I'm a psychologist and writer based in The Netherlands. I'm currently posting excerpts from my forthcoming book, "War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience" to be published by Larson Publications on October 2016.
Ten years old, a Syrian boy approached me In his tented world of pain Announced with pride “I am the poet of the camp.” His parents, lit with smiles of delight Stood nearby as he recited Words I could not comprehend I could only see and understand that all the Shells barrel bombs bullets death
Had not extinguished nor even dampened
The bright and hopeful child before me.
Ken Miller vividly describes the sights, smells and sounds of each country so that readers feel that they are walking alongside him, from the jungles of Mexico to the dusty streets of Afghanistan. He explores not only the inhumanity of war, but also the ways in which humanity emerges “like flowers breaking through concrete”, vulnerable, resistive and emboldened. The reader is truly drawn in…
–Leslie Snider, MD, Intervention Journal
In evocative and powerful prose, Ken Miller captures the remarkable human capacity for resilience in the face of great adversity. He also writes with compassion about the lasting damage that war has on the human heart and mind, when the limits of resilience have been surpassed.
–James Garbarino, Loyola University Chicago, author of No Place to be a Child: Growing up in a War Zone and Children and the Dark Side of Human Experience
You could find no better guide than Ken Miller to illuminate this dark territory. A skilled storyteller, he has an eye for nuance that is often missing in our cultural conversation about PTSD. There is great suffering in the aftermath of unthinkable events but there is also bravery and courage that reveal what is best about humanity. I put down this book with a heart that was broken but also filled with hope. -Ethan Watters, Author of Crazy Like Us and Co-founder, San Francisco Writers Grotto
The courage and resilience on display in these eye-opening and heart-wrenching accounts is matched only by Miller’s brave and unflinching resolve to spend his life working in refugee camps and on the front lines, bearing witness to the individual horrors of armed conflict, while trying to help the victims heal, however imperfectly. With clarity of thought and prose, he also reminds us that “while people may be deeply wounded by the hardships they’ve endured, their spirits or psyches are seldom irreparably broken.” -Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife
WAR TORN pieces together the tapestry of humanity, reminding us that we are all connected in our ability to rise above that which threatens to destroy us. – Cyrus Webb, host of Conversations Live, on National Public Radio affiliate WMPR
War Tornprovides harrowing first-hand insights into human suffering across contexts burned into global consciousness…Guatemala, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Syria…But this extraordinarily sensitive and insightful text ultimately communicates most powerfully regarding the humanity that endures in such adversity.
–Alastair Ager, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh; author of Faith, Secularism, and Humanitarian Engagement, and editor of Refugees:Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration
War Torn is an incisive must-read for those who make it their life’s work to run toward the world’s fires with a commitment to help. And for the rest of us? Dr. Miller beckons us to accompany him on his highly readable personal journey, an intimate exploration of big questions, no more so than how we construct meaning in our lives. A rigorous and compelling critique of current (often narrow) efforts to intervene and conceptualize the emotional consequences of armed conflict. Beautifully marries hard data to vivid, gripping images that remind us what really is at stake.
–Michael Sayette, Professor of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
War Torn is an exceptional, gripping account of the impact of war—a must-read for anyone interested in how war profoundly shapes people. This collection of personal experiences and mosaic of situations provides rich and unique insights into the complexities of war torn countries.
–Mark Jordans, LecturerKing’s College London
Ken Miller weaves together for us tragic stories of war, loss and injustice with tales of friendship, family, and laughter. Ken’s gift is the way he listens, which takes him and his readers beyond simple categories of war victim or trauma survivor to the complex experiences people have in settings torn apart by violence. I’m grateful for the way he has captured the simultaneously disabling and inspiring coexistence of darkness and light in these places.
– Jeannie Annan, International Rescue Committee
Buy this book! If you have any interest in what it’s like to be involved in humanitarian aid, this is the book to read. From Guatemala, Mexico, Chicago, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Ken’s voice really comes through–his warmth, his curiosity, his humor. Ken speaks from the heart.
—Andrew Rasmussen, Associate Professor of Psychology, Fordham University
Interviews & Talks
“What Do Refugees Leave Behind?” A Hague Talks presentation, with a short reading from War Torn and a talk about loss and resilience among refugees.
An interview on Voice of America radio about refugees, war, and resilience. Includes interview with a Syrian refugee featured in War Torn. Voice of America
An interview with the wonderful Maggie Linton about War Torn, the power we all have to help people recover from painful life events, and the human capacity for resilience and healing. The Maggie Linton Show
An interview with Rich Fisher on NPR affiliate Public Radio Tulsa 89.5 FM, about War Torn, working in war zones, faith & resilience, the limits of PTSD cross-culturally, and the use of local community members as healers. Studio Tulsa
A lively and engaging interview with Cyrus Webb of NPR affiliate WMPR, about War Torn, refugee stories, and the nature of psychological trauma across cultures. Conversations Live
The Failure of Humanitarian Law to Protect Civilians from Armed Conflicts
WHEN I WAS A BOY, my friends and I would spend hours playing with small plastic soldiers—entire armies with green and brown uniforms, men carrying rifles and grenades, bazookas and pistols. We got lost for hours in our make-believe wars, filling in the missing soundtrack with our own “Boom!” and “Gotcha, you’re dead” and the “rat-tat-tat” of machine gun fire.
It was great fun, but it masked a fundamental truth about modern warfare. In our play, soldiers only killed other soldiers. They didn’t shoot unarmed civilians, bomb schools, or destroy hospitals. We had no toy jets scattering napalm on rural villages, no planes dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhoods. Our soldiers never sexually assaulted anyone, nor did they abduct children to fight alongside them. Among all our plastic figurines, there was no traumatized child covered with ash and blood, stunned eyes revealing the true horror of war.
Civilians have always paid a heavy price in times of war. In World War I, millions of people who were not part of the fighting lost their lives; they died in the many horrible ways that unarmed people die during war: from bullets, artillery, poison gas, starvation, and disease (landmines had not yet been widely adopted). Numerically, civilians accounted for somewhat less than half of the 17 million deaths caused by that terrible conflict.
In wars fought since then, a shift has occurred, with civilians now comprising the majority of modern warfare’s casualties. The precise ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in contemporary wars, often cited as 9:1, is still a point of debate. However, measuring the impact of armed conflict solely in terms of direct war-related deaths grossly underestimates how war affects the lives of civilians. It doesn’t include mortality caused by the depletion of food supplies, the destruction of clinics and hospitals, and the killing of medical personnel. Nor does it include the devastating impact of rape, which is both a weapon and spoil of war; the widespread use of abduction and torture to spread fear and silence opposition; the forced recruitment of children by armed groups; or the mass displacement of populations, both internally and as refugees in other countries.
