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Healing as Peace Work by Cecelia Yocum
When I first heard the idea of a trauma healing center as part of the Kamenge Project, I had a number of questions about how this center would fit into our definition of peace work. The traditional model of peace team work has been to help prevent conflict, help to resolve an issue during a conflict or help to maintain the safety of people during a conflict.
Yet, trauma healing obviously occurs after a conflict is supposedly over. Most people agree that trauma, such as war and genocide, deeply affect the quality of life of survivors. Obviously there is a profound loss of family, friends, one’s home and the whole societal structure. In addition, as a psychologist, I also knew that people who have suffered trauma may experience a variety of stress-related problems. These may include depression, intrusive thoughts about the trauma, feelings of lack of safety and vulnerability, hypervigilance, numbness of emotions, anxiety, grief and disorientation. These symptoms may last a few days to many years or a lifetime, depending on the person and the circumstances of the traum.
It also followed that people undergoing these kinds of stresses would have difficulty rebuilding their lives and communities and would be vulnerable to further conflict. Psychologists sometimes refer to people who have suffered severe trauma as “frozen in time” because they are immobilized from moving forward with their lives. I could definitely see how healing would help people to move on with their lives.
Two particularly helpful articles on this subject were published in the journal of the Peace Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. Straub (1999) and Errante (1999) both describe how healing trauma can also act to prevent further trauma since it helps to restore the social bonds that were destroyed during a conflict. When traumatized, people often feel isolated and split off from others. Trauma healing work helps them feel reconnected with the social groups they had before the conflict—where most people have their sense of identity.
Trauma work is difficult in places such as Rwanda, where Straub noted that many groups are geographically intertwined. People can not walk in their communities pretending that the “enemy” lives in another country. Therefore, reconciliation is necessary since people who were “on the other side” will be living in the same community. Before people can be open to any type of reconciliation, there must be healing or people will not be able to participate in the hard work of reconciliation.
Straub also believes that one avenue of healing is having the world acknowledge pain and suffering. In most conflicts this is rare or happens many years later. This is a place where international involvement can be particularly helpful by bearing witness to and acknowledging the pain from outside.
In situations such as war and genocide, people have gone through the trauma as a group even though they have different experiences of what happened to them personally. Straub believes that in this type of situation, group and community work is necessary in addition to individual healing. Groups offer the opportunity to share their experiences and offer support. More research is needed into what types of groups are particularly effective in various cultural situations. For example, some cultures may need certain kinds of rituals or ceremonies for people to heal and certain activities may help or hinder others. There does appear to be a growing consensus, however, that group and community work, rather than just individual therapy, is what is needed.
At this point, the Friends Peace Team Project has decided to go ahead with the idea of helping the Burundi Yearly Meeting to establish a Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Center and we see the connection between trauma healing work and peace team work as very important. With the continuing violence, it is clear that the conflicts there are not over and the need is great. We see daily reminders of how old wounds in other countries have erupted in war. We are reminded that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation. We hope that the work we all do together can make a difference in the lives of people who have suffered greatly and that it will aid in preventing further violence.
A. Errante, “Peace Work as Grief Work in Mozambique and South Africa: Postconflict Communities a Context for Child and Youth Socialization” in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 5 (1999): 261-279.
E. Straub, “The Origins and Prevention of Genocide, Mass Killing, and Other Collective Violence” in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 5 (1999): 303-336.