2020 – Closing Thoughts – Looking Ahead

I don’t recall any other year comparable to 2020. If I go back in my memory, at the time of events even years like 1989 appear to have felt less intense with regards to the global revolutionary impact. But that’s just me comparing on a very subjective level. In any case, the changes, the tectonic shifts that we have witnessed in 2020 are beyond anything that we might have imagined. And there is one experience from events such as those unfolding in 1989 which will be true for 2000, too: In many ways I only understood the local, regional, and global consequences of the end of the Cold War only gradually, throughout many subsequent years. Like when I analysed the development of peacekeeping since its beginning in 1946. You can read about it here. When I analysed facts and figures related to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a new dimension of my understanding of how deeply 1989 had influenced global development opened up. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it before. Neither that analysing aspects of peacekeeping completed my understanding of what happened in 1989. It just opened my eyes about the complexity of the impact of that year. Studying it as comprehensive as possible takes a lifetime of historians, sociologists, political analysists, and so on. And on Peacekeeping, 2020 had a huge impact, whilst the entire topic itself literally went on the backburner of public perception. As always, when things get us out of our comfort zone into fear, we tend to neglect, or forget, those who really suffer.

On a similar impact level like 1989, I also do not forget 2001, with its September 11th. The same tectonic shifting is true here.

And it will be true for 2020. Yet, we feel the impact in ways very much different to those events 36 years ago, and may be also compared to 19 years ago, except those who suffered from the terror attack directly in New York City. 2020, the foundations of what we have become used to, they are shattered in their core on a global level. The measures implemented to fight the pandemic, the lockdowns, the social distancing, the constant news about ups and downs in the fight, hope, despair, the experience of depression and helplessness, it creates one huge yarnball of fear in our stomachs all over the world. The dimension of change in private lives, economics, and societies, they are endless. I guess “Home Office” is the topic which comes to most minds in high-tech countries. But that is just for starters.

Of course, the pandemic and its impact does not stand on its own. The crisis of democracy which we see continuing to unfold in menacing ways, it adds to confusion, polarization, and fear. But still, this is just the surface of the entire development. The crisis response that we could witness with all its faults and all its successes cannot be looked at in isolation. The pandemic has an impact on everything else which is ongoing. Which at times gives space to discussions such as: Would we have done the same under different circumstances, when it comes to fighting Covid-19? And this is tricky, because I do not want to contribute to any speculation that the crisis response has been used as a pretext for something that has been motivated differently, perhaps mischieveously. This is a pathway quickly leading into the most horrible type of discourse where people begin to de-legitimize any crisis response and also attempt to minimize the threat that is stemming from this global pandemic. A taxi-driver in Belgrade who brought me to the airport told me: “Covid is a machination of the pharma-industry. It has been created as a myth in order to sell vaccines. Wait for it, in April Covid is gone.” The insanity of this simple circular logic is almost ridiculous, but how do regular people feel when historians, sociologists, politicians, epidemiologists, and all else, struggle with giving an answer on something which is only beginning to be understood, whilst the explosive and utterly pervasive impact of it affects the lives of billions of people in life-threatening ways? How to mentally deal with explaining circumstances when you are loosing your job because an economy is melting down? Add the conspiracy-theorists, the fearmongers, the deniers, the liars, whatever. It just increases the desire of many people to find an explanation and to re-direct their fear.

A surgical analysis of what happened as the crisis unfolded will require years. As history is not an exact science, the conclusions will be expressed in untold and diverse, certainly at times contradicting assessments. We will see heated discussions for decades to come.

But what is it what we can see right now? It is very clear that the Covid pandemic did not happen as an isolated crisis but it did unfold at a time when other tectonic tensions were there, or materializing, at the same time. The development has become so interdependent that effects of various crises had a chaotic and hardly predictable impact on other crises. It is all a huge, a gigantic mess. Which reinforces fear. Nobody understands. The wish to blame someone, or something, it is a consequence of rage and fear towards something invisible. People feeling the pain from depression and helplessnes, they want to “smash”, but what?

Some other crises unfolding before and throughout 2020 that have not gone away, and which require more attention than we may have been able to give to them, are:

The Covid pandemic has not just made global warming going away. It has superseded any discussion about it, and it has helped radical deniers of global warming to get away with chopping off previous achievements on environmental protection.

The crisis of legitimacy of the Western system of peace and security, which is in existence since more than 75 years, it has been building up for quite some time, was becoming scarily visible and menacing from 2016 onwards, and further unfolded during the same time when we were hit by the pandemic. Even more: The requirements necessary fighting a pandemic, and even the assessment of the dangers stemming from Covid-19, that all was taken hostage in ways still numbing my mind. The casualties of instrumentalising a pandemic for political fights, including ripping down institutions, they are real. At the time of this writing the United States is going through an unprecendetend challenge of the electoral system, with protagonists of this attack entirely neglecting the pandemic. I don’t want to speculate about numbers, but saying that many thousands, or tens of thousands of people could have been rescued, it is a given. Who will hold those accountable who have, with a clear and insane mind, done that, whilst they swore an oath to protect their citizens, rather than themselves, their riches, their families, and servile friends?

The global economic competition like between China and the United States, or Europe, was in existence before the pandemic. Economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting individual citizens, households, communities, societies. How do we cooperate in a world with limited resources, in which 2020 witnessed an impact which could be partially mitigated in rich countries, but not at all in poor countries? What does the pandemic mean in terms of fueling selfishness of economy? How did the economies send shockwaves into governing the pandemic, and how did the pandemic influence global competition? What will we see in 2021 and beyond? In essence, all these questions create uncertainty and fear. Which create selfishness.

The migration crisis was there, and has not gone away. Not only because of the global warming, or previoulsy existing instability and war. The shockwaves of the pandemic do add. Attempts to curb illegal migration, efforts to influence migration by means of supporting capacity development and economic and security perspectives for populations in threatened regions or on entire continents, it was there before. But how will this play out as we move on through the pandemic and it’s consequences? Will we continue with helping, or have we become used to locking down things, because we are experiencing this even by ourselves. Will this be used for building visible or invisible walls?

Autocratic governments controlling the population were in existence before and it did not stop because of the Covid pandemic. How will selfishness, fueled by the fearmongers of nationalism and xenophobia, influence policy on jointness, with some nations perhaps continuing to be willing to share, and others not? Will we be able to find strength for an new attempt to act collectively, instead of dividing and putting “My Country First”? Which, by the way, is a perfect example for lying straight into the faces of people, because in reality all these actors mean “Me First”.

I sometimes feel like the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Obviously the Covid pandemic created interdependent effects in other major lines of global or regional political and societal development. Tectonic shifts happen only after a long building up of tension between tectonic plates which is mostly not seen and measurable only by using sophisticated technology. But the event triggering the cascade of effects that we feel in a gigantic earthquake, it can be comparatively small. A rupture in a small area can stand on its own when there is no build-up of larger tension. But beware: The tension may be there. In that case, hell is breaking loose once the weakest part of the chain is breaking and the chain reaction of events is unfolding in explosive succession. That is also how I look at the pandemic. It set off something way larger, and perhaps way more catastrophic.

Amongst many effects that came as a consequence of Covid-crisis-management I am also looking at two:

(1) The reoccurrence of borders in the European Union and the erosion of something that could be considered a core achievement inside the European Union, meaning the so-called Schengen Space. Millions of travellers in Europe have witnessed something that was always part of contingency planning in case of crisis management: The temporary re-instating of border control inside the Schengen Area. I believe it was never anticipated to happen on the scale as it did in spring 2020. When finally road travel under severe restrictions was possible again, I traveled devoid highways from South-East-Europe to Germany, with border control and temporary police checkpoints becoming semi-permanent. We all remember the eerily absence of the noise of aircrafts. For people like me, travel is the only way connecting me with my friends and family all over the world. Others felt it during holidays, some behaved, others didn’t. But once we got through the first lockdown and had to handle the first wave of anger about the possibility of new lockdowns springing up again, we also got used to it. So, with this Christmas bringing new lockdown measures, what will be the future of an interconnected world where the border-free Schengen Zone once was a hallmark achievement of the European Union? I am not sure the situation will go back to something called a “status quo ante“, the status like it was before. People who are critical to the vast arranging of border checks are already using an argument that the crisis has been used to erode achievements long held in the EU, and taking rights away, in order to control more. These opinions are inevitable, and may be at this moment is is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us ourselves, to participate in this discourse. The silence of the lambs always has led to catastrophes, and more recently we saw this in well-established democracies who considered themselves to be the bedrock of the modern Western world.

(2) Connected to it is the velocity with which Covid crisis response mechanisms also severely affected individual rights of freedom of movement or freedom of expression of opinion and freedom to demonstrate. Even more, we are facing a holiday season where States regulate how many people from different households can meet inside their homes. I would, frankly, never had imagined that I am facing a situation where my brothers and I have to think about how to organise Christmas, because if the three of us including a few children and partners meet, we will exceed the permissible number of people gathering in one large house. These restrictions are new and subject to learning and regulation by legislators, but also by the courts. We have seen courts already doing what they have to do: Correcting measures of the executive, where excessive. Because we don’t have blueprints. We make mistakes, having the best intentions, but we make many. So it is a normal procedure that courts will contribute to acceptable application of law. At the same time, law is evolving as well. And like in the first example, the steering democratic discourse will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us, ourselves. A discourse ensuring that the rule of law prevails.

Taken together, for me the two case-studies are examples for potential regression. Signature achievements being taken away, hopefully only temporarily. But it happens during a time where the Covid-pandemic, as I mapped out, does not stand on its own. It happens during a time of newly incensed nationalism, conservatism, renewed right-wing extremism, fascism on the rise, autocratic attacks on democracy and the rule of law intensifying. It comes at a time of effects that go beyond re-emergence of borders, and infringements on human rights which require rigid scrutiny. Motivations mingle: We see governments (like mine) attempting to act as responsible as possible with temporary restrictions. We see tendencies of xenophobia, attacks on minority rights, erosion of inalienable human and individual rights, and efforts to reverse hard-fought achievements in domains such as the right of women, or the rigths to which the LGBTQ-community is entitled. It is a wild mix of “retro” banding together, and I am certainly not saying they are motivated by the crisis coming with the pandemic, but all these developments fuel each other, and not to the best of humankind.

I can not help but feeling afraid. Whilst I fully appreciate the necessity to infringe on basic rights under extraordinary circumstances of threats, I also fear that we may have opened pandora’s box. The other day I had a coffee with a friend over a long (and socially-distanced) walk in the park. We were reflecting on the fatigue which we all sometimes feel. Like, “What difference do we make with our work and our passion?”. We both agreed that much of this fatigue comes from the depression which holds many people in their grip after now almost one full and grueling year of how individual life has been affected.

