I mean, I sometimes give the image of life being like a river: the river flows, something terrible happens in our lives, and our lives become like whirlpools, and we live our lives in terms of that particular reality, the horrible identity of what happened, and when healing begins is when the river begins to flow. It is no longer a whirlpool. You know there is all this language that people use about moving on, which I think in some ways is quite unhelpful. Because it is about—how can we integrate the experiences we had? And to use other images, how can the wounds heal? The scars are still there, but are the scars bleeding, or are the scars healed? But the scars are still part of the new person. The scars haven’t disappeared. And lots of my own reflections on this stuff apply to individuals, apply to communities, apply to nations. So it is at that individual level but it is also true in the psyche of nations.

Fr. Michael Lapsley, South Africa


INTRODUCTION

“Life is a beautiful struggle,” says Talib Kweli. “People search through the rubble for a suitable hustle.” After massive trauma, everyone makes her own path to survive, finds his own way to sift through the remains and begin to rebuild.

Fr. Michael Lapsley’s words above beautifully illustrate the complexity and continuity of life after conflict. While the idea of “bouncing back” is seductive, for many people there is no return to life as it was before conflict. The river, constantly moving and changing, is a far more apt metaphor for the complexity of life before, during, and after conflict. The future—and the possible rapids and floods that might come—are not known. Conflict changes the course and the nature of people’s trajectories. Yet life continues.

Sometimes past pain floods over people, leaving them completely immersed. When this occurs, pain is not compartmentalized into neat divisions between the physical and psychological. People turn to a variety of coping mechanisms to help them weather the storms. Some of these mechanisms (like dependency on addictive substances) negatively affect people’s health or relationships. In other cases it is the strengthening or re-making of relationships with friends, family, and faith that provide the foundation for people’s survival.

Whether people just get by or manage more, whether they survive or thrive, depends upon the person (and maybe even the day).

Yet no one makes it through alone. Respondents frequently mentioned family, neighbors, friends, victim groups, churches, and other organizations that helped them through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. Others often noted the lack of such support, particularly when it came to counseling.


1) I controlled every tear. On his behalf I performed as many meritorious deeds as I was able to. I have other children. I need to live for them. But when I remember him—from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I experience a burning sensation. I have also problems in my chest with that sensation. However much I try to laugh, my strength is not sufficient to control that sorrow. At that time the nerve pain in the neck and head is unbearable.

 —From Sri Lanka

 

Now I am a patient who is mentally affected and attending a regular clinic and under medication. I am consuming 24, 18, and 16 tablets per day for gastric pressure and mental disorder. I have to take tablets almost everyday and you can now understand my plight.

—From Sri Lanka


2) No matter how much compensation you get it never—it helps you, it helps you financially, but it doesn’t bring them back. You would rather have them back home again than all the money in the world.

 —From Northern Ireland

 

I remember one time during the troubles. It was after the deaths [of my husband and son] in fact. I took my mother and my younger half-sister over to Scotland for a week. And we went through Stranraer one day and somebody closed a van door. Well, look, I thought that it had been a bomb going off or somebody had been shot. You know. But I said to myself, you are in Scotland now; you are not in Northern Ireland. It really frightened me. But then I realised what it was.

 —From Northern Ireland

 

When you are bereaved it is very final.

Q: Do you think that there is any emotion or something that all victims experience?

A: I would say so.

Q: And what would that be do you think?

A: First of all, for me, it is a lonely life. Nobody to go out with the same.

Q: Anger and frustration or not so much?

A: Ach there is no point.

—From Northern Ireland

 


3) It is a blackness. To me it feels like a virus in my system that I cannot shake off. It is something every day I get up with. It is never far from my thoughts and it is never far from my feelings.

 —From Northern Ireland

 

 

I took a lot of drink. I was a heavy smoker. I suppose that is all stress-related. At one particular stage I would have been smoking sixty cigarettes a day. If you have any contact with the army, no matter what anyone says, alcohol plays a large part in the social life of it. And sometimes as a crutch.

 —From Northern Ireland

 

 

[The respondent is recounting how he came to be paralysed.]

Q: Where they in the room with you?

