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Pandemic Puts New Fears and Trauma on War-Scarred Bosnians

Women exercise during a therapy session in a park in Sarajevo, Bosnia Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Kemal Softic)
Women exercise during a therapy session in a park in Sarajevo, Bosnia Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Kemal Softic)
Pandemic Puts New Fears and Trauma on War-Scarred Bosnians
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Memories of the Bosnian War are shaping Zdenka Sutalo and the way she thinks about the novel coronavirus.

The 58-year-old woman attends group therapy meetings to work through her painful memories of the war, which lasted from 1992 until 1995. As a young woman in Sarajevo, she survived bombing campaigns, hunger and electricity shortages. She was forced to suspend her university studies because of the fighting.

These days Sutalo sometimes must be reminded that the coronavirus is a serious risk.

“The war was my most difficult experience in life,” she said, after attending a therapy meeting.

“As for the pandemic,” she added, “the world survived plague and cholera and those are now just water under the bridge.”

As coronavirus cases increase, the pandemic is creating more trouble in a poor nation that has never recovered economically or psychologically from the war. The fighting killed 100,000 people and forced 2.2 million others from their homes.

Bosnian health officials estimate that about 50 percent of the nation’s nearly 3.5 million people suffered some form of trauma because of the war.

Mental health experts fear that the pandemic will now worsen mental health problems and other health risks. They are speaking of an increase of new patients coming to see them in recent months.

Tihana Majstorovic is a psychologist. She works for Menssana, a non-governmental mental health group in Sarajevo.

Majstorovic tole The Associated Press that the war experience was leading some Bosnians to downplay the threat of the pandemic, increasing the risk of its spread.

“People who survived the war perceive danger differently,” she said. “Often, if they are not hungry, cold or have mortars exploding over their heads, they do not feel they are in danger.”

They do not take the threat seriously because it seems so much less threatening than the war, Majstorovic explained.

Remzija Setic is also a psychologist. He said he, too, sees war survivors downplaying the risks of the virus.

But he also has patients who are fearful because, in some ways, this pandemic is like the war: always being indoors, seeing public spaces as dangerous, concern over getting food and separation from family and friends.

In addition, people are just tired of hearing about COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Setic said that he is seeing a growing number of people who say they are extremely worried and physically tired. Also, many young Bosnians with no memory of the war are not taking the coronavirus seriously. The virus has infected nearly 56,000 people and killed more than 1,350 nationwide.

But in some ways, Bosnia is better equipped than some other countries to deal with the pandemic.

Because of the trauma from the war, the 25 year-recovery has included creating psychological support groups for the population. There are now more than 70 community based mental health centers in the country. These groups are also helping people deal with the virus.

“It is a fact that we have a lot of relevant experience ... and that we’ve learned many lessons that we could share,” said Goran Cerkez. He is the assistant health minister in the larger of two largely autonomous areas.

After the war, Cerkez led an effort to reform Bosnia’s mental health care system. He noted that people from the neighboring nations of Serbia and Croatia have been calling Bosnian support groups for assistance with pandemic related problems.

Based on his experiences, he expects the psychological effect of the coronavirus pandemic will be longer and more severe than it is now.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

therapy n. the treatment of physical or mental illnesses

remind v. to make (someone) think about something again : to cause (someone) to remember something​

pandemic – n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

plague – n. a very serious disease that is spread especially by rats and that killed many people in the Middle Ages

cholera n. a serious disease that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea and that often results in death

psychology n. the science or study of the mind and behavior

trauma n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

perceive – v. to notice or to become aware of something

relevant adj. relating to a subject in an appropriate way