10:24
and get divorced and go dancing and go playing
10:26
and live life going?
10:28
And the ones who are keeping that life
10:32
are women.
10:34
There are two sides of war.
10:37
There is a side that fights,
10:41
and there is a side that keeps the schools
10:43
and the factories and the hospitals open.
10:45
There is a side that is focused on winning battles,
10:48
and there is a side that is focused
10:51
on winning life.
10:53
There is a side that leads the front-line discussion,
10:56
and there is a side
10:59
that leads the back-line discussion.
11:01
There is a side that thinks
11:04
that peace is the end of fighting,
11:06
and there is a side that thinks
11:10
that peace is the arrival
11:12
of schools and jobs.
11:14
There is a side
11:17
that is led by men,
11:19
and there is a side
11:21
that is led by women.
11:23
And in order for us to understand
11:25
how do we build lasting peace,
11:28
we must understand war and peace
11:31
from both sides.
11:34
We must have a full picture
11:36
of what that means.
11:38
In order for us to understand
11:40
what actually peace means,
11:42
we need to understand,
11:44
as one Sudanese woman once told me,
11:46
"Peace is the fact that my toenails
11:48
are growing back again."
11:51
She grew up in Sudan, in Southern Sudan,
11:54
for 20 years of war,
11:56
where it killed one million people
11:58
and displaced five million refugees.
12:01
Many women were taken as slaves
12:04
by rebels and soldiers,
12:06
as sexual slaves who were forced also
12:08
to carry the ammunition and the water
12:11
and the food for the soldiers.
12:13
So that woman walked for 20 years,
12:15
so she would not be kidnapped again.
12:18
And only when there was some sort of peace,
12:21
her toenails grew back again.
12:24
We need to understand peace
12:28
from a toenail's perspective.
12:30
We need to understand
12:34
that we cannot actually have negotiations
12:36
of ending of wars or peace
12:38
without fully including women
12:40
at the negotiating table.
12:43
I find it amazing
12:45
that the only group of people
12:47
who are not fighting and not killing
12:49
and not pillaging and not burning and not raping,
12:51
and the group of people who are mostly --
12:54
though not exclusively --
12:56
who are keeping life going in the midst of war,
12:58
are not included in the negotiating table.
13:01
And I do argue that women lead the back-line discussion,
13:06
but there are also men
13:09
who are excluded from that discussion.
13:11
The doctors who are not fighting,
13:13
the artists, the students, the men who refuse to pick up the guns,
13:15
they are, too, excluded
13:18
from the negotiating tables.
13:20
There is no way we can talk about a lasting peace,
13:23
building of democracy, sustainable economies,
13:26
any kind of stabilities,
13:29
if we do not fully include women
13:31
at the negotiating table.
13:34
Not one, but 50 percent.
13:36
There is no way we can talk about the building of stability
13:40
if we don't start investing
13:43
in women and girls.
13:46
Did you know
13:48
that one year
13:50
of the world's military spending
13:52
equals 700 years
13:54
of the U.N. budget
13:57
and equals 2,928 years
14:00
of the U.N. budget allocated for women?
14:03
If we just reverse
14:07
that distribution of funds,
14:09
perhaps we could have
14:11
a better lasting peace in this world.
14:14
And last, but not least,
14:17
we need to invest in peace and women,
14:19
not only because it is the right thing to do,
14:22
not only because it is the right thing to do,
14:25
for all of us to build sustainable and lasting peace today,
14:28
but it is for the future.
14:31
A Congolese woman,
14:34
who was telling me about
14:36
how her children saw their father killed in front of them
14:38
and saw her raped in front of them
14:41
and mutilated in front of them,
14:44
and her children saw their nine-year-old sibling
14:46
killed in front of them,
14:48
how they're doing okay right now.
14:51
She got into Women for Women International's program.
14:54
She got a support network.
14:56
She learned about her rights.
14:58
We taught her vocational and business skills. We helped her get a job.
15:00
She was earning 450 dollars. She was doing okay.
15:03
She was sending them to school. Have a new home.
15:06
She said, "But what I worry about the most
15:08
is not any of that.
15:11
I worry that my children
15:13
have hate in their hearts,
15:15
and when they want to grow up, they want to fight again
15:18
the killers of their father and their brother."
15:21
We need to invest in women,
15:25
because that's our only chance
15:28
to ensure that there is no more war
15:31
in the future.
15:33
That mother has a better chance to heal her children
15:35
than any peace agreement can do.
15:38
Are there good news? Of course, there are good news. There are lots of good news.
15:42
To start with, these women that I told you about
15:45
are dancing and singing every single day,
15:48
and if they can,
15:51
who are we not to dance?
15:53
That girl that I told you about
15:55
ended up starting Women for Women International Group
15:57
that impacted one million people, sent 80 million dollars,
16:00
and I started this from zero,
16:03
nothing, nada, [unclear].
16:05
(Laughter)
16:08
They are women who are standing on their feet
16:11
in spite of their circumstances,
16:14
not because of it.
16:17
Think of how the world can be a much better place
16:20
if, for a change,
16:23
we have a better equality,
16:25
we have equality,
16:27
we have a representation
16:29
and we understand war,
16:31
both from the front-line
16:33
and the back-line discussion.
16:35
Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet,
16:37
says, "Out beyond the worlds
16:40
of right-doings and wrong-doings,
16:42
there is a field.
16:45
I will meet you there.
16:47
When the soul lies down in that grass,
16:49
the world is too full
16:52
to talk about.
16:54
Ideas, language,
16:56
even the phrase 'each other'
16:58
no longer makes any sense."
17:00
I humbly add -- humbly add --
17:04
that out beyond
17:07
the worlds of war and peace,
17:09
there is a field,
17:12
and there are many women and men
17:14
[who] are meeting there.
17:17
Let us make this field a much bigger place.
17:20
Let us all meet in that field.
17:23
Thank you.
17:26
(Applause)
17:28

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Zainab Salbi - Activist and social entrepreneur
Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi founded and runs Women for Women International, and has dedicated her life to helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives and communities.

Why you should listen

In her memoir Hidden in Plain Sight: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, Zainab Salbi writes of being raised in Saddam Hussein's inner circle -- her father was Saddam's personal pilot. She left Iraq for an arranged marriage in the US, which quickly became another form of tyranny. But in 1993, when she heard of the rape and concentration camps in Bosnia, she realized she could no longer remain passive. Salbi founded Women for Women International to help women who are victims of war in every way -- from those who've been physically harmed to those who suffer from the poverty that war and strife inevitably bring. WFWI provides economic and emotional aid, job-skills training, and rights education, empowering women to stop the cycle of violence and create social change.

In her latest book, The Other Side of War, she shares personal stories of women's experience in conflict. As she writes: "War is not a computer-generated missile striking a digital map. War is the color of earth as it explodes in our faces, the sound of child pleading, the smell of smoke and fear. Women survivors of war are not the single image portrayed on the television screen, but the glue that holds families and countries together. Perhaps by understanding women, and the other side of war ... we will have more humility in our discussions of wars... perhaps it is time to listen to women's side of history."

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