Collective Trauma
among Displaced People and Refugees
in Ethiopia:
Steps towards Intervention Projects

m.j.t. trapman, 6-2-97


Collective Trauma.

The concept of Collective Trauma outlines many forms in which a community can be impaired as a consequence of war, armed violence, or other sudden, external forces.
Collective trauma however, as opposed to individual trauma, does not have a direct relation to events that has catastrophic impact on individual lifes. It emerges from the pain that is radiated by individual trauma on to the community.

Collective trauma, although described as a property of a certain community, does exist within the individuals of that community and disables individuals as well as individual trauma. The discerning factor is that in these individuals, the trauma can not be traced back to real life events, although constructed memory may represent in a symbolical way the origins of the trauma.

Constructed or symbolical memories.

Currently the phenomenon of 'false memories' is being discussed, mainly in the United States, in relation to induced memories suggesting a history of child abuse with disturbed women. False memories seem to be the result of incorrect therapy. The discussion concentrates on the moral and ethical issues that are involved, but little attention is paid to the meaning of the finding that it is relatively easy to induce these memories as well as the surprising systematic clusters of elements that pop up in these (groups of) memories.

Considering this relative ease of inducing memories it can only be considered as probable that the stressful events, through which communities in armed conflict live, provide ample cause for similar 'false' or 'constructed' memories. These memories may fill the gaps, the void area's in the personal histories of people that live through the chaotic events of armed conflict and escape.

Myths, Legends and Tales.

Collective memories also find their ways into oral history; the stories that are told among the communities, the songs that become popular, the rumors that go around.
These stories function in the community in the ways that dreams and flash-backs function in the individual: they try to process or structure events, emotions, in sometimes highly symbolical ways. This is, however not always successful, and it can even be harmful when aggression and frustration are the base for hyper-nationalistic delusions.


In the history of the Displaced from Eritrea we can discern several stages that may have been traumatizing, each in their own way, creating a 'trauma-cocktail':

1. The period before the civil war.
In these periods many people have been submitted to forms of violent suppression, direct or indirect, since the past regimes have used ample techniques of suppression.
2. The onset of civil war.
Before the factual period of violence, there must have been a period in which it became clear that this time the Dergue regime was about to submit. Especially for those close to this regime, or generally regarded as connected with this regime, the period must have been highly stressful.
3. The period of armed conflict.
This is the period that is generally regarded as the center of trauma.
In this period people were witness of killing and injury, sometimes maimed themselves. People lost relatives, friends, possessions, positions, and have had to take the terrible decision to flee.
4. The immediate aftermath of war.
In this period all survivors have coped with severe conditions: lack of security, shelter, food, water, etc. Many have to give immense physical efforts, walking or traveling without much means over long distances without any clear overview of the situation.
Many died in this period or fall gravely ill.
5. Survival.
Strange as it may seem, the actual survival can have a disturbing effect in itself: once arrived in relative safety, those who survive have to cope with the guilt of the survivor.
Survivors guilt is an often non-rational result of trying to construct alternative ways of acting, that might have saved more people, afterwards.

6. The influence of the help-industry.
The (mainly western-based) help-industry has, for many reasons, reached huge dimensions in the past years. Through it, support is given in what are seen as the primary needs of people after armed conflict: shelter, food and water, and primary (physical) health care.
Mental health provisions have always been seen as not belonging in this 'first aid', and the consequences are now visible:
6.1 Identity-loss.
The help-industry tries to rescue as many people as possible in generally huge numbers of people. To achieve this it has developed 'economic' and 'practical' solutions that leave no space at all for 'individual' problems. Lack of water, dispersion of food, provision of shelter, they are operational problems, solved in a technical way. The fact that people find and guard their identity, their uniqueness in the way they form their habitat, they arrange their food, is disregarded, based on the need to 'rescue' these huge numbers of people.
This effect is enhanced by the fact that these efforts are very often performed by the military, or by techniques that have spun-off from the military.
The army is a body in which specifically the 'individuality' of its members must be suppressed in favor of essential group-efforts that are needed in armed combat. In large rescue-operations, however, these techniques have a counter-productive effect.
6.2 The creation of the victim.
The help-industry also creates 'the victim' in the sense that there is a definite order of 'victim-ship'; an order in which people are 'helped'. Dying children, sick women, weak elderly, these are the priorities, priorities that are not in the least defined by the way that media-images generate emotions and therewith financial support in the western world.
This of course is very soon realized by the people that are being 'helped', and hence they will start to provide the image of 'the victim' in order to force 'the helper' to help.
This 'victim'-'helper' relation is then enhanced by a complex set of feelings in the 'helper' , in which guilt, 'goodness' and superiority are elements.
6.3 Innocence.
One of the basic axioms of the western help-industry is that it helps 'innocent' victims. Innocence is an absolute sine qua non for the western public to open their charity: compare for instance the relief support that went to Serbia with that which went to Bosnia.
Once the help-industry  jumps in, therefore, all victims by definition become 'innocent'.
This presupposition is transferred to the 'victims' in the help-program very easy, because it is, certainly in situations after wars, a thing that one would like to be true. Once the axiom of innocence is internalized, it has to erase many elements of the real history that simply do not agree with 'innocence', and this falsification of (necessarily personal) history opens the door to a final blow on what was left of the individual.
6.4 Relief-dependence
The original trauma, the loss of identity and the lack of immediate solutions to resolve the problems have had as a consequence that the residents of the shelters have had to construct a new identity: that of the 'innocent victim' that has to be 'helped' by outside forces. In this situation the shelter population has become completely dependent of relief. The consequence of this is that people do not leave the shelters any more; they tend to concentrate on survival in the shelters. Vocational capacities that many of these displaced possessed, have in many cases become outdated.

