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Confronting the Enemy After Wartime Can Help, and Hurt

Two war victims seen in wheelchairs at the launch of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Monrovia, June 22, 2006. An accounting of atrocities committed during nearly a quarter-century was aimed at setting the stage for a long-term peace. (AP Photo/Pewee Flomoku)
Confronting the Enemy After Wartime Can Help, and Hurt
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A new study finds public discussion of a violent civil conflict can harm some victims who have tried to forget the pain they experienced.

In a civil war, a man may sometimes fight against his brother. Civilians might find themselves living in a building next to the enemy.

Some countries have set up truth and reconciliation commissions as a way to heal society after violent civil conflicts.

More than 20 truth and reconciliation programs have been created in countries where civil wars were fought. The first took place in Latin America. Perhaps the most famous program was held in South Africa after the end of apartheid -- the system that forced black and white citizens to live separately.

Truth and reconciliation commissions give victims of violence the chance to tell their stories. In addition, the attackers have a chance to ask their victims to forgive them.

A truth and reconciliation process is now taking place in Sierra Leone. The West African nation experienced a violent civil war from 1991 to 2002.

During the Revolutionary United Front campaign against the government, more than 50,000 people were killed. Thousands more were raped or had arms or legs cut off. The violence displaced about 2.6 million people -- more than half of the population.

In 2007, a group called Fambul Tok -- which means “Family Talk” in the Krio language -- launched a program to give civilians a chance to tell what happened to them.

Some civilians told their stories in great detail. People who had hurt others were given the chance to ask for forgiveness in exchange for not being charged with crimes and imprisoned.

Oeindrila Dube teaches at New York University. She says the process has helped people who have taken part in it and their communities.

“They contributed more to public good. They spent more time doing things like building roads and health clinics and donating to, you know, more to families in need. So, in essence, it became much more community-oriented in their behavior.”

But Dube suspected that not everyone had been helped. Perhaps some civilians found the process of coming face-to-face with former attackers brought back memories of the war. She wondered if this might fuel feelings of anxiety and depression.

The World Bank, Georgetown University and the NGO Innovations for Poverty Action group supported Dube’s research.

She and her team studied 200 Sierra Leonean villages. Half of the villages were chosen to take part in the truth and reconciliation process. The researchers made an interesting discovery.

“While there was all this positive force and societal healing, it was actually quite psychologically difficult for people who had gone through this process, and they exhibited greater anxiety, greater depression and greater trauma as a result of having gone through the program.”

Compared to villages where civilians did not talk to their torturers, there was a 36 percent higher rate of post-traumatic stress.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

Dube says war crimes should not be forgotten. But she suggests there may be a way to ease the pain that can result after truth and reconciliation meetings.

“They could be combined with ongoing counseling so people have a little bit more preparation for facing some of these negative memories that they're going to face and, possibly, have ongoing counseling afterward to help them work through some of the negative emotions and negative memories that they've been confronted with as a result of going through the process.”

The researchers say the process should be changed to better-protect civilians who are hurt when they remember their war experiences.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA’s Jessica Berman reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reconciliation – n. the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement

anxiety – n. fear or nervousness about what might happen

exhibit – v. to show or reveal (something)

post-traumatic stress – n. a medical condition that follows a traumatic event that a person has experienced

work through – phrasal verb to deal with (something that is difficult or unpleasant) successfully