By: Emmanuel Dolo
We have yet not begun to understand the full psychological impact of the war and its trauma on our citizens. We have not made ample efforts to deal with the profound psychological damage that the war caused and is still causing. Yes, since the end of the war in 2003, intense communal violence has become less visible, but conditions for longer-term psychological healing and reconciliation have not started or taken roots. The control of violence at an interpersonal and inter-communal level, which is a prerequisite to building durable peace, has also not gotten underway.
Escalating violence in the country is jeopardizing peace and stability. Look back at what happened at Redlight - the communal violence which involved burning of police stations and other facilities. Now, it is confirmed that a local businessman’s home and commercial facilities were burnt on the basis of rumors alone in Ganta.
Notable, these two incidents are not all that need to catch our attention. The pattern or tendency in our society toward violence are many: the recent act of violence enacted by former Executive Protection Service (EPS) Deputy Director Darlington George against his alleged female victim, Esther Glain; fistfights in the legislature; riots in Yekepa, Sinoe or West Point and/or a 53 year old man raping a 13 year old girl – cumulatively, the mental health consequences of the war are emerging and tearing the social fabric apart.
One is forced to ask: Have the normal restraints and inhibitions of a civilized society disappeared from our nation? Is it that violators are living with the illusion that they cannot be held responsible for their actions anymore and thus heightening their aggression? Has the history of violence pre-dating the war now had a conditioned effect on the minds and moods of Liberians?
Urgent efforts must be exerted to end these senseless patterns of violence. Treating each of these incidents separately can hinder the design of comprehensive strategies for communal violence prevention and reduction and impede the development of coherent national and local policies and interventions. Imagine the devastating violence, fear, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other effects that trauma associated with the war is producing daily. We have no mechanisms to address these problems in a determined way. Those within the security arena might term these as violent acts of terror. But from my vantage point, we have a public health dimension, and left unattended, unintentionally conceals the underlying risk factors for future armed violence and divert attention and resources away from effective entry points, particularly psychosocial interventions.
The initial interventions made immediately after the conflict may have focused primarily on the underlying causes of the war, but not on its resulting psychological outcomes. There may be those who are underestimating the sporadic outbreaks of violence, but the risk of them getting completely out of control is extremely high. We cannot allow a culture of impunity (mob justice) to fester out of control. We must create a counter culture of accountability and social justice in response to this deepening gang-type righteousness. But applying the rule of law is not enough to break the cycle of violence.
As a society, we have not done enough to provide substantive solutions to the problems that caused the war. I do not think we have done enough to avert revival of violent conflict, although short-term conflict prevention strategies like the presence of UN peacekeeping forces have been employed. We need to recognize that building durable peace goes beyond the imperative of stopping the gun and/or superficially reintegrating ex-combatants in society.
To prevent the recurrence of violence for the long haul, a broad scope of structural transformations has to be utilized. We will need to tackle the root causes of the war, if the goal is to prevent a relapse into conflict.
Social scientists are keen to note that it is rare for violence to erupt around a particular event and then spur mass property destruction, personal injury, and death without being connected to something at an individual level. Public acts of violence like the ones noted in Ganta, Redlight, and other places here are always connected to unresolved personal acts, which may have gone unaddressed for a prolonged period. Essentially, failure to understand the relationship between private violence and public violence helps to promote the latter; and to effectively intervene and achieve long-term peace at the community and national levels.
It is too optimistic to think that after ten years of peace, we cannot return to war. Although the progress that we have made in peace building with the presence of UN peacekeeping forces on the ground relies on improvements in inter-communal relationships, what has been missing is repairing relations on a psychological level. As such, we find ourselves in a state of war-fatigued forced deceptive civility and inactive peace, which provides support for ongoing perpetration of violence in our society with impunity. Peace is inactive when psychological wounds an emotional hurts have been left unattended. It is often ignored and not connected to the growing epidemic of violence in the society. As was done in our case, when the physical violence associated with the war ended, we took no intensive step to address the emotional and psychological pain that continues and contributes to what has become sources of private and public violence.
