During the recent civil war in Nepal, the staff of a vocational training project reported that the young trainees were displaying behaviors probably related to the stress of the violence: difficulty concentrating, aggression, low self-confidence and the tendency to suddenly burst into tears. Many had difficulty completing the course, and those that did finish had difficulty succeeding in the labor market, which diminished the project’s success.
In a paper on the issue, entitled “The Vicissitudes of Empowerment in Conflict-Afflicted Nepal,” Barbara Weyermann reported that project staff, “didn’t want to ask the trainees about how they or their families were affected by the war because they didn’t know what to do when the young men started to cry.”
The human tendency to avoid difficult topics, at both individual and organizational levels, is hardly unique. Weyermann notes that “in most ‘normal’ development projects, the effect of violence [on beneficiaries] is almost always ignored.”
On the other side of the world, Nicaraguan psychologist Martha Cabrera observed in the late 1990s that no one seemed to be taking note of the subjective, psychological or spiritual needs of her country in the post-conflict, post-Hurricane Mitch era. Development and humanitarian assistance projects abounded. Everyone had been “work-shopped” on various topics, but with few concrete results. Cabrera wondered why.
Using a health survey as a point of entry, Cabrera and her colleagues at the Valdivieso Center traveled to the worst-affected regions with a goal of addressing psychological needs. The depth and breadth of what they discovered staggered them. They found high levels of apathy, isolation, aggressiveness, abuse, chronic somatic illness and low levels of flexibility, tolerance and the ability to trust and work together, and reported their findings in a paper entitled “Living and Surviving In a Multiply Wounded Country.”
Nicaragua, the team realized, “was a multiply wounded, multiply traumatized, multiply mourning country,” and that had “serious implications for people’s health, the resilience of the country’s social fabric, the success of development schemes, and the hope of future generations.” Cabrera noted it is hard to move forward, to build democracy, when the personal and communal history still hurts.
What Weyermann and Cabrera describe are the effects of trauma on the body, brain and behavior of individuals, communities and societies.
In recent years, humanitarian and development organizations have recognized these needs and have increasingly included psychosocial programs when working with populations impacted by natural disasters or violence. Weyermann notes that the support provided by these projects can be vital to victim/survivors, but she points out two drawbacks: the stigma those receiving services often face; and the fact that addressing economic hardship—which can be traumatic in itself—is outside of the mandate of most psychosocial projects.
A way to address these limitations is for organizations to become “trauma-informed” so that a trauma-sensitive framework can be integrated into any project: economic, health, governance and others. This means more than putting a psychologist on every project team. Awareness of the repercussions of trauma needs to extend across the organization, to headquarters and field staff alike.
Being trauma-informed includes:
• Understanding the physiological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual impact of traumatic events (current or historic) on recipient populations, and how unaddressed trauma contributes to cycles of violence;
• Going beyond traditional mental health diagnosis and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as the measure of trauma impact, and also recognizing community and societal dynamics and behaviors that are indicators of unaddressed trauma;
• Identifying processes from multiple fields—human security (including economic security), conflict transformation, restorative justice, neurobiology, psychology and spirituality—that can address trauma and increase resilience; and
• Recognizing that addressing the psychological needs of populations creates the need to monitor staff for secondary trauma and to equip them with self-care skills and tools.
Trauma-informed organizations can design programs that are trauma sensitive across all stages of the programming cycle: needs assessment, design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. Trauma-sensitive programming can improve project outcomes, reduce stigma around trauma, and provide new ways to address difficult issues that contribute to intractable conflict and violence.
Cabrera says the people they worked with were initially startled by the approach. But they thanked them afterwards because it helped them recognize their own resilience, find meaning in what they had lived through, and move forward in life.
Moving forward. That, after all, is part of what development and humanitarian assistance are about.
Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience (STAR) equips organizations to work with trauma-impacted populations. STAR provides consultations and workshops for home and field staff that prepare them to do trauma-sensitive programming. This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Monthly Developments Magazine. Reposted with permission.
