In 1903, my mother’s father left Magilov, in what is now Belarus, and walked and was smuggled across borders to get to Rotterdam from where he went to the USA. My mother’s mother left Kiev and got to London, from where she took a boat to New York. She was rejected at Ellis Island, and went back to London and, after a few years, took a boat to Montréal, and then took a train to New York. She thus was what now would be called an illegal alien. My father, who was born in 1909 in a village in Bukovina, now in the Ukraine, near Chernovci, was a refugee in Bohemia during the First World War, and went to New York in 1920. The stories that I heard as a child were that several of his older brothers were somehow misused during the war. One uncle had a severe tic and another wore an orthopedic shoe. None of them ever spoke to me about it directly. Yet, the traumatization was obvious, and it was transmitted to their children and to me. These people made something of their lives. My mother and her sisters became high school teachers and my mother became a guidance counselor. Despite my father having gotten his official high school diploma in his 40s, his books show that he had studied economics and psychology in what we now would call “informal education”. My father’s brothers became physicians. My mother’s father, despite having had perhaps a few years of formal education, spoke four languages. He loved technology, and bought every new piece of equipment that he could afford. They all loved and respected learning and books and music and art, and our house was full of all of that. They worked hard for their children.
Why am I telling my personal story in this blog? When I go to Belgrade to work in a non-governmental center for asylum seekers from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, I see my relatives. The stories that they tell are very similar to those that I heard as a child. It doesn’t matter what nationality or religion or color the people are. They are human beings who left their homes because of war or violence or persecution for their ethnicity and/or their political or other beliefs. Many have lost members of their families, and their friends. Many have been tortured. They left because they want to have better lives for themselves and their children. Every one of them to whom I have spoken wants more education, wants to work, wants a new life away from the suffering. They speak of feeling responsibility for their families who are left in the places that they come from and wanting to help them. While there are, of course, a few adventurers and terrorists and criminals among them, I have come across very few of those. And why do people become terrorists or criminals? Even of these, most are frustrated by what they have experienced. They are depressed and angry and see no other way to go forward.
The stories they tell are of inhumanity by governments and traffickers and police and virtually everyone else. They walk for long distances. They are physically and psychologically abused. Many die in the attempt and others are severely injured. And yet they keep trying. They have spent months, and sometimes years, getting to Belgrade through various routes, some overland and some across the Mediterranean. They speak of starvation and illness underway and currently.
The current attitudes by governments are, in our view, reprehensible. Instead of treating them as fellow human beings who are suffering, they are treated like criminals. They are beaten by border guards, held down in the mud for hours, bitten by guard dogs. They are imprisoned. They are subjected to intense questioning and long bureaucratic procedures. They have no status and don’t know where they will be tomorrow. They are left in limbo for years.
These are people who, with the right kind of treatment and encouragement, could be extremely valuable members of society. They want to be educated. They can contribute the skills, the knowledge, and the diversity of the cultures that they have. They can make societies richer.
Yet, if they are not integrated and treated well, they can become dispirited and turn to terrorism. They also can become ill and thus a huge burden on all societies. Thus, it is our duty, both to them as human beings and to the societies of which we are a part, to assist them. How can we do that? The psychological and physical traumas among them need healing. We think that the best way to do that is to train people among them to assist one another. We have a program called Pragmatic Empowerment Training (PET) that trains people without previous psychological education and which uses their experience and skills and cultural knowledge to do just that. Details are on our website, and future blogs will give more details. We also need to assist the people assisting them through psychological supervision. The involvement must be long-term. Quick fixes don’t work. Our experience is that working with people makes us much richer. Let us do that and show our humanity.
Saturday, 27 January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This day is significant not only because of what happened in the Third Reich but, unfortunately, because similar genocides and massacres on ethnic and religious bases have happened many times in the past and continue to happen all over the world. It doesn't matter which ethnic group or religious group is involved, the tragedy and the inhumanity still are highly significant and still are completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, there are too many examples to mention them individually.