In response to the horrific killing of civilians in World War II, in 1949 the Fourth Geneva Convention was crafted to protect civilians in times of armed conflict (the first three Geneva Conventions addressed the protection of soldiers injured or captured during war). The Fourth Convention set out specific rules of war prohibiting the targeting of non-combatants. However, the Geneva Conventions applied only to wars between countries, not to internal conflicts such as civil wars, which comprise the majority of contemporary armed conflicts. To address this gap, an additional protocol was adopted in 1977 that extended the protections of the Fourth Convention to civilians in any context of conflict. Add to these widely ratified agreements two others: the UN Convention on Genocide (1951), and the UN Convention Against Torture (1994), and you’ve got a fairly comprehensive set of international agreements aimed at protecting civilians from organized violence.
There’s just one problem.
Since the establishment of these accords and their ratification by a large majority of the world’s nations, we’ve witnessed genocides in Guatemala, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Civilians have been targeted on a massive scale in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Viet Nam, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and on and on. Armed groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Boko Haram seem utterly uninterested in international protocols on the protection of civilians; indeed, they routinely publicize their abuse and killing of unarmed men, women, and children. Torture of civilians is currently practiced in more than 120 countries, many of which have signed or ratified the Convention Against Torture.
In a recent study on the effectiveness of international humanitarian laws aimed at protecting civilians in times of war, Margrit Busman and Gerald Schneider reached the sobering conclusion that such laws are of “doubtful effectiveness,” and confirmed the popular perception that despotic leaders and rebel or non-state actors routinely ignore them. Even democratic states have shown a periodic disregard for humanitarian law; American forces’ detention, abuse, and killing of Iraqi civilians following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein have been well documented, as has Israel’s acceptance of high numbers of civilian “collateral” deaths in its retaliatory strikes against Palestinians. Prosecution for war crimes in the International Criminal Court may satisfy a popular desire for retributive justice (punishment), but the threat of indictment by the ICC has shown little capacity to deter military actions against civilians. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Bashar al-Assad have shown the slightest hesitation to order lethal attacks against unarmed Syrians, where the death toll is fast approaching a half million.
The various international accords aimed at protecting civilians from armed conflict represent important steps on the path to creating a more humane world. At present, however, they are more aspirational than impactful. Undoubtedly, they have contributed to an evolving discourse in the United States and elsewhere regarding the unacceptability of harming civilians during times of war. That discourse is evident in the increasingly stringent rules of engagement for American troops in Afghanistan (in place since 2009) designed to minimize harm to Afghan civilians. Social media have documented with raw immediacy the devastation of armed conflict, and may ultimately enhance the effectiveness of international accords by strengthening popular demands for greater adherence to them.
As we watch the smoke rise from the ashes of eastern Aleppo, where Russian planes and pro-Assad forces have killed or displaced much of the urban population, perhaps we might leave aside pious assertions of “Never again” as have been uttered in the wake of previous atrocities. A more useful response would be to explore methods of giving greater teeth to the laws and agreements to which nations are bound, and acknowledge that progress on this path will likely be uncertain and frustratingly slow. Perhaps we may take some comfort in Steven Pinker’s conclusion in The Better Angels of our Nature that violence in human societies is steadily declining. In fact, Pinker suggests that we are presently living in the most peaceful era in human history. It is a hopeful view, but one that surely offers little solace to the 60 million people currently displaced by the brutality of war.
A Story of Resilience in the Highlands of Guatemala
One day during the worst years of the Guatemalan counterinsurgency, soldiers arrived at a small Indian village in the Department of Sololá, not far from Lake Atitlán. They murdered all the men in the village, leaving a community of grieving and traumatized widows and children in their wake. The women had no idea how to support their families. They’d relied on their husbands to generate income through farming, while they raised the children, prepared meals, and took care of their homes. They spoke little or no Spanish; they never needed to, because their husbands travelled into town to conduct any business that required Spanish. The massacre left the women feeling helpless and despondent. It was unclear how they were going to survive.
As it happened, they all knew how to weave. In fact, they were excellent weavers, but they all wove alone at home, and had no experience selling their products in the marketplace. Gradually, however, they began coming together to weave, breaking the isolation that had haunted them since the deaths of their husbands. As they wove, they shared their experiences, supporting one another and creating a new sense of community. The loneliness and depression began to lift.
At some point, however, their weaving supplies ran low, and they needed to go into town to buy more materials. This was a new and intimidating experience. Undaunted, they ventured into town together on a public bus, and managed to communicate what they needed to the shopkeeper. The trip was a success, and it was surprisingly empowering. They discovered that they were capable of doing tasks they’d assumed only their husbands could manage.
Their sense of empowerment only went so far, however. They desperately needed a source of income to feed their families. That’s where the organization Debbie worked with stepped in. It served as a go-between, helping to market the women’s weavings to an international customer base. The income this generated allowed the women to meet their families’ basic needs, and to grow their collective weaving enterprise. No longer despondent, the women had discovered their capacity to not merely survive, but actually thrive despite the loss of their husbands. The way I heard the story, one of the women laughed when asked about the development of the weaving cooperative, saying, “Before our husbands were killed, I could never imagine doing these things. Now we can take the bus, buy the things we need, and feed our families without our husbands. I would never have learned these things before.”
Psychologist George Bonanno has written extensively about the tendency of clinicians to underestimate people’s innate capacity to heal from tragic life experiences. It’s an occupational bias that probably stems from working exclusively with the minority of trauma survivors who don’t naturally recover from the painful or terrifying events they’ve lived through.
I think Bonanno would like the story of the women in Sololá. It’s a wonderful reminder that while people may be deeply wounded by the hardships they’ve endured, their spirits or psyches are seldom irreparably broken. In the immediate aftermath of any trauma, many people develop at least some symptoms of PTSD or depression. We don’t diagnose these disorders right away though, because the symptoms often fade away naturally with the passing of time and the availability of good social support. For most people, such symptoms aren’t really “symptoms” at all; they’re simply natural and transitory reactions to deeply painful or frightening events. There’s a temptation to rush in with psychiatric diagnoses and professional interventions, but research has shown repeatedly that clinical treatment in the immediate aftermath of traumatic experiences offers little benefit, and may even interfere with the mind’s natural capacity to heal itself.
The Sololá story is a humbling reminder that healing can and does take place in the absence of mental health professionals. We tend at times to overstate our importance, forgetting that survivors of armed conflict have been coming together for generations to reassemble their lives and heal their wounds without the benefit of professional assistance. That doesn’t mean we have no role to play, or that our methods of healing have no added value. It’s simply a reminder that just as our bodies have evolved to heal from illness and injury, so too have we evolved a powerful capacity to recover from painful life events. There’s no question that for some individuals, stuck for months or years in Escherian loops of unhealed trauma or grief, professional treatment or traditional healing rituals may be essential. But for many people, the passing of time and the support of loved ones will help them find a new equilibrium, or to borrow from Wallace Stegner, a new angle of repose. Their healing may be imperfect, the scars thin, and their sense of the world forever altered. And yet that may be enough to allow them to live lives of meaning, their dreams and daytime thoughts only occasionally haunted by ghosts of the past.
