Eastern Mennonite University
Topics: trauma healing, peacebuilding, intermediary roles
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Trauma Healing and Justice
- Trauma and Violence
- Mechanisms in Trauma
- Trauma Healing in the Balkans
- Inspiring Stories
- Scaling Up
- Techniques for Dealing with Trauma
- Dealing with Anger
- Importance of Listening
- Practitioners Care
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?
A: In this field, the mediation, conflict transformation, trauma healing actually came later, but I started in the early 1980's. I was the director of the first community based mediation center here in Virginia. I helped start the first peer mediation program in schools in the state, both elementary, middle and high school levels. From there that led to doing some work internationally in Belgium, France and Germany. I decided that I would go and do an advanced degree. I have a seminary background from Eastern Mennonite University, which led me down the path of peace and justice.
So I was able to go to George Mason University in their Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, but I had done some work prior to that in Northern Ireland. While I was doing my PhD studies I thought my focus would be on the ethnic problems in Northern Ireland. People call it religious, some people call it ethnic, some people call it just a mess, but it was really related to my deep interests in what threatens identity and more specifically ethnic identity or other identity such as religious or gender or whatever it might be. So I had done quite a bit of work in Northern Ireland. I studied a considerable amount of material around that and I wrote my dissertation proposal on the difficulties of threat to ethnic identity in that context.
Shortly after writing the proposal I was asked to go to Liberia, West Africa to do a series of workshops related to the conflict there. We thought it had ended, this was 1991, it still goes on today. The idea was to be in the country there for a month and I was working with a team of other people that were trying to piece together this concept of trauma awareness, trauma recovery conflict resolution and bias and prejudice reduction. That's where I got my first idea of actually merging these three. This was seen by the local people as needed, so they invited outside people to work with them as partners in doing this work. This was the Christian Health Association of Liberia called CHAL, and they were very interested in starting a program called trauma healing and reconciliation. They traditionally had outside partners, people that would come and work in partnership with their own staff in the areas of health. Of course, this was "post war", where we thought the war was over. I was very interested in being in Liberia and not doing my work in Northern Ireland.
I felt like I had done a lot of work in Northern Ireland. I had helped establish a few mediation centers there. I know it would have been interesting work but the troubles there over thirty years at that time had been written about extensively. I was trying to map out this window of threat to ethnic identity which was a good window, but I also saw it could be something I could transfer into the Liberian context. So I had to rewrite my proposal after my dissertation chair, Chris Mitchell, said he was interested in that. I went then to Liberia for two years, doing action research, on the ground working with people. I think we did between fifty and seventy workshops when we could get out when the war wasn't happening because it certainly restarted and stopped and restarted many times.
So we did what was called "trauma-healing reconciliation" and I eventually wrote my dissertation on threat to ethnic identity in the Liberian civil crisis and using trauma healing reconciliation workshops to attenuate some of that threat. I have a really deep interest in the region of West Africa. I had to evacuate from Liberia and then I went back in and I was able to really help establish a program that is ongoing today. I mean, we didn't end the war but we started a process that helped people see that there was a clear link to being de-tramatized or integrating, as we say, the trauma into themselves and into their context. It is a high context society so the idea is working with groups as well as individuals, to help the group itself and then to build the bridges across the ethnic divides there. It was very clear that it wasn't an ethnic conflict because as we know from many places in the world, conflicts are started for many reasons, it can be issues of access to resources, or power or greed, the pathology of a set of leaders or a leader.
What we tried to do then was to try to look at how, I started there and I later worked in the Balkans for five years, of integrating this concept of trauma recovery or trauma healing with areas of justice, with areas of conflict transformation and peace-building. I just finished an article on the nexus between trauma healing and peace-building, saying clearly and we felt this was true in Liberia, the Balkans and Northern Ireland and in a lot of cases where people needed to start a creative constructive recovery process so that they could start to see the way through for themselves as individuals or their groups to a place that's more healthy. A place where they are stronger to re-build their individual lives depending on context, their family lives, their community lives, their society situation can be improved with people that are tuned into what has actually happened to them. And that's what I've always said.
I think trauma is a window to the self and to the group, but it's a window through which individuals and groups can look back through to see what brought on the trauma. Maybe it's obvious to everyone. What I think trauma recovery processes do is they allow introspection in a way that a lot of other processes or if there not offered, don't provide. We have tried then to merge together these concepts of trauma healing and justice and peace building. I also believe that the trauma recovery process allows for people not only to look back to see what happened but it opens some windows to the future as well. To see potentially what they, can do as people that are integrating their trauma, becoming healthier individually and collectively, so that they can prevent future conflicts from happening. So that's the idea. That's what I've been working on and that's what I believe this nexus is because not everyone is traumatized in war situations although you can imagine that the majority of people are somehow highly stressed and many people are traumatized. Everybody deals with it differently.
