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The Hidden Costs of War


By Roswitha and Peter Jarman*


An elderly Ingush showed Roswitha his portacabin in the makeshift settlement where he had lived since the local civil war of 1992. She admired the neat order he had created around his hand-made bed. ''My wife is ill in hospital, do you have some medicine?', he asked. Roswitha, having none, tried to give him fifty dollars.

"No", he said, "I cannot take money", so she slipped the notes into his pocket. Tears poured down his cheeks. ''What have I done to deserve this?', he asked, 'I fought against the Fascists and received war medals. We Ingush were all deported by Stalin in 1944 to Kazakhstan and had to start there with nothing. When we returned here in 1957 I built a house for my family and then came this war. Who is responsible for it? I have no space in this cabin for my five sons, they sleep wherever they can'. He spends his days walking up and down the muddy paths that link the portacabins to secure water and a little food.

He has lived this makeshift life for nearly seven years, and there is little hope that he will die in peace in his own home. Who knows how his sons will make their living? In all this pain and humiliation Roswitha felt his dignity, but he probably only experiences humiliation.

We shall describe some of the hidden costs of war: the effects of destroying societal relationships, the disintegration of the social fabric; the trauma, humiliation, confusion and destitution, the emotional chaos in the physical chaos.

Post-war situations occur not by evolution but abruptly and with little warning. Suddenly people face a totally changed environment. Who can take charge in this confusion? The link with the past is destroyed. Uprooted, bewildered by the painful present and faced with a future laden with trauma and fear, the victims have to construct new frames of reference to make sense of their daily lives. It is a heyday for extremism.

The societies in which we normally live give us our status, our roots and the knowledge of where we come from. They provide opportunities that we are more or less free to accept. We feel secure and have trust and hope for the future. A healthy society is like a huge and safe family with some parental guidance and with freedom for personal development. Relationships can be made between ethnic groups without undue difficulty. After war this freedom is destroyed. People are left in an emotionally highly charged state of being isolated from one another and thrust into a void. Depression, drugs and crime are routes of escape.

Wars often end by peacemaking and cease-fires followed by the deployment of armed peacekeepers. However the freezing or postponement of resolving the underlying conflict is another hidden cost of war, with the psychological consequences of the war often creating further barriers to that resolution. We illustrate this through our experience of peoples caught up in the inter-ethnic wars of the 1990's in the Caucasus and the Balkans.

The Chechens, the Ingush and the Ossetes

On the North side of the great barrier of the Caucasian mountains stretching from the Black to the Caspian Seas that separate Russia from the Trans-Caucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, dwell many different ethnic groups. We shall refer only to the Chechens, the Ingush and the Ossetes, whom we first met early in 1991 through an exchange of community leaders between the North Caucasus and Northern Ireland. A terrible civil war raged between Russian troops and Chechens from December 1994 to August 1996; the Ingush and the Ossetes supported by Russian troops fought each other for a few days at the end of October 1992 over the sovereignty of a tiny patch of land known as the Prigorodny (Russian - near to the city) District near the capital Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. A thousand people were killed, mostly Ingush, and about 60,000 Ingush were displaced forcibly mostly to Ingushetia.

The Croat-Serb conflict in Eastern Slavonia

We shall also refer to the Croat-Serb conflict in Eastern Slavonia that began ferociously in the early Winter of 1991 when the Federal Yugoslav army displaced all Croats from the Vukovar district. Eastern Slavonia is now part of the Croatian Republic. We allude briefly to the Armenian-Azeri conflict begun in 1988 over the sovereignty of Nagorno Karabakh.

In Eastern Slavonia and in North Ossetia/Ingushetia, the warring ethnic groups are separated by less than ten miles; we could cross from one side to the other by car, or by cars and by walking across the no-man's-land, in under an hour. Yet for several years members of these groups have not met each other face to face. Moreover through the war telephone and postal communications were severed. People are cut off from each other and the propaganda through the media and in the schools fuels the stereotyping of seeing the others as enemies. The loss of security, the economic difficulties and the feelings of humiliation, guilt, and fear further fuel hate and give rise to anger and violence.

Working with youth

With teenagers in a school in Vladikavkaz, Roswitha was exploring the meaning of a culture of peace. When she asked about the need to live alongside other ethnic groups like the neighbouring Ingush, a deadly silence fell over the group. Nobody had dared to say the word Ingush in the school for some time. The myth of some terrible creatures seemed to hang in the air.