See, for example, George Bonanno, “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events?” American Psychologist 59, no. 1 (2004): 202-208.
 I.V.E. Carlier, “Disaster-related Post-traumatic Stress in Police Officers: A Field Study of the Impact of Debriefing.” Stress and Health 14, no. 3 (2007): 143-148.
See also JonathanI. Bisson and Martin P. Deahl, “Psychological Debriefing and Prevention of Posttraumatic Stress: More Research is Needed.” British Journal of Psychiatry 165, no. 6 (1994): 717-720. Also see Scott O. Lillienfield, “Psychological Treatments that Cause Harm,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (2007): 53-70.
What is it like to be a refugee, interpreting the traumatic experiences of other refugees?
I never really thought much about the phrase “hidden in plain sight” until the day I found Marina, one of our interpreters, crying quietly in the stairwell outside my office. She’d just finished interpreting an especially intense therapy session with one of our student therapists. It was her sixth session of the day.
I sat down next to her and asked what was going on. She took a moment to catch her breath, then told me she felt like she was coming apart. She was having trouble sleeping, suffering from frequent headaches, and found herself crying at home and sometimes even at work, between sessions. She explained that she had to mentally process every story of trauma and loss twice: once as she listened to clients share their experiences, and again as she translated their words into English. She said she loved her job, and that she found meaning in helping other refugees heal from the effects of the war, and linking them to social services in the city. But at times she felt invisible, or worse, like a machine being asked to translate the language and emotion of trauma and despair as though the content would have no effect on her.
I felt foolish for missing what should have been obvious. It should have been clear to me long before then, but somehow I’d overlooked a self-evident reality. Interpreting in psychotherapy with refugees is a tough job, especially if you happen to be a refugee yourself, and you’ve lived through the same stories you’re being asked to translate session after session.
Psychologists are good at talking about the importance of self-care. There’s an extensive literature on coping with the effects of “vicarious trauma,” the adverse effects of listening to stories of trauma day after day. There are workshops and trainings, websites and retreats, all designed to help therapists manage the stress of sitting with other people’s pain. Back in 1999, though, few people were talking about vicarious trauma among interpreters, even though interpreters were routinely used in mental health clinics around the world, anywhere refugees and therapists didn’t share a common language.
Marina didn’t want a different job. She just wanted the difficult reality of her work to be recognized, and for the wellbeing of all our interpreters to get the same attention as that of the therapists. It’s not something she should have had to ask for, but that’s the nature of blind spots; sometimes we simply don’t see what’s in front of us, hidden in plain sight.
Not long after my conversation with Marina in the stairway, I gathered together a research team to conduct interviews with interpreters who were refugees themselves, in mental health clinics and torture treatment centers around the country. Their stories were all pretty similar. They loved their work and felt good about being an essential part of the healing process. But like Marina, they also struggled with the pain of listening to and translating endless stories of trauma and loss. Here’s a woman talking about a particularly difficult session:
I remember one woman who was raped and when she told me what happened, I was crying. And I couldn’t say anything so I had to wait until I stopped crying to translate. So the therapist couldn’t know immediately what happened. So that was very hard and in that moment I felt like, it wasn’t fair, like I was weak. And after that I had a big discussion with the therapist and I realized it was not weakness. It was just a human reaction.
Even for interpreters without traumatic backgrounds, those who’d gotten out before the war hit their town or village, the stories they translated could take a toll:
The stories are really painful. A few weeks ago, I heard something, my brain just could not take it. I came back and I talked with my friend who is working with me and cried then, because it is hard. I mean, I didn’t have any trauma in the war, I was pretty lucky but I know how this looked because I saw it. These last few months when I started working so hard and I do not know, I am not taking therapy but I think I should. I cry much more easily than before.
For a lot of the interpreters we interviewed, the distress of their work was transient, especially if they felt supported by the staff of the agencies where they worked. But in other cases, the work was unnecessarily difficult because they were left on their own to manage their painful reactions to clients’ stories.
In the beginning it was really rough, I mean really tough because I saw some things that happened over there. So in the beginning when I was listening to these stories and I was translating, I was putting myself in the same situation. You know, like I am here, and then on the way home, like I was a little bit nervous, I was reacting a little bit faster, I would explode very fast because I think that those things that they told me, they were still in my brain, you know the stories they were telling me. They were still inside me.
There was no question in our clinic of using non-refugee interpreters. For one thing, there were few Bosnian speakers in the area who weren’t refugees themselves. It wasn’t just that, though. Our clients felt more at ease with someone in the room who’d lived through the war, knew all the references, and could understand the places and events that were so important in their lives. The interpreters were an essential part of the process in ways that went well beyond the mere translation of words. They bore witness no less than the therapists to the stories of humiliation, violence, and loss that defined the war for our clients.
It’s seldom wise to tinker with the psychic glue that holds people together, the particular belief system that helps them cope in the wake of a tragedy. Sometimes, though, I have to catch the impulse.
Amina, a slender, silver-haired woman of forty, lost her husband, son, and parents in a single day when Chetniks set fire to their home. The boy and his father were shot before the fire was set, but her mother and father were trapped on the top floor of the house when flames engulfed the building. There was no way to save them. All she could do was stand in horror, surrounded by soldiers, and watch the burning house become a crematorium.
I asked her how she’d managed to cope with such a terrible experience. She answered without a moment’s hesitation, “Because of God. Thanks to God I survived.”
I didn’t know what she meant exactly. Was it that she found comfort in praying to God, or that she survived when most of her family didn’t because of God’s divine intervention? In either case, her response mystified me. How did this incident not weaken her faith? Where was God when her parents were dying a terrible death, trapped in the smoke and flames of the burning house? How could she thank God for anything, without first asking why he’d let her husband and son be killed without reason or meaning? They were unarmed villagers whose only crime was being Muslim in a country claimed by Serb and Croat nationalists.
I’m puzzled at times by the complexities of religious faith. Who is this God who offers comfort but seems unable or unwilling to prevent calamities from happening in the first place? As a young man, I’d been an observant Jew until I visited the Dachau concentration camp while spending a year in Germany as an exchange student. The experience shattered my faith. I was haunted by images of the camp—the red brick ovens used to cremate bodies, the claustrophobic wooden barracks, and the iron gate with words promising freedom through work (Arbeit Macht Frei). I found myself unable to continue saying the traditional Sabbath prayers thanking God for bread and wine. If he had the power to provide wheat and grapes, why couldn’t he have intervened to stop a genocide? A bit more divine intervention and there’d be a lot less need for comfort, far fewer tears to dry.