This essay represents an excellent follow-up to the fall/winter 2012 issue of Peacebuilder magazine (both print and online), containing articles on the work of Fadi Rabieh and 24 other CJP alumni in the Middle East. In this essay, Rabieh offers a broad view of the steps Israelis and Palestinians must take to achieve peace.
I believe in the goodness of human beings and in our ability to transcend above and beyond our painful history to find ways of coping and healing. Over the past two years there has been growing skepticism about the impact of people-to-people projects, especially among the young generation. It is extremely challenging to find people from both sides who are interested in meeting and listening to one another. People are tired of even talking! The cynics say we have tried negotiation and dialogue for over fifteen years, and it has gotten us nowhere. The other side is not genuine and does not seek peace. Yet these voices do not recognize that we have also tried force and violence for over fifty years, and that, too, has gotten us nowhere.
As Israelis and Palestinians we have been living in a cycle of violence for so long that each side’s sense of victimhood has only become stronger with time. Both sides have constructed a narrative that is rooted in this sense of victimhood and righteousness – a narrative that dehumanizes the other; we are the good people, they are the bad ones, we seek peace, they seek war, we are the victims and only defend ourselves against their aggression, we stand alone and the entire world supports them, etc. Both narratives have been created to bolster our sense of victimhood and righteous cause.
As a result of this sense of victimhood, our brains and senses become selective. We see the world in black or white, right or wrong, with us or against us. We become increasingly judgmental and only speak the language of “facts” and the only “truth.” Interestingly, we only see what confirms our narrative and pre-constructed worldview. Throughout the years of my work in the field of peacebuilding, I have been struck by the level of ignorance and negative images both sides have of one another.
Setting Aside Stereotypes
Palestinians and Israelis from all sectors and spheres must meet each other to change these stereotypes and behavior of prejudice. Teachers must collaborate to create a dual narrative that acknowledges each side’s connection to this land, and to present a more human story of the other to the next generations. Business people must find ways where both nations can build on their capital so that communities might prosper. Journalists and media people must find ways to present constructive stories that help people become hopeful and realize the other side’s dignity. Politicians must work to find creative ways to find a proper political framework and solution that address the needs of all sectors and parties. Religious people must meet to find ways to prevent this conflict from becoming a religious one.
When the two sides come to the table, Israelis come to build a personal relationship with the Palestinians as if the occupation does not exist, and Palestinians come hoping such a meeting will end the conflict and overlook the impact of building a personal relationship. Palestinians fail to understand the collective fear experienced by Jews, and Israeli Jews fail to understand the Palestinians’ sense of loss and pain as a result of the Nakba [“catastrophe” in Arabic]. Both sides seek acknowledgment of their feelings of loss and pain. This is what any dialogue process tries to address. It tries to provide a safe space for the parties to discover the other’s humanity and have their identity needs (i.e. recognition, acknowledgment, and dignity) met.
Interestingly – and this is the good news – individuals and groups that engage in dialogue programs do have a positive shift in their attitudes. However, the bad news is that this shift is not sustained beyond the encounter (or the life of the project). Also, the change does not go beyond the individual to impact on the surrounding. It is naïve to believe that people will have a positive and sustained shift in attitude from one or two encounters. It is very easy to hate, and is even natural in such an intense environment. It is too painful to engage with the enemy and try to unlearn years of hatred and fear in order to trust and listen deeply. If it took people years to learn and experience fear and hate, how many years do we need to replace it with courage and acceptance?
For people-to-people encounters to succeed, they must take place within a political framework or process. The absence of such a process leaves most dialogue encounters sorely handicapped, and they fall short of having a larger impact on both societies. Relationship-building projects must coincide with progress on the political plane; otherwise the positive impact that such encounters may have will regress with the next escalation or increase in violence. Nonetheless, this does not mean we should wait for the resumption of negotiations in order to legitimize people-to-people encounters. People must meet and continue to dialogue. We need to increase the level of exposure Palestinians and Israelis have for each other, especially in light of the separation between the two peoples, and the filtered and biased news.
