Common Bond Institute

Foreword to: “Healing and Peacebuilding After War”



Healing and Peacebuilding After War:
Transforming Trauma in Bosnia and Herzegovina

TPO Foundation Sarajevo

Steve Olweean

Common Bond Institute
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Meeting in Sarajevo in the summer of 2016 at the conference on “Trauma, Memory and Healing in the Balkans and Beyond,” and walking in the narrow streets of the old city with my son, it was difficult to reconcile the calm beauty and gentle nature of the surroundings with each day delving into the pain, loss, and trauma of two decades before. As I recalled my own memory of the explosion of turmoil and violence erupting throughout this area in the 1990s from what seemed some latent storehouse of toxic energy, there was a perceptible uneasiness with similar rumblings in the present – rumblings that echoed a common human dilemma neither new nor exclusive to this region.


Just steps away from our hotel was the spot where Arch Duke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a gunman intent on righting his own version of a wrong rooted in centuries before. In that act was the spark of the 1st World War and an unprecedented massive machinery of trauma to communities on all sides producing, among other things, communal victim identities and the urge for retribution that steadily contributed to the 2nd World War merely two decades later. The small, nearly overlooked museum on that narrow street in Sarajevo housing artifacts and news clippings of the assassination seemed almost microscopic in comparison to what that particular act at that particular place had triggered.


On the surface such explosive clashes between societies might simply seem the outcomes of geopolitical factors of the time played out to an unfortunate conclusion. However, looking closer at the spark point can reveal a more complicated convergence of catalytic forces that include unresolved collective trauma, victim narratives, widespread insecurity, and the tensions of competing military powers identifying each as both a historical and potential perpetrator.


Parallels to such a volatile formula can be seen throughout history, and in large and small conflicts unfolding across the globe today; bearing witness to the power in stories of profound unhealed loss and tragedy passed on from one generation to the next. All someone needs to do is open a history book, listen to a heroic folk tale, or visit a war memorial to see that unhealed collective trauma is one of the most enduring and potent underlying fuels for polarization, enemy images, conflict, and “just” war; but also, conversely, that healing communal trauma and nurturing the capacity for peace are intricately interconnected. The former keeps fresh the wounds of toxic grievances and ensures they are continually blended into the mix of present and future conflicts, while the latter frees us of this burden and allows for laying the groundwork for reconciliation and a true culture of peace.


Virtually every society and culture has its traditional victim story, if we look closely and far back enough. It emerges in our historic narratives and icons of group identity and belonging and, unfortunately, at times also in our sense of justification and readiness for revenge; particularly toward descendants of past perpetrators, or simply those who remind us of them. Aggressors and defenders alike can embrace a sense of original martyrdom and vision of a moral worthiness and righteous reckoning – a vision that fortifies their self-image as reasonable defenders rather than aggressors, and a vision that unfortunately allows others to experience them in both roles. When two groups in conflict each carry a deeply embedded victim identity there is the highest potential for blind, inhumane treatment toward a dehumanized and demonized “Other” rationalized as reasonable defense.


Profound trauma can permeate all dimensions of an individual’s reality. Along the way previously secure positive beliefs can be severely shaken, or even shattered, to be replaced by damaging negative beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, and by fragmented perceptions of reality that color all aspects of day to day life from that point forward. On the communal level the process is vastly more complex and multidimensional, as legacies of unresolved suffering become ingrained in the group ethos, identity, and sense of exceptionalism, to be passed into future generations as transgenerational trauma where they set the stage for more conflict. Whether within or between communities, trauma memory plays a pivotal role in fomenting fear and hostility; creating new wounds and new competing narratives of tragedy that perpetuate a chronic cycle of trauma, violence, and trauma. Within this cycle, identities of victim and perpetrator tend to overlap and communities too easily reach out for rationalized revenge.


The experience of the Balkans is no exception, and Bosnia & Herzegovina in particular, as is made clear in this important collection of writings produced by this 2nd conference of the series. Together the authors delve fully into these complexities, both specific to this troubled region and with universal applications, to reach a more comprehensive, multifaceted understanding and appreciation of the past and present, for the benefit of the future. The chapters provide a blend of objective research, real-world models and applications, insightful perspectives, and potent personal experiences. At the same time that they pose fundamental and sometimes painful questions, practical elements are offered for new formulas as pathways to healing, reconciliation, and peace.


Among themes addressed are


• Integrating communal healing, peacebuilding, and the need for a multidisciplinary approach.
• Noncompetitive and non-harmful narratives needed to achieve a shared collective narrative that is inclusive and honors the parties involved, with mutual recognition and acknowledgement of loss and injury of all sides.
• Challenging the exploitation of trauma, loss, and the energy of fear produced by demagogues and power brokers intent on reinforcing polarization and enemy images to acquire and consolidate their power.
• The presence of individual and communal resilience and transformation in the face of adversity that disrupts the social fabric of a society, such as the pivotal role women play both in the communal trauma experience and as change agents in the healing, reconciliation and rebuilding of societies.
• The journey of transforming identities beyond the labels of victim and survivor toward that of resilient healer and peace activist to promote positive, compassionate, and peaceful relationships.
• The nuances and interplay between primary and secondary trauma, and the mind, body, and spirit dimensions of healing.
• Religious expression in daily life and appreciation of diversity as a valued added quality and frame for inclusion rather than exclusion.


The Balkan experience is both old and fresh; a paradox that challenges simple answers. For decades now answers have been sought to understand events of the past and how they impact on current and future relationships in the region. For some events it has been generations. And there are many questions remaining. Among these societies there is also a great and growing distance between perceptions and narratives of events, making the very process of formulating questions a complicated and uncertain one. As such, any attempt in seeking meaningful solutions requires an essential first step: to better understand the questions. Once this is achieved movement can be made toward seeking the kind of answers that bring sustainable solutions, and most importantly, answers that can be embraced by all sides.


The authors in this book come from many disciplinary backgrounds with first hand expertise that equips them well for comprehending a larger picture and meeting such a challenge. Their unique combination of work, talents, and viewpoints is reflected in the invaluable depth of knowledge and lessons-learned they share here; knowledge that promotes insight, compassion, and positive activism. Any who wish to gain a deeper insight into and understanding of the dynamics and nuances of traumatic communal relationships in the Balkans – past and present, and what is needed to achieve true healing and reconciliation for a shared future of sustainable peace, will find in this book essential reading. It is an important volume that will make a key contribution to the growing awareness and vital work being done across the globe in examining the intersection of trauma, violence, healing, and peace, both in the Balkans and beyond.

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