I have no other answer than that we need to continue. Human perception is always attracted by everything scary and negative. My experience is that, at the same time, we can also see, and focus on, how the best human attitudes have been shaped: Kindness, respect, nurturing relationships with different means, intensifying communication with loved ones, taking care the best way possible for lonely people. I’m not rambling at the end, I am just arguing that there is a need to focus on positive developments. Not only because it protects our mental health. More importantly because it truly makes a difference without which we would become silent lambs in the face of fear, anger, rage, and fearmongering. These four lead to isolation. There is no need for being isolated, or feeling so. I have had more contacts with friends and loved ones than I ever had before. Much of it, of course, with modern means of communication. But it has, very clearly, grounded me in a circle of people who I support, and who support me.

Merry Christmas!

Die Wahrheit bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verzerrt – Truth Distorted Beyond Recognition – On Gaslighting

Mary Trump, estranged niece of Donald Trump, daugther of Donald Trump’s late older brother Fred Trump jr, published a book this summer. One of these tell-alls, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man”. Mary Trump is a practicing psychologist. In this world where truth is what I tell you, and lies are what the others say, you will probably find references to her credibility widely represented in one side of the media, and scathing attacks on her personal and professional credibility on the other side of the aisle. In a widely published interview she was recently saying that she thinks her uncle genuinely believes he won the election and that he’s the only person she knows ‘who can gaslight himself’. The Internet is chock full with references to her statement, in all languages. So, look it up also for yourself.

One person and his sycophants are gaslighting half of the population of the United States. Why does this matter over here in Europe? Because it has not only a real impact here as well, it is also happening here on its own, and interconnected with what is happening on that other continent. The gaslighting is not limited to an individual victim, not to a community, a society, a political party, a State, or the continent of North America. The systematic imprisonment of individuals into a fake reality which is being established by the gaslighter, it happens all over the world. It has become viral, people being gaslighted who further spread the manipulative messages, mixing with people who may realize what is happening and who hook up to the viral development because it resonates with how they think and feel and how they want to influence things for their own motives. This is not a linear thing which can be traced back to one person, so to speak, at the top. There is no mastermind. There are people who are good at it, and certainly this includes Mary Trump’s uncle. But it happens so widely because there seem to be many conditions being met which allow for the relentless attack on truth and values that we have believed in for decades. Again, Anne Applebaum’s book which I quoted from in a previous entry provides many regional examples, whether from Poland, Hungary, The United Kingdom, or Spain. And my country, Germany, is a breeding space for the same thing as well. Unfortunately, again. History appears to repeat itself.

Gaslighting requires control over the victim and where the victim gets his or her information from. Ideally total control. I will explain in a second, after having said something on the Internet, related to the aspect of “control”: In principle, the Internet knows no geographical border. It has been designed to withstand control. It’s roots are deeply anarchic, allowing for the freedom to exchange anything that can be transmitted through it’s cables and wireless connections. That is why autocratic systems undertake every effort under the sun to control the Internet, including attempting to establish regional versions, or fighting encryption tooth and nail. Whether it is in China, or elsewhere. Shutting down the Internet, in times of a crisis with unrest, it sounds innocent. But it is always a matter of the motive behind: Why does one exert control? Because of a danger for, say individual lifes or the general public? Or because of the danger for an autocrat, his family, and the oligarchy on which’s back he can thrive? Think Belarus, just for example.

Control over what people see, hear, or are meant to believe, you can exert that control by means of physical, or technological deprivation. You do it by making sure that your victim does not communicate with anyone outside the realms of your control: The messaging includes that the other side is your enemy, and you don’t talk to your enemy. One of the oldest tricks under the sleeves of autocrats, dictators, but also terrorists. Gaslighting adds a most perfidious layer: It will lead to that people do not trust other sources of information any longer. They may have a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that something is not adding up. But since they don’t know a way out, they give in. Once you give in, you need to make yourself believing that you are not a victim. So you rationalize why you’re allowing yourself being part of the group you have been coerced into. The “Stockholm Syndrome” is based on the same mechanism.

Like the car dealer has sold the most expensive car to you and you make yourself believe that this was solely a calculation which you came up with yourself, you don’t need to take away access to news channels such as CNN or the NY Times anymore. The victim of gaslighting won’t trust them and won’t use them. Recently, Fox News began to experience this downfall, too.

So, what is “gaslighting”? Gaslighting is an expression being used for a form of psychological abuse and violence. Victims of gaslighting are being purposefully disoriented, manipulated and ripped off their self-confidence. Gaslighting means to gradually take away any ability to trust reality as it is. In individual psychology, gaslighting includes means to deform and eradicate any form of self-esteem of the victim. Here, for once, a German definition of it. The term “gaslighting” gradually appears to become a mainstream expression, including in other languages.

Unfortunately, gaslighting is a common and widely spread form of psychological and emotional abuse. I will use examples for explaining what it means. At the core of why I am writing this blog entry also sits my belief that Mary Trump is wrong by exclusively attributing the ability to gaslight oneself to her uncle. I believe that this is a common phenomenon. In case of need, I make myself believe my own lies, until I have reached the point where I have created a genuine alternate reality, and memory. The current incumbent of the Office of the President of the United States is anything but special in this, except that he may have become really very good at it.

Why is it useful to say that one can become victim of own gaslighting? Like so often, things are not black and white only. Gaslighters are as much perpetrators as they are victims. And the act of gaslighting happens on a scale that can include single-instances, perhaps beginning with negligent, thoughtless, selfish behavior. It can become a self-reinforcing habit, since one has embarked on a path leading to more of the same, and then ultimately to breakdown and severe damage. On its exteme end, gaslighting is pervasive, endemic, and monstrous in acts and damage. Monstrous gaslighters are sociopaths on the extreme side of the spectrum. Their behavior is deeply anti-social, anti-human, and often criminal in nature.

The sibling of gaslighting is denial. Which is, in terms of brain development through hundreds of thousands of years of humankind, a very ancient capability of our brains that allowed for survival. Like, in the stone-age. Denial is a mechanism which shields the brain from overwhelming events and situations posing a threat to physical survival and mental and emotional sanity. It is meant to be a temporary fix. But like many other human capabilities, it requires a balance of threatening events and peaceful times, and when this balance is absent, things get out of control, permanently. Neurophysiologically out of control. Denial alters the way how we perceive, and relate to, reality. And in that, the gaslighter is no better equipped than his or her victim.

The underlying motivation both for denial and gaslighting is fear. Strong fear. More often than not this fear may not even be acknowledged by the gaslighter him- or herself. It is about loosing control. Cold blooded sociopaths can do that without losing the knowledge about that they are creating a fake reality in which they imprison the victim. But most of us are not carrying such extreme sociopathic traits that would allow us to do that.

Like everything else above, sociopathy is a form of human behavior that happens on a scale. There are extreme ends of the scale but to some extent or the other sociopathic traits are common parts of the individual psychology of many people. But even if I say that there are sociopaths who are displaying extreme forms of this disorder, it does not mean that these people do not feel emotions. Severe forms of sociopathic conditions become a disorder entailing to be progressively unable feeling emotions of other people. Note: I say “of”, not “for”. But sociopaths are not machines. Whilst they struggle with understanding and acknowledging emotions of others, they do feel their own emotions. The combination of not feeling what others feel gives space for disproportionate and intensified feelings for oneself, and this is especially true for fear. It is creating extreme forms of selfishness and self-centeredness.

Let me bring the parts of the picture alive with a personal case study. Like I said, the world is not black and white, things can be on the less extreme end, or they can be serious, or, if allowed to, they can develop from less severe to monstrous.

When I was nine years old, I went through a really difficult time at school. It was part of an overall development, I grew up with a raging father using physical punishment as a form of education. Because he had grown up under the same circumstances. Likewise, when he was not able to control his own rage, verbal, emotional and physical violence were something he had no control of. He had experienced the same with his father. As always, it hurt himself when it happened, but the result would not be an apology, but fierce denial. So I grew up with the distorted view that everything which happened to me was my own fault. Since this is not a blog entry for full personal disclosure, I will leave it with that, stressing that I love my father and that I reconciled, many decades later.

However, at the age of nine my difficult times at school fueled my low self-confidence. I had no friends. And getting bad grades wasn’t something that helped me building self-confidence. Rather, it established profound, existential fear. Fear from punishment at home. This fear grew so strong that I would not reveal the bad grade I once got. I simply could not. But the bad grade is in your exam book. And sure enough, the next test would be as bad as the previous one. What to do? Telling? No way. Soldiering on in denial that one day the story would break. But fear grew to panic levels. At one point I found myself physically removing pages from my exam book, just in case my parents would want to see and control it. I went to greatest length in this manipulation, again, with fear in my stomach going through the roof. There were two occasions when I ran away from home. I hated the days, escaped into my bed at night. It was horrible.

Then my teacher lost her patience. She gave me a note to be delivered to my parents, requesting a talk. And she asked me to bring this note back to her, signed by my father or mother. This was the worst development ever, but I was not capable to give up. What did I do? During a long afternoon session, I created a birthday card for my mother. In an insane story I had come up with, this birthday card for some reasons had to include a signature. But where the signature on this card was meant to show up, I cut a hole into that card. Underneath, the note from school. And finally, I used a blank paper as a third level, again with a hole where my mother was supposed to sign the card. I designed it in a way that the decorative elements of the fake birthday card were visible through the cover paper. And I went down to my mother, explaining in full panic mode that I was preparing something as a surprise for which I needed her signature, and that I could not tell her why. My mother was stunned, but she was also seeing me being upset, crying and begging. Whilst she had all reasons to suspect that something was wrong, I made her doubting herself, and trusting me. I gaslighted her. She finally signed.

Well, that signature was so small that my teacher immediately suspected a fake. Subsequently, my cover broke and armageddon came down on me. But why am I exposing myself here? Because this was the first, perhaps mild, form of gaslighting I did. And I never forgot it. I would refer to it for decades to come. But it would not prevent me from doing the same thing again, almost fourty-five years later, when the fear level in relation to my life breaking apart was reaching the same gigantic proportions.

People can grow apart for many reasons, but one chief reason is dishonesty. The bond between a mother and her child may forgive, but marriages and any relationship less likely do so. Dishonesty to oneself and to others is the chief reason for relationships breaking up. I believe the same is true for communities, societies, and States. If there is no honesty in communicating with each other, the catastrophe is inevitable. It may take a long time, but like with me at the age of nine, being a child, this is true because I believe it is a universal truth. And until this catastrophy happens, denial and also gaslighting are common features of an underlying condition of fear. Fear of losing control in a situation which increasingly is slipping out of one’s hands.