Roswitha had worked with some older students in that same school for about three years on personal and interpersonal issues of conflict and peacebuilding. One said I don't know why our parents fought this war, but I don't feel any hostility towards the Ingush. It was autumn and after an English lesson with autumn leaves they collected the leaves and gave them to her as a gesture of friendship. Roswitha said she would be in Ingushetia the next day and would like to give these leaves to the students there. The Ossetian students looked at her with excitement and took the leaves and wrote messages of friendship on them.

The next day Roswitha gave those leaves to the Ingush students and told them that they came with greetings from the students in Vladikavkaz. They took the leaves, looked at them and dropped their heads. A heavy silence fell over the class. Roswitha was anxious. Gradually the students looked up and asked: did they really say these things to us? Do they remember us with friendship? When Roswitha confirmed this, the atmosphere lightened and they shared some of their good memories of living with Ossetes.

Kurtat is an Ingush village in the disputed territory. During the war it was destroyed by Russian and Ossetian artillery and incendiaries. Roswitha returned there with a former inhabitant accompanied by the special police force responsible for helping the Ingush to return to their homes. Her Ingush friend wore a thin nylon jacket on the cold autumn day. She shivered and grasping Roswitha's arm announced 'I will show you the house I built'. They had to get special permission to walk a further hundred yards into a field of overgrown ruins. 'This was our house, I built most of it with our seven children, my husband is an invalid. Now I can't even go there and dig the ground to plant some crops'.

Other displaced Ingush living there in dilapidated portacabins showed her the bullet holes on the Ossetian side of their cabins. 'At night they shoot', they said, 'and we are helpless'. The Russian soldiers who were supposed to safeguard Ingush admitted: 'We cannot do anything. You see we are here, the Ingush are on this side, and beyond are the Ossetians. If we shoot to defend the Ingush, we will hit the Ingush and not the Ossetes'.

A young Osset who really wanted to understand the Ingush better, listened to these experiences and said to Roswitha ''I guess when we feel helpless we start to hate.' He was trying to come to terms with the hate of his people for the Ingush.

Chechnya, the hidden costs of war

The terrible destruction of the war between the Russian government and the Chechen forces began in December 1994. A few months later in Chechnya, Roswitha experienced people living only for the present moment. Women crouched in the temporary bazaar with goods displayed on boxes ready to grab the pile of goods and flee if the sound of gunfire came closer. People huddled outside of ruined houses swinging vodka bottles inviting her to come and see how they lived in the cellars. The driver of the taxi leaning out of the window to look for a possible ambush. The young Russian soldiers asking their Chechen enemies for bread, or salt or a cigarette. During the nightly curfew neighbours coming together to dance in the courtyard. The poignant drumbeats raising the spirits to affirm their proud Caucasian nature.

Four years later the basic utilities of water, sewerage, energy supplies have yet to be restored. The hidden costs of this war are the mounting criminality, the kidnapping, drug taking and general lawlessness arising from the lack of jobs and opportunities, and the infiltration of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect into what was a moderate Muslim country. In this bedlam, women seek to feed and nurture their children, many of whom are severely traumatised by the violence they have seen.The invigorating spirit of holding out together against the enemy during the fighting is gone. Now that women feel they cannot even provide for their children they wonder what point there is in life.

Roswitha feels that her heart has been pierced by the pain of young Chechen boys recounting their experiences of that war, of seeing brothers shot, bodies mutilated, women tortured, and guns waved wildly by drugged soldiers. Boys that have lost fathers have now to take on the responsibility for the family. Their determination to be brave and live up to the expectations of being the oldest male in the family requires their suppression of the unprocessed pain of the war. A Caucasian can cry only three times in his life: Once when his father dies, once when his mother dies and once when his horse dies. The horse has traditionally been an essential partner in this wild mountainous region.

Working with traumatised children

Roswitha is contributing to a project initiated by Dutch Interchurch Aid to help children heal their traumas by finding ways of living constructively with their experiences of war. Small groups of healing are established throughout Chechnya. Here the children feel safe, they know that in this special place they can tell their stories and cry and through games and play they can rebuild models of social interaction. These groups are facilitated by local people usually teachers.

