Trauma in a time of conflict
by Melanie McDonagh
Review of Then They Started Shooting by Lynne Jones, Harvard University Press 2005, £18.95
Most of us nowadays talk about catastrophic or tragic events as ‘traumatic’; most of us blindly accept post-traumatic stress disorder as an affliction as objective as measles; most of us unhesitatingly expect that after any disturbing event, counsellors will be sent in to allow the witnesses or participants to unload their experiences with professionals, and most of us believe that anyone who does ventilate their awful experiences with experts will be the better for it. Most of us do not know what we're talking about.
Lynne Jones's book about the experiences of children in Bosnia during the war is grounded in that grim conflict, but it has fascinating implications for the way we think about children and the way they react to crises. It offers an unusual and telling insight into the politics of the war, but it has important lessons about human tenacity and vulnerability even for people who don't have much idea about the former Yugoslavia. What her work tells us is that children are more resilient in some ways than we might have thought. It is possible, despite modern assumptions about mass trauma, for a child to go through a brutal war and to emerge psychologically almost unscathed. This is not in the least to minimize the horrors of shelling, siege and hunger. It is, rather, to see things from the child's perspective, and to acknowledge that what matters to children is not quite what we think matters. This study, in fact, conveys a curiously uplifting insight into human nature. The author is a distinguished child psychologist who witnessed the wars in the former Yugoslavia at first hand; I myself saw her at work in Kosovo.
For this study, she spent two years after the end of the war in Bosnia in two towns, Goražde and Foča, and returned to them in 2002. Goražde was a town which had been mixed before the war, but whose majority population was Muslim and which throughout the conflict was under siege by Bosnian Serb forces - most Serbs left before the fighting started. Foča was a town that had been mixed, but whose Muslim population was almost entirely ethnically cleansed at the start of the conflict. The interviews with the Muslim children of Goražde and the Serbian children of Foča are the focus of the book. Some of the experiences of the conflict recounted in particular by the Muslim children are harrowing, but this is not a book about war, but how children respond to it.
And one of the things that matters most to children is the attitudes of those around them. This conclusion, was, as the author points out, anticipated during the Blitz, when some children who lived through the bombings were found to be remarkably psychologically healthy, against all the odds, so long as their parents, neighbours and friends were positive and robust in adversity. What mattered much more to the children in the Bosnian war, like those in the Blitz, was whether they were separated from their parents, and whether someone close to them had been killed or injured in the war. Such losses accompany war, but are not an inevitable consequence of it. As the author puts it: ‘Children are not the passive recipients of experience. They are actively engaged in it, from an early age. They gather meanings from what is around them, first from their parents or caretakers and then from the world beyond - friends, school, community - as well as from their own previous experiences.’
Another sobering reality is that when it came to psychological disturbance, family conflict affected some children far worse than the war itself. For one young girl, the war was a welcome means of offloading her brutal father onto the front line; for another, the worst thing that happened in the war was to come back home with her mother to find that her father had fallen for another woman.
But the study reveals more curious aspects to children's experience. The Muslim children of Goražde had, by any reckoning, undergone a far worse experience during four years of shelling than had the Serbian children, whose most frightening experience, by and large, was the NATO bombing of the bridge in the town. (The author acknowledges without hesitation that bad things happened to Serbs at the hands of Bosnian Muslims, but she has, rightly, no patience with the notion of symmetry in the suffering inflicted and endured by the two sides.) Yet, according to her findings, equal numbers of children on both sides felt unwell after the war. The reasons are complex, but one may be that Muslim children felt better able to give meaning to their experiences during the war. As for the young Serbs, the less they examined the reasons for the conflict, the healthier they were psychologically. It is an uncomfortable conclusion.
And, despite the received wisdom, emanating from the UN down, that the more counselling children receive in such situations the better, none of the children she interviewed wanted psychiatric help. Indeed, she wryly recounts how one profoundly troubled boy from Goražde was cured of his war-related fears by a traditional healer, an old woman who melted metal over fire and cast it into water, declared that it represented his terrors, got the boy to drink some of the water, said prayers over his head and cast the metal away. And you know what? It worked. ‘At no point’, she says, ‘did his therapy involve any discussion of what had caused the fear.’ Makes you think, doesn't it?
This review appeared in The Tablet (London), 11 February 2006