In my personal case, this happened roughly fourty-five years after the events of my childhood. I am so NOT proud of it. I’m sparing details, but it had to do with how my marriage had developed into a meaningless hull. Over those many years leading to the final stages, denial led me to believe that the reasons for this deterioration were not sitting with my own behavior. Rather, I victimised myself with an inner narrative with which I made myself believe I was the victim of sad circumstances, and that I deserve some relief. And means of relief, including alcohol, were just sedatives of which I needed more and more. This came with secrecy. I was dishonest to myself and my loved ones. Which wasn’t going unnoticed on the side of my loved ones. In a close relationship it is virtually impossible to entirely hide things, even with the best tricks possible.

But what happens in this case on the side of the partner? He or she will develop a feeling that something is not right. Controlling the other person may not be an option, including because it just doesn’t feel right. So, denial is kicking in on both sides in a relationship. But some things do not add up, and when this happens, gaslighting is coming into play.

I sometimes have the feeling that you want to make me believing that I have wrong perceptions.” Whenever my then wife would say this, after there was enough despair on her side to speak her truth, there was a little corner in myself mumbling that she is right. But overwhelmingly I was making myself and her believing that this wasn’t the case, that I did not establish a fake reality, that it was her who saw things in a distorted way. And again, though I learned a lot about the neurophysiology behind, I am NOT proud of it. I try not to be ashamed either. I just try to be honest, and hold myself accountable, and to do amends.

It was only after we broke up and my ex-wife had gone through enough recovery from her own pain, anger, grief, and also understanding of how the dance of two persons was based on wrong belief systems on both sides that she was able to repeat the above statement towards me with not too much own pain. And it was only because I went through my own recovery with intense work on myself that I was able to see, and to acknowledge, my own behavior. But it took years. When our relationship hit rock-bottom, and I hit rock-bottom, I found myself in so much pain and fear that I literally saw myself repeating my behavior that I had as a nine-year-old: I systematically trained the use of a lie in order to make myself believe the fake reality, so that I could use the narrative without blushing, stuttering, and with a heartbeat beyond 180 bpm.

Because my world broke into pieces, I had the chance to see it. If I would have succceeded in my fear-driven control, I would have progressively believed my own lies. It would have driven my then-wife into insanity. People who discover that they have been subjected to severe forms of gaslighting have a really hard time regaining mental sanity and the ability to trust other people. My ex-wife and I are friends today. Not only parents, good parents, but good friends. It is the gift of my lifetime. On my part, this is the consequence of a rigid decision to always remain honest to myself and others. And after many years of practicing this, my ex-wife saw enough reason to trust me, and to love me for my commitment, to myself, and to the people in my life who I love, and who love me.

Of course, this is only a personal case-study. It is not meant to establish an academic argument on gaslighting. It is meant to underpin why I believe that truth matters. Gaslighting is destroying truth, and the ability to trust. It leads to personal self-destruction, demolition of relationships, even criminal behavior. It leads to incredible suffering and pain. When it happens on a societal scale, it leads to societies running rock-bottom. And yes, like in personal cases, recovery of trust is possible on the level of communities and societies as well. But is doesn’t come as a Christmas present. It requires hard work. Better now than after the breaking-up. Because one way or the other, more often than not breaking up comes with violence. In my personal case, I am so grateful for the peaceful transition into healing and trust, and then love and friendship, through all the endless pain and discomfort. Thus, I believe, we can do it in larger contexts, too.

It requires profound honesty. Zero-tolerance to lies. Avoidance of anger, resentment, and rage. The ability to listen, rather than talking. Humility. Willingness to admit mistakes immediately. And the willingness to forgive. Oneself and others.

On a grey November day over here

“My personal view of this is, yes, it’s pathetic, yes it’s ridiculous,” Levin said. “However if you look at history, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are born often when there’s some exit ramp out of democracy. And I’m sure a lot of the people involved at those times said, ‘Oh whatever, obviously they’re so completely breaking the rules that they’ll be stopped.’ But they aren’t.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich), quoted in The Washington Post, Nov. 20, 2020

The summer of 2020

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when COVID-19 wiped out large swaths of my plans to travel. I had planned to deepen friendships and was looking forward to my connection to family and loved ones. All live in different parts of this world. I imagined that I would regularly meet professional interlocutors by traveling all over the Western Balkans, I would travel to see friends, and I would contribute to nurturing the buds of a new relationship. I would form new memories, making it easier to live with the memories of those summers in the U.S. which I, until today, miss with excruciating pain. July 4th was a tough day for me.

So far, nothing like that has happened. Shortly after I arrived in my new center of working and living, Covid-19 struck. For a few weeks I had enjoyed meetings with new and old colleagues. Within a day or so in March, I saw them only in their home offices, on Zoom, and that is lasting until today. I found myself in an increasingly intense lockdown, organizing work from my own home office, structuring the day keeping me sane, in ways allowing me to get the basics done, including shopping, before the curfew hit, getting work done, staying in connection with friends and family, and not overdosing on Netflix during the evenings. A seemingly never ending string of weekend-long curfews culminated around christian and orthodox Easter, locking me into the routine of my apartment for days without end.

Everything happened on Zoom, WhatsApp, Signal, FaceTime, Skype, and using a myriad of other communication tools. There was a phase of enthusiasm at the beginning, both on the work side and the private side of things new forms of communication offered more intense opportunities to connect. But that began to wear out after a few weeks. People started to crave personal contacts. Everybody struggled with the fear of an economic downturn affecting the financial foundations of their lifes. I found myself increasingly dealing with mood swings, and planning when to travel to Germany was a nightmare of calculating when there would be the ideal slot, being able to travel, to self-quarantine on arrival, doing the things I needed to do in Germany, and traveling back to Belgrade hopefully with the least complications possible. My mind went into such a frantic mode that I began to be affected by not being able to decide, constantly worrying.

So, when the counter-measures to the pandemic which shut down the entire continent of Europe yielded success, the feeling of relief was incredible. I felt it personally, I was able to travel to a remote campsite in Croatia for two consecutive weekends, enjoying peace in nature on my own. Yet, my children in Toronto lived through extraordinary restrictions, and they do so until now. In Europe, temporary border control measures were lifted in the European Union, and here in the Western Balkans, people put their hope on being able to travel for holidays, and to travel into the EU by getting their regular visa again. I was hoping to travel to Bucharest in Romania, and until today this has not materialized. Like my children in Toronto, I saw my friend in Bucharest last time January this year. And once I travel to Germany again, with plans to see my father, I will have to be extremely vigilant taking his fragility at old age into account. His health is deteriorating.

Whilst hope kept me in limbo, I saw the figures of new infections rising again. We experience a second wave here in South-East Europe, almost everywhere registered new infections rise to the level where they were in spring. I worry again about when to travel for the summer time, which I plan to spend in Germany, and in Canada. Traveling just to neighboring Romania remains a distant dream. I have days where I feel overwhelmed by frustration, and only connection to my friends helps me accepting this new reality that is there to stay.

This is the regional picture, here in parts of Europe. Already this picture is overwhelmingly complex. In the United States the situation is much different, the pandemic is in full swing, currently out of control, and in the stranglehold of a cultural war. And though I believe that I pay attention to news on a global level, I see that my focus is on the developments in the so-called West. I see things being equally out of control in countries in Central and South America, and in Asia. In Africa, too: South Africa’s figures are going through the roof, whilst there are so many underdeveloped countries which I traveled and love where I doubt even the capacity to register new cases is there.

But the overhelming news I consume relate to Europe, and North America. Including obsessive paying attention to how one of the oldest democracies of this world is under attack from the inside, fighting for its life. It is mindblowing that even the person who is a main driver of this attack would agree with my statement. Because he says too that this attack is happening, but he, the attacker, brazenly blames the other side for everything. Madness. History is repeating itself, and with the legacy of what happened to my country ninety years ago, and with twenty years of personal experience with worst-case-scenarios all over the world, I have to be careful in not allowing my emotions taking over and coming up with Doomsday phantasies.

The anxieties and fear which I have described using my own personal example, they hold true for everyone on a global level. My example is the example of one within billions. The fear, the anxiety, the attempt to find entry points into understanding what is going on, the helplessness and the wish to control things, the anger and despair, the resentment, these are global commonalities. It creates a highly combustible mix, as we have seen on occasions of global movements against racism and police abuse of power. 

I also see that I am part of a privileged group of people who are educated, sticking to the guns of science and truth, and who have developed strong tools for not allowing irrational fear taking over. I am privileged through my global and longstanding experiences, and the knowledge how to carefully assess, and to contribute to complex situations. Many people do not enjoy these privileges, but they share the same fears, the same anger, the same resentment, and they crave to control the situation by being able to give meaning to what is happening.

This summer is presenting challenges for my fighting hard to separate my personal disappointments, fears and pain from my assessments on larger issues, like the pandemic, like global anxiety, or economic depression, like the global rise of authoritarians. Emotions can amplify each other: When pain, fear of the unknown, and the feeling of having no control hit, the result is more fear, and helplessness. The result is more anger and more anger fuels more resentment. Like everyone else, I want to make this unpleasant feeling go away.

When it comes to how emotions drive people, I use my personal example by saying that this is a summer when I found it increasingly challenging to turn anger into compassion. My personal experience helps me to understand how other fellow human beings struggle the same way during this summer: How hard it is to stay away from the ever more tempting wish to simplify things, to find explanations allowing for shifting the blame to others. How much the constant battle rhythm of indoctrination through lies, conspiracy theories, and manipulation establishes a fog meant to control people, by keeping them angry, and controlling the direction of their anger, and how to discharge it against an enemy being created by those who manipulate.

When someone defies the explosion of new cases in the U.S., rallying people for extremely divisive speech, some believe this is one of the last acts in this disgusting performance. But make no mistake, what is happening is cold-blooded calculation: It is about using the pent-up anger, locking people into a narrative that they are warriors for a higher cause, using the psychological effects of the Stockholm Syndrome in combination with the kick coming from openly defying social distancing and wearing masks, indulging into national pride and a false sense of freedom. National pride is being manipulated into nationalism, fascism is established by blaming the others for left-wing fascism. It is the oldest trick in history: Do something openly and claim that it is the other side doing it. Keep people in your walled garden (which is a mental prison) and shut down all channels of alternative explanations of the reality for them. One of the most cruel things, aside of open racism is the weaponization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are those who let down their guards by believing this will be over soon. History shows the power of victimization, combined with a relentless narrative based on lies and manipulation. Even in a best-case-scenario this won’t be over for a decade to come.

In this war, real people are dying already. And from all predictive modeling and experience with what happens when social distancing is abolished, there will be thousands more. Having contracted the Covid-19-virus, they will deny themselves the acknowledgement that they got it because the pied piper called on them.

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when I, a pacifist and idealist hoping for change to the better, for the first time ever in my long life accepted that resisting the global nomenclatura of greed and unbounded selfishness may require to accept that standing up for this fight includes being prepared for that the nomenclatura fights back and that retreat is not an option, at great personal cost. And that we may have to accept tears and sorrow.