During the past year Palestinians witnessed an increase in so-called “anti-normalization” voices, which try to pressure and sometimes prevent Palestinians from meeting with Israelis. Despite my understanding of the rationale my fellow Palestinians try to present here (i.e., not to show that we have a normal relationship with Israelis until the occupation ends), I disagree and find it counterproductive. I believe Palestinians have a duty to engage with Israelis to get their message across, and counter a narrative that tries to delegitimize and dehumanize them. I have witnessed people change and maintain this change over a long period of time as a result of their exposure to the other narrative.
The dialogue process begins with finding the “right” candidate and convincing him or her to engage. This in and of itself is a process of dialogue and unlearning! How do you convince people to join such projects? The personal connection is the best strategy. The core of this work is trust-building, and this involves us as workers in the field. Maintaining and expanding our relationships within and across communities – with the presence or absence of actual projects – is very important, so when the time comes people feel confident and ready to start their journey. It is extremely important to maintain our credibility within our communities and embody our values. Furthermore, people think dialogue programs must only take place between people who have not been exposed to those from the other side, or have negative perceptions. This is true to some degree, but some peacebuilding programs must also aim to energize, mobilize, and recruit active people who are willing to work for the dignity of the “other.”
I have come to realize that having a diverse group (which include people with positive experiences and perceptions of the other) is the best way to accelerate the humanization process. By witnessing the differences in opinions and positions among members of the same group, we can create the first fracture in the generalization and stereotyping of the other group (no longer do all the members of your “enemy” group look the same; some of them are actually good)! This fracture is like a seed that the dialogue process aims to plant and water. Also, those same agents help bridge the gap between the two divides because they can communicate with both sides and model the desired attitude.
Anti-normalization or convincing people to engage in dialogue are not the only challenges we face when it comes to people-to-people projects. The biggest challenge is to help people maintain open channels of communication at times of increased violence. When such incidents happen (i.e. Gaza or the Lebanon War) the dialogue process comes to halt and the goal becomes how to prevent what we have built so far from deteriorating. Sometimes one feels as if we are starting over from square one. And even in the absence of escalation in the conflict, maintaining a positive shift and relationship among group members for a long period beyond the project’s duration is a major challenge on its own.
In order to address many of the above-mentioned challenges (anti-normalization, conflict escalation, maintaining relationships and positive attitude shifts), we as peacebuilders – individuals and organizations – must think big and bold.
First, peacebuilding organizations might benefit from creating an umbrella body that could unify this effort to become more effective and efficient. Peacebuilding groups and organizations would largely benefit from having one voice, and a coordinated focused strategy to maximize their impact within their communities. Changing the culture from competition to collaboration and synergy among organizations and groups (i.e., sharing resources, expertise, and data of best practices and participants) is the best way to have long-term programs instead of short-term projects.
Second, peacebuilding organizations must transform their efforts towards a peace movement in both societies. Their efforts must be seen and heard publicly. The more peace organizations work in the shadow, the more they harm themselves. Therefore, the work must make it to the streets of Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Becoming vocal, especially at times of escalation, and taking initiative instead of reacting passively is the best strategy – not only to fill a vacuum that is caused by lack of a political process and filled by extremists and anti-normalization voices, but also to increase and regain the public’s confidence.
Here To Stay
Many people – and I am one of them – believe the two-state solution is almost over. However, this propels us to more engagement as two people to find new ways and solutions. We have no choice but to learn how to live and share this land with each other. We know we cannot defeat each other militarily, and that each nation is here to stay.
As peacebuilders we must not shy away from the challenges we face. We fight for the freedom and dignity of every individual and human being, Palestinian and Israeli, for our generation and generations to come.
This is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of destiny.
* * * *
Fadi Rabieh, who earned his master’s degree in conflict transformation as a Fulbrighter at EMU, is co-manager of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, working out of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground. He released this essay on Nov. 20, 2012.
