A summary of Paata Alaverdashvili’s article “Addressing Trauma In Georgian Peace Policy: Gaps, Challenges, And Best Practices."
The information and views expressed in this blog are those of the original article author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Corridors or our project partners.
The territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe are historically marked by a high level of violence, displacement, and suffering. Even in cases where the phases of active hostilities have been over for several decades, such traumatic experiences still have a significant impact on the lives of the affected communities and on the possibilities for building peace over the divide. This is especially true when mutual trauma is not adequately addressed in peace policies and peacebuilding practices.
Unaddressed trauma, can impact the wellbeing of individuals and entire communities, perpetuate cycles of violence, promotes feelings of insecurity and distrust, and, thus, negatively affects how societies approach conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Addressing trauma is essential for peacebuilding because it helps individuals and communities heal and move forward. However, this is often not sufficiently acknowledged and incorporated in peace policies, as Paata Alaverdashvili states in his article from Corridors Proceedings Vol. III, “Addressing Trauma in Georgian Peace Policy: Gaps, Challenges, and Best Practices. p. 49-65.”
Paata argues that addressing trauma is an essential component of peacebuilding. Without performing this crucial step, other peacebuilding measures, such as establishing connections between individuals on opposite sides of a conflict, may not be successful. Unresolved trauma could cause generations of conflict survivors to pass their pain, shame, anger, and other negative emotional responses onto their children. These children may grow up feeling that same negativity and be unwilling to break the cycle of victimhood for the sake of peace. Alongside explaining how important trauma healing is for peacebuilding, Paata outlines Georgia’s current peace policy, which he asserts does not address psychological trauma sufficiently, and then explores possibilities for implementing Georgian psycho-social support systems in the future.
The Context: Defining Trauma In Societies Affected By Armed Conflicts
To define trauma, Paata explains, we must make a distinction between trauma and traumatic events. A traumatic event is something that happens outside of ourselves, and the World Health Organization (2018) defines it as “an event that has been overwhelming for the person’s neuropsychological apparatus to integrate, interiorize and accommodate into the existing systems” (52). In many cases, individuals who experience a traumatic event will start to recover from the side effects within 1-3 or 3-6 months (52). Some people, however, are so badly affected that they need external support to help them heal.
Trauma, according to Paata’s citation of Mate (2004), on the other hand, “is an internal experience, one that overwhelms the bio-psycho-emotional system of human beings and cannot be processed and integrated by them” (52). Trauma is divided into two separate types: individual and collective/social trauma. The first one is defined as “a wave in the psyche that breaks through one’s defense mechanisms unexpectedly and with such destructive force that one cannot proceed properly” (52). The second type, according to Paata’s citation of Warren (2006), affects entire communities by disrupting “the connections and relationships that hold people together”, which Paata identifies as “chosen trauma” (53).
In explaining “chosen trauma,” Paata cites Volkan (2001), who describes the concept as “shared representation” of ancestral trauma, passed down through generations, which has gone unmourned and unresolved. Volkan’s definition of “chosen trauma” relies on sharing trauma through practices like memorialization and historical narrative building in order to potentially regain what was lost during the initial traumatic event. What often happens is that younger generations will internalize and carry on this “chosen trauma”, which Volkan argues may perpetuate violence in the future (53).
ADDRESSING CONFLICT-INDUCED TRAUMA IN GEORGIA
Despite trauma and mental health related issues being the most long-term side effects of armed conflicts, there is little in the way of help for Georgians who are suffering from it. Efforts to support Georgian war survivors and IDPs typically focus on more tangible issues such as access to food, shelter, and physical health.
While these are critical needs to address, as are peacebuilding measures such as promoting reconciliation and establishing public services, Paata believes they can’t successfully lead to conflict resolution on their own. He explains that in the future, peace initiatives should prioritize helping individuals and communities heal their trauma, instead of primarily focusing on developing and implementing peacebuilding strategies at national and international levels. By redirecting efforts to providing psycho-social support for individuals and communities, “peace work becomes more integrative and participatory, as such approaches create the space for pain, shame, anger, and other trauma-related emotions to be shared and the bitterness of survivors to be acknowledged” (54).