Workshop “Implementing the Protection of Civilians Concept in UN Peace Operations”

December 12, 2019, I was invited as a panelist in a workshop with the above title, convening a number of experienced individuals providing a political, humanitarian, military, and policing perspective to one of the most demanding topics within the context of peace operations of the United Nations. The following is my contribution to this workshop, as a panelist.


The moderator of the panel in which I participated, provided the following framework

For our discussion, it would therefore be wonderful if you could speak for 10-12min, addressing from your own experience some of the points above, identifying concrete challenges and practical ways to overcome them – with the aim of providing advice for a potential stronger role of Germany in implementing POC . I would in particular encourage you to provide as many concrete examples as possible to illustrate the points to the audience.


I can not help but begin with asking four crucial questions, when we talk about “Protection of Civilians”. If we would jump immediately into military and policing aspects, I believe that we are repeating a mistake which I have witnessed being made all too often:


  • Protection by whom?
  • Protection for which reasons?
  • Protection against what?
  • Protection with which means?


Let me explain:


Protection by whom?


We usually say that the protection of the civilian population is a core responsibility of the State in question. And then I usually say: When a peacekeeping mission is mandated to protect civilians, this is a substitution for this responsibility, because the State in question can’t, doesn’t want to, or should not, exercise this responsibility, or any combination of these three reasons. I can give many examples, if it is useful, later on.

But we usually conclude from the fact that we substitute for a State responsibility that the State in question has been exercising this responsibility before, by means of a State apparatus including police, and military. Which is often not true. Quite often, the reach of the State and its organs is limited to urban areas, or the Capital. Like in Afghanistan, Yemen, to some extent Somalia, or in the northern parts of Mali, and for various reasons. Or there is, for example, Abyei, the “Box” between Sudan and South Sudan, where there is no State authority because the area is subject to unsolved political disputes.

The reality, however, is that very often, when there is no conflict, and no State authority, it does not mean that nobody exercises POC. We often disregard, or sometimes have difficulties to accept within the culture of our thinking, the relevance of tribal structures, or co-existing parallel frameworks affecting only parts of the population: Like two different frameworks in Nigeria, one for the Muslim part of the country, one for the non-Muslim part.

Why is this important? Because I often see the reflex in mandates that we talk about the extension of State authority, and meanwhile the peacekeepers exercise POC. Like in Mali. Well, in Kidal the extension of State authority from Bamako is not creating much enthusiasm, same in Somalia or in many other places.

So, when we start to protect within a flawed, but well-meant, political context, we run into problems: SRSGs, Force Commanders, and Police Commissioners. We can discuss that.


Protection for which reasons?


They are being slaughtered. They hide amongst piles of dead neighbors in Srebrenica, pretending to be dead. They are being raped and killed in the open, outside of the Gates of UN camps in South Sudan. They have no justice, nor order, in Abyei. They are target of extremists and terrorists in Kidal, Mopti, Gao, Timbuktu. They are being recruited as slaves or servants or child soldiers, in the DRC, or in Burkina Faso or Niger, as they were in Sierra Leone, or Liberia. They are subject to retaliation by the Kosovo Liberation Army after the Serb VJ and the MUP had to leave, as a consequence of the Military Technical Agreement in Kosovo. And on and on and on.

I said it: We substitute for the absence of protection. We do know from longstanding experience that successful substitution works better at the beginning, where we do not have more than, at best, initial operational capacity, and an enthusiastic population, as well as a somewhat muted group of former powerholders. Then we struggle with generating the necessary means, and meanwhile things get difficult for us for a million reasons. Sooner or later they don’t like us that much, any more. And then we see that there is no sustainable alternative to domestic protection of civilians. At times, or often, we realize that too late.

Substitution needs the implementation of capacity building from the very first day on, as an exit strategy. And here we run into a plethora of challenges. Let me pick two: We don’t like to talk to former militia and else, they may be subject to war crime investigations. But to whom do I talk? Or I heard, in Mali and in CAR: We can not do capacity building, because they have to run through their elections first. So, we delay capacity building. Or, in Mali, I saw that we got the responsibility to capacitate four different law enforcement branches. Unfortunately, the former group of Tuareg controlled by terrorists had taken away the police cars, radios, ripped the electricity cables from the police stations, and they used the cars for attacking the population during power cuts in the dark. And when I asked the international community to help not only with training, but with equipment, the response was very muted, to put it mildly. Or in Bangui: I saw the DG of the Police in his headquarters. A few pieces of paper from destroyed criminal archives were still floating around, a rusty skeleton of a police car stood on the compound, windows were broken, and the one AK 47 I saw I would not even have test-fired without standing behind a solid wall.


Protection against what?


Every police and military planner will ask this question first: What is the threat? Contemporary conflict environments are facing a dimension of threats which is very different from parties to a conflict having agreed to a peace agreement and still some flares of violence continue. Our environments include asymmetric threats, sometimes we talk about “non State actors”, but I talk about a complex web of interests between local and State powerholders, extremists, terrorists, organized crime, former warlords, rebellious military and police commanders, and and and. Any physical protection by police and military is being set into a political context where SRSGs need to talk and negotiate and exercise coercion and nurture agreements, but where stakeholders within the economy of crime and conflict tend not to talk openly to those SRSGs. Rather, they at best disregard the political, military and police means given to the peacekeepers. If these peacekeepers run across their interests, they are being targeted, and/or the population is, because if one wants to control a population, one needs to disrupt communication between those who protect them, and themselves. Then, offer some social services yourselves, and the Stockholm Syndrome will help deepening the divisions.

Protection requires communication between the protectors and the protected at the core. I will spare examples for the discussion.

Secondly, the threat is hybrid: On the extreme side, it is a military threat. On the other side of the spectrum, it may be a criminal threat, and a threat to order because of the absence of elements of order. But in the huge middle part of the spectrum of threats, these threats are hybrid. This does not allow for applying distinctly separate military and policing means. When the Bridge Watchers in Mitrovica-North had taken advantage of some foolish international police officers who thought they could flex their muscles, any international presence broke down. I flooded the place with short-sleeved police officers, under heavy area protection by KFOR and heavily armed Formed Police Units. Their task was to go where the Bridge Watchers were, and to talk to the population, and to shopkeepers. Explicitly, they had to disengage if subject to provocation. And they had to come back the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I can explain how we turned the situation around. Later.

So what I say is that military and police peacekeepers are within an extremely robust environment where they both need to exercise policing logic and means. This does not only require sufficient police, but also sufficient soldiers who are trained in policing logic, and it requires a joint structure of command. In my view, my friend Maqsood Ahmad, MilAd, and I, PolAd, were not successful in trying this in Bangui. Because neither Military Commanders nor Police Commanders were willing to trust each other under one chain of command. Neither when we gave it to the Police Commissioner, nor later on, after heavy violence, to the Force Commander.


Which leads to the last topic:

Protection with which means?


I will be brief, because this needs to be discussed:

  1. POC begins with a sound political understanding.
  2. Political leaders of peacekeeping operations need to make both Force Commanders and Police Commissioners a core element of their daily consultations. They need to hold these Commanders accountable for jointness, and they have to demonstrate leadership in checking on to which extent military and police leaders in peacekeeping operations work together, rather than only saying they do. SRSG have to reach out to both, and not to talk about “The Force”, meaning their military means, and the Police Commissioner as an annex. Likewise, a Police Commissioner who does not entrust policing tasks to military colleagues, and instead saying he needs more attention, and police officers, just hides behind this seemingly correct argument, instead of embracing the reality: He or she won’t get more officers, and even if there were enough, still there is a massive need of jointness of thinking and planning and implementing concepts to protect civilians. And if police and military leaders tell you that the respective counterpart doesn’t work with you, and you hear it from both leaders, fire them both.
  3. We can complain about the absence of enough police capacity for policing problems, it will not change. I have deliberately not commented on the POC strategy, and what I did between 2013 and 2017 to come up with a POC doctrine for UNPOL. The message that I want to get through at the end is that colleagues in green and blue fatigues with blue helmets are facing a challenge which they can only solve in unison. This needs to be reflected in training. I have repeatedly said: I don’t care about the color of the uniform. I care about the function to be implemented. In vast parts, this is about policing in a rough and dangerous environment. So, I suggest we overcome the hesitation that comes into play when military colleagues begin to think and to train like police. It is the single-most important challenge on the side of uniformed peacekeepers to overcome the divide between green and blue, and to be both green and blue in hearts and minds.

A High-level View on Reform Needs for Peace Operations

This article combines an analysis of current reform efforts, and reform needs that I see following my four previous posts on the impact of trauma on sustainable peace and reconciliation. So, partly, you will see language coming from there. Opposed to these four pieces, this one does not make reference to external sources through footnotes. If you want to “check the fact-checking” for my conclusions, read the more detailed analysis.

Since taking office January 2017, the UN Secretary General has made the reform of how the UN engages in the field of peace and security a top priority. His vision includes efforts to improve the complex architecture through which the many UN actors within the Secretariat and within UN agencies contribute. More importantly, it also includes improving the conceptual approach: A historically grown delineation between peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts, with the latter following the former, is being gradually replaced by more integrated approaches which put conflict prevention at the fore. Sustained peace and security is the best approach to prevent relapse into renewed conflict.

In his own words, the SG describes the challenge in his report to the General Assembly and the Security Council on peacebuilding and sustaining peace: “An important breakthrough … was the recognition that efforts to sustain peace were necessary not only once conflict had broken out but also long beforehand, through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes. More countries have recently experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly three decades. Forced displacement has reached unparalleled levels. In too many places, the cohesion of societies and the well-being of people are at risk. Building a common vision of society must involve paying attention to the causes of those problems. In the resolutions, it was recognized that the international community must redouble its efforts to support Member States in preventing crises that exact such unacceptable and growing human and financial tolls.

The Secretary General thus points at the inherent connection between well-being of people, the cohesion of societies, and the likelihood of violent conflict: Health, including mental health, and cohesion of communities and societies are inseparable. In the currently increasingly challenged global system, with a rise of populism, nationalism, disregard of achievements on human values and rights, and erosion of vital elements of democracy including the rule of law, international organizations such as the United Nations are experiencing distrust and at times open hostility. A credible implementation of the UN SG’s vision requires to give him utmost support.

UN policy has not kept up with developments in peacekeeping, which has seen an increasing number of mandates that have changed the principles which have traditionally defined it as based on consent, limited use of force, and impartiality. The 2008 Capstone Doctrine sought, based on the findings and recommendations of the 2000 Brahimi Report, and on the aforementioned principles, to place peacekeeping within a spectrum of “Peace and Security Activities”, a “range of activities undertaken by the United Nations and other international actors to maintain peace and security throughout the world”.