We confused deceptive civility emerging from war fatigue as long-lasting peace and security. Narrowly defining these violent incidents as exclusive security matters only masks the potential for even more extreme violence to occur. We must understand that the nation is experiencing inactive peace within the context of a deceptive civility, which people are showing one another. For peace to be durable it must be active and the civility in society must concurrently not be pretentious or hollow, but rather honest and strong.
We need durable reconciliation program and strategy to overcome the downward spiral that our nation is slowly following. The first two attempts at reconciliation by now Senator George Oppong Weah and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee failed miserably. With no time to dwell on their reasons, we need to revive this process and make it stronger than ever before.
We need a process that will heal the trauma caused by indiscriminate killings, tortures, and abuses that we all suffered. The combatants who meted out abusive violence and deprivation on others still live amongst us untreated for their illnesses and unaccountable for their actions. Their victims still live among us with no meaning and control over their own lives. For most Liberians, their vulnerabilities have been further exacerbated by lack of treatment, chronic poverty, loss of income, lack of social support, and low self-esteem. We have not helped them to overcome these defenseless exposures. Women who were sexually abused and exposed to physical brutality and psychological wounds still live with those indelible scars.
Reconciliation has to be a process of returning these broken lives to normality by focusing on victims’ psychological and social needs. Perpetrators have not sought apology and forgiveness from their victims. The personal and cultural realities that were shaped by violence, people who enriched themselves as a result of the war still walk the nation with impunity. Once personal healing does not take place, group harmony will not take place. It is dehumanizing to live in the same space with your abusers who have yet not experienced restorative or punitive justice for their crimes. No community can be maintained when perpetrators do not respect their victims.
Reconciliation will not occur in Liberia, if all it means is a football game with celebrities showing off their talents. Reconciliation will not occur in Liberia, if we politicize it. Reconciliation will only occur when Liberians overcome their feelings of victimhood. Liberians will need to replace their resentment and anger and hatred with compassion. Unless and until Liberians transform their painful relationships into psychological rehabilitation, the sporadic violence will become more frequent and widespread.
Until deterrence is put in place against future abuses, Liberia will still be on the downward trajectory toward conflict. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings allowed a public opportunity for victims to express their grief and loss, injustice and pain, but it did not bring closure. We still need communal ceremonies and rituals to help victims search for new meaning. The suffering of victims must be recognized even if perpetrators will not be punished. Reduction in the kinds of violence that I alluded to earlier at Redlight and in Ganta is critical to rehabilitating our society. But these kinds of violence can best be managed if we build bonds between or amongst different identity groups in the society – commercial motorcyclists and others; elites and ordinary citizens, etc. We have many indigenous cultural institutions that can be tapped to help resolve communal problems and build harmonious community structures. Strong internal cohesion is missing in our society; reconciliation will give us that, if we take it seriously. Fundamental needs and concerns, as defined by local communities can be the foundation of our peace building activities.
We are trapped in a cycle of violence and until we eliminate the structures that breed such violence, peace will not be sustainable. These violent acts cannot be attributed to unavoidable eruptions of anger between individuals and groups divided by unsolvable historical differences. Maybe, they are extensions of social conflicts which include intra-communal riots, class violence, and other forms of sectional upheavals. But in the end, what the violence represents is an absence of civic ties across groups and communities, which only a thoughtful reconciliation program and strategy can mend.
Here are some possible things that we can do to begin the process of psychosocial recovery. The Human Rights Commission should begin or accelerate the process of reconciliation and healing as we sort out the political components of the TRC recommendations. The Commission will begin a process of transformation that will fundamentally alter the way it works. The focus will be on bringing a better balance between remedies for individuals who have experienced discrimination, and effective broader psychosocial changes in the whole society to bring about reconciliation and healing. The vast majority of Liberians live in a reality that is still profoundly shaped by the war and previous social, economic and political divides. Liberia needs reconciliation and healing as a matter of urgency. Here are ways in which the new commission will be transformed:
The goal of all these interventions will be to make the Human Rights Commission into an agency that will help us look toward the future while healing social divisions from our past. It will help us in reconciling differences and enhancing the prospects for social cohesion.
The Human Rights Commission will foster new approaches to individual and group trauma healing, the practice of forgiveness, cultural approaches to restorative justice, and implementing perhaps the concept of a “Palava Hut,” so as to interrupt the intergenerational transfer of wounds and vengeance.