in the Balkans: Ignoring a Potentially Dangerous Situation on the Edge
Charles David Tauber, MD.
Head of Mission, Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace
The situation in eastern Croatia, western Serbia (Vojvodina) and northern Bosnia is getting worse. Unless cogent strategies for recovery, reintegration and further advancement are developed and financed, the area will deteriorate into violence sooner or later.
The Coalition for Work With Psychotrauma and Peace (CWWPP) has been working in the region on psychological trauma, non-violent conflict resolution and reconciliation and the development of civil society since 1995. The CWWPP has developed local capacity through mentoring local groups, by counseling clients as groups and individuals and by intervening in threatening situations.
The author of this article is a physician with experience with asylum seekers and refugees who has served as the Head of Mission of the CWWPP since its inception.
The region in which the CWWPP works comprises eastern Croatia, western Vojvodina (Serbia and Montenegro) and northern Bosnia. Through history, this area has been a meeting point of cultures. Before the 1991-1995 war, there were at least 25 different ethnic groups and at least 10 religions present here. The area is rich agriculturally. Before the war, industry flourished.
Yet, in this paradise, the war began. “Truth” and “history” become relative terms. It is difficult to give a neutral account of what happened and why. What is certain is that forces from above on all sides, through strong use of the media, awakened prejudices that had lain dormant since the end of the Second World War and that had been repressed by the Tito regime. People who had barely realized their ethnicity were reminded of it when they tried to cross checkpoints or when they were fired from their jobs or when physically harassed. Neighbors who had lived together for decades became enemies, and families separated on ethnic lines. People in mixed marriages had to choose for one side or the other.
Inhumane acts were committed on all sides. Today, each side sees itself as the victim. In reality, on all sides there are both victims and perpetrators. Unfortunately, there was only a small amount of resistance to the warlords, as the cultures here teach obedience rather than individual responsibility.
The immediate post-war situation was not much better. The regimes that had controlled the region during the war on all sides remained. Although the large weapons were quiet, the tension continued. The bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, particularly the bombing outside Kosovo itself, encouraged old hatreds.
The current situation on the ground is disastrous. Unemployment is around 90%. There are substantial numbers of mines throughout the area.
However, there are even greater problems. The first is that of politics. Since the beginning of the war, politicians have manipulated the population to their own ends through the media and other methods. One example of this is the use of missing persons. People are invited a number of times to the uncovering of mass graves where they may or may not find their fathers, brothers, husbands, even when there is little chance that the person in question will be found. This incites anger and ethnic division.
Another example is the treatment of veterans. Many veterans have physical and psychological difficulties. How they get their pensions and how they are (not) reintegrated into society has everything to do with politics and little to do with benefit to them. This group is extremely disappointed in society. These feelings are also subject to manipulation. Because most veterans still have substantial quantities of weapons, this is a dangerous group.
The attitudes toward the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) are also manipulated. While current governments more or less cooperate with the ICTY, other forces appeal to nationalism. This is highly dangerous, and triggers strong psychological reactions.
Nationalism is still very
strong and must be reckoned with
within all of
these societies. In the winter of 2002-2003, a pop singer in
Another very strong force in all of these cultures is obedience to and fear of authority. Previous regimes were repressive. Some dissent was tolerated, but both the person who disobeyed and his/her family could be endangered if dissent was too great. Such fears are still strongly present degree. Obedience and “group spirit” were highly propagandized and taken as a common good. There is thus little sense of individual responsibility among most people.
Another related problem is that of initiative. Under the previous regimes, all requirements for existence were provided. There was little reason for initiative. Further, the repression discussed in the last paragraph discouraged it. Thus, non-governmental organizations did not exist until recently, and civil initiative was virtually unknown.
Related to this are attitudes toward work. Under the previous system, people were not dedicated to their work but did it almost as drones. Thus, frequently, quality of work and working habits are poor. The international community, has done nothing to improve this and, in some cases, has worsened the situation.
The war provided traumatic experience to virtually the entire population of the region. There has been the loss of family and friends, property, roles in society and of a way of life. There has been little processing of these losses and little mourning for them. In addition, previous traumas, such as those of World War II, have never been dealt with, and are still in the psychological systems of many people, directly and through transmission from older generations. This leads to depression, anxiety, aggression and other psychological problems, including substance abuse, notably of drugs prescribed by physicians, and domestic violence. There are high levels of suicide.
This also leads to physical health problems such as heart attacks and strokes, gastrointestinal problems, endocrine problems such as diabetes mellitus and thyroid problems and even cancer. There is inadequate professional capacity to deal with these problems and therefore they are handled with drugs, which leads to addiction. Obviously, such mental and physical health problems form barriers to reconciliation and to economic and social recovery.
There seems to be little understanding of these problems at local, national and even international level, and there is little political will to deal with them. Unfortunately, little work on reconciliation has been done in this region. The work that has been done is superficial, and has mostly consisted of short seminars. Again, there seems to be little understanding of the processes at any level and even less will to deal with them in a substantive way.
With a very few exceptions, the NGOs in the region are struggling to survive from month to month. As an example, our organization, which is one of the very few providing psychological counseling and training in the region, at the time of writing (the beginning of August, 2003) has enough money to exist until the beginning of September. This struggle takes NGOs away from other, more important work. Furthermore, most NGOs do not have basic fundraising or office organizational skills.
As has been mentioned, local, national and international authorities seem to have little understanding of the processes involved and of their long-term nature and the depth of the problems. Funding and encouragement has been short-term and superficial. It has led to the disappearance of a large number of NGOs and to constant existential threats to almost all others. The total effect has been stasis and regression of the situation.
Solutions to these problems are not difficult to devise. There must be good needs assessments, and research and evaluation must be integral parts of such programs. As one simple example of how this has not been done, there has been no epidemiology of either mental or physical health.
Further, all members of the community must be actively engaged in discussing their problems and determining their future. Action research would seem to be a tool to accomplish these aims, but has rarely been used. People must be trained to deal with their own problems, that is, peer work groups.
The plan must be integrated, that is, include work on psychology, civil society, non-violent conflict resolution, economics, education and other fields. All levels from grassroots groups to more formal NGOs, both local and international, IGOs and local and national and even foreign governments must be involved in the plan. The plan must work at at least the levels of the individual, the family, the group and the community. The plan and its implementation must be flexible enough to respond to the specific and changing situation in the community. It must be long-term. In areas such as this, five years would seem to be a minimum.
We have referred to the ideas above as the Strategy of Complex Rehabilitation. Strategies such as this one must be adequately financed. If compared to the amounts spent on other, far less effective measures, the costs are not high.
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