We thus see International Holocaust Remembrance Day not only as a time to remember the one event but to remember all of the genocides of the past and to contemplate those that will happen in the future, and to reaffirm our obligation and commitment to prevent them and to treat the victims.
There are many causes. At the base of this is seeing people as objects and not as human beings. Thus, people are seen as "dangerous" and threatening, and there is a loss of empathy with them and compassion for them. They are seen as "the other", not as people who have feelings and who have suffered. Politicians, bolstered by the media, broadcast these images and brainwash the general population so that genocide becomes possible. We have seen this in all too many instances, including here in the Balkans, in Rwanda, and in the Third Reich. There is exploitation of previous untreated traumas and negative narratives. There is exploitation of people's frustration with their lives and with their economic states. There is scapegoating. All of these feelings go deep and are relatively easy to exploit.
The solutions are well known but are not popular. The psychological traumas MUST be treated at the individual, family, location, regional, national, and planetary levels as quickly as possible, even if this is many years – or generations – after they occur. This treatment must not be with drugs, but through talk. Again, empathy and compassion are essential parts of the treatment. People must be empowered to control their own lives. Instead of dividing people, politicians must be encouraged to bring people together. Patriotism and nationalism must be seen for the mental illnesses that they are.
This will take, as it always has taken, people of good will and good conscience to have courage and to stand up for what they believe in and to take action. We have no illusions that this will happen immediately, but we still call upon people to do it. None of what we are saying here is new. However, we must repeat this until it actually happens.
15 January 2018 marked 20 years since the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranya, and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) left the region. They had started their work in January 1996. I was in the region for the entire period of their existence. The substance of this blog is my memories and impressions of the period. It would take a book, which we are planning to write at some point, to give a more complete analysis of the successes and failures of that mission. First, a few general comments. As virtually all interventions by inter-governmental organizations and large non-governmental organizations, the goals of UNTAES were more political than human. The bureaucracy was enormous. There was a huge gap between the locals and the foreigners. Most of the foreigners – with a few notable exceptions – had little understanding of the region or of what they were supposed to be doing, and even of their own fields of supposed expertise. There was little empathy among most of them, and they frequently were insensitive to local needs and desires. There sometimes – the degree must be determined later – was abuse of locals. There were rivalries between organizations. There was little regard for smaller local and foreign non-governmental organizations. There were, however, a number of notable exceptions to these patterns, people who truly cared. They were outnumbered and, for the most part, they were thwarted in their efforts to make something of the mission. Several left in the middle of it. There also is a question of the legacy now of UNTAES and that of the organization that followed it as the lead inter-governmental organization, that is, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the lessons learned. In 2010, the CWWPP wrote a “lessons learned” document, which is available on our website, which addresses some of this. Clearly, there are many gaps that are being repeated in other places, according to our observations and private conversations. UNTAES was an absolute dictatorship. Whatever they, and ultimately Gen. Jacques Klein and William Walker, its leaders, said was law. By contrast, the OSCE mission that followed was a monitoring mission, that is, it was advisory to the Croatian government, and could only make its will felt through political means. What was significant was that the Croatians wanted to enter the European Union, and thus there was at least minimal compliance with what both said. A tactic that was used by both sides, unfortunately, was delay. The idea was to say something like, “Oh of course we’ll do this but, you know, there is this or that administrative or practical barrier.”