Providing psycho-social support systems are important for helping Georgian communities acknowledge their trauma and learn to overcome it. Once this step is taken, space opens up for them to foster reconciliation and peacebuilding with the other sides of their conflicts.
GEORGIA’S CHOSEN TRAUMA
There is reason to believe, Paata argues, that the trauma Georgians experienced as a result of their conflicts with Russia helped cause the conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Through its history under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, he writes, Georgian people suffered considerable trauma which they were not at liberty to mourn or address until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He explains that as a result, “instead of creating processes and spaces of mourning… Georgian society became locked in a pattern of chosen trauma by clinging to the identity of the victim/oppressed” (57). Paata supports this argument with evidence that Georgian ‘chosen trauma’ is perpetuated even today in Georgian public school textbooks which tell “mythologized versions of its [Georgia’s] history and origin” (58).
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Paata explains that the pain and frustration linked to past oppression was redirected towards Ossetians, Abkhazians, and even fellow Georgians (in the case of civil war in Tbilisi). Thus, Paata says, Georgia’s chosen trauma effectively disrupted a healthy process of Georgian statebuilding.
Dealing With Trauma: Key Interventions And Critical Elements In The Georgian Context
Following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, several institutions studied the effects of the war on Georgian citizens. Studies showed high results of trauma-indicative behaviors such as stress, depression, trouble sleeping, reduced interests, and disturbing behavior. But even more troubling was a survey of war-afflicted Georgians seven months after the end of the war. The data showed that these individuals were experiencing increased rates of “post-traumatic symptoms and depression symptoms,” a fact that flies in the face of the “‘declining curve’ of recovery”, or the 3–6-month period during which most trauma victims are able to process and move on from their negative feelings (59).
In 2011, a large study was conducted to assess the mental health of 3,600 IDPs in the years after the Russo-Georgian war. The results showed that, “23% of the research participants had symptoms similar to PTSD, 14% had symptoms similar to depression, and 10% had symptoms similar to anxiety disorder” (60). Additionally, the study took a hard look at the mental health services available in Georgia and found that they were scarce.
To address this problem, the European Union (EU) funded the Center for Psycho-social Rehabilitation in Tserovani, with a goal to serve those affected by the war with a “bio-psycho-social approach” (60). Unfortunately, while the center helped +100 families and 250 individuals, the center was only open from 2014 to 2016. Despite its success, similar projects have not been undertaken in any other Georgian IDP communities.
PEACEBUILDING PRACTICES AND PEACE POLICY IN GEORGIA
Paata argues that the Georgian government should systematically integrate psycho-social support into their peace policy, given the fact that many of its citizen have experienced conflict-related traumas. Unfortunately, there is no such approach to psycho-social rehabilitation either for its residents or for the communities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Paata’s article, therefore, represents an important aspect of peace work that is often overlooked. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between peacebuilding and addressing trauma, please read Paata’s article here.
Corridors Practise on Trauma Informed Peacebuilding
At Corridors, we aim to further bridge the fields of peacebuilding and mental health to develop holistic and trauma-sensitive approaches. We are convinced that improving trauma literacy and mental wellbeing is essential for effective, inclusive, and sustainable peacebuilding in the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe. By raising awareness, increasing trauma-literacy, and strengthening mental health competencies, we can contribute to more resilient and peaceful communities that are better equipped to navigate challenges of conflict and adversity.
Within a pilot project in 2022, Corridors organised a workshop with peacebuilders, social workers, educators, and mental health experts from Georgia and Armenia. Here we jointly explored the causes and impacts of personal and collective trauma in both societies, and investigated how to prevent secondary traumatisation when working in post-conflict communities. Based on this workshop, we developed Guidelines for Trauma Sensitivity in Peacebuilding and Community Work that aims to enhance trauma literacy of practitioners, which will be released soon. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to not miss the publication of the guidelines and other relevant content on Trauma Informed Peacebuilding.
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