Co-authors Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan
In 2001, I took a life-altering journey. A cousin, Katrina Brown, had made the startling discovery that the DeWolf family was the largest slave-trading family in United States history. Over three generations, they had brought more than 10,000 people to the west to be bought and sold. So I set out with nine distant cousins to follow the trail of our ancestors. We traveled to the family’s home state of Rhode Island, then on to Ghana and Cuba.
As we went, we filmed a documentary which was later nominated for an Emmy award: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. On that trip, I began writing my first book, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, published by Beacon Press in 2008.
I learned so many important facts of history that I never knew before, and became viscerally aware of the legacy of slavery and its lingering damage. Standing in a slave dungeon on the rocky shoreline of Ghana where human beings were shipped off, never to return, I felt as close as I ever had been to utter despair.
Yet in spite of my enhanced awareness, when I returned from that international journey I had more questions than answers. I was left with a big dialogue bubble floating over my head that read, “Now what? What can I do about it?”
I can’t imagine what my life would be today without the first Coming to the Table (CTTT) gathering I attended in January 2006. In that program, which started at Eastern Mennonite University, black and white family members met to address the legacies of slavery in the United States. It introduced concepts from neuroscience, trauma healing and storytelling. But the heart of the experience for me was the stories we shared. Participating later in two levels of STAR training and in a week-long EMU Summer Peacebuilding Institute course in restorative justice helped ground me in a powerful set of resources.
All this gave me hope and began to answer the “Now what?” question.
The most significant project to grow from my connection to CTTT and STAR is the book project with co-author Sharon Morgan. We committed ourselves to living the healing model, which is grounded in the concepts of Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace, and to writing about it.
Over a three-year period, Sharon and I traveled thousands of miles through 27 states and overseas together. A major element of our journey and what we wrote about is sharing experiences and evaluating them from two very different frames of reference. Sharon Morgan is a black woman. I am a white man. She lives on one end of the country. I live on the other. We have interacted with each other’s families and friends and shared many meaningful conversations about ourselves and our views.
With genealogy as an undercurrent, we visited ancestral towns, courthouses, sites of racial terror, cemeteries, and museums seeking to understand the trauma of historic slavery and present–day racism. We attended Civil War reenactments and visited former slave plantations. We slept in antebellum homes.
Along the way, we led a workshop at the John Hope Franklin Center National Symposium on Hope and Healing in Tulsa, Oklahoma entitled “Gather at the Table: A Path toward Reconciliation.” During our book tour, we’ve presented at conferences, museums, high schools, colleges and universities throughout the United States.
What have I learned from the commitment we made to live this healing journey? It’s a surprise to me that I feel more pessimistic than when we began because I recognize more than ever just how deeply embedded systems of oppression remain. Yet there also is reason for hope. Some of Sharon’s and my comments from the last chapter of Gather at the Table say it best:
“The actions of one or two people rarely make a significant difference in the world. But the commitment of many people, acting individually and collectively, has great potential. Hope springs when people take the STAR training: when members of Coming to the Table congregate on a conference call to discuss restorative justice, genealogy, or relationship building, when six women in Seattle create a weekly ‘Healing Together’ workshop, and when a man in Virginia inspires people in his community to explore the history and impact of slavery through Negro spirituals and to raise their voices together in song…
“This is our work: to repair unhealed wounds from the past and challenge systems that remain unjust and either dismantle them or work to heal the damage they continue to cause.
“We would love to say of our experiment, ‘Boy, this is it! This is the lightning bolt. We’ve found the answer.’ But it isn’t that simple or tidy… The lessons are in the quest. The answers are found in the journey. These are ripples on a pond. They spread outward.
“And on we walk…”
Tom was born and raised in California. He and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren. Sharon grew up in Chicago. She lives in a rural town close enough to New York City to often see her two grandchildren who live there.
For more information about the book, Gather at the Table, visit http://gatheratthetable.net/.