. This type of thing was constant. What was striking was the lack of real planning for the mission. What also was striking was the lack of real expertise in areas that should have been there. As one example, there was no person in the mission responsible for reconciliation until its last few months. Further, the foreign personnel, for the most part, seemed to be more interested in themselves than in doing things for others. The salaries that they received were more than ten times what locals received. They permitted themselves great behavioral excesses. For someone like me, looking from the outside and trying to accomplish something, it looked crass and horrible and was offensive. There also was little control of the Croatian officials and politicians, who had more or less free reign. One typical example was the elections held in the spring of 1997. I was in contact with the election monitors, mostly informally, supervising them psychologically. I also met some of the UNTAES officials. In brief, while the top people declared the elections to be free and fair, the consensus on the ground was that they were at very least highly chaotic and at worst abusive and were designed to justify the Croatian takeover of the region. This was the consensus of the NGOs with whom I associated. No UNTAES staff received psychological assistance or supervision, at least as far I am aware, although it may have been done privately. I did it for a small number of people. Further, UNTAES had no feeling for the psychological state of what was, and still is, a highly traumatized population. What UNTAES did reasonably successfully was to get rid of the big guns. I emphasize the word “big”. People kept small, and not so small, arms under their beds, and still do. I once disarmed one man who was living with quite a number of other people. While there were buy-back programs, they were ineffective. Those weapons still exist. There were no real attempts at disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and reconciliation (DDRR), and I doubt that the term was even recognized. The other possible positive consequence was that it may have prevented the Croatians from launching another operation such as Storm to “recapture” eastern Slavonia and Baranya. It is a question – a very real one – whether the international community would have intervened under such circumstances. Furthermore, there was a great deal of antagonism and rivalry between organizations. UNHCR and UNTAES both wanted to be the lead agency. Despite there being coordination meetings, little was coordinated. The same was true of the OSCE period. I characterize the UNTAES period as a failure, with the exception of the removal of the big guns. It also may have prevented the Croatian government from coming into the region, literally with all guns blazing. The consequences for the future of the region were poor. Now, 20 years later, the region still is characterized by strong ethnic tensions and lack of integration and reconciliation of the various ethnicities. Schools, restaurants, and social activities still are segregated. Still, people are psychologically traumatized, and have virtually nowhere to obtain meaningful assistance. There is a great deal of trans-generational transmission of psychological trauma and negative narratives. The psychological medical policy in the area is one of giving drugs. The few organizations that remain have no real influence, try as they may. I include us in that. Unfortunately, this is a picture that is repeated in region after region. UNTAES, at one point, was described as the most successful UN mission in history. Is that simply irony or is there a darker picture?
Monday 15 January is celebrated as Martin Luther King Day in the USA. 4 April will be the 50th anniversary of his assassination. In many respects, this commemoration is ironic considering King’s relationship to the “establishment”. King stood up for what he believed. That belief was religious and moral. It showed respect for other human beings. When politicians praise him, their words ring hollow, at least in my ears. They are the purveyors of inter-ethnic hatred and division. They seek votes on the basis of ethnic division. That certainly is true here, and in the USA, and there are few places where it is not true. It is these politicians and those who work for them who work against – and frequently assassinate – brave and moral people like King. King practiced non-violent conflict transformation. There are few if any places where that is practiced today. Rather, guns and weapons are used to settle conflicts. Funds that could be used to free people from illness and poverty are used to kill and injure others. King, and many other people, not only Afro-Americans, are victims of the trans-generational transmission of the trauma of slavery. That concept of such transmission is seldom recognized, let alone dealt with, anywhere. Yet, recognizing and dealing with it is essential for people to come to their full potential. Instead, people decry the violence and use police actions to try to suppress it. Of course, without treating it, it never will go away. King also recognized that people need to take responsibility for themselves and for their societies. He certainly took such responsibilities. Yet, how many people do that now? These issues, that is, high levels of traumatization, trans-generational transmission of trauma, and taking initiative and responsibility for one’s own life are acute problems in the regions in which we are working. 22 years after the war ended, no one here is recognizing this or doing anything about it. These issues also are enormous dangers with asylum seekers and refugees. They lead not only to individual distress but there are effects on entire societies, which leads inevitably to anxiety and violence. Lack of work on trauma and integration is thus dangerous, and those dangers are being ignored. Again, King recognized this. Thus, we have every reason to commemorate and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., not only on Monday but every day.