A: The only was the baby. The baby’s head was missed by inches. That’s [my daughter]. [My son] is in the hall, unknown to me until later he kicked one of them. So he is a gamester, too. He was seven and he kicked one of them and they pushed him out of the road. And [my other family member] was just on the stairs and froze.

And the second one that got me—literally as I put the bar in, if you can imagine somebody lying with their weight against the door. You put the bar in, but before I could dive to the floor, he had fired through the door and the bullet went in through the shoulder, down, broke up nine ribs and stopped at the spine.

But it was like the movies. It lifted me. I remember going up in the air in slow motion. You know like if you were in a car crash and you see everything in slow motion. I remember this feeling of—wow, my body. As I say a big man, just woof, up into the air in slow motion. And there was a hearth, just like that hearth. And my head went to hit it, and I remember [my wife] putting her hand under it to stop my head. Amazing the detail in that slowed-down second. Her hand stopped my head cracking against the curb. And the next thing, I tried to crawl and I couldn’t move. And then everything was just noise and I faded out.

Apparently, [my wife] says I had told her to phone the priest. And phone my father and warn him that I was not dead, but alive, because I knew he had a dodgy ticker.

But I just wanted to not let it pass. One thing about my wife’s health. To me I am a survivor. I have dealt with what happened to me, the cards that were dealt to me. My poor wife never dealt with the cards she was dealt. She never forgave herself for opening the door that night. Never. Now over time she ended up in the psychiatric unit of the [hospital]. She came [out] of that, she took to alcohol and drank herself into stupors. And every time she got drunk I would hear the same thing: “I shouldn’t have opened the door, I shouldn’t have opened the door.” She died at fifty-one, four years ago. Poor health related to her over-drinking. She was never the same woman again. It ruined her life. And that saddens me more than what happened to me. It really does. She was a beautiful, vibrant young woman, destroyed.

 —From Northern Ireland[/expand]


4) In my body, since most of the left organs are damaged, I have severe problems. I found it difficult to answer the nature calls independently. I need a separate place and particularly a commode and I can’t use flat [regular] toilets. If I am traveling I have to decide whether the place I am going has a commode facilities and therefore I avoid most of the traveling. I cannot attend to my work independently sometimes. I can’t travel in the buses as others do because we have no way of getting the wheelchair on the bus. If I want to hire a three-wheeler, I have to look for a wheeler that has a carrier on the top where I can put my wheelchair and then unload. If I want to go to a bank where we can’t climb steps and steps are not sloped…in these instances we have to heavily rely on people and ask for help to push the wheeler and this is uneasy at times. So I avoid going outside of my house and I get the help from the other people to do my work most of the time. So my everyday life is a challenge and I am struggling a lot to manage by myself. It is said that all government departments and institutes should make their steps sloped where people can use wheelchairs and find it easy to come in, but I don’t think it will work 100 percent.

 —From Sri Lanka


5) And we had volunteer support from psychiatrists and psychologists who offered their energies. When we came across very, very severely damaged people, we could refer them. That was a fraction of the number. We realised that the country didn’t in fact have the resources to deal with all these damaged people. I remember saying to someone in a small town, “You really need to get some help.” And they said, “The nearest facility is 200 kilometers away. There is no way that this is a possibility.”

—From South Africa

 

And in 1998 I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought at the time it was out of the blue, but obviously it wasn’t out of the blue. It was kind of a build-up of trauma and stress over many yeas. And it evolved over many years. The battle was supposed to be over, and now the new constitution, we were supposed to be this rainbow nation, or whatever other constructions we had made for ourselves. But yes, then I had this three- or four-month episode of really plunging to really quite a deep, deep depression. So I saw a psychiatrist and I read quite extensively about this condition and I started speaking about things that before I had never spoken about. Partly I think because we had a culture of you “don’t talk about your experiences as an individual because this is a collective struggle, and other people have suffered more, a lot of other people have died, a lot of people have lost their families,” so there was a tendency not to speak about your own experiences. But during that period I started to unpack a lot of things that happened.

