Stories of resilience

The resistance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has inspired people all over the world. Ukraine’s resilience against a powerful neighbor has shown that it’s not always the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Resilience can be expressed on a national level as shown with Ukraine and at an individual level. Reading the accounts of some North Korean defectors, the immense risks they take to escape the country that drives them to run away and the subsequent trials and tribulations they endure to forge a life in a new country, requires incredible resilience. What are some stories of resilience that you have heard, witnessed or experienced?

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July 11, 2022 9:32 am

If there’s one thing I came away with from a 2019 trip to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s admiration for the resilience of its people. Sarajevo has been through a lot, and naturally a place that’s been through a lot will have many stories to tell.

The siege of Sarajevo by the army of Republika Srpska that took place between 1992 and 1996 has been described as the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. What struck me the most, having listened to people who lived through the siege, are the attitudes, resilience and defiance Sarajevo demonstrated in the face of constant bombardment.

Some people living through the siege were prepared to die. They didn’t foresee a future in which they could come out alive from heavy and continuous shelling from Serb forces. Food and resources were scarce, and doctors had to conduct surgery without anaesthetic under candlelight. The siege, it is argued, was psychological with the purpose of demoralisation as much as it was a siege of destruction. Many bombings took place at night to wake people up and deprive them of sleep. The National and University Library, which contained around 1.5 million volumes, came under deliberate attack to eradicate the history and culture of Bosnia. The building burnt with fire for 2 days and 2 nights and people would risk their lives running into the flames to salvage any manuscripts they could find. A truck would be stationed next to some of the windows so people could throw the books out onto the truck, which would then drive away and find another place to store the books.

The bleak circumstances with which people found themselves in during the siege has, for some people, manifested in an appreciation for the small things they experience day to day. For example, I heard the story of one person who spent around 80% of his time in a basement during the ages of 7-11. While safety was always a concern, his child-like instinct could take over and he would go outside to play. Chocolate was scarce during the siege and he would collect empty wrappers and packets, sniffing and sometimes licking them to get even the slightest sensation of the real thing. Now when he has a taste of chocolate, he gets flashbacks to the years of the siege.

Despite the constant bombardment and destruction, many people in Sarajevo were determined to go about their daily lives. This was their method of defiance. Attacking forces may have destroyed a lot in the city, but they could never destroy the spirit of Sarajevo.

People still went to work, though they didn’t necessarily get paid. Children still went to school, and if they couldn’t, teachers would organise classes in different building blocks. Theatres continued to show plays, asking for payment of a single candle so they could light the stage. The first Sarajevo Film Festival was organised with attendance of 15,000 people. When asked by journalists on why the Film Festival was taking place during the siege, they received the response;

Why is the siege taking place during the Film Festival?

One story I heard was of a child who shouted at her mother upon seeing her wear high heels before going out. The child was perplexed;

How will you be able to run if bombs start falling?

The mother replied, “If I go down, at least I’ll go down in style!

From March – June 1993 the Sarajevo Tunnel, also referred to as the Tunnel of Hope, was built. It was an underground tunnel that linked Sarajevo to Bosnian-held territory beyond Sarajevo Airport, and allowed food, aid and supplies to be brought into the besieged city. Due to a lack of equipment, the tunnel was dug with shovels and by hand. Work on the tunnel ran 24 hours a day, with payment of a pack of cigarettes for an 8 hour shift.

The spirit of resilience that kept people going throughout the siege continued in its aftermath. As people searched for ways to rebuild, they collected bullets and used these to create souvenirs to sell such as keychains, pens and toy airplanes. In some ways the siege brought people together. One person I spoke to worked as a police officer during the siege and he remains proud that his duty was to protect all people of Sarajevo, not just people of a specific ethnicity or religion.

Photo credit: An iconic photo taken by Tom Stoddardt of Meliha Varesanovic, a Sarajevo citizen who had just heard a shell hit the ground, but defiantly walked on with her head held high.

Tom Stoddardt photo of Meliha Varesanovic.PNG
Niharika Khatri
August 1, 2022 12:33 pm

One of the most inspiring stories of resilience is Finland’s Winter War against the Soviet Union during World War 2. In October 1939 the Soviet Union demanded Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland to give up territory to it. Finland was the only country to refuse. Finland had seen what happened to Czechoslovakia, accepting territorial demands from Germany and eventually leading to total occupation. They didn’t want to make the same error. 

On 30 November 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland. By all estimations it would be quick work; a reasonable outcome when fighting against a country with 50 times your population. But the resilience shown by Finland to withstand the Soviet Union’s onslaught was exceptional. 

Finland’s disadvantages were clear. Not only was it a much smaller country, it also had inferior military equipment and faced shortages of ammunition. So it adopted a very clear strategy. Finland didn’t aim to win the war. Instead its objective was to make the Soviet Union’s progress and eventual victory as painful as possible. 

Finnish soldiers were prepared to die for their families back home, thereby creating a highly motivated and committed defence force. Finland’s highly effective guerrilla tactics, aided by their proficiency in ski warfare wreaked havoc in Soviet formations. 

