Ninety percent of war casualties were male soldiers around a century ago.
Today, an estimated 90 percent of casualties are civilians, and 75 percent of these are women and children.
In the early 1990s, I traveled with a humanitarian organization to Croatia and Bosnia as those countries were being ripped apart by war with Serbia.
In Bosnia, we visited refugee centers filled with middle-class women who had lost everything: jobs, husbands, homes, their planned-for futures.
Many had also been victims of the increasingly popular tactic of war called rape, which shatters body and soul.
We visited schools where social workers tried to help grade school kids who were suffering so severely from post-traumatic stress that they sat all day silently chewing their nails to the quick.
It was the first time I had seen war up close and I was stunned by what human beings do to one another.
Leaving Bosnia, I traveled to a little border town in Croatia where I could climb to a hilltop park and look out over Bosnia. I sat there for hours and wept and prayed for the women and children I’d seen.
While I prayed, an unbidden question repeated itself in my mind: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” The repeated answer I sensed from God was: “Yes, you are your sister’s keeper!”
“Then who is my sister? God, who is my sister?” I asked.
“They are all your sisters,” I sensed God say. “Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims. Serbian Orthodox. They – and every other woman you will ever meet – are all your sisters. Because they are all part of the human family I have created.”
That’s what happens when you open your mind and your heart to God and to the world. You end up with a huge family. And you realize that every single member of the family is as important to God as you are.
You can’t possibly meet the need of every family member, but you can never again dismiss their needs thoughtlessly. They’re family.
You’ll end up haunted. Even more, you’ll end up in despair. There’s no way around it.
I can’t remember who wrote that God’s heart is an open wound of love, but I believe it. And I believe our hearts become open wounds, too, when we dare to love this damaged world God loves.
There are two antidotes to despair. One is denial. Pretending you didn’t see that picture. Didn’t read that story. Didn’t hear those screams.
Or maybe you acknowledge the horror of what you saw or read or heard, but you pretend it’s not your responsibility. There’s nothing you can do. What difference can one person make? And where would you start anyway?
Denial works. But it shrinks your heart. It makes you a little less human. It puts distance between you and God.
The other antidote to despair is action – doing something, however small, to address the need.
Every few years I have an experience that pushes me so far into despair that I toy with denial.
I start listening to the cynic inside me who asks why I even bother to hope in the face of such a broken world. But I have learned that if I consciously choose action, I will find hope.
When I met with women in Bosnia and Croatia in the ’90s, I did not imagine that 20 years later my personal ministry would be focused primarily on women in war zones.
I hate war. I can’t even watch war movies.
And yet, in the last year I’ve met with Syrian refugee mothers in Jordan, with Yezidi women rescued from ISIS in Iraq, with women recovering from brutal rape by rebel militiamen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and with women bravely denouncing violence and working for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Though I have clearly sensed Jesus’ call to follow him into places of conflict, it’s not easy.
Part of the challenge is the physical threat. While I travel into regions of conflict as wisely as possible and take seriously the counsel of friends on the ground, I accept that safety is never guaranteed.
But I’ve often thought how willing Americans are to send their sons and daughters into harm’s way for the sake of war.
Should we not be at least equally willing to send ourselves into the possibility of harm’s way for the sake of peace? I think that sometimes following Jesus requires it.
For me, a far more difficult challenge is the inevitable confusion and complexity that surrounds conflict.
Following Jesus into conflict zones requires constant listening and learning. It demands that I humbly place myself at the feet of people with whom I may or may not agree, but who have much to teach me.
Finally, there is the ever-present challenge of finding the peacemakers.
For that is the primary call that I sense: to find the women of peace who are working for reconciliation, caring for refugees and seeking their own deep healing as well as the healing of other wounded and grieving women.
It isn’t easy to engage in regions of conflict. But I can’t deny my deep-down conviction that I am my sister’s keeper. And that the opportunity I have to engage with women in regions of conflict is a unique and precious opportunity that I must steward well.
Lynne Hybels is a writer, speaker and activist who is engaged in ministry partnerships in Africa and the Middle East. She is co-founder of One Million Thumbprints, an international movement of women raising awareness and funds for victims of war in Syria/Iraq, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A longer version of this article first appeared on her blog and is used with permission.