When wounds are passed on - Insights from the Lebanese context

18.05.2020

Miriam Modalal and Dalilah Reuben-Shemia

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[1] in Lebanon. 

How trauma is passed on

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

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[2] – 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.

Peace work that responds to trauma 

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.

 


[1] forumZFD is an international non-governmental organisation (INGO), established in 1996, which works in the field of conflict transformation in Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia. It has been active in Lebanon since 2009 and is committed to working with various civil society actors "towards the acceptance and understanding of ‘the other’ and their needs” in accordance with its vision statement (forumZFD, 2020).

[2] On 17 October  2019, protests erupted and spread all across the country after the government announced new taxes on Internet voice calls (e.g. via WhatsApp). Protesters called for an end to corruption, clientelism and lack of accountability. The October Revolution led to the collapse of the government. The country has been on the brink of financial bankruptcy for several months.

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Authors

Miriam Modalal and Dalilah Reuben-Shemia researched as peace and conflict consultants for forumZFD in the Middle East about the effects of collective and transgenerational trauma on conflict dynamics. With their research, Ms Modalal and Ms Reuben-Shemia have initiated a discussion on trauma-sensitive conflict transformation within the organization.

Issue: Trauma

Exposure to trauma and bereavement is common in conflict-affected regions. It affects indivduals and whole societies. Enjoying peace after the crisis is often impossible. How helpful is trauma resolution to the prevention of future conflicts? Who does trauma therapy address? Are there best-practice examples in post-crisis countries?

Guest moderator

Cordula Reimann, from core

For many organisations working in development and peacebuilding, trauma prevention and trauma sensitivity have become important guiding principles of their work in general and their specific activities on Dealing with the Past in particular.

In this edition of the FriEnt blog, we could win academic scholars and practitioners to reflect on their analytical concepts and practical experiences around trauma work and why this concept is relevant for successful dealing with the past processes and how it can be translated and applied in the actual peacebuilding practice. Trauma work refers here to all pro-active approaches and strategies to address and transform the destructive dynamics and consequences of trauma and traumatization on both an individual and a collective level.