Such a group of a dozen children met in a small room in a school. The door was slightly ajar and an inspector glimpsed something of the group at work. He asked the teacher what is going on here? I have never seen anything so beautiful and tender in a school before. Parents are astonished at the effect the work has on the children, what are you doing with my daughter/son?, they ask, s/he is completely changed.

The war has left children with severe traumas caused by what they experienced or by their feelings of guilt of not preventing the death of close relatives. Not only are children haunted by nightmares and flashbacks, they also have to make leaps in their development leaving them confused. They feel that their life is disjointed from what they knew before. A part of trauma work is to restore the link with the past and to build a link into the future.

Initiatives that provide space for people to be heard, to make sense of the present, but also to vent anger, to feel dignity restored are desperately needed. The Chechen women working with children who had come to a small town in southern Russia for their training needed time and space to experience themselves in a 'normal' environment. In Chechnya we have no examples of normal life, we don't know what healthy life is any more, they said.

Chechnya is a country economically destroyed by just such a war as happened in Kosovo/Serbia in 1999. Such destruction robs people of a stable future. No money, no work, ruins around. The outer destruction is the visible sign but the hidden cost is the social and psychological destruction. The social fabric of relationships and values is destroyed, community needs are abandoned whilst individual gain is selfishly sought. This is fertile time for those with big messages. The Wahhabis are imposing Sharia (Islamic) law that is feared and is alien to local traditions. Islam in the North Caucasus has always been a very moderate form with a fine Sufi philosophy.

Victims of war may seek some means of accounting for what happened such as attributing guilt to others. The emotional and psychological reasoning of their unconscious might be: 'this is unbearably painful, it was not my fault, I don't want to be guilty of causing it, someone must have done it to me, I am the victim; the other is utterly bad'. The 'badness' of the other is then cultivated into an enemy image which justifies further violence and gives some consolation to the victims.

Guilt and blame

Guilt is a hidden cost of war. The scars of conscience borne by all who killed or injured another, especially the soldiers who are often haunted by the horrors, nightmares and nagging questions arising from the bloody mess called war. Were they merely obeying orders?, an inner voice queries. For obedience is not blind.

A whole society may struggle with this guilt knowing consciously or unconsciously that it willed the destruction of the others. After the war many books published in Vladikavkaz sought to justify the Ossetian version of it against the background of the glorious and ancient history of the 'Alan' (Ossetian) people. Five years later these books were displayed less prominently, a candid admission of overdoing the prejudice.

Burdens of conscience are also borne by the many government officials who did not do all within their powers to find alternatives to violence knowing that tensions were running high and their underlying causes were not being addressed. Before the violence such officials may be devious; afterwards their blandness may be covering up a crisis of conscience for which repentance seems impossible. They are aware that they have both a public voice, the voice of the government, and a private voice that reflects what they really believe. The tension this causes can tear people apart. Peter knew a senior Soviet official driven to an early death through a heart attack caused by such tension. 'I can see what I have written, I can hear what I have said, but I do not believe it'. There are many such premature deaths in the North Caucasian region.

Roswitha told an Ossetian minister of her meetings with displaced Ingush refugees in their portacabins. He was responsible for their return. She conveyed her perception of their pain of living in a no-man's land situation for over five years. No work, no money and with youngsters growing up with little alternative to becoming criminals. Asking how their return could be speeded up, the minister to her distress let loose a tirade of hostile comments giving the Ingush full blame for their suffering. Their nature was to be trouble makers, any return to the disputed territory could only be because of the generosity of Ossetes. Roswitha felt trappedby this prejudice which allowed for no rational dialogue. When she said in her limited command of Russian that she could not accept such an extreme view, the minister felt that he was being called an extremist and he became angry.

We found that people were unable to acknowledge their own guilt, they could only name the guilt of the other side. To admit your and your nation's guilt in using violence might lower your self-esteem.

On truth, hope and humiliation

In war truth is the first victim. There has been nothing like the Central American or South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Caucasus or the Balkans. What sparked off the violence and who then did what to whom is known if at all in confidential state enquiries and in the memory and consciences of the peoples. Much has been written by journalists about the origin and development of the Balkan wars but the wars either side of the Caucasian mountains by their very inaccessibility and the problems of language have not been well scrutinised. Listening and recording the stories of the victims of the violence there could be cathartic. We had begun to do this with the Ingush and Ossetes but the insecurity and lawlessness springing from neighbouring Chechnya have placed all that part of the North Caucasus out of bounds to any outsiders who might record thesestories. They are painful, possibly provocative to the other side, and often there is only a small part of the whole truth that they reveal. Nevertheless the attention by outsiders to stories of the truth perceived by the victims of war can having healing effects.