I nodded when Amina finished speaking, as though I understood. It was hardly the time for a theological discussion of the nature of God and the mystery of her faith—or the absence of my own. Amina’s belief in a benevolent deity had offered solace and helped her get through the most excruciating days and nights. It had eased the seemingly unbearable pain of her memory’s persistent ghosts: the family she’d lost between sunrise and sunset on one war-torn Bosnian day. For all my doubts and questions, I had to accept the humbling truth that I had nothing in my therapeutic toolbox to match the power of her deep and unwavering faith.
How a lion named Marjan got better medical care than most Afghans have ever known
After a long day with the research team, I headed off to the Kabul Zoo with my friend Ghulam Mohammed and his kids, along with his nephew Samir, a sweet young man of twenty who offered to translate for us. I looked forward to a break from the heaviness of the war stories we’d been listening to each day.
The zoo was once quite nice, but it had been heavily shelled during the civil war, and many of the buildings were badly damaged. A lot of the animals had been killed, some in rocket attacks and others to feed the warlords and their militias. On the day of our visit, the cages were bleak. There was nothing green, no vegetation for the handful of surviving creatures to lie in or climb on. The place was depressing, and the animals, skeletal and weak, looked miserable.
Back in the zoo’s better days, before all the violence began, the Cologne Zoo donated a young lion named Marjan. A beautiful animal, Marjan survived the Soviet occupation, the civil war, even made it through the Taliban.
One day, a young soldier decided to impress his friends by slipping into Marjan’s cage and petting his beloved lioness, Chucha.
Marjan went into a rage and killed the man in a matter of minutes. Next day, his brother returned to the zoo in his own rage, khailiasabi, and threw a grenade into Marjan’s cage. The explosion blinded the lion in one eye and left him lame. He nearly died from the attack, but there was an international outcry, and money poured in for his treatment.
Old Marjan the one-eyed lion got good medical care and a heated cage for his remaining years. Ironically, that means he had better healthcare than the vast majority of Afghans have ever known.
Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, from Larson Publications
Sometimes I’d think I was staring right into the eyes of the beast, war trauma at its most pure. All the classic signs would be there: the nightmares and flashbacks, the racing heart and that terrible flood of adrenaline coursing through the body at all hours, making it impossible to ever truly be at ease. A door slams in the distance and it’s like a gun just fired; there’s terror in the eyes, hands clench the arms of the chair in fearful anticipation.
If you’re living through a situation of recurrent threat, it can be adaptive to be on perpetual edge; you never know when danger might return and you want to be ready to act. Problems arise when the risk is finally gone, and the body and mind don’t register the new reality. The starship Enterprise is still on red alert and there isn’t a Klingon for light-years around. Keep those shields up, Scotty. Aye, Captain.
Most of the time I’d be right about the diagnosis. Trauma symptoms aren’t hard to spot, and matching them up against the criteria in psychiatry’s diagnostic cookbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) isn’t exactly rocket science.
The problem was, sometimes it wasn’t war trauma at all, or at least not the kind of war I’d be thinking of. Our clients had escaped ethnic cleansing, they’d been in concentration camps, watched their homes go up in flames and their loved ones go down in violence, hunger, and disease. They arrived in Chicago as refugees from hell, and it was natural to assume that their trauma symptoms were the result of everything they’d just survived.
Most of the time that was true. But not always. Or at least, there were layers, other sources of trauma that weren’t so readily apparent.
There were times, for example, that we’d get so focused on what happened in Bosnia that we’d overlook an altogether different sort of war that at least a few of our clients were still in the middle of. It was the violence that some women were contending with at home, the beatings and sexual assaults and sheer terror of daily life in the supposed safety of their Chicago refuge. It made the war in Bosnia seem like a distant nightmare. I don’t think it was very common, but it was real, and it could be as ugly as anything that had happened back home.
Clinicians are fond of writing about their successes, but as the late Argentine psychologist Eduardo Pavlovski once wrote, we can learn as much from our “stumbles” as our achievements.[i] I suppose in the end this story turned out as well as it could have, and the clinic staff really went the distance to see this one through; it just took a while to get there. In the meantime, a young Bosnian child lost his capacity for speech while watching his mother get raped daily in their small apartment on the north side of Chicago.
I’ve been reading and writing about the impact of war on civilians for twenty years, and in the hundreds of papers I’ve read, I could count on two hands the number that mention family violence. I don’t know why, but it’s been missing from the conversation. That’s changing, and a growing number of organizations are trying to figure out how to deal with intimate partner violence and child abuse in war-affected communities. For the most part, though, the violence of war overshadows the violence that happens in people’s homes. The former draws our attention and concern, while the latter leads us to look away uneasily, if we see it at all.
And maybe that’s the key difference: we actually see war, it’s right out there: bombs destroying houses, soldiers killing villagers, buildings set on fire. It’s a public experience, and we feel entitled, compelled even, to document it, ask about its impact, intervene in some way. But the violence that occurs within families is hidden from view. We’re less likely to see it, and a lot less likely to ask about it. Researchers routinely go into war zones or refugee camps with questionnaires that assess people’s exposure to all manner of war-related violence, and then they measure symptoms of PTSD and assume they’re documenting the traumatic effects of war. To an extent, of course, they are. The violence of war can certainly be traumatic. But this approach yields a distorted picture. Family violence can give rise to exactly the same symptoms of psychological trauma as war, and the PTSD we’re seeing may have as much to do with abuse in the home as it does with political violence in the street. It’s not just researchers who fall prey to this oversight; clinicians too see the violence of armed conflict and assume that trauma symptoms are the result of that conflict. Could be, but maybe there’s more going on.
Which brings me to Alma and her young son Tarik, and their nightmare in Chicago.
I came into the case just around the time things really spun out of control. That was the day we got a call from a psychiatric nurse in a nearby hospital, telling us that Alma was in their emergency room, acutely suicidal and possibly psychotic. Could we please come and speak with her? Their only translator was a janitor who spoke just a few words of Bosnian, and they were having a hard time communicating.
On the way to the hospital, my Bosnian colleague gave me some background. The clinic staff had assumed Alma’s symptoms of PTSD were the result of the war in Bosnia. They’d asked about what the family had lived through before they escaped: the bombings, the attacks on their village, the constant state of fear, the loss of everyone and everything they’d left behind. Her distress made sense against that backdrop, and it looked a lot like the PTSD and depression we saw in so many of the refugees who came into the clinic. The staff had recommended counseling and medication; she took the pills, and met with a counselor periodically.
It’s not to say there weren’t signs, indications of something darkly amiss in the family. She came in with bruises a couple of times, and admitted that Almir, her husband, had hit her. He swore that he loved her, she said, and left it at that.
