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.
I found the application for STAR – Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience – while surfing the net late at night. I was searching for some type of retreat or renewal, something that would help me sort through the grief of my grandmother’s death and the early stages of burnout in my church. My wife was surprised that the STAR description caught my attention. I had not been a victim of trauma. Trauma was not something I had talked about. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, but I was drawn to the training.
After completing the STAR workshops, I tried to figure out how to adapt my STAR experience to my ministry with youth. Along the way I had an epiphany. The description of trauma victims seemed closely linked to the psychological issues and difficult experiences of adolescence. I started to reorient my middle-school youth ministry. I treated both the youth and parents, who were living in a time of constant change and upheaval, as people who were experiencing trauma. I provided resources and I asked questions that reframed their perspective. The results were positive.
(Photo by Rachel Titiriga via Flickr)
If you live or work with young people, it’s likely that you’ve felt their enthusiasm when a good idea catches their imagination, or listened to their laughter and banter as they hang out with friends.
But you may also observe behaviors that concern you: irritability, anger, aggressiveness, withdrawal, feeling sad, substance abuse, cutting, or getting in trouble with the law.
The root of distress in young people can be trauma, the result of experiencing or witnessing something that involves a threat to survival. Or the trauma can be from growing up in an unsafe environment where layers of trauma are undercurrents that can explode on a daily basis.
Viewing young people’s experiences and behaviors through a trauma lens provides a way of understanding them, and of knowing how to reach out in supportive ways.
Lost in translation? (Koru photo adapted from Jonathon Colman via Flickr.)
When a few of us on staff and faculty at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) came together last year to begin discussing the possibility of doing an online course – something we had never done before – we were met with some resistance, not the least of which came from Howard Zehr, Professor of Restorative Justice at CJP and a pioneer in the field.
Fast-forward one year: Howard and Brenda Waugh (MA ’09) are now three weeks into teaching the class, “Recovering the Vision: Conversations on Restorative Justice,” which is being carried out completely online. The students – all practitioners – hail from diverse locales in North America, Europe, and Australia. First-year MA student, Jenn Bricker, and I have had the pleasure of helping Howard and Brenda facilitate this course. And from deep skepticism, Howard has now become a strong advocate of the possibilities of CJP doing more online. What happened in the course of that year?
Carl Stauffer (center), practicing the art
We were stunned to silence as a hushed whisper fell over the meeting hall. Representatives of the “enemy” village had just walked in unexpectedly, interrupting a community peace meeting we were facilitating. Vusi, my South African colleague and I had been toiling for months on a peacebuilding process in Majola, a rural region of the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa, consisting of 32 villages dotting the mountain side. Vusi and I had been invited by community leaders to accompany the Majola region in a quest for peace after the shooting death of two high school girls in January of 2001. These young girls, in school uniform and unarmed were caught in cross-fire while walking to school. This was more than the community could bear and a call to end this decadal violence was sounded.
In the 1960s this “enemy” village started a cycle of violence when they assassinated a chief from another village. In retaliation, the offended village raided the offending village and stole all their cattle (stock-theft). The revenge cycle of stock-theft continued with other villages being drawn in and an increasing number of killings occurring among the cattle thieves on both sides. In December of 1998, after decades of raids and violence, a gun battle broke out in the community leaving 16 persons dead in its wake. The national army was called in to stop the killing and restore “order.”
David Anderson Hooker, instructor at SPI 2012
After teaching at EMU during the regular terms and at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) for a number of years, this past September I began a PhD program at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, where my general area of study is Social Construction. This summer I will be teaching again at SPI, facilitating Multi-party Conflict Resolution as well as a training session for STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience.
My social constructionist perspective impacts the way I frame multi-party conflict because in my estimation there is not one “reality” that we are helping people to see, but rather the process of multiparty mediation and consensus-building is to create a shared meaning and an agreement about how to collaborate and “perform the meaning” that is made.
STAR workshops combine aspects of psychosocial trauma, restorative Justice, conflict transformation, community peacebuilding, and spirituality toward the development of healthy individuals, communities, and societies. In STAR it is interesting to consider that all of those fields, even spirituality, can be thought of as metaphorical frames in a process of assisting individuals and communities in establishing positive peace. Negative peace is simply the absence of war; whereas Galtung and others describe ‘positive peace’ as a circumstance in which structural violence and the impediments to a high quality of life are also removed at the interpersonal, intrapersonal, societal, and global/environmental level.
Roy Hange, instructor of "Faith-based Peacebuilding" at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute
Over the years of teaching faith-based peacebuilding I have met students who are heroes of hope. Among them were:
- A nurse trainer who educates student nurses from three religious backgrounds to work with patients from the same three religious backgrounds. This nurse came with a vision to incorporate peacebuilding into the education of nurses.
- A professor of peacebuilding who has worked with former militants from religiously oriented conflicts and instilled in them a vision for peacebuilding. This student came with the vision of a better future for his country and faith community.
- A woman peacebuilder who returned to her war-torn country with a new vision for how the work of faith-based peacebuilding can bring hope. This student came with the vision for an end to war in her country.
- A producer of children’s television programming with a vision of integrating peacebuilding with the dominant faith of her home country. This student came with the vision that the next generation in her country would not face the challenges she did.
I have also seen fascinating things happen when these heroes of hope become friends in joining their visions and experiences in classroom discussions that spill over into lunch time conversations.