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    A legacy of war

    August 13, 2019

    A legacy of war is the title of a piece written and published recently for the BBC by Mark Urban. In 2007 the BBC’s Mark Urban was “embedded” with a platoon of soldiers in one of Baghdad’s most violent areas. Ten years later he tracked down four of the men from the unit. What effect did the war have on them? Similarly Groundviews gave links to a piece titled, ‘Traces of War on Their Bodies’ a translation of a photo essay produced by Maatram’s editor, Selvaraja Rajasegar of several survivors in Sri Lanka. Finally, Prof. David Ratnavale had written on Societal Trauma, Collective Mental Health and Community reconciliation. All of these facets have relevance to understanding what wars do to people and countries.
    Traumatized by war
    In late 2007 and 2008 there were a string of murders in Fort Carson by soldiers who had returned from Iraq. There were also a large number of incidents involving drink, drugs, and attempted self-An army study was published in 2012 in the journal Military Medicine. It noted “a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioural outcomes”. In layman’s terms, they had been asked to put up with too much for too long.
    “My original position was PTSD: you know it’s not real,” Dorian Perez says, as he sits in a Virginia hotel.
    After he’d left the army in 2012, and been to college in North Carolina to study agriculture, he started noticing other symptoms. He couldn’t sleep unless he had a loaded pistol under his pillow. “My comfort,” he calls it.If Dorian woke, sometimes after just a couple of hours’ sleep, that would be it for the night. By the time he’d graduated he had taken to hiding guns in different places in his apartment, just in case. They were needed, he says, for him to hold on to - “my sense of safety”.
    He calls this friend “the hardest man I know, the warrior’s warrior”. For six years after coming home, this man had slept in a different bed to his wife in fear that he might strangle her in his sleep.All of the soldiers speak with some care on this topic, for fear of re-opening old wounds. Looking back on it, Dorian realises he had just been too fixated with getting through the tour to understand what was going on at home. “She realised that she no longer had those feelings for me, and I remember that put me into a bad spot.” He’s still single, and jokingly compares dating to, “looking for an IED”.
    You will search in vain for definitive statistics about the fate of US military marriages but some surveys exist. One suggested that non-commissioned officers in the military had the highest divorce rate of any occupation, with 30% of marriages ending by the time they reach 30. Another found that long deployments significantly boosted the chance of breakup.

    For soldiers coming home, there are questions about opening up to spouses, other family members and friends. And this hints at a deep division between those who served, often in extreme jeopardy, and the vast majority of the population.Societal trauma, collective mental health and community reconciliation
    When disasters strike, individuals and the societies in which they live will experience various forms of stress reactions both mental and physical.People who have been psychologically traumatized are known to run a spectrum of reactions from denying the emotional consequences, to living in constant dread of re-exposure.
    Whereas everybody understands why war and violent communal conflict is traumatic to the individuals involved, the concept of a traumatized society remains poorly defined.This is partly due to the fact that the consequences of collective trauma are variously interpreted and the signs or symptoms harder to measure. Besides, the underlying psychological processes affecting societies under stress or in transition are inevitably intertwined with unstable political, military and economic forces. In wars each side aims to traumatize the enemy collectively.
    When mental health activities gain attention in international peace building and post-conflict reconciliation interventions, the tendency has been to focus on therapies for the traumatized individuals in addition perhaps to vaguely defined psychosocial programmes. Although individualized interventions are clearly beneficial, attention to the enormous number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or syndromic variants go untreated, for want to early detection, adequate remedies and appropriately trained professionals.
    Unrecognized and untreated, distressed individuals exert an added stress upon the community which in turn constrains the community’s capacity to support and contain its distressed members. A vicious cycle develops consisting of alternating exacerbations and remissions very similar to a chronic illness. Quite apart from the mental and psychosomatic implications, the losses from under-employment, disability, the harmful behaviors of crime, family breakup and addiction exert a heavy economic toll.
    Failure to address the consequences of collective trauma has prevented a serious examination of the multiple influences bearing upon communities under stress. In addition, subtle yet pervasive forces tend to impede effective relief, reconstruction and reconciliation. Furthermore, strategies aimed at primary prevention tend to be ignored or overlooked.
    Societal trauma must therefore be examined under different lenses and in proper context.
    Traces of War on their bodies
    Many of the people who were affected by war in the North and East of Sri Lanka continue to live with the metal shrapnel from deadly weapons lodged in their bodies. They live with daily pain, humiliation, and frustration. Here are excerpts of their stories. * Ravi says the shrapnel causes him unbearable pain whenever he prays, but due to the poverty he lives in, he is unable to have it removed.
    * Sixteen-year-old Akalvizhi says that the doctor advised her that removing the metal shrapnel from her body could be life threatening. She was injured in March 2009 in Puthumathalan. She was 6-years-old at that time. The piece of shrapnel had gone through the back of her head, and the area near her ear was swollen. On some days she has two or three fits a day, and on some days she does not get them at all.
    * I feel immense pain because of the piece of shrapnel lodged in my left shoulder. I showed it to the hospital. On checking the X-Ray, they said they cannot remove it. They say that my hand will be numb, or even paralysed, if they remove it. On some occasions when I feel pain in my shoulder, my arm becomes numb and I cannot move it at all. It is my wife who helps to bring it back to normal, by applying oil and massaging it. It does not happen all the time, but when it does, I need someone to help me.
    * While in the camp for the displaced, I informed the CID of the fact that I fought for the LTTE. Suddenly, someone claiming to be from the TID came to question me further. They took me with them saying that I will be allowed to come back in one day. They only allowed me to leave after four years. Those four years were torture for me. My white shirt was completely soaked in blood. I brought that shirt back. There would be black bruises near my chest. He would stab me with a pen while interrogating me. I don’t have nails in two of my toes. He stepped on my bare feet with his shoe while I stood on a cement floor. I don’t know whether what’s happening to me now is because of all this.

    * They say that if I was talking to you in the sun, I would be talking differently. I don’t know. A lot of people have told me this. I go to the lake, to fish, at 6 in the evening and return by 5 in the morning. I will have to rest in bed for two weeks if I get really wet in the rain, as my head feels heavy. I don’t go out as it would bring other complications. Therefore, I don’t go out anywhere. I only go to the lake and then head back home.

    * I was injured in Mullivaikkal when we were displaced in 2009, when a piece of shrapnel from a shell pierced through my spine. We could not do any treatment for one week as we were constantly on the move. I could not walk for three months, my wife and sister used to carry me everywhere I have been inside the house for three years. Either my wife or my sister has to help me, as I cannot do anything on my own. How many days can I stay like this?

    * March 6, 2009. I still remember. How can I forget the day that my daughter went to be with God, right in front of my eyes? My entire body trembles whenever I think of that day. Suddenly, we hear a very loud noise. I felt something on my feet. I could hear the cries of people ahead of me, but I could not stand up. I was worried because my daughter was walking at the front. I dragged my injured leg and crawled forward between the people, and there I saw her, lying motionless. I knew at that moment that she had gone to be with God. She was the only daughter I had. The pain in my leg from the wound remains to this day, just as the pain in my heart. I never knew there was a piece of shrapnel lodged in my limb - the pain has only been there for the past year. I went to the Jaffna hospital on my husband’s insistence. The X-ray showed one big piece of shrapnel, and about five to six small shards. The doctors said these cannot be removed as they are lodged inside my bones.


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