Arriving at the hospital, we found Alma alone in a small room, crying and frightened. We decided to ask directly about the violence at home. Alma was quiet for a moment. Then she nodded, and began to speak. This formerly reticent woman barely paused to inhale as she described two years of being imprisoned in her home with her six-year-old son, Tarik. She told us her husband had been sexually assaulting her nearly every day in front of the boy since they’d arrived in Chicago. He’d threatened to kill them if she ever told anyone what was happening or tried to escape. She said that Tarik had once been a lively, talkative child, but was now mute, and had begun wetting himself again. Alma was convinced there was no way out, and had recently become suicidal. Her husband brought her to the ER when he thought she might actually kill herself.
And so we began the process of helping Alma and Tarik escape once again from a world of violence. The first step was getting them to a shelter for battered women and their children.
Flashback: I’m standing with a Bosnian colleague and six cops outside the door to the small apartment where Alma, Almir, and Tarik live. It’s dark in the hallway, and the eight of us barely fit on the narrow landing. As one of the policemen knocks repeatedly on the door, the lone policewoman turns to me and asks skeptically, “If she was really being abused, why didn’t she just leave?”
Before I can respond, the door opens. Almir, looking filthy and disheveled, is pulling his pants up as he gazes warily at the group of armed police staring back at him. I wonder aloud to my colleague whether he was raping Alma when we arrived. No way to know. But he has nowhere to run, and so, looking stunned and dismayed, he opens the door in surrender, allowing us to enter. A moment later he’s in handcuffs, being led downstairs to a police car. He’ll be out on bail by the end of the day, but that’ll give us enough time to get Alma and Tarik to the shelter. By the time he walks free, they’ll be safely out of the home.
During the next three months, my colleagues from the clinic made frequent visits to the shelter to help Alma and Tarik begin to heal from the trauma they’d endured. Gradually, Tarik began to speak again and stopped wetting himself. In time he began to smile with excitement when we came to visit and was eager to play. His recovery was quite remarkable to witness, given the two wars he’d endured in his brief time on the planet. Alma’s healing was a slower, more painful process, but the look of terror we’d seen in the emergency room gradually disappeared and you could see her beginning to relax.
We all knew there was no way she and Tarik would be safe in Chicago once they left the shelter. Alma asked if we could help her find money to leave the area and make a new start elsewhere. They had friends, she said, who would keep them safe. The shelter staff generously raised the funds, and three months after escaping from their one room nightmare, Alma and Tarik left Chicago to begin the next chapter of their lives in exile.
Needless to Say…
…And yet it bears saying (again): Even in populations affected by armed conflict, there are other sources of psychological trauma than war itself. In recent studies of communities affected by war, family violence turns out to be as strongly related to mental health as direct exposure to the violence of war.[ii] But such studies are still rare; what happens within the privacy of people’s homes is considered, well, private, too personal to ask about, or simply not relevant to understanding the impact of war.
And so we ask about rape by soldiers, witnessing explosions, abductions and beatings by one militant group or another. And the violence of a husband’s abuse or a parent’s rage lives on below the radar of our well-intended aid.
[i]. Eduardo Pavlovsky, Cuestionamos (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Granica 1971).
[ii]. A. Al-Krenawi, R. Lev-Wiesel, & M Sehwail, “Psychological Symptomatology Among
Palestinian Children Living with Political Violence,” Child and Adolescent Mental Health 12 (2007): 27-31. See also C. Catani, E. Schauer, E., & F. Neuner, F. “Beyond Individual War Trauma: Domestic Violence Against Children in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 34 (2008): 165-176.
It’s amazing what you can learn about a country from a simple sign on an office door.
In the Medico-Legal Institute of Baghdad, or MLI, there’s a plaque that reads “Office of Mass Graves.”
Seemed gruesome to me at first, but I came to view it as a hopeful gesture, dedicating an office to the discovery of the victims of atrocities. It’s an acknowledgment that mass graves actually exist. You won’t find that kind of thing in Guatemala, where the existence of hidden burial sites filled with victims of the genocide has always been denied by the government (though forensic anthropologists, courageous souls, keep digging them up, chipping away at the official lie).
I talked earlier about the terrible psychological legacy of disappearances, the difficulty of grieving the loss of loved ones when there’s no body to confirm the death. The Office of Mass Graves can help end the uncertainty for Iraqi families, provide a sense of closure, however painful.
More than three hundred unmarked communal graves have been found so far. No doubt more will be discovered. Several hundred thousand people remain missing, victims of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, the ten-year war with Iran, and the widespread violence that turned the country into a war zone after the US invasion in 2003.
As I write these words, the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS is sweeping through the west and north of the country, massacring people in every village and town it enters. ISIS may add to the tally of mass graves, but they certainly won’t be hidden. The group gets off on public displays of its brutality: videotaped beheadings, mass executions posted online. No porn allowed on YouTube, but live killings are okay, if you can live with an “Age Restricted” warning. Digital imagery used to instill terror, swear allegiance or star in our next video. They’ve given a new twist to social media, though in their case, antisocial media might be a better term. ISIS had three thousand “likes” on Facebook as of this morning. They also rely heavily on Twitter to get the good word out.
An Iraqi physician was telling me about her work at the MLI. She was in her mid-thirties, wore a black hijab around her head and neck, black pants and blue blouse, a blend of modern and traditional. She spoke in a gentle, lilting voice. A forensic doctor by training, she worked in the Department of Live Examinations. No mass graves in her daily routine. Nothing to do with death except for trying to prevent it. She asked me not to use her real name, so I’ll call her Amal. It means “hope”, and I can’t think of a better pseudonym for this lovely, determined young woman, who, in addition to her work at the MLI, also ran her own fertility clinic in the city.
Much of her time in the Department of Live Examinations was spent examining women who’d claimed they’d been tortured in prison to exact confessions for crimes they hadn’t committed. She also conducted virginity exams.
She explained, “We call them hymen exams. Men get very angry if their wives don’t bleed on the first night they have intercourse. They might send the woman home to her family, where she could be killed for the shame she has brought the family. Or the husband might hurt her or kill her himself. It’s quite dangerous for the woman. But men don’t understand that there are reasons why a woman might not bleed even though she’s a virgin. We can help determine that by our exams.”
Did the same expectation of virginity apply to men?
She just laughed and shook her head. Then she added, with a hint of a smile, that women do occasionally accuse their husbands of impotence. That’s grounds for divorce and a source of shame for the man. Still, no one’s going to kill an impotent man to restore a family’s honor.
I asked her to tell me about the torture exams. Amal said she wanted to share a personal story first. She sounded almost apologetic, as if not wanting to offend me, as she described the day American soldiers kicked down the door of her family’s home. They seemed enraged, broke windows, smashed plates and vases, overturned furniture as they stormed through the house. The family watched in terror as they stood against the wall of the living room. They were held at gunpoint, but no guns were needed, she said, because everyone was too terrified to move. They had no idea what the Americans were looking for, and it wasn’t clear whether the soldiers knew either.
