By Max Ediger
Even when violent conflicts come to an end, the pain caused can linger on for years in the form of trauma. Trauma is an emotional response to distressing events caused by the conflict which does not go away and results in unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms such as headache and nausea. For victims of violent conflicts, healing is essential if they are to move on with their lives.
In Asia, violent conflicts have broken out in many regions and countries resulting in tremendous suffering to thousands of people. Cambodia, Burma, Mindanao, Papua and Sri Lanka are just a few examples. Even though there has been progress in ending the violence in some of these countries, the victims of the wars still live with the mental and physical wounds that have been inflicted on them.
Is there hope that healing can take place so they can again feel a sense of security and peace?
“Whatever it may be, whatever has been broken or lost, can only be repaired and found again by telling the story of what happened. Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Mpho Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa says yes. In a book called “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, “ which Archbishop Tutu penned together with his daughter Reverend Mpho Tutu, some suggestions for healing to take place are presented. They write, “Whatever it may be, whatever has been broken or lost, can only be repaired and found again by telling the story of what happened. Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed.” As long as the story is kept hidden deep within our souls, the open wound will never truly heal.
However, it is not easy for some people to tell their stories. In some situations, like in the case of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the line between victim and perpetrator is blurry. It is too personal, too emotional, too shameful sometimes to share. To whom can these people safely share? Who will understand them and allow them to speak freely and without judgement? Will there be a space to tell their stories to the perpetrators of the violence and ask for their repentance? Will there be a place for perpetrators to seek and be granted forgiveness?
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to provide the opportunity for victim and perpetrator to meet. In many cases, stories were shared and heard, repentance stated and forgiveness given. This was a great step forward in the healing process.
One of the fears many people have is that as the violent conflict comes to an end, they will be simply told to forget the past and move forward. It sounds simple, but to those experiencing the symptoms of trauma, whether they contributed to the conflict or were hurt by it, these words provide no relief or hope.
The causalities of the conflicts in Cambodia, Burma, Mindanao, Sri Lanka and Papua cannot forget the past. Yet, in most cases, there is little or no talk about establishing a process similar to South Africa’s TRC to help with heal the deep wounds the conflicts have created. What future can the victims of the violence — and even the perpetrators — look forward to?
We can help in a small way by providing both victims and perpetrators a safe place to start telling their stories. A safe place requires that we listen deeply without judgement, without advice and with the capacity to empathize. This is not the complete answer, but it will be a start. If we can listen deeply, not only will they have opportunity to begin their healing process, but perhaps we will also be transformed and then we can begin to transform the world. Victims and perpetrators of violent conflict thus become our teachers and our guides for building a world of justpeace.