Here in central Virginia, people take great pride in our local heritage. Virginia was home to ten presidents, most notably Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. But it also has a history of militarization. The late historian and Veteran for Peace, Dr. Howard Zinn, says in his People’s History of the United States that the “Old Dominion” has at times been the most highly-militarized place in the world. The small town where I live, home to Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, is a key part of the military-industrial complex, and many of my neighbors are military intelligence professionals. Whenever I see off-duty military personnel walking the streets of my community, I wonder to myself, “What would the Founding Fathers say if they were around to witness the modern, militarized world that they helped to create?”
Without a doubt, they would be appalled by the size and scope of the American military empire. Jefferson was staunchly against the idea of a standing army. While he believed in the universal responsibility of community service, he also believed that militarism was detrimental to the health of democracy. Jefferson was against the principles of state violence being foisted on peaceable citizenry. He wrote to John Jay in 1788, “The breaking of men to military discipline is the breaking of their spirits to principles of passive obedience.”
I can speak directly to this issue as someone who joined the Army at 17 out of high school. Read more…
Trauma expert, clinical social worker and Ph.D. candidate Sarah Crawford-Browne, from Cape Town, South Africa, describes her own experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She describes the overwork that likely contributed to her state of vulnerability, and how coming up with names for what she was experiencing helped her recover. As told to Carolyn Yoder.
One day, I witnessed a double murder/assassination whilst looking out my living room window. I had just spent five years working with trauma in Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda and Sudan. Now I was head of service at a trauma center in Cape Town.
The center runs a 24-hour response service to crises in the city, so when I saw the murders, I grabbed my neon-colored response jacket and my response backpack and went down to help. I was involved the full night. Due to the demands of my resource-challenged center, I went right on to work the next day without sleeping.
That same month, I had already responded to two other major incidents—a crisis where an engine had fallen off a passenger plane, scaring the passengers, and a large factory fire which had led to the death of a fireman.
Three days later I woke up at about 1 a.m. completely confused. My mind swirled in a series of primitive emotions. Nothing was making much sense. The emotions were not linked to language and I could not access words. Eventually at about 5 a.m., I thought, “I am going mad.” Read more…
Although my day job is working as a neuropsychologist at the Minnesota Epilepsy Group and as a forensic psychologist for the Wisconsin Forensic Unit, my passion is sharing STAR. I took STAR levels I and II in Oct. 2008 and March 2009. Since then, I have been developing, promoting and implementing the STAR I training in Minnesota so that caregivers, leaders and organizations in this part of the country can have the opportunity to learn STAR principles, concepts and models. In particular, I want Minnesotans with limited financial resources to have access to this training and its potential for transformation. I want STAR trainings in our community for caregivers and leaders, but I also want to see STAR in jails and prisons so that defendants have the opportunity to learn how to move out of the cycles of violence and toward reconciliation and healing.
To a large extent my passion for STAR has grown from my legal forensic evaluations. I hear tragic stories of defendants who have shattered the lives of others, but who also have their own histories of personal trauma from childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. I hear stories about the cycles of violence all the time. In these evaluations, I have little opportunity to share about the possibilities STAR has to offer. This is one of the primary reasons I am passionate about making STAR available to all.
A major focus of my STAR work in Minneapolis has been to raise scholarship funds so any educator, caregiver, professional, paraprofessional, volunteer or community leader who serves vulnerable populations has access to STAR.
I believe the STAR concepts apply to everyday traumas as well as major traumas and that the peacebuilding strategies offer alternatives to violent revenge responses. People will always have aggression, injustice and violent options. Our culture teaches them overtly and covertly. But most people are hungry for alternative strategies to responding to aggression, violence and injustice that really work. STAR offers the perspective that there are other options. STAR is also primary prevention for anyone doing peacekeeping, peacemaking and/or peacebuilding work. If you are doing this work, you are working with trauma. These workers need to know how to maximize their potential for self-care and resilience that helps minimize burn out and compassion fatigue.
