President and Founder of Peace-Tech
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: Here is another one in terms of self-reflectivity. People in this field who are working internationally are working in war zones, they are working with traumatized people, they are working with heavily traumatized situations, and they wont talk to each other about how it effects them, especially the men. They perpetuate that culture of denial. You see this in the development world. You have people working in emergencies, who go from Somalia to Rwanda to Bosnia, one trauma to another. We have had people report, "My primary local staff were chopped up and left on the door step of our office. I had to step over them to go to the next emergency." We are not allowed to talk about it, it shows weakness; you have to just move into the next crisis. It is not that bad in the peacebuilding field, but it is still not a general topic of conversation. It is the women that talk about it if any one, I don't know what people are doing with their feelings?
Q: Suppressing them.
A: How helpful is that?
Q: Not at all. I have read stories about relief workers who indeed get traumatized. Some people talk about it. Mohamed Abu-Nimer talks about it. When you go in a situation where there is a deep-rooted conflict and people have such deep seeded hatred for each other that it can be hard on the intervener. He did not have any good solutions about how to deal with that but he said that you had to be careful, that you have to take care of yourself.
A: You do have to take care of yourself and there are ways to do it. First of all have colleagues or friends that you can talk to, and I recommend colleagues to debrief, because when you come back from a war zone. This happened to me to even though ten years ago I wrote that you had to do this, I wrote an article called "Peacemakers in a War Zone". I wrote specifically about this, I laid about a whole scenario about how you could take care of yourself. I didn't do it. I would come home from one place and get ready to go to another place. Again that self-reflection, do you have an inner practice, whether it is a spiritual practice, or an emotional practice, where you can release the pain. Where you can go through the suffering. People ask me all the time, "How can you get up in the morning and go to yet another place where people are killing each other and hating each other with the virulence, the horrendousness of it all?"
My answer is that you have to let your heart break over and over again. If you go and you close your heart to it and say, "I have to close my heart in order to be here." What you have done is you have pushed away the reality. It is like trying to damn up a swiftly flowing river, the damn can only hold so much, and the damn will break or the water will find a way around. I say you have to be fully present, and that means your heart breaks, that means weep, or feel the pain, whether you do it through tears or not, everyone has a different way. Keep your heart open to this suffering, feel the empathy, feel the compassion, and let that open you to greater powers of compassion. The more you close yourself off and say I am not going to deal with that I am not going to relate, you are actually hardening your heart. You are making yourself less available to the people, because guess what? They are in it. If you as a peace builder can't be fully present then you are really not able to help.