However much damage was being inflicted on the Soviet army, it was only a matter of time before their numerical superiority would overwhelm Finland. However by the time the Soviet army broke through the Finnish Mannerheim Line and Finland sued for peace, the message was clear. If the Soviet Union wanted to occupy Finland, they could do so, but it would be prohibitively costly. 

Documents made available 50 years later revealed the Soviet Union’s intention to occupy the whole of Finland if they had ceded to their original territorial demands. The resilience of a much smaller country defending itself against a giant aggressor ensured that Finland remained one of the few European countries that wasn’t occupied during World War 2. 

Finland Winter War.PNG
Sean Ellis
July 14, 2022 11:48 am

An impressive story of resilience comes from one of the greatest professional boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali.

The year was 1974. The Heavyweight Champion of the World was the ferocious and intimidating George Foreman. He had destroyed Smokin’ Joe Frazier the previous year to win the WBA, WBC and The Ring heavyweight titles. More impressive than the win was the way in which Foreman became champion. Frazier was no slouch. He was undefeated and had given Ali his first loss in 1971. Despite Frazier’s undeniable toughness and talent, he was mauled by Foreman within 2 rounds. At one point, Frazier was lifted off the canvas with a Foreman uppercut.

Ali’s path to the bout was different. He had won the Heavyweight Championship against Sonny Liston at the tender age of 22. The next few years saw him display an elite level of talent and fortitude that made people realize they were watching greatness that comes by once in a generation. Things seemed to be going well for Ali’s boxing career until 1967, when he refused the draft for the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, famously clarifying his position with the words “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Ali’s boxing license was revoked, preventing him from boxing between March 1967 and October 1970.

By the time Ali vs. Foreman would come round, people felt Ali’s best years were behind him. He was no longer the untouchable boxer he had once been. Youth wasn’t on his side anymore and the years away from the ring were enough to derail anyone’s career. Ali’s loss to Frazier and Foreman’s demolition of him had people concerned for Ali’s health.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman, famously billed the Rumble in the Jungle, took place in Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974. Despite some early success from Ali, Foreman kept pushing forward, unfazed by Ali’s dancing and by the end of Round 1, things didn’t look good for Ali. The following rounds would require patience and substantial resilience from Ali as he implemented his rope-a-dope strategy.

The rope-a-dope strategy required taking punishment from Foreman in the attempt to tire him out, leaving him vulnerable in later rounds. Already within Round 2, Ali’s pace was reduced and it looked as if he was barely hanging on. The following rounds saw Ali eat shot after shot that had knocked out Foreman’s previous opponents. Much of the rest of the bout had Ali against the ropes taking punishment.

While the fight looked one-sided as Foreman clubbed away at Ali, the reality was different. Ali was struggling, however Foreman was tiring out. Ali was also connecting with unexpected counters that were hurting Foreman. HBO commentary said this about Foreman: This man is devastating to say the least, these punches are not. Round 8 is where everything changed. Foreman was sluggishly clubbing away at Ali, almost as if on autopilot, completely drained of power and unprepared for the counter that eventually would come. With only a few seconds left in Round 8, Ali staggered Foreman with a combination of punches that he couldn’t get up from. Ali had won by KO.

Muhammad Ali took significant punishment during the Rumble in the Jungle. His resilience was enough to get him the win and solidify his position as one of, if not THE greatest professional boxers of all time.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman - Rumble in the Jungle.PNG
James Sitati
July 12, 2022 5:10 pm

Some of the most inspiring stories of resilience come from people who live in poor countries where access to basic necessities such as health, education, water and housing are not guaranteed. If we lived just ONE day in these circumstances we would think twice when complaining about our First World problems of traffic or the weather. Many of these people are what we could call unsung heroes, forging a life and supporting a family when the cards seem stacked against them.

In respecting the unsung heroes, I’ll refrain from mentioning specific names, some of whom have won Nobel Prizes and been showered with other accolades. For every award winner, there are multitudes of others whose efforts will go unnoticed. To me, some of the greatest examples of resilience come from children who wake up early in the morning and walk for hours to their nearest well or lake to collect water. Consider how much time and energy is saved by turning on the faucet and getting an instant supply of water. Now consider how much time and energy is consumed walking hours to the nearest water source and then carrying heavy buckets of water back home. Not only will you be exhausted on your return, the rest of the day will be affected from reduced concentration to lowered productivity.

This is a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world. Yet they take it in their stride and pursue their aspirations and dreams. I look at myself sometimes and think about all the privileges and advantages I’ve had, and I still haven’t made my mark on the world. Then I look at some of these people in the developing world who had everything stacked against them, yet they completed their schooling, learnt foreign languages, became successful inventors and entrepreneurs. Their examples inspire me.

The fact is, we don’t need prizes and awards to showcase resilience. Stories of resilience are scattered throughout the world. They are in villages that don’t have access to electricity. They are in schools that don’t have internet connections. They are in families that don’t have a ready supply of drinking water. They are in cities where war and conflict are a daily part of life. When we look at someone, we don’t know their story. It can be hidden. Some of the greatest stories of resilience may be held in places you least expect.