7. Social Isolation.
After settling in the shelters, the displaced people have experienced the process in which they, as well as their problems, were 'forgotten'. Hardly anybody in Addis (government officials included' know that the shelters exist, let alone the conditions in the shelters. The government, immersed in the immense problems of Ethiopia does not give the displaces a high priority on their agenda, supported by the fact that the international help-industry seemed to take care of emergency relief. A solution that is being proposed on this level (to give each family of displaced a small piece of land) is also, on the same level, being treated as unrealistic.
8. Second Generation Trauma.
As far as I know, second generation trauma is generally seen as individual trauma. However, certainly in a shelter-like community, the pressure on children who live with traumatized adults can also be understood as a collective process in which results of trauma are being transferred into the (informal as well as formal) curriculum.


An intervention program would concentrate on the central 'injured' entity, the Identity.
Identity is not only an individual matter, it is also a reflection of the community to which one belongs or wants to belong.

In the past, the many different identities of the displaced were destroyed, and replaced with one singular identity, that of a 'displaced person, an innocent victim, that is in need of help and therefore has the right to be helped'.
In this, all displaced people have become equal, and therefore the 'solutions' to their problems have been defined (by the help-industry and the political system) in general terms. Once defined, these solutions always involve huge quantities of means: money, land, political influence and decisions.

It is generally forgotten however, that these people have in fact much less in common than their general denominator 'displaced' suggests. The fact that they all have had to flee does not mean that therefore also their futures should be seen from the same perspective.
In this light it makes much more sense to find solutions for each family, or even individual, separately, recognizing the individual identity.
Western 'efficiency' seems to prohibit this approach, because it would result in the need for about 10.000 to 15.000 solutions for the displaced around Addis Ababa alone.
Yet, here the 'gestalt' theory is appropriate (the sum is more than just the total of the parts) although the consequence is opposite: in the end it is more feasible to create 15.000 solutions that are possible, than to realize one solution that is not possible.

The more so as it would be possible to have the 15.000 solutions designed by the families and individuals themselves, rather than by the help-industry.

In order to make this possible, the families of the displaced would have to develop enough self-confidence, enough identity, to indeed create their own solutions, and take responsibility for accepting support by the help-industry. The help-industry would, in this construction, become more passive, more marginal in the total effort, in the pathway to solution, responding to initiative, rather than initiating.

(Re)construction of personal Identity, again, is therefore the central issue.
For this, there must be, to begin with, the analysis and treatment of personal trauma, to begin with. This is the work of the regular TPO-programme.

Parallel to this work, the common identity of the 'displaced' must stepwise be disintegrated and abolished. This must be done with the displaced themselves, as well as with the NGO's and IO's that represent the help-industry.

In stead of the generalized identity of the displaced, the residents of the shelters should be empowered to either rebuild their old identity, or create a new identity, based on the old identity, strong enough to serve as a base for the development of a personal solution.

Intervention Projects

Work with the other NGO's is important. With them, a new base for 'helping' should be developed, one that accepts the 'helped' person as the principal agent of change.
One element in this change could be the development of a new way of reporting on projects, in which the individuals within the community of displaced are no longer nameless numbers, and in which the initiative from within the community is described as the essence of a project in which the NGO in question becomes a participant. NGO's will be supported to develop a strategy to discern and even provoke initiatives from within the communities to support. (For instance the rainwater-capture idea-contest.)

The stories we hear in the shelters will be the base for another project: the comic strip, developed with two young artists from the Addis Ababa Arts Academy. In this strip, elements of the collective trauma will be analyzed, and given a symbolical representation is a story that can develop in many episodes and throughout the year. The comics will be made available in the shelters, and the reactions to them will be integrated in the following episodes.
In this project special attention will be given to 'false memories' and the topic of guilt, resulting from the former positions of the displaced in Eritrea. Research in Eritrea, concerning the stories about the displacement that exist over there will be necessary for this project.

Stories of 'storytellers' that live in the shelters will be recorded on video. In these stories I hope to find the old and the new legends that have been developed in the shelters.
After that, (elements of) these stories will be developed into reinforced presentations, with the help of musicians, playwrights, actors, with simple techniques, and 'given back' to the communities on festive occasions.

Work will be done with the Central Committee of the displaced, who currently work in a very difficult position, since they are used by the help-industry as representants on the one hand, but are rejected in the same role by the authorities for political reasons.
Up till now, the committee has worked to ameliorate life for the displaced within the shelters, and as such indeed been the symbolical leadership of the community.
With the committee we will work out this concept of 'symbolical leadership' as opposed to 'democratic leadership'. It may well be that a form of 'symbolical' leadership may be much more acceptable to the authorities than 'democratic' leadership, especially when the symbolical leadership is designed on the base of 'leaving' the shelters, rather than 'ameliorate' them.

Basic research will be done into the possibilities of working with groups of young adults from outside the shelters, to work with the children of the displaced in projects that enable the children to process their emotions themselves, along the framework of Idea's that were proposed in the 'suggestions'. For this, a co-operation will be sought with specialized NGO's that work for children in Addis Ababa.

Measuring Effect

I expect that the concept of 'locus of control' would offer an interesting indicator of the effect of these projects. I hope some kind of instrument can be developed, based on this concept, that could permit us to measure a shift in locus of control through time.

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