“After about ten minutes, they grabbed my younger brother. He’s eighteen years old. They grabbed him very roughly and dragged him away. My mother was screaming, and the soldiers kept telling her to shut up. As soon as they left the house, my father fell down on the floor. He was weeping, and became very sick. With each day that went by he got sicker.”
The family searched everywhere, went to the police, asked their neighbors, but no one knew anything about the young man’s disappearance.
Four days later, he reappeared at the door.
“He was another person, changed completely,” she said. “He refused to talk about what happened in detention, but after the experience, he could no longer concentrate on his school work, he stopped attending classes, and withdrew from most activities. His fiancé, she moved with her family to America. Now that’s all he talks about, wanting to join her in America.”
“Wait,” I said, confused. “You’re saying he wants to move to America, after American soldiers took him away and abused him? I don’t get it.”
She smiled sadly. “He loves America,” she said. “He always has.”
Torture in Iraq
No question, American troops got out of hand, crossed lines they never should have. And we’ve all seen the photos of Abu Ghraib, young American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. But the real sadists, the guys who got turned on by the whole torture scene, they were Iraqis and foreign jihadis. They took the practice to a level that made Lynndie England look like a Girl Scout.[i]
Torture is pervasive in Iraq. It’s practiced by every militia, the police, prison guards, and the various security forces defending the fragile state. At the Medico Legal Institute, forensic doctors only examine prisoners held in official detention centers. Anyone kidnapped and tortured by a local militia or terrorist group isn’t going to end up at the MLI. More than likely, they’re going to end up dead, unless their family can come up with the ransom, assuming a ransom is even requested.
Prisoners are brought in to the MLI when they claim they’ve been tortured to force a confession of whatever crime they’ve been charged with. It’s a routine practice in Iraqi prisons, and the methods of abuse are limited only by the creativity of the torturer. Hanging by the wrists with the arms behind the back for hours or days, beatings with batons or cables, being forced to sit on a bottle, electric shocks to the genitals, sexual assault, and on and on. It happens a lot, and everyone knows it: lawyers, judges, the police, and most of all the victims and their families. Iraq is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, but then so are most of the 160 or so countries where torture is practiced.
I was in Iraq to co-lead a training for forensic physicians on interviewing torture survivors and documenting the impact of torture on the body and mind. My co-trainer was Rusudan Beriashvili, a physician from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Rusudan’s a warm and engaging woman whose expertise lies in the darkest side of human nature. She covered the physical side of torture—the range of methods commonly used, signs of torture on the body, the really gruesome stuff. I got nauseous looking at the photographs she projected onto the large screen, though I’d seen similar pictures countless times. At the same time, I also found the imagery grotesquely fascinating, the innovative methods our species has developed to inflict severe pain. Over the centuries, the techniques have remained as brutal as ever, but with the help of physicians and psychologists, newer methods have been developed that leave few if any physical scars. Of course, sometimes leaving scars is precisely the point. They serve as a visible warning of what can happen to anyone who crosses a particular line.
I had the “softer” side of the training: trauma and other psychological effects of torture, methods of psychological abuse, and how to conduct interviews with torture survivors in ways that don’t retraumatize them. I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Rusudan passed me the baton and we shifted from the body to the mind. It’s hard to see those images of mutilated and broken bodies. Even for doctors who’ve seen an awful lot of them.
It’s interesting, though: survivors consistently describe psychological torture as more devastating than the physical abuse they’ve endured. A mother who believes she’s hearing her child being assaulted in the next room will often suffer more acutely than if she’s been beaten herself. The abusers know that, of course, and use it to great effect. People will confess to just about anything to stop the torture of those they love.
Love. In the dark world of torture, it can leave us woefully vulnerable.
Forensic doctors are the only physicians in Iraq legally allowed to assess the veracity of torture claims. Turns out, though, they aren’t allowed to actually ask about experiences of torture. Not in a general way, anyway. If a woman says she was beaten on the belly, a judge can require a doctor at the MLI to examine her belly for bruising or other evidence of a beating. During the exam, if the physician happens to discover signs of rape, she isn’t allowed to investigate them further or comment on what she’s seen. The victim’s lawyer has to go back to the judge and request another exam, this one focused on the claim of sexual assault. The doctor is also not permitted to comment on whether the evidence is consistent with a particular experience of torture. That bit of absurdity undermines the whole process; stating whether the evidence is or isn’t consistent with the prisoner’s claims of torture is precisely what a physician is meant to do, according to international protocol; it’s the essential purpose of the physical exam.
The whole process is a circus, meant to protect everyone but the victim.
And the circus can get dangerous for the lawyers who defend survivors of torture. An attorney based in Baghdad told me about a colleague who’d been representing a man who claimed he’d been badly abused by a prison guard in order to exact a confession for a crime he hadn’t committed. A medical exam showed evidence consistent with the man’s claims of torture. The guard, angry and afraid, made a deal with another prisoner who was serving a life sentence for his involvement with an anti-government militia. The guard told him he’d make prison a lot more comfortable for the remainder of his sentence if he’d accuse the lawyer of being connected to the same terrorist group this other prisoner had been affiliated with.
Talk about your easy decision.
By the next day, the lawyer was imprisoned, at the mercy of the same guard he’d identified as a torturer. Spent three months in a very frightening place before his colleagues were able to secure his release.
Iraqi justice. It can be hard to use that phrase with a straight face.
During a break in the training, a young man approached me to ask if we might speak alone. He was shy, hadn’t said a word during the first few days of the workshop. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. He was a legal assistant, one of a handful of young attorneys-to-be who were attending the training. He seemed anxious and eager to unburden himself of something. We sat down on a sofa in the lounge, beyond earshot of the crowd gathered by the tables loaded with coffee and cookies.
“It’s my girlfriend,” he said. “I don’t know how to help her. I love her very much, but I just don’t know how to help her. She and her brother left the country last year to visit relatives in Syria. They were only gone for a few weeks. When they got home, their whole family had been killed. Their parents, their brothers and sisters, all dead. They were all shot in their home. If my girlfriend had been there, she would have been killed too.
“It’s been nearly a year, and she’s not getting any better. She gets very angry at herself. She says all the time, ‘I should have been there. Why was I gone? I should have been there.’ I tell her, you and your brother couldn’t have stopped what happened. You would have been killed, too. There’s nothing you could have done. But it doesn’t help. She doesn’t seem to hear me. I can’t get her to talk about her sadness. She’s afraid to share her feelings.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “Nothing seems to help. What can I do?”
I wished I had something profound to say, or some nifty clinical wand to offer him. Here, just wave this, she’ll be at peace.
Survivor guilt. It’s noxious, and resistant to any sort of rational argument. “It’s not your fault” may be absolutely true, but it seldom makes a dent in the harsh, unforgiving script of self-condemnation. “Why did I survive?” There’s no rational answer. Unless we want to invoke God and some sort of cosmic plan, we’re stuck with the random nature of devastating events. Why did this young man’s girlfriend and her brother escape the massacre of their family? Because they went to Syria for a visit. That’s the entirety of it. They just happened to be gone at the right time. And that sort of randomness doesn’t offer much comfort at all.