—From South Africa

 

When I got out of prison I was one of the fortunate people that went immediately for counseling. So it was very intense sessions that we had, to deal with what happened with you, and how to deal with it, and all that. So when I was reintegrated into…I didn’t immediately go home, the ANC still had me and said no, you have been in prison, now we have to repair you. To be reintegrated into the broader community. So I had to stay in Cape Town for a while. So when I got home I could really interact with people and have discussions with them and things like that. Because there are some comrades that weren’t so fortunate. They didn’t have the counseling and all that. And you can still see it today in the men and how they are behaving: they can’t hold down their relationships, or, even if they are married, the household, or anything like that. They just neglect everything—the person itself and everything. I think that’s my personal perception, that we failed some of our comrades.

—From South Africa


6) What I have learned during war has really helped me a lot to shape my entire life and has sustained me to grow spiritually. My life was shaped by problems and sorrows and I never thought about them as failures or problems and I learned from them. When I was a student in hostel, when I was punished for what I had not done, I never took them as punishment or sorrow but took them as a warning and made myself aware that I shouldn’t commit that in my life. The above-mentioned concept helped me a lot as a person later in my life; I am able to tackle problems very easily. I had problems and sorrows in my life. As far as my family life is concerned I met with a lot of losses since my childhood. People used to question me: how was I happy having and facing all those problems and losses in life? I used to reply saying it was and it is God’s work. I often tell my sisters and other people that if I am living a happy and good life with God, that is simply because of the problems that I faced in my entire life. Above all, God is meeting me via problems and sorrows by which I am growing each and every day with God. I thank God for giving me opportunities that shaped my life as a nun and as a true human being.

—From Sri Lanka


7) I really want to write my mother’s story. Which of course is my story. For the simple reason that despite all the victim consciousness that we do have, people have survived and they have survived horrendous things.

—From South Africa


8) With the end of war at every level there is the possibility of living securely with confidence. For example, we had a habit of the whole village gathering at a funeral house to keep vigil at night. But during the war we could not do that because we had to reluctantly go into hiding at night, leaving the mourning family with the dead body. Today there is no such thing. We together celebrate the weddings and funerals.

—From Sri Lanka


9) The group? I says, no, I am not going up there because I will only be crying. And their words were, “Well then we will cry with you. And when you are ready to laugh, we will laugh with you.” And they kept that up. And when I did break down and cry, they said, right, they might have cried, too, for me, for me. They were a great part of me coming to terms with death.

—From Northern Ireland

 

The churches were absolutely rubbish. Politicians were absolutely crap. They didn’t want to know throughout the feud. And that’s why we are sitting here doing this because that is when [our group] was born. It was a group of women who came together. As I said before there were 300 families displaced. Statutory bodies didn’t want to know, churches didn’t want to know. You had families that were staying maybe a dozen or more in one-bedroom flats. People even moved down to stay in caravans to try and be safe…. That’s where they felt they were safe. Well, that is where [this support group was] formed. A group of women got together to try and help each other. Nobody else was helping. There were families living in cramped conditions, so a group of women got together and decided that they would have to help themselves.

 

Q: Did that create a sense of loneliness? Being left alone with it all?

 

A: It created a bond among a group of people that would’ve never known each other. The…feud was terrible. Seven people lost their lives. Seven people were murdered…but these women got together and it created a bond. Now some of them have all gone their own way, but there is still a closeness to them. There is about a dozen and a half here and they have a really close bond. It created an effect in that way, where complete and utter strangers came together and formed a very, very strong bond with each other.

 

Q: Did that maybe give them back power and self-control?

 

A: I think it gave them a purpose. Whereas before when the feud was kicking off and people were being murdered, obviously there was fear. You were scared to go out the door. But once they sort of decided that something had to be done and they were going to do it…. The bond that was created between those women was absolutely incredible, fantastic. Complete and utter strangers came together as one big group and they fought and fought for to get everybody new homes, the right benefits, and all that they would need.

 —From Northern Ireland[/expand]


Peace is not a state where there is no struggle. There could be a struggle in peace, like there could be pain in love. We experience love through pain. Hence when we speak of peace, if we could live with social justice and spirituality in the human world, and in that if we could experience healing, then it is peace. There could be a struggle in it, but if there is no psychological and spiritual healing, even with the struggle, there is no peace. That is the truth.

—From Sri Lanka