Trauma and Violence


Barry Hart

Eastern Mennonite University

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 ???).

Q: Talk a little more, if you would, on 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.