“You really love her, don’t you?” I asked.
“I do. I want to ask her to marry me.”
“Then keep on loving her,” I said. “That’s what you can do. It may take a long time for her to accept that there was nothing she could have done, that she would only have been killed with the rest of her family if she’d been in the house.”
“I’ve got time,” he said. “I’ll keep reminding her. Hopefully this will change. Inshallah.” God willing.
“Inshallah,” I replied.
[i]. Lynndie England was the young woman who was photographed holding a leash around the neck of an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib.
Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, from Larson Publications (2016)
My colleague Gaithri Fernando, a Sri Lankan psychologist based in Los Angeles, moved fluidly between worlds, shifting from Sinhala to English and back again, translating the words and gestures of this beautiful and haunting country. There was no way I could turn down her invitation to collaborate on a project with communities affected by the civil war and the tsunami. Emma, my friend in Kabul, loved this place; she’d have called me mad to let the chance slip by. A door opens, she once said; you either walk through it or you don’t. She loved taking chances, discovering the unknown.
Of course I signed on.
Admittedly, I didn’t know at the time that the civil war would break out again just as I was leaving the US, that gruesome killings would again send chills through the country only a few years after a peace treaty had finally been signed. Still, I figured that after the wanton violence of Iraq, Sri Lanka wouldn’t seem as sinister.
I was wrong about that. The violence here had a sinister nature all its own.
A few weeks before I arrived, a Tamil family of four had been stabbed to death, disemboweled, and hung from the ceiling of their home in the northern city of Jaffna. The newspapers all carried the same gruesome photo, but the stories explaining it differed wildly. The Tamil papers described the incident as further evidence of government brutality, the state-sanctioned slaughter of an innocent family. Meanwhile, the pro-government Sinhalese papers called the murders yet another example of the terrorist tactics of the Tamil Tigers, suggesting that the Tigers killed the family as punishment for being government informants.
Most Sri Lankans I met had no idea who was behind the killings. Truth is tough to come by in the country, and it’s not something the media strive particularly hard to uncover. Partly that’s just bias, devout loyalty to one or another ethnic group.
It’s also fear.
Truthtelling in Sri Lanka is a hazardous business. In 2014, five years after the war ended, the country still ranked 165th out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index.[i] That made it a more dangerous place to report the news than Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. You have to find the concept of a free press really fucking distasteful, be willing to threaten, imprison, and kill an awful lot of journalists to score a rating that low.
One of the most gifted war photographers I know, Gemunu Amarasinghe, captured the carnage when the Sri Lankan air force bombed a Tamil hospital during the final push of the war in 2009. The government denied that the hospital had been hit, but Gemunu’s pictures showed otherwise. The night they were published, the Associated Press had to fly him out of the country.
And one of the most courageous journalists I’ve met, Lasantha Wickrematunge, knew his fate long before it played out on the streets of Colombo. The editor of The Sunday Leader, he’d insisted on an even-handed approach to covering the war. He’d criticized both sides, the government and the Tigers, for their brutality, their willingness to target civilians, and their reluctance to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. That kind of balanced critique was traitorous in the eyes of the government, a death sentence, and Lasantha knew it. He wrote his own obituary days before two men on motorcycles shot him in the head.[ii]
Questioned about Lasantha’s death in an interview with the BBC, Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, had a good laugh. “Who is this Lasantha?” he asked sarcastically. “He’s somebody who was writing for a tabloid. I’m not concerned about that. Why is everybody so concerned about one man?” He laughed again, an odd, high-pitched sound that barely concealed his rage at being questioned about the murder.
It was one of the most chilling sounds I’ve ever heard. The human equivalent of a cobra coming uncoiled, spreading its hood, dying to strike.
Before I met up with Gaithri in Colombo, I spent a week on the southern coast relaxing and getting my bearings. I found a cheap hotel just off the Galle Road, steps from the beach. I rented a motorbike, and spent the days visiting the seaside towns that looked out over the Indian Ocean.
The peace accord had recently collapsed and the country was at war with itself once again. During the brief respite, people on the island had breathed a cautious sigh of relief. After two decades of civil war, the fighting seemed finally to have come to an end. An end to the abductions and torture and heads publicly displayed on poles, an end to suicide bombings and explosions on buses and trains, an end to massacres in mosques and markets, to death squads and media censorship, to getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and catching a bullet or a piece of shrapnel meant for someone else.
And then the waves hit. December 26, 2004. The Boxing Day Tsunami.
It struck the eastern side of the island first, then the southwest.
For all the newspaper and magazine stories I’d read, the photographs and videos I had seen, I really had no idea just how destructive the tsunami was until I got to Sri Lanka. I rode along the Galle Road past villages still in ruins, skeletons of houses dotting the shoreline. Nineteen months after the massive waves hit the island, killing some 35,000 people and destroying 80,000 homes, there were few signs of any meaningful reconstruction. Thousands of displaced families were still living in tents or shacks, or languishing in overcrowded camps, some of them built on swampland. Billions of dollars in aid money were tied up in power struggles between the government and the Tigers. 180,000 livelihoods had been lost in a single night, and the power brokers at the top of the food chain were still bickering over who would control the relief funds.
I stopped in a village near Unawanatuna, and walked through the ruins of what had once been a small neighborhood. There were bits of cement, concrete, and wood lying in piles, the lifeless remains of houses that once stood just meters from the sea. I came to a wall standing by itself on a small plot of land. Nearby were the remnants a bedroom, fragments of a kitchen, a staircase leading to a second floor that no longer existed. It was an eerie, unsettling sight. Not just because of the destruction, but because one shouldn’t be able to see so readily into the remains of a home, the deeply personal spaces that once contained the privacy of family life.
Back at the hotel, I parked the motorbike and wandered down to the internet cafe across the way. A young man with a friendly smile waved me over. We’d seen each in the cafe before, but never spoken. He introduced himself as Sampath, and invited me to sit and share a glass or two of lemon gin. He was a sweet guy, a photographer, couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. Told me he was Sinhalese and had married a Tamil woman. That shouldn’t matter, but in his view it ended up getting her killed and turning him into a widower.
Sampath said he and his wife were expecting a child some years ago, and during her last month of pregnancy she traveled north to see her parents in Jaffna. He said the Tigers decided to send a warning message about Tamils marrying Sinhalese, so they tied his wife to a sign post and cut open her belly, killing both her and the unborn child. He described this graphically, motioning with his hands to make sure I understood the gruesome nature of the murder. As he spoke, he looked into my eyes with an unsettling intensity, to be sure I was listening. Then he gazed into the distance behind me, as if pulled into the terrible imagery he’d just described.
I found myself feeling thankful for the numbing effect the gin was having on my brain. I didn’t want to picture the scene he’d painted, and the gin kept things blurry.