Whilst the Capstone Doctrine places peacekeeping within a larger set of concepts, the other elements remain largely undefined policy wise. This is also true for UN Special Political Missions. As one of the consequences of a changed environment in which these missions operate, peacekeeping has focused more and more on the grey zone with peace enforcement, making it more difficult to create a distinction to peace enforcement which is required if one is to uphold the traditional principles of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is challenged by having a conceptual identity that is less reflected in contemporary mandates. With regard to it’s current reform, there is a common tendency to focus on those parts of this reform that make operations fit for work in less benign environments where there is less and less consent of stakeholders with the presence of a UN operation that includes more coercive capabilities. As another consequence, the distinction between peacekeeping operations and special political missions, which have been growing over the years since then, has become more difficult as well. At the same time, no follow up to the Capstone Doctrine took place. The “scattershot, incoherent and occasionally contradictory or competitive international efforts as a significant source of failed peacebuilding efforts”, as described by the SG in his 18 January 2018 report, comes as no surprise.

The 2015 report of the “High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations”, in conjunction with the 2015 “Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture” have set the stage for the current reform activities. Yet, a unifying policy that would reflect the views of all stakeholders within the United Nations how best to combine existing tools under the primacy of the Secretary General’s vision of putting conflict prevention to the fore is not yet visible.

At the same time, again with the SG’s own words in his report as of 18 January 2018, “the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains the blueprint of the common vision of society towards which the world is trying to move. Inclusive and sustainable development not only is an end in itself but also happens to be the best defence against the risks of violent conflict. The 2030 Agenda also contains the promise to leave no one behind in the quest to build such societies.

It can, therefore, be argued that the reform vision of the UN requires a fundamental discussion about how to proceed with outdated and incomplete doctrine: Peace operations need to be more integrated, which is one of the objectives behind the SG’s reform initiative of the peace&security architecture of the UN Secretariat: The UN is currently implementing a new organizational setup. This absorbs most capacity that is not already consumed by operational needs. However, in order to drive change, in this fundamental discussion there is a need for guiding strategic principles for mandating peace operations, and how they integrate the political objectives of the UN and its constituency. Growing rifts between members of the UN Security Council, and between the driving forces of the Security Council and the general constituency represented in the UN General Assembly can significantly paralyze future success of this reform.

If identifying root causes of conflict, as stated by the SG, sits at the heart of conflict prevention activities, then identifying root causes for relapse into conflict is a core activity of conflict prevention as well. It has often been stated that, in order to get peacekeeping done right, important opportunities of assistance during the early “golden hours” need to be addressed better. This is true for transnational threats including the combined effects of transnational organized crime, violent extremism, and terrorism, but it is also true for early assistance to peacebuilding, which often is missing recognition in mandating peacekeeping operations. Even more then this is vital if a renewed strategy of the United Nations is meant to lead to more integration and coherence between what currently is understood as peacekeeping and as peacebuilding.

Innovative approaches are needed in support of the Secretary General’s vision to make the entire system fit for contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The context between conflict- and war related trauma of entire young generations and their caregivers through many forms of abuse on one hand, and the ability of communities and a society to move forward towards sustainable peace on the other hand, remains part of the scattershot activities of actors attempting to help, but without a guiding high-level policy.

At all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities. This is the reality until today. Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of severe war crimes or genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. Never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today. In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children. Women in war-torn societies face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, systematically deployed to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities. In all this suffering, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. Mental health is severely affected by irreparable damage to the developing brain, and mitigating coping mechanisms within families or communities are dysfunctional or absent.

Sustained severe trauma through conflict-related violence profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish healthy human relations. Because of neurophysiological damage inflicted by enduring trauma this is true for all cultures.

The International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues. Billion-dollar peacekeeping operations get stuck in conflict where there is no peace to keep, losing capacity and credibility to contribute to peacebuilding.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats by their parents experience that a country denies access to a port of entry to vessels operated by aid organizations. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother” on either side. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues. Deported forced migrants come back to their country of origin, with little hope for peace, security, and some economic future. What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

On a high-level policy level, a much better appreciation of the damaging neurophysiological consequences of sustained childhood trauma within communities within and post conflict is necessary. A health-focused discussion needs to happen, recognizing the importance for peacebuilding efforts. Notwithstanding the different conditions created by different conflicts for whether, and how, the effects of severe trauma can be addressed through international assistance, its impact itself on communities and a society are deep. Whilst the crippling, life long, and intergenerational impact of trauma, especially during early childhood, on individual mental and physiological health is well documented and increasingly better understood, less knowledge exists about how it affects conflict- and post-conflict communities in different cultural settings. Even less studies have been undertaken on how such communities affected by large scale mental health deficiencies contribute to societal healing, or are supported in healing by those societies they exist in. Yet, any practitioner will agree on the relevance, perhaps with varying degrees of helplessness when it comes to the question how to help. Studies about how to overcome this within peace operations do not exist.

Closely connected to efforts raising awareness, a path towards identifying mitigating measures within peace operations needs to be charted. This is important in order to make a difference to the current situation: Practitioners and policy-makers acknowledging the problem in principle, but not sure about how to better and more holistically address it. However, the impact on building sustained peace, including through reconciliation, is critical. Therefore, the question must be how to incentivize an increased focus within support efforts for peace and security.

Without doubt, scattershot efforts to the best of the abilities of many actors do exist, including through humanitarian actors working in peace operations with so-called multi-dimensional mandates. An effort collecting views, practice, and potential best practice needs to be undertaken.

A new approach – Part Four in a series on Trauma and Conflict

In Part I I have shown that pro-longed and intense trauma creates dysfunctionality in many forms, and that the impact of trauma during formative periods of brain development goes even deeper1.


(Picture taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html, retrieved June 27, 2018)

The longer a young child exposed to repeating trauma through forms of childhood abuse, the higher are both chances of, and the depth of, life-long badly damaging consequences. One very important reason for the unmitigated impact of trauma sits with that parents or caregivers either are the source of the child’s trauma (abuse of any form), or that they are not appropriately able to nurture a traumatized child.


(Picture taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html, retrieved June 27, 2018)

Children who, for example, get victimized by sexual abuse through third persons, depend on that their caregivers are able to respond appropriately. If they don’t or can’t, life-long dysfunctions include severe depression, compulsive pain medication leading to addiction, and a general struggle with building healthy relationships. Health problems can be severe, leading to premature death, including through substance abuse, and suicide.

In Part III I am referencing studies that confirm this for children who survive abuse in countless forms happening in conflict and war. There is evidence for that social relationships and the existence of culture-specific coping strategies, can mitigate the impact of trauma. Healing can happen. But where there is an absence of these mitigating factors, because the parents are traumatized themselves, and because cultural mechanisms struggle or have broken down entirely, dysfunctionality becomes a feature of communities and even an entire society. The plight of caregivers deprives the traumatized children from healing.

How can we expect that large percentages of trauma survivors do not influence the functioning of communities and societies? It might be difficult to find studies that confirm the relationship between trauma-induced life-long and inter-generational dysfunctional behavior on the level of entire communities and the ability of communities and a society to move to lasting peace including through its ability to reconcile. But simple logic tells that this is the case: Reconciliation is, as I have said, about restoring inner harmony, integrating memory and behavioral impact of trauma into a healthy form of living. Dysfunctional individuals can not contribute to restoring a healing and healthy community, as the community is made from these individuals who need to heal in order to contribute their healthiness to the Whole. My personal experiences in this regard, stemming from living in and visiting so many communities support this. So goes the experience of every health worker, every humanitarian, every peacekeeper. We do collectively know that a country relapses into internal conflict easier than plunging into an internal all-out conflict without having suffered from precedents. We do know that vulnerable communities in a weakened society are subject to efforts of violent extremism and international terrorism to establish control by a reign of terror.

How can we neglect a fact that is so obvious?

  • Is it because we have to mainstream the understanding of what trauma really does?
  • Is it because we are simply overwhelmed and do not know an answer to the question what could be done?
  • Is it, as I have shown, that we collectively fail to act appropriately on assisting complex systems to regain their balance?
  • Is it that we still have to act more boldly on the UN Secretary General’s vision and intent to put conflict prevention front and center? Effective peacebuilding is conflict-prevention, and thus it can not be emphasized, in my view, enough how important it is to factor early peacebuilding into peace operations. After all, the United Nation’s “Capstone Doctrine2” from 2008 emphasizes exactly that. But I know of no comprehensive follow-on to the Capstone Doctrine. It explicitly sets a framework for peacekeeping, within a larger realm that encompasses conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The larger realm remains insufficiently addressed since 2008.
  • Why is global policy not matching reality?

In the most recent comprehensive analysis of UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in book form3, “UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era: Adapting to Stabilisation, Protection and New Threats“, Chiyuki Aoi, Cedric de Coning, and John Karlsrud4 bring it to the point when they describe how mandates given to the most recent peacekeeping operations challenge the traditional UN peacekeeping principles. The authors argue that these missions operate without a peace agreement in place and that, as a result, the current focus is on projecting more force, including undertaking offensive operations at times, engaging in intelligence and using special weapons and tactics.

We have heard the UN Secretary General and his Undersecretaries constantly referring to that we deploy peacekeeping operations into environments where there is no peace to keep. In short, the focus which is absorbing almost all energy of policy- and decision makers is heavy on the military side. More or less the rest of all energy currently goes into reform efforts of the United Nations and UN peace operations. The above book makes the case that this development widens a gap between existing peacekeeping policy and practical developments on the ground. Anticipating that more of the same may come in Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere, this is of concern for the collective of twenty authors from all over the globe and with in-depth practical and academic perspective on peace operations of the UN.

Whilst my series here on trauma is not the place for a larger analysis of these developments, it can, however, be said that the development of policy how to effectively contribute to restoring peace and security runs breathtakingly behind the rapidly changing reality on the ground. This gap may contribute to challenges on advising political bodies, such as the Security Council, on what should be done, what needs to be done when being confronted with the heavy-handed conflicts of these days, and their consequences for communities and societies. Policy with no operational impact is as problematic as operational decisions based on outdated policy.

For example, I have repeatedly argued that we continue to miss the “golden hour” of early engagement through peacekeeping operations by not being provided with the necessary expertise to address the endemic consequences of emerging transnational crime influencing such peacekeeping processes negatively: “Let us get boots on the ground first” is a mantra that can often be heard. But the difficulties addressing root causes immediately makes it almost impossible to address emerging threats later.

If we engage with peacekeeping within a larger framework as we, I believe, have to, then we want to get it right. We want to see that the enormous effort, including the human tolls that we take, do effectively help getting communities and societies on a path to peace. It appears to me that those have a point who argue giving up the traditional division between peacekeeping and other forms of activities towards a unified term “peace operations”. The entire reform of the United Nations initiated by its current Secretary General is based on this.

In this series of articles I argue that the same is true for the impact of trauma on post-conflict development: We think reconciliation only later, we associate it with peace building. Like with emerging threats that include transnational organized crime, we appear to prioritize a select toolset which, though it is necessary at times, must be incomplete if it is not taking into account threats that can not be mitigated by military capacity. We postpone other action, or leave it to others, and it may be that we collectively fail to follow up.