Even groups deal with it differently depending on their rituals and their support systems that they provide for each other. But in wars you have a lot of refugees and people dispersed and there are traditional ways of dealing with conflict or even trauma, even though many societies don't have the word trauma they have the symptoms of trauma, are not in place anymore. What I've tried to do is to help people experience these windows to the past and to the future. Then provide in the process analytical skills to look deeply into the conflict as well as skills and strategies for preventing or as John Burton used to say "Proventing Conflict". So building mechanisms into different structures so conflicts don't escalate. We can't say that we'll never have conflicts; in fact we've always said that conflicts are the norm and they can be dangerous or they can be healthy. Conflicts provide opportunities for everyone's growth. So that's some of the work I've been doing.
Q: So, talk a little more if you would about how trauma maintains a given cycle of violence?
A: Well, as you know, if traumatized people don't have a way of releasing the pent up energy of trauma. There is an energy that is usually stored in the system that needs to be released and through the release of that there's also an integration of the trauma experience. That needs to be done for the individual, or for the group, or the groups involved in conflict. This includes both victims and offenders because I really believe that the idea is that it isn't just the offender or aggressor who may come out the victor. I feel in conflict situations, particularly war situations there is no winner in the long term and so there needs to be some kind of release and integration of the traumatic experience. If that doesn't happen then it's stored both psychologically and it's imprinted in a body memory and in the groups' memory through various songs, poetry, what's written in history books and so it can be passed from generation to generation.
For example, someone comes along, again the person who wants to protect his or her power or wants to gain more power or even disgruntled groups of people who feel the structures themselves are violent and disempowering, and they say "Do you remember what happened to us as a people?" We do find that in moments people do experience what their parents or grandparents or even generations back have experienced in their families or in their religious or ethnic group. So the concept here is time collapsing. What is happening now and the person or this group says, "Do you remember what happened?" is really drawing on that memory from the past and time collapses. Now is then. Whether it's ten years ago or fifty years ago or six hundred years ago, whatever it might be.
It's an interesting psychological phenomena that this violence and this traumatization can be handed down from generation to generation. Someone can come along in a twenty minute speech for example, Slobodon Milosevic and the field of black birds in Kosovo. He symbolically came out of the heavens. He came down from a helicopter and the loss of the battle in Kosovo in 1389 to the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs losing that battle, but there were several battles around there. The first battle actually came to a draw I believe but the history has it that the Serbs actually lost that battle and they saw themselves as victims and victims in other circumstances through history and so there was a myth created that they were the heavenly people and though victims and losers of various battles they never less had this mythological status, if you like, of the heavenly people.
So Milosevic comes down from the helicopter into the most religious symbolically religious place for Serbs, Kosovo. There are monasteries there that represent the orthodox Serbian Christianity represented there through the centuries. He speaks to the minority Serb community in Kosovo, who are very upset with feeling oppressed as a minority group there with the Kosovar Albanians. He says in a quite interesting speech and if you read it out of context, it's a well written and well spoken speech, but if you read it in context if you know the historical ramifications and what the people are experiencing in the moment. He says things like "never again will we allow Islam" and this is represented by the Albanians and Muslims there, "to take us over", referring back to 1389, the Ottoman Turks who were Muslim.
So in a twenty-minute speech, he told and led a million people into this concept of a greater Serbia and to protect Serbs throughout that region. There were a lot of other things that were done related to digging up Prince Lazars mortal remains, whatever was left after 600 hundred years. But it was on the 600-year anniversary, taking his mortal remains from town to city and each day burying those remains and the next day resurrecting those remains. There were people dressed in black and they wept. The Serbian flag was put across the casket and time had collapsed.
So these are the things if you have unhealed trauma that can be tapped into generations and generations later. People remember because they've been reminded over and over again in one form or another through the myths and through the histories and through the poetry and through the music about the people who have suffered. If you think about it in North America, here with the civil rights movement, singing we shall overcome things that have been happening to our people for such a long time. In the streets of Belfast, that same song was sung, we shall overcome the oppression there over generations. We use the terms Protestant and Catholic, and in that context Protestants being the majority community in Northern Ireland and having the perceived and maybe even the real privileges of housing and jobs over the minority community the Catholics. And so the non-violent movements that started there turned violent but the songs that were being sung there were the civil right songs of the African American movement here during civil rights. Something can be tapped into, there's no doubt about that.
So my premise is and it's not just mine, but many people working in this field is that we need to do deal with this trauma. In the former Yugoslavia, after World War II, there was so much anger and fear and animosity and pain, on the Croat and Serb and Bosniac side as well, but particularly between the Serbs and Croats. I should also say Muslims at the time. Muslims or Bosniacs weren't made an official group until the 1960's, but in the context after World War II, Marshal Tito said, "We must live with three major ethnic groups in brotherhood and unity." So he literally put a lid on a boiling cauldron, he didn't pull the fire out. But after any war, people want to live in brotherhood and sisterhood and unity because they've suffered so much and they don't want that anymore.
But as I talked to people during the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I heard people say to me, "I never heard my parents or my grandparents talk about their anger or hatred or pain of World War II, until these wars." It was kept under wraps, Tito's socialist system was very real in that sense. He was a person that accommodated various ethnic groups and he had the link to the West. The former Yugoslavia grew in a lot of positive ways and there were lot intermarriages between people, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Bosniacs. There was a certain unity, but the memory was still embedded in people.
