This article explores the importance of collective trauma for conflict transformation by sharing practical examples from peace work in the post-civil war context in Lebanon.
Violent conflicts can traumatise entire communities, leading to shared feelings of mistrust and fear, coupled with rigid narratives of victimhood and the silencing of guilt. These patterns can be passed on from one generation to the next. The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) left many wounds unresolved. This article illustrates some initial attempts at trauma-sensitive conflict transformation by forumZFD in Lebanon.
Collective trauma is a not yet completely accomplished process of learning how to deal with and integrate extreme levels of toxic stress, anxiety and helplessness (Reimann & König, 2018). It may lead people to be stuck in conflict dynamics while simultaneously inflicting violence on themselves and others. Trauma symptoms are often passed on to the next generation through maladaptive parenting patterns or social or genetic transmission, and are then referred to as ‘transgenerational or intergenerational trauma’.
When certain patterns are formed by the traumatised group, they become part of the shared group reality as collective identity markers (see König & Reimann 2018 and blog post), which can hinder healing. Narratives of loss and despair, of guilt and shame, including silencing and taboos, and/or a shared identity of victimhood (ibid.) are common. Shared feelings are dominated by mistrust, insecurity, exaggerated fear and passivity (Becker, 2004). The collective mental models or belief systems are characterised by rigid thinking, scapegoating, prejudices, stereotypes, othering and exclusive norms. These elements promote aggression, a culture of violence and in-group dynamics of polarisation.
Trauma-sensitive peace work contributes to the transformation of these identity markers towards more inclusive worldviews and aims to strengthen the resilience of affected communities and thus promote healthy coping strategies.
Lebanon’s Civil War (1975 – 1990) has left a society of fragmentation and sectarian divides. The end of the war was followed by a collective state-sponsored amnesia for 30 years, which aimed to construct some semblance of normality. However, it primarily numbed rather than dealt with the deeply ingrained wounds of loss, shame and despair. Collective narratives of victimhood were passed on within fragmented communities. The past remains a taboo subject for school history books, and an open public discourse has been silenced to serve in-group interests. Instead, migrants, refugees and foreign powers are scapegoated as the threat to people’s fragile security and the reason for their social and political misery. A language of fear and mistrust gave political parties a platform to manipulate collective needs for safety and security. Recent events – notably the massive nationwide uprising, known as the October Revolution – called these realities and heteronomous identities into question. A divided society where many had remained silent for so long was unified by the call for a root-and-branch transformation of Lebanon’s social and political system.
With its projects on ‘Dealing with the Past’, forumZFD engages people in conversations about the past and contributes to a process of healing collective trauma. Through the ‘Memory of War’ training series, peace activists from various conflicted communities reflected on the recent events of the October Revolution by looking at collective narratives of identity and mindsets influenced by the consequences of the Civil War. The importance of a healthy mourning process was explored to break the deadlock of the mind and body that occurs when trauma goes unaddressed.
Another focus of forumZFD is to encourage communities across divides to mobilise for nonviolent action. Together with its partner, the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, forumZFD supported the establishment of a women’s project, Nisaa Kaderat (Capable Women), with Syrian and Lebanese peace activists. Nisaa Kaderat opened a self-organised community centre that provides a safe space for women of all nationalities and generations in the northern city of Baalbek. It invites women to find shelter and relief from everyday microaggressions against their gender and to practise self-care. Drawing on tools from nonviolent communication, community dialogue and psychosocial support, women meet each other with empathy to transform collective emotions of loneliness, victimhood and shame. The dialogue supports women from different generations to stimulate a transgenerational healing process.
If conflict transformation is sensitive to the psycho-social dynamics of collective trauma, it strengthens resilience on an individual and collective level, for instance, by cultivating strong relational ties. This means working on the transformation of shared narratives of the past and of victim identities, and transforming the image of ‘the other’ as the enemy. This in turn will help to strengthen a sense of self-efficacy, to overcome shared feelings of helplessness and to transform passivity and political apathy into empowerment and agency.