After the Second World War people had dreams, visions, hopes for a better future. They had something to work for, their energies had common outlets. People in post-Soviet countries are utterly humiliated and in their desperate economic situation they have no image of a common future. The communist ideology of a brotherhood of nations with stern punishment for anyone fermenting ethnic unrest held people together - 'in a common concentration camp', - as an Ingush official told us. Now the ideology has gone, the gates of the concentration camp are open and the people are left to fight for themselves.

During the war between Armenians and Azeris over the sovereignty of the beautiful mountainous terrain of Nagorno Karabakh, we met people displaced on both sides by the violence and their political leaders. We saw Azeri school children bussed to the highest point of Baku and escorted around the graves of young martyrs, boys killed by Armenians. We were saddened by the abuse of mourning to fuel hate for Armenians. The dead have loud voices, they need to be respected but not allowed to jeopardise the future. What if, we wondered, those same children were also led around the graves of young Armenians killed by the Azeris?

Mourning is a vital element of remembering what has been lost. The loss of lives and livelihoods is grievous, we need to weep. We found it helpful in war-torn regions to encourage in due time the cherishing of common memories and of mourning together. For this was how life in community was lived before the violence and its restoration is the goal of reconciliation.

During the civil war in Bosnia we were told of one village in which goodwill between neighbours of different ethnicity prevailed so long as the violence was not too close to it. But as the fighting came closer, panic set in and the trust that had been established over centuries was destroyed. All but one of the ethnic groups fled. Apprehension and anxiety are vital elements in our emotion of fear. They can enable us to survive peril, but in times of civil unrest they can so prey upon us that we panic.

How then can we measure the hidden costs of war? That which held people together in multi-ethnic communities is suddenly broken and people are driven far apart physically and more importantly psychologically. Hostile stereotypes prevail until in the softening of time some people, often women or young people, affirm the good in the other side or the times when they lived peacefully as neighbours. Women are often not so attached to their self-image as men who need such an image for their standing in society. How can such people come together when they are physically separated and when hostile stereotyping is still rampant? Mediators travelling between the two sides to convey positive affirming messages that may help to heal broken relationships.

The case of Eastern Slavonia

At the end of Operation Storm in Croatia in the Autumn of 1995, the Serbs were driven out except from Eastern Slavonia where the United Nations Temporary Administration there, UNTAES, prevented a further exodus. Their mandate ended in November 1997 when the territory became fully controlled by the Croatian government. The Serbs had the choice of fleeing across the Danube or of assuming Croatian citizenship. Wars can end by attrition, both sides exhaust themselves, neither is the winner. If they end by one side winning, the other losing, the victor trades his guilt by abusing and stereotyping the loser, the loser trades his suffering and victimisation for attention. The victors persisted in imposing Croat head teachers on the schools there although 97% of the teachers and pupils were Serb. Their Serb principals were pushed aside and the contracts of all Serb teachers were made insecure.

Peter is a member of the Balkans mitigation team of the Swedish Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, TFF. With its director, Jan Oberg, the team was invited in the Autumn of 1997 by UNTAES just before they left to visit these schools with the concurrence of the Croatian government. At the invitation of the local education authorities schools in Croatian parts of Eastern Slavonia were also visited.

We found unaddressed and inarticulated hurt, propagated from the Croat and Serb controlled media, that fuelled stereotypes of the other as evil. On the Croat side insistence that the Serbs started the violence, and that Serbs still did not repent for the massacre of many Croats in Vukovar in 1991 whose mass graves were then still unearthed. On the Serb side, strong feelings of humiliation and insecurity, and of being victimised by the Croats. Many Serbs felt that they had no alternative to leaving as they were being 'administratively cleansed'. Some were in hiding since they were on a list of war criminals drawn up by the Croats. Peter met a Serb seeking emigration to Canada who had been one of the tank commanders of the Federal Yugoslav army that systematically destroyed Vukovar block by block, day by day in 1991. He was chain smoking in a village bar and drinking heavily. The owner of the bar served as our interpreter both on the Serb and Croat sides of the ethnic divide caused by the war. Constantly in her mind was the future of her young children. She was earnestly trying to convince herself that they could have a future within the Croatian Republic but her anxieties never left her.