There's a fascinating story about how a woman from Shrevenitza???, where so many people, 8,000 men and boys were killed there. And this was a seventy year old grandmother, who was raising her grandchildren, both mother and father had been killed in Shrevenitza???. We were doing our trauma workshops and our peace-building workshops and she said, "What shall I tell my very young grandchildren about what happened to their parents, who killed their parents and why?" She was Muslim. I listened well and tried to understand what was going on for her and then she said something extraordinary. She said," During World War II," in this case the Serbian group came into her Muslim village and killed her brother and her father. Her mother said at the time after that happened, "We need to forgive the people that have done this." Fifty years later she's telling me and the group that I'm with, "I think my mother was wrong, we shouldn't have forgiven them at that point". Now, she was drawing on a lot of pain and a lot of anger but she still cared about her grandchildren. She wanted to be able to tell them something important and not necessarily at her own bitterness be part of them and yet she had her own experience from fifty years ago that caused her to understand that something hadn't been dealt with. Her pain, the pain of the people in her village during World War II.
Q: What did she come up with?
A: Well like any good approach things take time. We were not going to necessarily prescriptively tell her, "Well this is what you should do," but we did talk. After a while what came forward was for her to be honest with her grandchildren when they were old enough to understand about what actually happened and who killed the children's parents. As well as for the grandmother, in dealing with the deaths of her father and brother in that sense. But also then ask the children to do their own looking and asking as they grow and get older. To get them to look into the historical factors and ask people from the other side and try to get as broad of a perspective as possible, and for those children obviously like the grandmother to get more and more help of trying to integrate the great loss.
Now these were young children that may have not been old enough to remember their parents very well. They are going to have all these questions and they'll be photographs and a whole range of things. So there will have to be certain things that are done while information gathering. The grandmother gives the children information she has and her own frustration and anger, but tries to couch it in a way so that they can both hear it and investigate it and not take on her bitterness that is passing from generation to generation down. Rather she can help them investigate it and help them in some way through speaking. Furthermore, she can help them by having people listen to them in ways, having them draw, write, inquire and also to go through some ceremonies or rituals that might help them integrate this better. At least it's not suppressed, their anger and their frustrations.
Now who knows what's going to happen with those particular children. Their own personalities are unique. Their own support systems will be unique and probably different over time as they grow. They will handle things in their own individual way but there has to be some memorials for those parents and for the dead of Shrevenitza. Some of that's already happening and so those children participate in that and have a good support system. They may need psychological help or they made need religious or spiritual help. But at the very least, they need to be made aware that there are options here and that their pain, their confusion can be hopefully a great part dealt with over time.
Q: It sounds like the mechanisms for healing trauma are fairly similar to the mechanisms for preserving trauma, like the memorials and investigating and research and finding out. What's the distinction?
A: I think the distinction is to have people understand what has actually happened to them emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally, spiritually, physically, and to give them some information about the reactions that they have had. We talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or reaction, well these are normal reactions to a very abnormal set of circumstances and people need to be made aware of that. It's an educational component as one thing.
Another component is giving them the space, freedom and support to vent their anger, frustration, tears and their anguish, or whatever it might be. So helping them go through a mourning and grieving process and not saying, "Well don't worry about it, just forget about it," that usually doesn't work with most people. Again there are some amazing stories about people that are able to forgive immediately but there are also not amazing stories and very troublesome stories about people who have forgiven to soon and have not been able to really deal with that cognitive, emotional, and spiritual set of feelings and reactions that they have. So we need to offer the grieving process. Referring back to what I was saying before, I think it is helpful for a lot of people and individuals and collectives if they can also start to work for justice and for peace. It's not just getting healthy for the future and that's important, but it's becoming healthy for a future where conflict is not so readily happening and escalating because people have understood how they must work for justice and peace. The process of working for justice and peace is also healing in itself.
It's not an either or situation. I believe we need to have a process in the initial stages. This differs for different individuals and groups. Initial stages of people actually integrating and working through a mourning and grieving process. Getting beyond the anger, which is a normal response. One doesn't want to say, "Don't be angry," if that's the reaction. Rather look at how the energy of anger can be prevented from turning to rage and revenge and how that can be redirected into healing and integration and to working for just causes in the future, so people will not do the same things.
We have some examples here in the United States and around the world where individuals and groups have started to work for justice and to prevent similar things from happening. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). I mean look at the pain there but look at what they have done. They've worked organizationally to help change systems and structures to prevent these things from happening in the future. There's Mothers in Black or Women in Black that have suffered a lot of things and have really changed a number of things in their own societies. I believe that the new voice is not the individual prophetic voice, not to negate that, but a collective voice of people who have been traumatized and know the pain of trauma.
People have gone to the depths of their own humanity and they find some incredible things that I call "trauma wisdom" or being trauma wise. They are able to go to a place where there's nothing and what they find out of that darkness and that desperation is in many cases, and I would say with the help of support systems and processes that allow them to heal and integrate this trauma, they find what is important in life. They find that relationships are important and the love of their children and potentially their religion deepens. Although the opposite can happen sometimes involving religion, but through a creative process it can deepen.