Sampath continued with his story. Said he still woke up every night from nightmares about the child he never had the chance to see, his only “memory” an image of his butchered wife and the fetus she carried. The images won’t stop, he said; it didn’t matter whether he was awake or asleep. It’d been 12 years, and the gruesome pictures just wouldn’t go away.
I uttered some words of empathy, but he talked right past them, didn’t even seem to hear me.
After the killing, he hit bottom. Wandered up to Goa, a former Portuguese colony that’s become a hippy and Techno scene on the northwest coast of India, where he became addicted to anything that would numb the pain, dull the memories. He eventually found his way into a rehab center back in Sri Lanka, in the beautiful mountain city of Kandy. It was in Kandy that he met Golda Meir’s grandson (Golda was the first prime minister of Israel), who invited him to come to Israel and spend some time on a kibbutz. A chance to connect with the land, and with himself.
He got his life together there, came back to Sri Lanka and started a photography business. It was really taking off, he said. Business was good and he was feeling hopeful about the future for the first time in years.
One night in December of 2004 he was shooting a wedding at The Lighthouse, a ritzy hotel on the south coast, just off the Galle Road. He’d gone home to sleep, but had left his gear in the hotel rather than carry it on his motorcycle.
The tsunami hit that night, and the water destroyed everything, all of his equipment. Sisyphus and the boulder. A life rebuilt, taken down again by a series of massive waves.
We sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the sound of the waves breaking against the beach.
He smiled, in a genuine way that caught me by surprise—who could smile after what he’d been through, the story he’d just told? But he said you have to keep smiling and see the glass as half full. It’s the only way to survive. He’d gotten a new camera, and had landed several gigs already. You’ve got to stay positive, he said.
“It’s just those nightmares. If I could just stop those horrible images from entering my dreams, I’d be okay.”
Lying in bed later that night, I listened to the waves outside my window. The sounds of the sea have always been calming to me, a primal response to the rhythm of water. But this night, the ocean made me uneasy, its destructive power barely hidden beneath the gentle sound of the waves. I couldn’t stop thinking about the evening’s conversation, about the cruelty and terrible losses my friend in the café had endured. I’m not exactly sure how we come to terms with the effects of evil on our lives. A natural disaster isn’t malicious; a tsunami doesn’t intentionally cause harm, it simply happens, indifferent to the destruction it creates and the despair it leaves in its wake. But to experience the death of a loved one killed with absolute intentionality, to be left with images of brutality and suffering, I wonder at times whether there can only be an imperfect healing, a coming to terms that leaves a thin scar over wounds that will always be tender.
And yet, so many survivors of traumatic violence do seem to find ways of seeing the glass of life as half full. I continue to marvel at this will to not just survive, but to really live, to build anew, to regain one’s faith in the better side of human nature. I’ve seen it everywhere my work has taken me. It’s inspirational, like watching a flower grow out of concrete, or break through the surface of snow. At times it feels like witnessing something quietly profound, a kind of inner grace that springs from somewhere just beyond my comprehension.
Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, by Kenneth E. Miller, from Larson Publications.
MY COLLEAGUE Martín was an intense and animated guy who loved to tell stories. He was a great storyteller, always pausing just long enough at key moments to build the suspense, then finishing with an ending that left you laughing, or in tears, or simply bewildered by the crazy things that happened in this place.
He came in one morning, dressed in his usual jeans and button down shirt, looking agitated.
“Man”, he said, “you won’t believe this one, Ken.”
He’d just heard about a woman, I’ll call her Maria, maybe fifty years old, a Mayan Indian who lived in a small village near Lake Atitlan. The deepest lake in Central America, Atitlan is ringed by steep mountains on all sides, which were thought to be home to armed guerrillas during the war. That made the villages surrounding the lake hot targets for the army, whose strategy was to terrorize the villagers into submission and destroy any real or potential support they might be inclined to offer the guerrillas.
Anyway, Maria’s teenage son disappeared during the height of the army’s scorched earth campaign. Soldiers took him away at gunpoint one night, along with several other young men from the community. Neither he nor any of the others who were abducted that night were ever seen or heard from again.
“That was ten years ago,” Martín said.
He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts, then said, “The thing is, every week she cleans his room. Dusts it, wipes it down, sweeps it, keeps everything just as it was the day he was taken away. Just in case, you know, he comes back.”
“Ten years, man,” he continued. “And she’s still waiting for him to come home.”
“That’s a long time,” I said. “No way that kid’s still alive.”
“Right. No way.” Martín paused a moment.
“Imagine that,” he said. “Ten years and she’s still waiting.”
I saw the sadness in his face as he finished speaking. Martín and I both knew what Maria couldn’t bear to admit: that her son was never coming back. He’d probably been dead for most of the past decade. It’s a familiar story, lived out by thousands of families. People didn’t just disappear in Guatemala, they got disappeared. It’s something you did to someone, a transitive verb. El fue desaparecido, someone might say, “He was disappeared.” There’s no corresponding verb for reappearing, because people rarely reappeared. Sure, sometimes the disappeared did show up again, usually as a corpse on the side of a road, bearing signs of torture. But there was no need to invent a word for that.
Mostly, though, the disappeared remained that way.
That left families in a terrible state. What Maria was going through, cleaning her son’s room, holding on to hope despite the almost certain reality that he was no longer alive—it’s a familiar syndrome in Latin America. Argentines lived through it so often that psychologists coined the term “frozen grief” to describe the syndrome they saw among families of the disappeared. It’s the painful uncertainty of not knowing a loved one’s fate, the anguish and guilt if they give up hope and finally let go. It can feel like an abandonment. You don’t want to imagine your child or parent or cousin being tortured in some dark and lonely prison cell, but you also can’t let go of the possibility that they might still be alive, and could somehow find their way home.
So people hold on, in a perpetual state of hope, even as they know, somewhere just below consciousness, that they’re holding on to an illusion. As a result, they never really grieve. Healing gets put on hold indefinitely. A body would provide closure, however painful it might be. Whatever signs of violence it might bear, a corpse would end the uncertainty and help people move on with their lives. But it doesn’t happen that way with disappearances; that’s their particularly cruel legacy: you don’t get to know.
I knew Martín had heard stories like this before, hundreds of them. Hell, he lived through the worst years of the war, never left the country like a lot of his peers did. Just kept his head down at the university where he was finishing his degree, and hoped he wouldn’t get targeted by the army like so many of his classmates and professors. He knew the stories, but for whatever reason, Maria’s experience, the way she still cleaned her son’s room in anticipation of his possible return, really got to him.
“He’s never coming back, you know,” Martín said.
“Right. I know. He’s not. There’s no way.”
“And she can’t see that,” he continued. “Can’t allow herself to see that.” He shook his head, as if trying to clear the story from his mind, then poured himself some coffee and sat down at his desk.