A trauma therapist describes the necessity of healing the war-affected youth of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Bosnia-Herzegovina War (1992-1995). Although this seems to have been a long time ago and though most of the visible traces of the war have now been removed, the land and its people are still very shaped by the war. The country’s two main political entities: the Federation and the Republika Srpska often block each other in political decisions. The provisions of the Dayton Agreement, which in 1995 were useful to end the bloody war, now emerge as hindrances.
A system of uncountable administrative units costs a lot of money, and corruption is widespread. The economy is basically nonexistent and one of the biggest problems is very high unemployment (40%). Also, tensions between the ethnic groups are still present. This is very evident, for example, in the education system. Many Bosnian towns have the so-called ‘two schools under one roof’. Children go to school in the same building, but are taught separately by ethnicity. There are separate curricula, and contact between pupils of different ethnicity is not desired. This gives the children of various ethnic groups little opportunity to learn about the others. Their divisions are emphasised over their commonalities. Children are defenseless in their exposure to these manipulations and most of the families are not able to oppose. The children take over the prejudices and devaluations of other ethnic groups in their own thinking.
Many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina also suffer the psychological consequences of war. They have experienced terrible things. Not only the individual, but society as a whole was traumatized by the war, the effects of which are still noticeable today.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional wound. Trauma is the experience or observation of one or more terrifying events in which a person is stuck in the traumatic plier. There is no chance for flight, no chance to fight and there is nobody who can help. This is associated with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The body is on alert and under stress. The brain can no longer work properly. It stores experiences incompletely; not with beginnings and endings but in fragments.
This mechanism helps with survival during threatening situations, but leads to difficulties and problems in everyday life. The images, sensations, feelings and thoughts of the traumatic situation are frozen, so people often remain trapped in the traumatizing experience of violence and loss. The feeling of powerlessness means that they lose control over their lives. Other symptoms may include depression, nightmares, panic attacks, addictive behavior or aggression. These symptoms may also occur for years after the traumatic event. People are caught between the force of oblivion, speechlessness and repetition.
The hope of a peaceful society and reconstruction lies mainly on the children and young people. Children, however, are especially susceptible to traumatic situations. There mechanisms of protection are not fully developed. Even children who were born after the war are indirectly affected by the war and its consequences. They live with their families as refugees in other places. They are orphans or half orphans. Their fathers are veterans or disabled; their parents are victims of civilian war. One or both parents are often unemployed. Because the parents are often traumatized themselves, this leads to a secondary traumatization of the children. The traumas are forwarded to the next generation.
Those who were children during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina are now young adults. Due to the economic situation of the country, they are often unemployed, disoriented, and without prospects. They often have negative attitudes towards other ethnic groups and populations. Politicians who want to preserve their power manipulate traumatized young people who are often helpless against this. In a desperate attempt to overcome the horrible experiences of their young lives, these young people try to find a meaningful interpretation in pseudo-religious nationalism and fundamentalism. Young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina often have a very pessimistic view of the future. Many prefer to leave the country. There is the loss of identity, and loss of confidence in the social environment and other people. Again, these are consequences of traumatic experiences.
What is trauma work in this context?
Trauma work is first of all a process of stabilisation. People need to get access to their own resources, regain control over their lives and feel that they are able to make a difference. The work of the foundation “Wings of Hope Germany”, and the civil society organization "Proges" from Sarajevo, takes place in this context.
Together they work in three different areas: Multi ethnic peace education youth work, reconciliation through vocational training, and psychosocial support for children in schools.
Multi-ethnic peace education youth work
Every summer for 10 years now, a peace camp takes place in the mountains of Bosnia Herzegovina, to which young people come from all over Bosnia. A multi-ethnic youth network has been created from this.
Meanwhile, youth work takes place in three phases:
The youth leaders come from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s different ethnic groups. They want to get involved in overcoming the barriers separating the different groups. They want to search for a way of understanding and reconciliation for their country. They act as multipliers for a multi-ethnic youth work across the country. At the training and preparation, the youth leaders get to know and build trust between each other. They become aware of their own injuries and the resulting prejudices, and are trained in cross cultural, interreligious and communicative competence.
Individual and collective traumata are always connected with the terrible experience of losing control, of being helpless und powerless. In youth work young people experience the confidence that they can make a difference, if they try together.
They see that their apathy may be overcome. The mix of common and practical work, the development of new visions of life in the workshops, the development of new ethical and moral criteria for a successful life as an individual in an intercultural community, the strengthening of physical well-being through life in nature and sport, is equivalent to the concept of building new resources in the individual trauma-centered psychotherapy.
One aim of youth work is to break the chain of trauma passed generation to generation. When people are no longer trapped in the experience of the trauma, they are also able to change perspective. Young people learn to take the suffering of others seriously. They learn that others have a different perspective and that the truth is not black and white. This helps to reduce prejudices. This is indispensible for a peaceful coexistence. Meanwhile, the youth network in all three ethnic groups of young leaders is well established. The peace summer camp has become a symbol of peace, and the local projects prove that our youth leaders are willing to take responsibility to translate their ideas into practice and to act as multipliers.
Reconciliation through vocational training
Vocational Training and professional perspectives are important contributions to overcome the hopelessness of young people. Young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are themselves traumatized have a hard time finding a job in a weak economy. Another problem is that the vocational education system in Bosnia is characterized only by theoretical education. Young people have no chance to get practical experience. This makes it difficult for them to find jobs.
At this point the project "Reconciliation through vocational training" comes into place. Through grants, young people get the chance to gain practical experience working in a company. The grant will also allow the company to qualify young people in difficult economic times. After a 6-12 month training period, apprentices are employed by their companies. During the period of the fellowship, they are assisted by staff from Wings of Hope if problems or questions come up.
This work not only affects the youth at the individual level, but also has social implications. The selection process for apprentices has the important goal of bringing together different ethnic groups. For example, Bosnian apprentices will work for a company owned by a Croatian entrepreneur. This promotes the coexistence of ethnic groups. The business owners and local institutions are also encouraged to be active in difficult times.
Psychosocial support for children in schools
In schools, traumatized children and adolescents have problems of lack of attention and difficulty in concentration. They seem uninterested and therefore often perform poorly. They are often aggressive or withdrawn. This leads to punishment and exclusion, which intensify the symptoms. To break this vicious cycle Wings of Hope and Proges are working in schools. Children who show the symptoms described are brought together in groups that meet outside of class once a week. For children who have the above-mentioned difficulties, it is important to have a safe place where they can spend their time without fear and pressure. Wings of Hope and Proges offer workshops which are a safe place where children can get acquainted with their peers and talk about their difficulties; a place where they receive explanations about trauma, learn that some of their reactions are normal reactions to abnormal situations, and learn techniques on how they can better deal with their stress. The children also get support and positive feedback. The aim of the groups is to foster stabilisation. This includes creative methods like music, art, and drama workshops. The more possibilities the children are given to express themselves with, the more stress coping strategies they have.
And last but not least, there is an effect of reconciliation. The children in the groups come from different ethnicities. They are getting contact with each other and learn that they have a lot in common.
Trauma work is not only psychotherapy. Trauma work is also stabilisation through education, practical work, and psychoeducation. Trauma work in a post war situation needs time. The people in Bosnia-Herzegovina are remembering what happened 20 years ago. The war influenced their lives and their whole country. It is important for the future of the country that the Bosnian youth regain confidence in the social community, their own abilities, and their own future.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.