A lot of things often happen in relationship to what is important in life moving from what I was doing to something that has much more meaning because I understand how precious or important life is. Taking from the different religious traditions what keeps me going is this concept in the Greek punuma or in Hebrew the ruwak, this "life force" that's in us. To take that force out of someone through killing them, but we can also take that force out of them psychologically and emotionally in different ways. To have that restored and a new wind come in to people, a new breath and understanding that life is precious and so what I want to do for my life and for life of people around me is to maintain that preciousness and to share what it means. I think that to me is what keeps me going in this field. My hope is more and more people will gain that feeling and that insight, and that will work for justice and will against structures that are violent and oppressive. Hopefully that things overtime will change, will we have conflicts and wars with us? Yes, we will, but I think we can say that we're in a era that we should have less and less and we now have the ability to negotiate more and more and find ways through these conflicts.
It doesn't seem true in today's world right now, but I believe that's really what's happening. I was really impressed when the representative from the Vatican came to President Bush and said basically, "in today's world have no need for war." Now, Catholics have a just war theory and they can find places and there are very distinct guidelines and regulations and rules about where war is justified ??? And other religions as well. We come from a peace tradition within Menonitism, so we don't go there about just war. At the same time to have a representative go to a President of the major power in the world and from that background of just war theory saying this war that you're about to go into is not just; I am highly impressed by that. More and more we will start to see that we won't just say this isn't necessary, but we'll give good reasons why it's not necessary and alternatives to violent approaches.
Q: In a linear mode of thought one would think that trauma healing comes at the end of a conflict intervention process, there was war, something went wrong, resolution and then we do trauma. Given that this seems to be a sort of cyclical process if you're in some sort of intervention process and you come across something that looks like unhealed trauma, what should happen at that point? Should the intervention stop and focus on trauma healing? Should there be some sort of parallel intervention? What's generally the preferred or the suggested answer?
A: There's no answer and what were working on right now is in the field of peace building and trauma recovery is to really find those times of intervention when they are most appropriate. My sense at this stage is that, I deal a lot with war and post war circumstances, But when I was in the Balkans the war was still going on but I found people of hope, people of faith, in all terrible, traumatic situations who really do have a vision for the future. So even as war goes on, there are people that we can gather together to work with and to partner with to discover, well what are we going to do and what should we be doing now, related to ending this war and preparing for post war realities.
What we have done and I've done more particularly in Liberia and the Balkans is to help those people of good will and of talent, with gifts that are appropriate for the time and for the future, to come together and say an elicit approach of what can we do. There are models that say that we need to have the peace accord, we need to re-build societies the infrastructures and the justice systems and the political structures and we need to have free and fair elections and all these things. I wouldn't deny that I think free and fair elections need to happen much later in this process. I think we need to be working in parallel and what we haven't done well is coordinate with each other and I would include trauma recovery in this. It is to make people aware that you can work with people and you can give them the developmental tools and the other tools of development or of rebuilding structures and infrastructures and civil society and that's all part of healing. I really believe that we need to put in place an awareness of what has happened, again cognitively and emotionally to people in high trauma situations. That educational component paralleled with a lot of other things.
In the former Yugoslavia, I was working for CARE International at the time, and we started what we called, "Welcome and Information Centers". We strategically placed them in nine different places in the country where people were displaced because of their ethnicity in to one place and the group from that place had been displaced and were at another location where we had one of our centers. The idea was to provide legal information to people so they could come in the door for that, social service information, human rights information, and what we called, "psychosocial help". Someone could come in the door for any of these things but find out that we actually had what we call, "listening circles" meeting from time to time to talk about what had happened and what people want to do with their individual lives or their collective lives as a group. And how they could prepare themselves to go back to where they had lived prior to the war, as a minority ethnic group, go back to a hostile group as a majority and live somehow there and some relative peace or coexistence. We would prepare then the host community to get them ready for the return of the other group.
We also worked within that context not with just individuals, but we worked with groups of people. We worked with children in school systems. We taught teachers which we thought was a real critical area to work with teachers who were working with their own ethnic groups but also eventually in mixed ethnic situations. So the idea was more holistic psychosocial and providing these other helps and also to save face you could come in the door for information around property you lost during the war. But the other psychosocial component was there.
Q: I am sure you have many, and you mentioned the grandmother, but can you think of one or a few moments that have been particularly inspiring in your work?
A; A couple in Bosnia. One was related to a similar situation but in a different location. This was where families of missing persons in a city near Sarajevo and there were also displaced families from Shrevenitza??? in that same village, but both groups had lost loved ones during the war. They were angry at the international community and the international red cross for not finding people that they thought might still be alive or at least their mortal remains. They were also angry at their own government because they weren't doing enough. So the anger needed to be dealt with.
