Vukovar and Transmission of Trauma and Negative Narratives

12 JUNE 2013

In this posting, I will highlight an issue that is a substantial one in all of the areas in which InterChange is working and discuss a little of what we in Vukovar are attempting to do about it.

First, we need to define a few terms. A narrative is the story that someone tells about his/her life, including the “facts”, that is, what happened, and the emotions associated with them. Each person will have a different narrative about the same events, as seen through her/his own perspectives, that is, through his/her own experiences, personality, etc. To take a very simple example, if the lights went off in my office during a meeting at 8 PM last night, I might think that it was a light bulb or a fuse, or I might think that it was a blackout because the electricity in the entire city failed. What I will think depends on what has happened to me in the past. Also, depending on my experience, my general mood, and my personality, I might get very angry about it, or be calm, or be sad, or be frustrated, etc. In our example, I may have wanted to use a computer to show our new plan for next year or have wanted to connect with InterChange Toronto, and got angry because the electricity company did this fairly frequently.

Narratives occur on a variety of levels. Each individual will have his or hers. A family will have theirs, say, about what happened to them during the war – whatever war we are referring to – or about how Uncle John fell on the Christmas tree last year. There also are narratives in each group or sub-group that we belong to, and in each neighborhood, town, country, and region. As I have mentioned, the narratives of various sub-groups concerning the same events may or may not agree with one another.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, we transmit our psychological traumas and narratives to other people. Thus, if I go from Vukovar to Toronto, I will bring my personal traumas and narratives with me and “give” them to others. Within a family, and within a community, this kind of transmission also will occur between generations. This kind of transmission is unconscious – we do it without thinking about it. This is a key point for peacebuilders. Thus, for example, parents and other relatives, teachers, politicians, the media, the local leader of the football club, and others will transmit their traumas and narratives to children and youth. People like the psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, who originally is from Cyprus and who retired a few years ago from the University of Virginia (USA) Medical School, and others in various countries around the world have shown that such transmission can go on for many hundreds of years. Personally, I have had clients in whom I could identify narratives and traumas that started up to about 150 year ago.

The consequences of such transmission can be severe. Here, to start with, we believe that they are causing domestic violence, violence in the schools, and severe psychological problems among children and youth. Certainly, here, the politicians at local, national, and regional levels are amplifying the hatred and nationalism contained in these narratives, and in their own traumas, and causing a continuation of the nationalism that was present during the wars that ended here in 1995. Their rhetoric is continuing in the present generation. At a recent meeting that I attended that commemorated the departure of the UN from the region, the attitudes of the community leaders were the same as they had been in 1995. We consider that to be dangerous.

Furthermore, we believe that the transmission of traumas and negative narratives from the Second World War, again excited by the politicians and the media, not having been dealt with in the intervening years, was one of the causes of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia from 1991-1995.

Unfortunately, most of the large international organizations – as well as funders – are not addressing these issues anywhere, and this important source of discord and lack of trust within the community are continuing. We hear similar things from colleagues in various other parts of the world. As one example, in March, there was a delegation of people from Northern Ireland who visited us. They tell us that the problems that they are facing are very similar to ours. We suspect that people in areas where members of InterChange live are facing similar issues.

Here in Vukovar, we are doing a number of things about this and have some further recommendations. First, we are working with people individually and in families and in groups to combat the traumas and to change the narratives. This is a long process in most cases. In general, we use standard counseling methods without drugs.

Further, we give courses to train lay people, that is, people without previous education, to do the counseling. The course is known as the Course for Workers in Areas of Regeneration (CWIAR). It includes modules on communication, psychology and trauma, civil society, non-violent conflict resolution, and human rights. We adapt the course to each specific group, depending on what people need and want. In general, it lasts for about 120 hours, but that is variable. We ask people to use their own experience in the course. Both they and we learn from that. Currently, we are writing a manual that includes the content of the course. The first module, communication, is available on the website of the Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace (CWWPP),, in the Public Information section. We are working on the psychology and counseling module and hope to have it finished by the end of 2013. Eventually, we hope to put the course into interactive online form. We feel that it is important that people can deal with these issues within their own communities, thus solving the traumas and being able to be peacebuilders. This supports InterChange’s basic theme that “everyone can be a peacebuilder”. Furthermore, we are writing brochures. These brochures, including one on transmission of trauma and negative narratives, is available on the CWWPP website, again in the Public Information section. We also are giving talks within the community about transmission.

Something that we would like to do is to teach young people to assist one another with issues of transmission – so-called “peer counseling”. Unfortunately, we cannot get into the schools because of the very negative attitude of government officials in Croatia toward non-governmental organizations. We all are considered to be “spies” and to be perverting the types of narratives that the government is putting forward. I should note that, here in Vukovar, schools still are divided by ethnicity. While students may use the same buildings, they go to school at different times. This is another result of the type of transmission about which we are talking.

We in Vukovar are extremely interested in working with others from InterChange and from other organizations on these issues. Please do not hesitate to contact me about them at