Reconciliation empowers societies to chart their own way towards lasting peace. Whilst this is widely acknowledged, it would also appear that efforts of the assisting international community fostering this healing power have been futile. I have witnessed many discussions about how model processes, such as the South African path towards seeking truth and reconciliation, could be adopted for different post-conflict societies. But looking just at the very same country today, South Africa’s crisis of endemic corruption also demonstrates the relevance of a truly owned rule of law for a sustainable way forward. The relevance of security and rule of law for economic development, and vice versa, has become part of the core of contemporary multidimensional mandates of peace operations. What is missing is the recognition that reconciliation belongs to the critical needs from the outset on, too, and how to support it. Today, reconciliation is considered being part of a peacebuilding process, which may be emphasized later. The “paramedic approach” of peacekeeping operations focuses on protection of civilians and on political processes. Assistance to restoring security capacities is considered a secondary task which may require later action. Even more so, this is true for reconciliation. Parts of the process are recognized in what we call “transitional justice”, but even there we seem to fail seeing the relevance of deep trauma on individuals, communities, and the society as a whole.

The triangular relationship between providing security and order, applying criminal justice, and allowing meaningful penal management based on humanitarian principles and human rights is well known and often quoted as an example for the need for integrated thinking. However, the triangular relationship between governance, rule of law, and reconciliation is less strategized and even lesser operationalized.

2 In it’s own words, the Capstone Doctrine as of 2008 aims to define the nature, scope and core business of contemporary United Nations peacekeeping operations, which are usually deployed as one part of a much broader international effort to build a

sustainable peace in countries emerging from conflict. It identifies the comparative advantages and limitations of United Nations peacekeeping operations as a conflict management tool, and explains the basic principles that should guide their planning and conduct. In doing so, it reflects the primary lessons learned during the past sixty years of United Nations peacekeeping. It draws on landmark reports of the Secretary-General and legislative responses to these reports, as well as relevant resolutions and statements of the principal organs of the United Nations.


3 UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era: Adapting to Stabilisation, Protection and New Threats (Global Institutions) (p. 1). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition; Loc 385

4 Ibid, Introduction – Addressing the emerging gap between concepts, doctrine, and practice in UN peacekeeping operations

The impact of trauma on communities and societies ravaged by conflict and war – Part Three in a series on Trauma and Conflict

How trauma and reconciliation are linked needs to be examined from the perspective of an individual, a community, and a society. Reconciling⁠1 means to restore to friendship or harmony, or to settle or solve conflicts. Thus, an individual may heal from consequences of a traumatic event by restoring inner harmony, integrating memory and behavioral impact of trauma into a healthy form of living. In that sense an individual reconciles his/her memory as a condition for a path to learn healthier forms of behavior than those which he/she suffered from through trauma. Psychotherapy is based on that, and so are all, very successful, self-help groups following the 12-Step-principles⁠2.

But what happens if trauma, triggered by the same events, essentially affects all members of a community, or a majority? What happens if these events last for a long time, when those who suffer have no way to escape? Recent history is filled with so many examples, whether Syria, Yemen, or so many more. 

However, let me introduce a country in which I spent four years of my life: I lived in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, between 2008 and 2012, arriving twelve years after the end of an all-out war.

When Bosnia&Herzegovina declared it’s independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army laid siege to the town between April 1992 and February 1996. For 1425 days⁠3, Sarajevo’s citizens had to move under sniper fire and mortar shelling raining down on them from hilltops overlooking the city. They had to flee from violence along frontlines moving backward and forward multiple times. Frontlines where ground forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Bosnian government defense forces clashed for years. Every surviving Sarajevan who came out of that with severe trauma. Bosniaks, Croats, and remaining Serbs.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is home to a multi-ethnic society in which individuals mainly identify themselves as members of either the Bosniak, the Croat, or the Serb nation. For centuries they had lived together in peace. Sarajevo was the glaring example for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians lived together, the rate of inter-marriages was high. Sarajevo’s hospitality and friendliness during the Olympic Winter Games of 1984 are unforgotten. 

The brutal atrocities between 1992 and 1996, carried out under General Ratko Mladic and under political control of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic changed that, forever. Between 2008 and 2012 I was the Head of a European Union Mission assisting in restoring police and the rule of law. In this Mission hundreds of local Bosnian staff members served alongside their international colleagues. Thus, I had ample opportunity to listen to members from all walks of life of today’s Bosnian society. The memories of the war, the impact of traumatic memories, they run deep in every individual I met. Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats have slowly restored a way of living peacefully together. However, the fearful memories of the past impact on them in every aspect of today’s life.

What struck me most was the seeming inability of these three nations living in one State to move on into reconciling with the past. The historical narrative has become very different: Bosniaks in Bosnia will tell a different history opposed to, say the Bosnian Serbs. Nowhere is this more visible than in acknowledging the Srebrenica genocide. There is simply no joint narrative, and I have not seen successful efforts to find a path towards reconciliation. The efforts of all sides are frozen. Until today, the annual commemoration at the Potocari memorial and graveyard site happens without participation of political representatives of the Republica Srpska, the Serb part of the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina. As another example, Bosnia & Herzegovina knows the concept of “Two Schools Under One Roof⁠4”. An unknowing passer-by would see Bosniak and Croat school children use the same school. But in reality, they are enlisted into two distinctly different schools. Why else than for the purpose of establishing a different history, and maintaining a different identity?

Years earlier, between 2000 and 2004, I lived in Kosovo. The violent conflict between Milosevic’s Serbian Forces and the Kosovo-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army had just ended less than a year earlier, through a military campaign carried out against Milosevic by NATO. Very early at the beginning of the post-conflict period in Kosovo, I saw the same like later in Bosnia: Ethnic Albanian and ethnic Serb children did not receive any joint education⁠5. The memory of communities in Kosovo is altered forever. I lived both in Albanian neighborhoods and Serb enclaves. Especially in Serb enclaves, depression and fear ran high. 

These are just two illuminating examples of a more comprehensive personal experience which I made in post-conflict societies all over the World. I share this experience with hundreds of thousands of people in the peace and humanitarian community. One has to get out of the “international bubble”, out of the walled compounds and protected hotels and out of heavily armored vehicles. By living with and within ravaged communities, the heuristic knowledge about the depth of impact of trauma is gained. But what is it that academic research tells us?

The PubMed Central (PMC)⁠6 is a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM). As of this writing, it offers access to 4.9 Million articles from 2138 journals that participate fully, 330 NIH portfolio journals, and 4692 selective deposit journals.

 A research of it’s database with the search term “PTSD” offers 33.829 articles. The search term “PTSD conflict war” leads to 3273 references. “PTSD reconciliation” leads to 362 offerings.  “PTSD reconciliation war” references 219 articles. Amongst these, I have undertaken an initial scoping which is not complete. I selected articles that could give some answers to the questions above. To document this, all examined literature can be found in the footnote section⁠7. 

I find the following statements being supported by the selection of scientific research that I have examined:

  • Communities and societies that have come out of conflict include an extraordinary high percentage of individuals with health conditions including PTSD, and other forms of trauma impact, including depression. The impact of war on the mental health of members of communities is most significant.
  • Women are more affected than men, other significant groups with high numbers of trauma survivors include children, elderly, and the disabled.
  • Some studies find very high percentages of trauma survivors in children in refugee camps and displaced populations, and almost as high amongst their caregivers.
  • Among war-affected youth, the association between war exposure and psychological distress is mediated by daily stressors. The breakdown of societal structures in conflict directly affects the impact of trauma on mental health. Within childhood, experiences of family violence and external violence were significantly related to increased mental health symptoms.
  • The availability (or not) of physical and emotional support affects the consequences of traumatization. The use of cultural and religious coping strategies is frequent in developing countries. Where such traditional spiritual and religious support structure break down, coping strategies are severely hampered.
  • Physical disability and depression and PTSD correlate. 
  • Mental disturbances and feeling upset correlate.
  • Trauma effects from conflict, such as somatization, PTSD, anxiety disorder, major depression, alcohol and drug misuse, and functional disability are trans-cultural.
  • Studies support that the above symptoms are the same for victims of rape and forms of conflict-related sexual exploitation and abuse. 
  • Effective public mental health services are needed to address large scale effects of traumatization.
  • The impact of trauma in such societies can be traced for decades, there is also supporting evidence for intergenerational consequences.
  • The trauma impacting on victims and perpetrators of violence leads to different coping strategies. Perpetrators of violence against civilian populations might display less symptoms. The impact of trauma on former child-soldiers can be mediated through family- and community-based care. Conversely, where this is not the case, severe traumatization persists.
  • Some studies mention that there is no established consensus on how war- and conflict-related traumatization should be addressed from a public health perspective.
  • One study (South Sudan) finds that most participants thought reconciliation was not possible without prosecuting perpetrators or compensating victims and did not support amnesty. Participants with probable PTSD were more likely to endorse confessions, apologies, and amnesty, and to report that compensation and prosecution were not necessary for reconciliation. The more traumatic events people experienced, the more they endorsed criminal punishment for perpetrators and the less they endorsed confessions.
  • One study, based on 160 reports, finds that the five most commonly reported activities were basic counseling for individuals; facilitation of community support of vulnerable individuals; provision of child-friendly spaces; support of community-initiated social support; and basic counseling for groups and families. Most interventions took place and were funded outside national mental health and protection systems.

To reduce the findings and my own conclusions even more: 

(1) Conflict- and war-related trauma affects communities and societies significantly and this impact spans over generations.

(2) The most vulnerable suffer most.

(3) Large scale coping strategies depend on the availability of culture-specific services and functions that often have broken down in conflict.

(4) There is little analysis of the effects of traumatization on post-conflict reconciliation.

(5) There is, however, a dire need to look into how the international community factors this context into work assisting in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and conflict prevention processes.

August 26, 2002, the General Assembly of the World Psychiatric Organization approved a statement on mental health implications of disasters. It begins as follows⁠8: 


“The World Psychiatric Association would like to draw the attention of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, health authorities, decision-makers and the general public to the serious and potentially catastrophic psychological and psychopathological effects of disasters. These effects can be diverse in character, intensity and potential for chronicity, but acute stress reactions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood, anxiety and psychotic disorders, and permanent changes in the personality are the ones that, if left untreated, may have the most serious consequences. Disasters can result from a variety of causes such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, naval and plane accidents and terrorist attacks, but also from acts and consequences of war and negative conditions affecting important groups of population like famine, sanctions, forced migrations and similar deprivations. All of them produce very serious effects on the population and particularly on children, having a negative impact on the social structure and systems, which increases the effect of the disaster on individuals and population.”


So, whilst it appears that a context between trauma and reconciliation can be established, these findings are a first indicator for that the context with reconciliation, and thus the context with efforts to sustain peace, requires more attention.