This was in a place with one of these welcome centers and so we started a group of families of missing persons. They were taken through some basic educational workshops related to traumatization and loss. In that case without mortal remains or having your loved one come back, you know there's no, anyway we don't talk about closure, there's no healing, that wound stays open. The anger was directed at groups of people and governments and so what we tried to do is to get them as much information as possible. There was a psychosocial component of that, getting them information about what the government was doing, where there were mortal remains, how long DNA testing would take and explaining that, and eventually helping release some of that anxiety through meeting together in a safe place, having that support that CARE International was offering. Having some information about why they were feeling this way, I mean it's obvious, but then it's good to have a range of understanding and why some people acted differently than others.
I worked with them in the initial stages and our local people took it through the rest of the time period. After about month seven, they called me back in. I walked into this office space, this meeting room and they were kind of smiling. They wouldn't tell me why they wanted to see me again. I sat down and had a normal cup of Bosnian coffee, you couldn't start anything without Bosnian coffee. The spokesperson started to explain what was going on. What had happened is over that seven-month period they had decided that they wanted to do what they called, "move on". They weren't going to stop looking for their loved ones, but they hadn't seen their loved ones for six years, they knew that they might be dead. They knew that they themselves needed to move on in life in different ways.
Going back to this issue of memorial. They asked the mayor of that city if they could place a memorial for not only the families of missing persons and representing that, but for all people who had suffered in this war. It was a very positive memorial in one sense; it wasn't about victory and it wasn't just about grieving. Although it became a container, which is what memorials do, they can become containers of some of the grief that we had, so we place that grief that pain in the container. The mayor said yes and then we talked about how they could design the memorial and so forth. But they had one other thing that they said, "In these seven months that we've been together, we got to know each other so well, we like each other that we've decided to start a small business, can you help us do this?" And so we gave them the information where they might do that. That was one very positive thing that occurred.
In another city in central Bosnia, prior to the war, where Croats and Muslims had lived together and even though the mosque was in the city itself, most of Muslim community lived just across the Bosna River. When the war started because Croats in Bosnia were a minority group, you have to make that distinction, I mean not everybody in Bosnia was a Bosniac or a Muslim, there were Croats and Serbs, and it was a fairly well represented community, particularly in the larger cities like Sarajevo. But this was a small city and it was Croat majority in the town, with a Muslim minority, but in the region it was a Muslim majority.
The Croats felt very threatened when this war was swirling around them as a minority community that they needed to be proactive. Unfortunately the way they chose to do that was to kill a lot of the Muslims, burn a lot of their houses down, to incarcerated them, to expel them and rape them. That obviously was highly traumatic for the Muslim community. CARE and I came back again to work with both communities separately because the Bosniacs or Muslims were just moving back in and rebuilding their houses. It was kind of an amazing sight to see and kind of tragic in a lot of ways.
We worked with two women's groups and this was a lot of what we did in Bosnia and Herzegovina working with women. The previous story I just told you there were men and women, but these were two women's groups. The Croatian women wanted to deal with the trauma that they had experienced, and their children had experienced and also how to deal with domestic abuse. This is one of the big factors in war when the mostly men soldiers come back to there villages and there's no work anymore because everything's gone, the infrastructures and the factories and everything else, there's a lot of alcohol and drug abuse and a lot of domestic violence. And so the Croatian women's group wanted to work with that range of issues.
On the Bosniac side they obviously needed to work with issues of loss. Loss of home, loss of relationship with the Croats, loss of hope in a lot of ways and the future, the issues of rape, the issues of distrust that had been created through the killing and the expulsion. So over a four-month period we worked separately with those women's groups that just across the river from each other. You could see the locations where we met on either side of the river. Some where along the line, and I was hoping this would happen, someone asked, "We know you are working with the other group, can we meet with them some day?" And I said, "I'll certainly ask." There was interest on the other side but they didn't want to meet there, they wanted to meet in a neutral place.
We met in a city,??? Sinitsa, it's about fifty kilometers away. I remember distinctly that day. It was really quite a beautiful fall day and we were meeting in a hotel meeting room. One group was there already and when the other group arrived I was expecting some real tension but it didn't happen, they embraced each other. They had known each other before the war. In some cases they had known each other quite well, but here four or five years later they were really seeing each other and really interacting with each other for the first time and they embraced. I thought, "What is really going on here?" but I recognized over the hour and half-two hours that we were together that they really meant this. They decided in this one meeting that they would start a women's group of this particular city that they were from. And they too wanted to start a business together.
Eventually they found two or three thousand chickens that an International NGO was able to get them and they started a business together. I always say that was a footbridge across the Bosna River. It wasn't a big bridge but it was a bridge where they could start to walk back and forth. Both sides really had deep concerns and love for their children and that their children wouldn't go in to the future that they had experienced in this war.
Q: How do you go from individual transformation or even two groups like that of women that get together and make that broader?
A: That is the real struggle. And it's a real struggle related to trauma. How you find ceremonies and rituals for a whole nation? You are aware of a lot of our conflicts today or have been in the last decade, which have been within states, not necessarily across boarders although we've had some of them. We have some strange things going on today but within those borders conflict destroys in weeks and months relationships and buildings and entire cities.
My wife is from Vukovar, Croatia, a city that was completely destroyed in a three-month period. That is what you see and how do you re-build, not only the physical structures, but the emotional and relational links between people. It's very, very difficult. We have to find mechanisms in the larger societies that will draw people together. Of course economics draws people together.