A year later she and her family were in Serbia waiting for their papers to emigrate also to Canada. Most of the Serbs in her village have like her had to sell their homes cheaply to the Croats.

Vukovar in 1997 still lay in ruins six years after the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of most of its citizens, then roughly half Serb and half Croat, living then in a beautiful town nestling in a bend of the Danube. The surviving Croats, a lot were slaughtered, were displaced a few miles to the West, and the Serbs, by far the majority in Vukovar in 1997, included many displaced from Krajina and Western Slavonia. Separated by only a few miles with UN control barriers between, the Serbs and Croat communities of Eastern Slavonia in 1997 were alienated from each other.

Working on reconciliation with Croat and Serb youth

To shift the log-jam of negative emotions, the TFF team found a way after several visits of bringing together in whole day seminars young Croats and Serbs aged between 16 and 19 who through their youth were innocent of the violence. We had first to persuade the Croatian Minister of Education to give her permission and encourage her regional ministers to support the venture. 'Reconciliation means forgetting, we can never forget', was her first reaction. Reconciliation does not require us to forget but may require us to forgive.

With the help of regional education ministries we interviewed the principals and teachers of senior schools in the Croat and Serb regions of Eastern Slavonia. What we heard was mostly hostile of the other side - one principal in Osijek slammed down the phone on first calling him, 'I won't have anything to do with Serbs', he said.

Gradually over the course of several visits we persuaded even him to permit some of his pupils to be escorted to meet Serbs in Vukovar. He even led the bus in his car and gave a brief welcoming speech to begin the seminar. Only afterwards were we told that he had been quite severely wounded during the civil war and so this first crossing after seven years into enemy territory required of him a great effort of will.

Some pupils were willing to travel to the other side to meet their peers there. We sought and generally obtained parental approval. However some mothers could not agree to their daughters engaging in this exercise: their husbands/fathers had been killed during the war. There were also some macho lads in a technical school who said that if any Serbs came to their town they would kill them. How to raise awareness amongst such lads so that they are not tempted to use violence is a challenge to us all. Fortunately UNTAES was able to disarm the population unlike the North Caucasus where there is a long tradition of keeping arms.

To begin the seminars we encouraged the Croat and Serb students to find common ground in their youth culture. Then each participant was given an opportunity to share their stories of what happened to them and their families during the war through a creative listening session in which only the person holding a Buddhist bell of mindfulness had the right to speak. In separate meetings beforehand we encouraged each ethnic group to speak only from their own experience, to use I statements, and not to use blaming language. Some Croat and Serb youth chose to remember the pain of violence through visiting graveyards and by planting trees of remembrance.

Croatia is a recent member of the Council of Europe and through its human rights programme some pressure was brought to bear on the Croatian government to prove that in some ways it complied with its purposes. We were invited on several occasions to comment on the proposed human rights curriculum for Croatian schools. Whilst this included many good points, it contained parts that were severely critical of its Serb minority - poems depicted Serbs as inhumane monsters. The teachers' guide made no other mention of the brutal and bloody civil war between Serbs and Croats: if it had not been for the intervention of the UN in 1995 all Serbs would have been driven out of Croatia.

Restoring dignity

Roswitha was in Moscow in May 1999 when NATO was bombing Serbia during the Kosovo war. The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade had been hit. Outside the US embassy in Moscow Chinese students demonstrated. They looked fierce and unapproachable to Roswitha and her Russian psychologist friend as they unloaded their anger and pent up emotions (arising from another hurt) on to a cause that seemed to justify all this feeling. Roswitha thought of Germans humiliated and angry when Hitler provided the match that lit the destructive fire that raged out of control.

Humiliation and hurt fan flames of violence. No emotion may be more powerful than the need to restore a sense of dignity.

Some young men from different ethnic regions of the North Caucasus told Roswitha 'If we forgive, we cannot feel angry, we feel weak, it makes us feel powerless'. The path to repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation is long and time consuming. It requires a transformation of accepted behaviour. How can young men filled with the energy of anger and tempted by the sweetness of revenge be led to this path?


August 1999

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Peter Jarman is a member of the TFF Conflict-Mitigation team














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