Do policy of the United Nations and political decision-making processes such as by the Security Council take the above impact into account? What do we know about systematic or non-systematic efforts of peace operations to factor this into their mandated work. What do we know to which extent peace building efforts take this into account? Are there practices and best-practices?

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reconciled

2 A twelve-step program is a set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program; retrieved June 19, 2018

3 For many more comprehensive documentaries, here a brief video:

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_schools_under_one_roof

5 At least for ten years preceding the Kosovo-Albanian insurgency, Milosevic maintained rigid control over the previous largely autonomous province of the former Yugoslavia, surely leading to the same effect, but with the curricular written under Belgrade’s control. After the war, the Kosovo-Albanian leadership in Pristina wrote the curriculae for the Albanian schools, and Belgrade maintained as much control as possible over the northern parts of Kosovo and Kosovo-Serb enclaves south of the river Ibar.

6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/

7 (1) Mental health consequences of war: a brief review of research findings; R. SRINIVASA MURTHY, RASHMI LAKSHMINARAYANA; in World Psychiatry 5:1, February 2006; 

retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472271/pdf/wpa050025.pdf, June 20, 2018

(2) Post-traumatic stress symptoms among former child soldiers in Sierra Leone: follow-up study, Theresa S. Betancourt, Elizabeth A. Newnham, Ryan McBain, and Robert T. Brennan;  THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY, 2013 Sep; 203(3): 196–202; 

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3759030/, June 20, 2018

(3) Psychological Consequences of Rape on Women in 1991-1995 War in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; Mladen Lončar, Vesna Medved, Nikolina Jovanović, and Ljubomir Hotujac; in Croat Med J. 2006 Feb; 47(1): 67–75.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2080379/, retrieved June 20, 2018

(4) Mental health of victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo: associations with daily stressors, stigma, and labeling; An Verelst, 1 Maarten De Schryver,2 Eric Broekaert,3 and Ilse Derluyn; BMC Womens Health. 2014; 14: 106; Published online 2014 Sep 6. doi: 10.1186/1472-6874-14-106

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4237834/, June 20, 2018

(5) The structure of post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder amongst West Papuan refugees; Alvin Kuowei Tay, Susan Rees, Jack Chen, Moses Kareth, and Derrick Silove; in: BMC Psychiatry. 2015; 15: 111; Published online 2015 May 7. doi: 10.1186/s12888-015-0480-3;

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4459680/, June 20, 2018

(6) Youth mental health after civil war: the importance of daily stressors; Elizabeth A. Newnham, Rebecca M. Pearson, Alan Stein, and Theresa S. Betancourt; in: Br J Psychiatry. 2015 Feb; 206(2): 116–121; doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.146324

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4312966/, June 20, 2018

(7) Prevalence and factors associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder seven years after the conflict in three districts in northern Uganda (The Wayo-Nero Study); James Mugisha, Herbert Muyinda, Peter Wandiembe, and Eugene Kinyanda; in BMC Psychiatry. 2015; 15: 170. PMCID: PMC4513792; Published online 2015 Jul 24. doi: 10.1186/s12888-015-0551-5

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4513792/, June 20, 2018

(8) Relationships of Childhood Adverse Experiences With Mental Health and Quality of Life at Treatment Start for Adult Refugees Traumatized by Pre- Flight Experiences of War and Human Rights Violations; Marianne Opaas, and Sverre Varvin, Dr.Philos, MD; in J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Sep; 203(9): 684–695. PMCID: PMC4554230; Published online 2015 Aug 31. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000330

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4554230/, June 20, 2018

(9) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy versus Other PTSD Psychotherapies as Treatment for Women Victims of War-Related Violence: A Systematic Review; N. Inès Dossa and Marie Hatem; in ScientificWorldJournal. 2012; 2012: 181847. PMCID: PMC3345529; Published online 2012 Apr 19. doi: 10.1100/2012/181847

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3345529/, June 20, 2018

(10) Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in South Africa: analysis from the South African Stress and Health Study; Lukoye Atwoli, Dan J Stein, David R Williams, Katie A Mclaughlin, Maria Petukhova, Ronald C Kessler, and Karestan C Koenen; in BMC Psychiatry. 2013; 13: 182; Published online 2013 Jul 3. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-13-182 

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3716970/, June 20, 2018

(11) Pathways from Victimization to Substance Use: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a Mediator; Jung Yeon Lee, Judith S. Brook, Stephen J. Finch, and David W. Brook; in Psychiatry Res. 2016 Mar 30; 237: 153–158; Published online 2016 Jan 22. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.01.049

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4769948/, June 20, 2018

(12) Posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma, and reconciliation in South Sudan; Lauren C. Ng, Belkys López, Matthew Pritchard, and David Deng; in Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017 Jun; 52(6): 705–714; Published online 2017 Apr 11. doi: 10.1007/s00127-017-1376-y;

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5510537/, June 20, 2018

(13) From War to Classroom: PTSD and Depression in Formerly Abducted Youth in Uganda; Nina Winkler, Martina Ruf-Leuschner, Verena Ertl, Anett Pfeiffer, Inga Schalinski, Emilio Ovuga, Frank Neuner and Thomas Elbert; in Front Psychiatry. 2015; 6: 2. PMCID: PMC4348469;  Published online 2015 Mar 3. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00002

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4348469/, June 20, 2018

(14) Mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian settings: linking practice and research; Wietse A Tol, Corrado Barbui, Ananda Galappatti, Derrick Silove, Theresa S Betancourt, Renato Souza, Anne Golaz, and Mark van Ommeren; in Lancet. 2011 Oct 29; 378(9802): 1581–1591; Published online 2011 Oct 16. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61094-5

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3985411/, June 20, 2018

(15) The enduring mental health impact of mass violence: A community comparison study of Cambodian civilians living in Cambodia and Thailand; Richard F Mollica, Robert Brooks, Svang Tor, Barbara Lopes-Cardozo, and Derrick Silove; in Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2014 Feb; 60(1): 6–20; Published online 2013 Feb 7. doi: 10.1177/0020764012471597

PMCID: PMC4737641 NIHMSID: NIHMS753770 PMID: 23396287

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4737641/, June 20, 2018

(16) Transgenerational consequences of PTSD: risk factors for the mental health of children whose mothers have been exposed to the Rwandan genocide; Maria Roth, Frank Neuner, and Thomas Elbert; in Int J Ment Health Syst. 2014; 8: 12. PMCID: PMC3978019 Published online 2014 Apr 1. doi: 10.1186/1752-4458-8-12

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3978019/, June 20, 2018

(17) Traumatic episodes and mental health effects in young men and women in Rwanda, 17 years after the genocide; Lawrence Rugema, Ingrid Mogren, Joseph Ntaganira, and Gunilla Krantz; in BMJ Open. 2015; 5(6): e006778. PMCID: PMC4480039; Published online 2015 Jun 24. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006778

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4480039/ Jun 20, 2018

(18) Aggression inoculates against PTSD symptom severity—insights from armed groups in the eastern DR Congo; Tobias Hecker, Katharin Hermenau, Anna Maedl, Maggie Schauer, and Thomas Elbert; in Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2013; 4: 10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.20070. PMCID: PMC3651955; Published online 2013 May 13. doi: 10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.20070

Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3651955/ June 20, 2018

8 Disasters and Mental Health (World Psychiatric Association) (Kindle Locations 3385-3390). Kindle Edition.  Emphasis (bold text) added by me.

The Trauma of Children in Conflict and War – Part Two in a series on Trauma and Conflict

The stories about pillaging and raping soldiers and marauding militias are part of the entire history of mankind. There is no doubt that this shameful aspect of human cruelty haunts us since our earliest pre-historical times. In narratives it plays a side role at best. The heroism and the suffering of the soldier comes first. However, at all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities, survived the murder of their peers under piles of dead bodies or hiding in the bush. This is the reality until today. And never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today.

Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. The Holocaust, the genocide of Srebrenica, or the genocide in Rwanda are only examples of these darkest chapters of mankind, which is still persisting against all vows to let it never happen again. Ethnic and political cleansing by brutal dictators adds, during World War II, and today: Even where genocide could be prevented by bold action, such as perhaps recently in Burundi, or the Central African Republic, the run-up violence exceeds all imagination, creating thousands or hundreds of thousands of victims surviving the worst atrocities of mankind.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities1. As has been said earlier, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. For young children, often the only way to make sense to painful events is to believe that they themselves must be responsible for it.

If their mothers and fathers suffer from being unable to love them unconditionally, they inevitably believe they are responsible for what happens. If a mother is separated by militias from her infant, and if the mother or the infant, or both, are abused, the infant will conclude that it is punishment for something they are responsible for themselves. If children are abducted by Boko Haram, or recruited as child soldiers by the Lord’s Resistance Army, mere survival under conditions known as “Stockholm Syndrome” will add.

Trauma therapy is over-boarding with stories of adult survivors of childhood abuse who finally recognize that the inability, say for example, of their mother to prevent them from their father’s rage, also constitutes abuse: Their mothers could not save them. Understanding abuse requires to take the view of the victim, notwithstanding whether malicious intent, involuntary action, or omission constituted the trauma. Abuse profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult abuse survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish human relations, in countless variations.

That black sheep within their own peacekeeping forces and civilian parts of peace operations contribute to this trauma in conflict and post-conflict situations, is collectively shame-driving the International Community. This sits at the heart of current zero-tolerance efforts against sexual exploitation and abuse of local populations by soldiers, police, and civilians in national or multilateral engagement of United Nations2 and regional actors, such as NATO, EU, AU, and others. Being aware of the harm beyond imagination, the International Community at least has begun to “clean it’s own side of the street”, which is laudable.

But the International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities will lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues.

The situation is getting worse: The systematic use of violence against civilian populations, and especially of sexual violence as a weapon of war and conflict, spreads. Until recently the opinion that conflicts and victims of armed conflict constantly fell to a low after the end of the Cold War could be heard frequently3. Since a few years however, voices, including the Secretary General of the United Nations himself, express worry about the renewed increase of conflicts4 and the return of the Cold War5. These messages seem to indicate another, reverse, trend in terms of numbers of conflicts. Research is surfacing that demonstrates that 60 % of conflicts in the early 2000s relapsed within five years6. The trend towards an ever more increasing share of civilians in casualties from conflict and war is reaching horrible numbers: In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children7. Women in war-torn societies can face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals8 and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin, attempting to get into the United States, find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified9. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar10, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats in Libya by their parents experience that a European country denies access to a port of entry11. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother”. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues.