There is a place called Arizona in Bosnia-Herzegovina it's right at the border of Croatia, the Republic of Serbsca which is part of the Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serbs, Croats and Muslims can come together. This place has actually become a small city now because people have to live and they have to trade. It's a great economy but it's also helped people to come together. The majority of people in this situation would tell me, "If we just take care of this at higher echelon of people that are manipulating us for power, we can live across these ethnic divides quite well." There are all these things that happen. We have to have economics. We have to have the political and social infrastructures re-established in creative ways.
I'm also convinced too, and we haven't done a lot of this, you don't see it across the conflicts in our world, where ritualistically things have been done that have been part of that whole re-building and remembering and re-establishment of relationship. I do know, and this had a political overtone to it, in Uganda there was a ceremony ten years after their civil war, where the mortal remains that were scattered across the land that were still visible and obviously not buried by relatives and not known. They were brought into Kampala the capital and a huge ceremony took place that was on national television. Thousands of people participated in that with the religious and traditional leaders doing the ritualistic ceremony of burying these bones. I think that again it had some political overtone. However, that sort of thing done well is what we need to do more of as part of the reconstructing and re-establishing of relationships in these post-war settings. We also have to work in a way that's better coordinated. That is, the various NGOs, I forget how many hundreds of NGOS were in Sarajevo, and we would have weekly meetings and there were some cooperations.
Q: Meeting between all the NGOs?
A: Yeah, not all the NGOS, but a lot of them. There was some discussion about how we could work together. The UN would generally bring these groups together. But I think that is a piece that really needs to be worked on. We need to find good facilitator coordinators that will bring people together and ask, "How can you work more effectively together" Why are we duplicating this work? How can we work in tandem? How can our gifts and skills be woven together?"
In the world of realpolitik and reality you have the funding organizations behind that particular NGO that have a particular agenda and mandate. Some of that is changing over time and I am really thankful that there is more cooperation and partnering, not just of the international communities but the local ones as well. That is something for peace building. Part of that cooperation and partnering, for me, needs to have the component of trauma recovery, with a recognition that trauma recovery and justice and peacebuilding go together and as do justice and peacebuilding, trauma recovery contends.
Q: What techniques have you found to be most useful in accomplishing the goals of your work?
A: I think what we believe in here at the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, is being reflective practitioners. That is that we are skilled analytically, and with strategies for trauma work and peace building work, but were also reflective in the sense that we reflect our own gifts, skills and limitations. We reflect on the larger picture of how we may work together and with others. We go into these situations with open minds and open hearts.
In a lot of ways that may be slightly different somewhat from other organizations that are more protective of what their doing or their funders are more protective. We try to really work cooperatively with local players. We are about empowerment of local actors through walking with them and through listening from them what they think needs to happen. I mean context is so critical and so are cultural, not just sensitivities, but our cultural analysis of where were going to and our limitations.
Also how we work with people in context and to really ask what is needed, how they identify with what has happened, and what their worldviews are. Of course every context is different and there are different people, different individuals. It is very important to look at those worldviews and find how then we might strategically fit in some of the things that were working with. Bottom line though, is relationships and building those relationships locally and listening deeply to people. This includes people who are traumatized and obviously in and through their trauma. Their own particularly gifts have a great wisdom for their context and how that then can be applied strategically.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you needed to find ways for people to release their anger?
A: Yeah. Anger Release. There is some theory that when we are traumatized there are blockages of energy and sometimes that blockage comes out in the form of anger. Then again, anger is normal. How can people have a safe environment with trusted people? Hopefully their community and political will for healing take place so that they can release some of this energy and in the process of releasing it integrate what is actually happened to them. Why. and what they want to do with it.
Anger is normal. All these responses we have when were traumatized whether it's going inside of ourselves, unable to focus, raised blood pressure, were wired in really incredible ways. How we react is based on who we are but there are some similar reactions that people have to a lot of things. Identifying and helping people recognize that their anger is normal and even that their desire for revenge is normal. What has happened identity wise, is that identity has been highly threatened. Life is no longer predictable. I no longer have my other identities needs met of being recognized as a equal partner in this relationship or in this community. I no longer have my human rights and my dignity of my humanity understood or recognized. So how is it that we can help people acknowledge what has happened to them? Appreciate their response in ways even though they don't feel good in the moment? Understand that there are ways of releasing this energy through arts, through crying, through drama, writing, whatever it might be to help them?
Often because of the relational aspect that exists in our reality just to connect with them deeply and being present with them and listening deeply, listen into their pain. Caregivers in these situations are people that really indeed do care, but in the process they too absorb some of the trauma from the other person, so they need to know how to take care of themselves. But all of that needs to be part of an educational process and again it's not just education. I'll tell you about education in the broadest sense that can incorporate the knowledge that something has happened to me, not only psychologically but potentially spiritually. So that knowledge itself that I glean from and educational approach can help me then deal through the ceremonies and rituals in my religion for example, potentially in more creative ways. It's all of this mix and we try then to see the whole picture. It's not just our trauma, justice, and peace-building picture. It's also development and civil society and economics and politics and how then we interface with others that have this particular set of skills and expertise.
