The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than a month. I was listening to one of the TV programmes that continuously report on the events and I just heard that more than 3 million people fled the country. They aired an interview with two young men who are below 20 and who said that their fathers stayed in Ukraine to fight for their cities and homes. This is just one piece of news that we hear every day on all TV stations. They are so frequent that we have the feeling that the war is about to start here again. I walk through the streets and see people lost as a result of too much information, people buying loads of flour and oil, as a reserve, to be ready, when it happens, if it happens.
I watch people as they increasingly withdraw into themselves, how they get tired of other people, how they lose interest in daily issues and how they merely survive, while their days go by as they listen to news and wait for it to happen. And when you take a closer look at them, you see people with pain in their eyes who seem to live in a world of their own. They absorb the news we are bombed with and connect them with everything we experienced in the 1990s. They never want to talk about the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they reject any assistance, and when they go to bed, they suffer from nightmares, insomnia and endless pictures in their heads.
What is happening to us?
During my work in the field of facing the past and peacebuilding, I often had a chance to talk and work with war veterans, women who survived conflict-related sexual violence and persons who were detainees at detention camps. When I ask them how they deal with everything they experienced, they mostly tell me ”as best they can, but that they dream about the events they experienced and that they are aware that they survived a trauma. A trauma that has life-long consequences”.
Traumata are sudden, long or repeated, objectively or subjectively threatening or harmless events during which persons experience the feeling of vulnerability or so-called trauma jaws. In such a situation, the affected persons feel: threat, fear, pain, anger, panic or stiffness and apathy. We define such phenomena as an acute reaction to stress or post-traumatic reaction to stress. The affected persons are unable to escape or fight and they experience the state of external and internal paralysis. In such a situation of an unavoidable shock, our brain works (reacts, processes and stores information) differently than in case of other experiences and events.
A reaction after trauma stress may be seen as part of a normal reaction to strong experiences. If persons have the support of their family members and friends, the intensity of their symptoms mostly goes down in several months. However, in case of a certain number of persons, the symptoms do not disappear so fast, and in some cases they can be lifelong. Also, it is usual for the intensity of symptoms to vary over time and that the intensity may become higher in case of stressful situation. Persons that suffered a trauma sometimes have the feeling that they are re-experiencing the events, which is known as a trigger or reliving the trauma. When something reminds them of such events, such as the war in Ukraine, they may feel anxiety, grief and sadness as well as physical sensations such as sweating, accelerated heart rate and muscular tension.
Human beings have a natural propensity to seek meaning in everything happening around them. When persons experience a stressful situation, they remember it, trying to understand its sense. It is an attempt that helps us cope with most stressful situations. In case of severe trauma, there is a high level of anxiety and thoughts and feelings are suppressed because the person is trying to protect himself/herself from reliving the suffering. Memories of a traumatic experience may not happen for a while, but as long as a person does not face them, they will keep resurfacing.
As a result, it may be concluded that persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina have triggers resulting from their traumatic experiences that are resurfacing due to the war in Ukraine. There are methods that help cope with trauma that can be applied on a daily basis, such as moderate physical activity, pleasant activities during the day, spending time with close family members and friends, relaxation, etc. that reactivate our inner strength.
These are some of the methods that we can use to help ourselves. However, when it comes to provision of assistance to persons that suffered a trauma, we failed as a society. Due to a lack of social responsibility to accept as a society that others suffered as well, that they faced difficult experiences, traumata and losses, persons that suffered a trauma are reliving it due to the situation in the country and abroad. We as a society should provide support, accept their pain and help them treat it. It is time to accept social responsibility and to jointly work on an institutionalised approach to facing the past and importance of trust building of citizens in the state, which is one of the pre-requisites for us to take down the blindfold, get out of the dark and go towards the future.
Mirjana Trifković has been working on facing the past and peace building projects and programmes for more than ten years, focusing on peace education of youth and work with associations of victims of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She worked at the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an expert associate at the War Crimes Chamber and she holds a degree in law from the Faculty of Law of the University of East Sarajevo. She is a peace building trainer and Gestalt psychotherapy education and trauma education trainer and advisor. At the moment, she is working as a consultant for international organisations in the field of transitional justice, facing the past and peace building in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
 Praxisinstitut Klentzan GmbH
Translated by: Bjanka Pratellesi