Heartbreaking stories on display in memorial sites such as Potocari12 on the Srebrenica genocide, or the memorial site in Kigali on the Rwandese genocide exemplify the plight of children with examples. And every now and then, media is creating attention, such as on the children of rape in Rwanda. The world needs examples in order to generate understanding and compassion, but does this translate into action in light of the sheer size? What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

So, how well do we understand the threat, how well do we understand the vulnerability of peace processes by this threat, and how much do we know about mitigation of this threat? As a deeply involved practitioner since almost twenty years my answer is depressing: Those who know appear to be overwhelmed. Political operatives defining policy are aware but have to make priority decisions that have to exclude this problem, simply because of it’s magnitude and the limitations both on knowledge how to help, and how to generate willingness and resources to do so. Boots on the ground come first. But if the trauma of entire generations contributes to most crucial impediments to reconciliation processes, is it not that we should focus on, at least, to the same extent? Again, as a practitioner, my experience is that prevention will be acknowledged as being necessary by All, but it does not generate awareness and public willingness to act: The story of a dog biting a man does not carry news. The story of a man biting a dog will make the news. The story of preventing a man to bite a dog hasn’t been tested and may be similarly boring than the story of a dog biting a man, except from a bit of amusement in social media. In the same vein, robust military action may catch the public attention, but the more silent work of civilians, and international police under the UN umbrella, assisting in the recovery of communities and societies from conflict, does not.

If this already is true, how much more must be true in relation to a phenomenon of whole young generations being badly traumatized and how this may carry forward the potential for future conflicts? In his book “The Responsibility to Protect”13 Gareth Evans sums up a disappointing account of scientific methods to predict conflict, so that preventative action can focus on it. At the end we only know one thing, he says: The likelihood of conflict is twice as high in countries where there was a conflict earlier. For me, a link to entirely traumatized generations is obvious.

11A very insightful example is this documentation by France24:

Against the odds: The Rwandan women raising a family despite genocide and rape – France 24


22For the UN: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/standards-of-conduct; retrieved June 18, 2018

Other organizatons have established similar policies

33http://www.fallen.io/ww2/ leads to an amazing data visualisation within an interactive documentary that examines the human cost of the second World War and the decline of battle deaths in the years since the war.

This is the crucial point: this extraordinary visualization puts battle field deaths and civilian deaths until WW2 into a proportion that demonstrates the ever higher number of civilian casualties. However, the project is not able to generate other figures than battle field deaths for the time post WW2 until 2015. Towards the end of the demonstration, the argument that we live within an extraordinary long period of peace is being upheld.

44Sebastian von Einsiedel, Louise Bosetti, James Cockayne, Cale Salih & Wilfred Wan – Civil War Trends and the Changing Nature of Armed Conflict;

United Nations University, Centre for Policy Research; April 25, 2017;

https://cpr.unu.edu/civil-war-trends-and-the-changing-nature-of-armed-conflict.html, retrieved June 17, 2018


88See my article “Why global cooperation on peace and security is needed – An argument against divisiveness from the perspective of fighting organized crime”, June 9, 2018


99For many:

I Can’t Go Without My Son,’ a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala – The New York Times


Statement of APA President Regarding the Traumatic Effects of Separating Immigrant Families


U.N. Rights Chief Tells U.S. to Stop Taking Migrant Children From Parents – The New York Times


1111Italy’s New Populist Government Turns Away Ship With 600 Migrants Aboard – The New York Times


1313Gareth Evans: The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All; Brookings Institution Press (September 4, 2009)

The Impact of Trauma on Individuals – Part One in a series on Trauma and Conflict


a : an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent

b : a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury

c : an emotional upset

Work in neurophysiology has altered traditional views on brain development and the impact of trauma. It is now better understood how thought processes, behavior and memory are formed. The notion that the brain develops until early adulthood and then remains neurologically static for the rest of its life is replaced by the concept of neuroplasticity2 which teaches that literally everything we do or get exposed to creates physical pathways between neurons or leads to pruning of existing pathways between connected neurons. The brain keeps resonating to external stimuli by changing itself on a physiological level for its entire life.

The view that traumatic experiences cause a disordered psychic or behavioral state is too narrow. A quick Google search finds many variations of an understanding that differenciates between physical damage by physical trauma, and psychological trauma as a damage inflicted to the psyche. However, it is now increasingly acknowledged that every traumatic event leads to neuronal changes which are beginning to be understood and which include temporary or lasting brain damage. In plain language: Some physical trauma leads to wounds that one can see because they are bleeding, traumatic events can inflict physical damage that is visible on a MRI or PET scan3. Survivors of severe trauma often suffer from a brain condition with biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. Lacking public awareness is responsible for erroneous or plainly wrong, even moral, judgment of trauma survivors and their struggle.

Ever since the end of the Vietnam war psychology and psychotherapy grappled with what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Growing understanding about its severe impact led to efforts helping soldiers, police officers, public servants, nurses and other vulnerable groups, all of which are mostly composed of adults, with exceptions being mostly cases of catastrophes that include children. Responses comprise first-line support which includes a debriefing by a trained individual who will refer cases of visible and more severe affects to specialists. Public views often equal trauma with PTSD, the understanding of consequences of all forms of trauma and it’s consequences is too limited. A huge variety of known self-harming and self-destructive behavior is rooted in exposure to trauma. Depression and addiction medicine present examples of a growing understanding how childhood abuse affects the entire lifetime4 of individuals. This still evades broader public awareness: The view that depression equals weakness and addiction equals moral failure can be found in large swaths of discussions which would occasionally be sprinkled with sensational news such as about mass shootings by military veterans, for example.

In cases of mass exposure to traumatic events the coping ability of a society is limited: Man-made catastrophes and natural disasters with large numbers of victims strain first-line responders and second-line support mechanisms beyond limitations and imagination. Whilst the size of societies can act as a buffering mechanism that mitigates the societal effect of trauma on individuals, mass exposure of a community alters the entire community, not only individual members. Like in the case of individuals, these consequences can affect following generations.

It is the impact of trauma on the brain development of infants and children that gives reason to most serious concern: Significant consequences for the concept of self, self-esteem, empathy and the capacity for intimacy are amongst those aspects documented by a sound body of scientific research, at least in the Western world. Today we know that brief exposure of infants, children and adolescents to highly traumatic situations and longer exposure to less traumatic but longer-lasting events cause the same catastrophic consequences5. Child abuse in all forms belong to the events that constitute extreme forms of this trauma. Yet, a public understanding of the term “child abuse” is too narrow as well6. Immediate7 and life-long deviation from a healthy norm include depression, self-destructive behavior ranging from compulsive disorders to addiction, rage and anxiety and premature death in countless forms, from suicide through overdosing to cancer.

The life-long manifestations from early childhood trauma root in the specific vulnerability of the developing brain. As David Eagleman8 puts it: “In a newborn brain, neurons are relatively unconnected to each other. Over the first two to three years, the branches grow and the cells become increasingly connected. After that, the connections are pruned back, becoming fewer and stronger in adulthood.” It is, therefore, that early childhood trauma impacts on the neurophysiological development of the brain. This is also the reason why long-lasting exposure to trauma has a lasting impact notwithstanding its intensity.

Imagine a pristine piece of grassland. Once trespassers begin to cross this land, there will not be a random use of all possible connections between all possible points. Instead, after a short while pathways will emerge. Some of them will get more trodden over time, some remain small, some will not be used after some time. From now on trespassers will use existing paths. Just crossing the land the shortest possible way will not be a convincing option any longer. After years or decades main paths may have become roads. Within human society roads are known that exist for thousands of years, today’s super highway may have carried caravans of traders millenia ago. In the same way the developed brain builds and prunes along pathways that have formed during the initial development phase. Because the brain learns from any event, trauma throughout this formative period is especially prone to form lifelong consequences. Trauma can deform vital pathways in the brain and affects whole regions and their interaction and contribution to the whole. Pruning and building new pathways may lead to later correction, but only partially. Like a severe wound leaves a life-long scar, and pain, the same is true for the physical reality of the brain.

A second profound impact of early childhood trauma may be especially related to longer lasting traumatic events: They cause stress. Stress leads to release of stress hormones9. A part of the brain’s response to stress is a cascade of biochemical changes in hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, as well as in the sympathetic nervous system. According to Louis Cozolino10, increased levels of glucocorticoids, epinephrine, and endogenous opioids are particularly relevant to a discussion of the psychological impact of stress and trauma, in that they alter attention, cognition, and memory. Long exposure of the developing brain to trauma effectively leads to that it is permanently exposed to hormones that hold functions both in the realm of pain and the realm of pleasure. A proneness to mental disorders such as depression and addiction is created early on. Likewise, the permanent activation of the amygdala within a fight-or-flight reaction causes the permanent repetition under exposure of events or situations that the brain later associates to the initially learned trigger during childhood trauma, as they do for PTSD victims11. However, to the child traumas are not experienced as events in life, but as life defining12. The effects of early and severe trauma are extremely widespread, devastating, and difficult to treat13.

Whilst it can be assumed that these two major consequences are culturally neutral, a third complex of trauma consequences may depend on a social context. In western societies it is well documented that early childhood trauma, especially through forms of abuse, creates psychological and spiritual manifestations: The concept of self, and of self-esteem, is negatively affected. “Abusive parenting creates a painful sense of shame, inadequacy, or superiority in children, which, if left unacknowledged and untreated, results in the prolongation of these wounds into adulthood14.” It is very obvious that the wide definition of childhood abuse often runs confrontational to traditional parenting. Sentences about the forming of character through (mild) forms of physical violence can be found in many societies, and as long as, for example, the punishment of children is still legal if approved by parents in some jurisdictions in the United States of America, this will continue. However, contemporary science and therapeutic fieldwork tell another story.

11 Merriam Webster Dictionary


22 Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.


33 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Studies employing positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that people with symptoms of PTSD have altered activity in the brain, primarily in the regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and anterior cingulate gyrus.”


44 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Page last reviewed April 01, 2016, retrieved June 16, 2018

55 A very good example is the self-examination abuse-checklist in: Carnes, Patrick J., A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps: A Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery; Hazelden Publishing; Expanded, Updated edition, June 1, 2012; Kindle edition; pg. Loc 662 of 3435

66 For Pia Mellody, childhood abuse can be constituted by any less than nurturing behavior of parents and caregivers.

77 Complex Trauma in Early Childhood

by Kim Cross LSCSW, B.C.E.T.S.;

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress;


Copyright 2014, retrieved June 16, 2018

88 David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You; Vintage; Reprint edition (October 6, 2015); Kindle eBook edition, pg 9

99 A good general description:”

Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained”

The Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html; April 19, 2013, retrieved June 16, 2018

1010 Cozolino, Louis, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain; Second Edition; Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology; W.W. Norton & Company, June 21, 2010; Kindle Edition; pg 240

1111 Ibid, pg 264 ff.

1212 Ibid, quotation of Christopher Bollas, pg. 267

1313 Ibid, pg. 267

1414 Pia Mellody, Lawrence S. Freundlich, The Intimacy Factor; HarperOne; Reprint edition (October 13, 2009); Kindle edition, pg 11