The first STAR training held in Minneapolis in June 2010 included a rich diversity of 25 participants representing a variety of religious traditions from the Somali, Native American, Asian, Caucasian, African-American and LGBT communities. After that, I was inspired and encouraged to organize additional STAR workshops here. STAR trainings were held in June and September of 2011, and June 2012. We have two others planned for September and October 2012. I founded the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute as the administrative organization that raises scholarship funds and hosts STAR trainings in Minnesota.
I have accomplished this by working with STAR EMU in the certified training program and with the guidance and support of a 15-member community-based advisory committee. We received funding from Spread the Peace grant from Mennonite Church USA, for STAR’s development. Scholarship contributions come from individual donors, churches and a family foundation. My flexible work schedule allows me to pursue this passion to share STAR.
I have a vision of multiple STAR I workshops to be held in Minneapolis over the next five years and to develop the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute as a program site for STAR in Minnesota. In the future, the Minnesota Peacebuilding Institute will also sponsor training resources in trauma awareness, restorative justice, nonviolent peacemaking and conflict transformation, and apply these concepts and principles to special populations such as combat vets, groups with historical harm, immigrants and refugees, LGBT homeless youth and those affected by bullying.
Donna Minter, Ph.D., L.P., has practiced neuropsychology and forensic psychology for over 15 years in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She and her husband Bruce Brunner enjoy riding recumbent bikes on the many wonderful bike trails in Minneapolis and she hikes in the woods whenever possible. She is an active member of Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.
Interested in starting STAR in your community? Contact email@example.com and get in touch with Donna at 612-377-4660 or STAR.Mpls@gmail.com to hear more about how to get started.
I was born in Jajce, which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I lived there until the city went under siege in 1992 when I fled as a refugee and lived in another region until the end of the war in 1996.
A year later, I came to study at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) where I graduated in 2002 with a degree in conflict transformation. My husband, Randy Puljek-Shank, is also a CJP graduate. We now serve as representatives for East Europe for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief and development organization of North American Mennonites. In our role with MCC, we work almost exclusively through local partners doing peacebuilding and community development.
Post-conflict life and trauma
I think attention to trauma healing and resilience is a necessary aspect of life here in the Balkans. Trauma has become a household word. There are many different forms of trauma that I observe within the individuals, community and society in which I live and work. There are no wars at present. But we experienced four wars[i] in the former Yugoslavia, between 1991 and 2000, each with different traumatic events. There were concentration camps and massacres. Many people were refugees. Some lived under siege for years, including the four-year siege of Sarajevo. People risked being shot by snipers every time they went out to shop or to go to work. Now there are civilians in our society with post-traumatic stress and reactions, including veterans.
There were other conditions that created continuous, ongoing high stress and trauma. For example, during the war nearly everyone was equal. Everyone was affected by the war and everyone qualified to get aid. When the war ended, “normal” life returned and people no longer had equal opportunities. The country’s infrastructure was in shambles. There were not enough jobs so the unemployment levels were high.
So a different kind of fight for survival started. The trauma of survival shifted from running away from guns during the war to the present situation of not having enough money to feed the family and send children to school.
Some people left the country, some people were lucky enough to get jobs, some people received financial help from the state to rebuild their houses or apartments, and some people did not get any kind of support at all.
Another part of the ongoing, complex trauma is what I call the political rape in our society. In the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia, we live under the constant threat of potential armed conflict. This or that group wants to separate from this or that country. We justify the crimes committed in the region in the name of defense and out of fear. The politicians use this reality to get elected, stay in power and keep fear present, which increases mistrust and the inability to live together.
Through it all, I see the trans-generational transfer of trauma. My generation grew up hearing the stories of the horror World War II and elements of these stories have been played in front of our eyes in these last wars in former Yugoslavia. As a society we have successfully given a new generation our reservoirs of trauma and told them to carry it.
Healing and resilience
Following the war, the Balkans was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Immediate needs had to be met first through relief and rebuilding, then by a focus on development. In 2002 when Randy and I arrived back in the region, we tried introducing our partner organizations to trauma work. We translated parts of the STAR manual and adapted it to the local context. We did some basic trauma education, explaining what trauma is and exploring together how it impacts individuals and communities. We offered tools for individuals to develop their inner strength and resilience. There wasn’t a lot of interest.