Q: It sounds like listening in this case has an inverted meaning in this sense that by listening to someone's trauma you are actually getting him or her to talk about it?
Q: In other words, anybody can listen but the point of it in this case is that they actually have a place to talk about it whereas if there is no one specifically there to think about trauma then maybe people won't even talk about it, and they'll just bury it?
A: Of course there are people that just have the natural gift of just being with other people and are able to draw others out. Again, contextually and culturally maybe you don't talk, maybe you just sit with them and weep. Or maybe you just sit with them and say I am ready to talk when you are, and of course you would do that in many situations. In some situations, culturally you are not going to talk about it so then how do you deal with that? How do you unpeel that onion, those layers of protection, of saving face? How is it that you find in those societies ways and rituals or ceremonies or understanding or does it need to be acknowledged that in those societies the quietness and keeping within is some kind of healing because talking about it would be disastrous, contextually.
But my sense, even from being there and talking with people from Asia for example, I haven't worked there very much, is how can they find constructive ways to maybe train people about what trauma is and what it does and then again let them say in their setting how they might be able to deal with this. Dealing with it might be the remaining quiet, but it might put it in a context or in a ceremony that allows some integration for that trauma. Recognition of that pain is important. There are universal qualities about being traumatized. Although there are many societies that don't have the word trauma but again they have the symptoms. They know that they are angry or they know that they feel bad or they can't concentrate or they know that there is a hyper-arousal or vigilance and the whole range cognitively, emotionally physically. They understand that, so how do you help them understand that these reactions are normal reactions to these very abnormal situations? And from their context what do they think that they can do about it? What has been done in the past? What new things contextually can occur?
Q: What do you find are the greatest obstacles to your work?
A: In some ways, although this is changing and I am very pleased to note this, that usually organizations that help fund these issues are not looking in the long term. They don't have the five, ten, fifteen, or twenty-year vision that we might in the peace-building field. But more and more funding is at least being designated for three to five year periods. So it gets the process that we believe of the healing and the building and rebuilding, it gives it more time and space and were not having a six month or year deadline for results to be handed in for some evaluation forum. That's helpful, that's been an obstacle over time.
This other obstacle is the partnering element of really working in a concerted and cooperative manner with other players. Those that are doing development work or those that are doing strict punitive justice approaches within the judicial systems and those that are doing restorative justice, those that are doing other forms of peace building or those that are working in civil society. Doing more working together, that has been a barrier, and I have even suggested that we as an organization be the facilitators of and the encouragers of groups like that.
Q: You mean EMU or CARE?
A: No, I don't work for CARE anymore but the Conflict Transformation Program here. I think we have some of those gifts because we do have the ability to analyze the larger picture. We have the ability to help others do that and to help them see where the linkages are between the various NGOs that are doing different works might be and call it all peace building. Also recognizing that we all bring different skills and strategies to that. But a coordinated set of skills and strategies could be more helpful as far as I am concerned.
Q: Obstacles in terms of the people you are actually working with?
A: In different societies it's problematic to draw a lot of men into the mix. I didn't find that true in Liberia, usually the workshops were men and women in equal numbers, sometimes even more men. Again, maybe the reason there was the hierarchical society, but the women tend to play major roles in the every day peacebuilding. They have more and more openings and they need more and more openings to the second and top-level approaches to peacebuilding. That's certainly happened in different places, but more is required. I would say trying to break the barriers down that are cultural in a lot of ways and standing strong and integrating this in negative ways rather than positive ways. And of course, we see what happens with a lot of people, men in Bosnia, a lot who suppress their pain and frustrations, whatever it might be. The rate of cancer and heart attacks causing early death, it's not just that, but there are other lifestyle elements, but from my perspective that at least, is part of it.
Getting communities and the political structures to have the will to provide this space and understand the necessity of not putting a lid on a boiling cauldron. Awareness of that to begin with and that this process of recovery is important and peace building with a vision for the future and analysis of the conflict and strategies toward a more peaceful future. I think awareness and political will, to use that term, can just be community will, but there are political elements there often times, to say we really need this to happen. More is happening in that regard. I just talked to someone from Rwanda and it's the government there that is saying we need to "provent" this from happening in the future. So they have done a lot of things in terms of training and promoting local initiatives within villages. It is a traditional initiative called "Gacaca" and this is really when people are released from prison and they are being released for this purpose of going back and becoming accountable. It's a restorative justice process. It's kind of like a trial, but the idea is that the perpetrators of the violence are going back to their own community, where they may have killed and created havoc during the genocide there, and are now being released to go back and face the victims of their work. They are being tried, but in a way that creates some accountability if not a lot of accountability to what they've done and what they must do to restore the relationship to the rest of the community. I was surprised to hear my colleague who is from Rwanda, talk about this in such a positive way. He says the political will is there and it's critical in supporting top level mid level and these grassroots initiatives for the restoration of relationships. I think that type of approach is going to be critical and it obviously needs to be contextualized in many, many places. What you have in various settings in the world are people in power that want to maintain power and have no clue in a lot of ways of what is really needed to make them powerful in the most creative and constructive way. These "Gacacas" for example, in Rwanda our models that are probably going to be needed in these other settings, again, contextually.