It took five years until we began seeing more openness to trauma healing processes. We found relationship building as a way to open the door and develop trust, safety, and security to those we work with.
Currently, one of our partner organizations works with veterans from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. They offer a basic training where the veterans come from different sides of the conflict. During these week-long trainings they share about their experiences with war. It is very intense but it offers a space to listen, empathize and break down prejudices. The organization stays in touch with these veterans and gives them the opportunity to be involved in peacebuilding activities such as developing videos about the consequences of war, visiting each other’s front lines, and seeing each other’s memorials. A small number of veterans have become interested in being involved in the peacebuilding work. This might seem like a very small achievement but it is an important step in the trauma healing process for individuals and the community.
I believe we need to continue to find ways to allow ourselves to feel pain and grief. We can’t allow the constant fighting or post-traumatic stress to take our humanity away from us. Trauma healing can provide a safe place for crying, feeling the pain and reflecting on what happened as we learn to regain our humanity. Building positive social networks helps develop our communal resilience, to work together to overcome the obstacles that are present in daily life.
The longer we are here, the more we understand the significance of trauma education in the Balkans. We continue to take parts of STAR and adjust and adapt it for different aspects of our work. STAR is a cutting-edge approach to trauma across the world. It covers not only how you deal with on a psychological level but how it affects your entire being including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Trauma healing gives hope as we change our focus to developing resilience in our society. This is why trauma is not only a curse, but a gift.
Amela Puljek-Shank lives in Sarajevo with her husband and son. She has worked as a facilitator and trainer with Seeds of Peace and with the STAR Project (Seminar on Trauma and Awareness and Recovery) for religious leaders at EMU.
[i] War in Slovenia 1991, in Croatia 1991-1995,in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-1995; and in Kosova 1999-2000).
Soldiers come home from war with visible and invisible wounds. Here are four common realities veterans face, and nine suggestions for support.
Reality #1: Returning to civilian life involves a number of significant changes. In a short period of time, service personnel may go from the discomfort and close quarters of military life to the comforts of civilian life, from an environment of danger the safety of home, from a situation of receiving and giving orders to the give and take of family life.[i]
How to be supportive:
- Expect that finding the new normal will take time. During the time away, the soldier has changed. So has the family who stayed behind. Roles have shifted. Family dynamics are affected. The readjustment won’t happen overnight.
- Refrain from playing down problems or needs that emerge. Long-term distress in trauma survivors is strongly linked to others expecting the survivor to recover more quickly than is realistic. [ii] At the same time, don’t excuse or tolerate abusive behavior.
- Seek help from a member of the clergy, mental health professionals, or trusted family members if issues are difficult to talk about. Even if the veteran refuses to go for help, family members can benefit from seeking advice and support for themselves.
Reality #2: Soldiers expect to experience the fight-flight response when undertaking dangerous missions or coming under attack. But in the safety of home, battle-similar sights, sounds or smells can trigger outbursts of irrational and erratic behaviors that are distressing to both the veteran and to loved ones.
How to be supportive:
Practice the following physiological first aid techniques during times of calm so that everyone is prepared when this type of brain hijacking occurs. They interrupt intense hyperarousal. Even if the veteran opts not to participate, the rest of the family will benefit by using the exercises to keep them calm and centered.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) short-circuits hyper-reactions simply by tapping acupressure points. This calms the emotional centers of the brain and balances the nervous system and body’s energy system. Instructions for this simple but effective practice are at www.eftuniverse.com
- Autogenic breathing is taught to law enforcement officers, Green Berets and other elite forces to help them perform well under high stress: Breathe in to the count of one-two-three-four. Hold, one-two-three-four; Breathe out, out-two-three-four; Hold, one-two-three-four. Repeat three times, or as often as needed.
- Get professional help. Hyperarousal and flashbacks are signs of trauma. EFT is a research-supported trauma resource that is available throughout much of the world. The DVD Operation Emotional Freedom follows the experiences of a group of veterans as they use EFT to recover their lives. The Veterans Stress Project www.stressproject.org offers information and free confidential EFT sessions in the USA.
Reality #3: Participating in harming others, even in the line of duty, can result in post-traumatic stress reactions.[iii] When those who were harmed or killed were civilians or prisoners, veterans often feel they can’t tell anyone at home and thus live with soul-wrenching secrets. [iv]
How to be supportive:
- Believe what the veteran tells you even if it is difficult to hear. Resist the urge to change the subject and listen. Safe people–family members, faith leaders, mental health professionals–are needed to assure the veteran that he/she is not alone and that all things are hearable and healable.
- Acknowledge that this is also a systemic issue even though it is individual solders who live with the consequences. Blaming atrocities on “a few bad apples” or “a rogue solder” allows cultures of impunity to operate in secret. Join with others working to expose the truth.
- Explore restorative and creative justice processes that provide ways to make things “as right as possible” while leading toward a path of forgiving oneself and others.
Reality #4: Veterans who escaped death or serious injury while on duty may harbor feelings of guilt and shame over thoughts of relief that they are safe.
How to be supportive:
Recognize that the “Thank God it wasn’t me” response is a universal reaction most people never voice. Naming and normalizing it goes far to lift the shame.
Above all, the strongest message you can convey is, “Welcome home. You are not alone.”
iiNATIONAL CENTER for PTSD http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/effects_of_disasters_risk_and_resilience_factors.asp
[iii] MacNair, Rachel M. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, 2002, Praeger Press, Connecticut. NOTE: MacNair uses the term “perpetration-induced traumatic stress.” This term can be problematic because it calls up an implicit accusation of wrong-doing by implicit reference to “perpetrators” a term used in legal terms to describe criminals. We prefer the term participation-induced traumatic stress because it separates the experience of participation in activities that harmed others from any implicit moral or legal judgment.
(Photo by Diane Gumm)
In March of 1994, in my former role as Bureau Chief in the Criminal Bureau of the Polk County (Iowa) attorney’s office, I read a troubling police report. A few days earlier, members of the Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines awoke to find neo-Nazi graffiti scrawled on the side of their synagogue. There were no immediate suspects but there was anguish, anger, and outrage. At one level, the incident was a galvanizing experience, bringing together the religious community of Des Moines in a way that I had never witnessed. However, the incident also brought forth shadows normally hidden within many good and well-intentioned people, who cried out for a justice that had the character of that sought by vigilantes and lynch mobs.
After two weeks of uncertainty throughout the community, police made two arrests. Charged with felony criminal mischief were an 18 year old male and his 17 year old girlfriend. I decided to hold onto the case rather than assign it to one of the felony prosecutors. I did so less because of the facts and more for the possibilities.
"Permaculture for the People"; Photo by planet a. via Flickr.
Humans are inextricably connected to the earth. We inhabit, breathe, drink, and eat this strange blue globe that is our only home. The oldest religious traditions recognized this scientific claim by weaving stories, almost myths-as-memory, which describe humans as creatures crafted from the dirt: adam and adama, human and humus, culture and cultivate. Indeed, the plurality of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity. And we are social animals, dependent for better and worse on lives beyond ourselves. Restorative justice agrees by stating that society is interconnected, which reframes crime as the cause and effect of damaged relationships and disconnection from a sense of belonging. If this is true, then the proper response to crime, to the violation of people and interpersonal relationships, is the obligation to make things as right as possible, which includes the rehabilitation of the offender.
But rehabilitation to what? If crime is personal and societal, which are interconnected, then simply rehabilitating offenders to this broken locus, especially after the alienating and shaming force of prison, can perpetuate the cycle of violence, evident in recidivism and incarceration rates. The legal system also alienates victims by emphasizing crime as an offense to the state. If restorative justice is right, then situating crime in the nexus of social relatedness demands the restoration of society itself, which should include the realization that we are also embedded in nonhuman life.