Q: We've been over a lot of these already, but are there other important lessons that you have learned over the years that stick out in your mind?
A: Take care of yourself if you are in this work, mentally, spiritually, and physically. I talked about listening, but I've also mentioned deep listening, empathetic listening at the deepest level and that is really needing to be present with people. So you have to really know who you are. That's one of the reflective parts of being a reflective practitioner.
The other is really being attuned to empathetic thinking, which is not just listening to what other people are saying and helping them go to a deeper level with their pain and/or their wisdom, but also trying to think into what they might be going through. I mean we can't do that completely and it is probably more then attempting to stand in their shoes, but it's something like that as well. This concept of being very, very present with the other really re-establishes their trust in humanity because in previous situations they have been dehumanized by another or they may have dehumanized as the aggressor.
So now were really establishing ourselves as human beings connected very deeply and all religions have this element in them that helps us understand this connection. There is a South African Bantu word called "???umguntu", that is not necessarily religious itself although I think it has incredible spiritual and religious connotations. It means that in a collectivistic society that because we are, I am. I interpret it a little bit differently for every kind of situation and that is, I have my humanity through you, and you through me. And that connects us at that ruwak, punuma, that life breath level, that I am not human without you and you without me, in the best sense of that humanity. To dehumanize others so that we can psychologically or physically kill them or wound them, then we have to reestablish that trust in the fact that we are dependent on each other to live and that interdependency is critical for life.
Q: The inverse to that last question is what advice would you give to people coming into this field?
A: Well, we have to give that advice quite often because we aren't an academic institution. A lot of people are in the field already, but some are coming from different disciplines to this field. I don't know if there's a set of things that people probably should be aware of related to how they sense themselves being with other people, their connection to other people, that relational aspect. For them to self reflect, to be creatively critical of themselves, to look at themselves deeply at their own psychological road maps. Take a lot of time to try to understand their worldviews and where worldviews in general come from and how they impact relationships and how they impact structures that impact relationships. I guess the other word that comes to my mind is that really deep respect for life and great care for others. To be able to use analytical and strategic skills that are critical for this field but that all woven together really helps us to be the peace builders or wanting to be or possibly called to be.
Q: How do you take care of yourself with this work? You must be dealing with incredibly heavy stuff all the time when you are there. How do you keep your mind fresh and healthy on it's own.
A: I actually help other caregivers take care of themselves so I have to kind of practice what I teach in regard to the things that we can do. Again, awareness of some of the things I just said is critical and this regular reflection on who am I.
One of the things about the who am I is that I may not be the right person for the work I am being asked to do over here, but in this other direction related to peace building even though both are peace building I may be the person or I may be the person to help facilitate that. I have a regular discipline of prayer, meditation and breathing exercises and stretching exercises. I run and always tell people that I eat a lot of garlic. Garlic is really healthy for you so you have to have that as well.
Also I was doing a workshop recently on "Care of the Caregivers" for people that are working with victims of 9/11 and also other parts of the world and I got into the garlic thing. I told them about my garlic recipe for salad dressing and everybody wanted that and I thought to myself or I even said it then, "Gosh we've been interacting about how we take care of ourselves and my fear is that you are only going to remember this salad dressing recipe." They were keenly interested in that.
Q: Better than nothing, I guess.
A: One of the things that someone said in that class and I think it's very true, was that a lot of people in this field have your formal religious backgrounds or really themselves are really reflective and care deeply and have some spirituality in that sense. To me, that's really sustaining. If we don't go beyond ourselves in that sense then we do tend to take on the burdens of the person we are listening to or all the conflicts and we have no way to release that. Of course, you could say well you don't have to be spiritual to do that if you know how to exercise and have these other things and I agree with that. But there is something about actually not only caring for others but caring for yourself. So I do say no sometimes to different things or I have support systems that I go to, people that I can talk to, to talk to about my trauma.
Again, exercising is a way of releasing the energy because as we deal with trauma, we take on the trauma of the others. We call that secondary traumatization whereas the traumatized person has primary trauma. If you are working with person after person or group after group over a period of time, you can get very cold and kind of distant and removed. Some of that is okay because you are taking care of yourself, but the group or the individual really needs to know that you care and can sense that without you telling them I care about you.
So you can't be too blocked off and so also staying open to others, we don't close up by folding our arms across our chest and cutting off our heart. The Chinese verb to listen is made up of four parts, each symbol represents something and one looks like an ear, so we listen with our ear. We listen with our eyes, eye contact again culturally you have to be aware of what is appropriate or not. Then there is a line that is undivided attention. Then the last symbol is a symbol of the heart. So we have to listen with our eyes, our ears and really deep listening, undivided attention, focused attention and listen out of who we are and are humanity from our heart.
Q: Anything else we should talk about?
A: I think I have said my part, all I need to say today, if you have any other questions I would be glad.
Q: That's it. We got through them all.
Q: Thanks Barry.
A: You are welcome.