Treating the Wounds of War

I use these tin cans when I do my healing ceremonies. I take an empty can and put in some rocks and then seal it. I shake the can when I am working, and the rocks clatter - it makes quite a noise. This can with the rocks in it, that is what someone's head is like when they have been affected by war.

With the October 1992 ceasefire, the 15-year war in Mozambique is over. Or is it? There is more to consider than ongoing military control in a country trying to reconstruct order from chaos. Cultures of violence and trauma are legacies of an extremely brutal war. To understand them, it is necessary to look back at the fighting that marked the war in Mozambique during the 1980s.

Mozambique's "internal" war was developed and guided externally. It began when Frelimo (Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique) came to power after Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. Rhodesia and then South Africa instigated and led the rebel group RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Mocambicana) in an attempt to undermine the model that a black majority Marxist-Leninist-led country offered to resistance fighters of other countries. Although RENAMO supporters and opportunists do exist in Mozambique, essentially the rebel group has little popular support. With destabilization, rather than any coherent political ideology, as the defining factor in forming RENAMO, dirty war tactics - using terror in the targeting of civilian populations - predominated. Its human-rights violations have been among the worst in the world.

The extent of the violence in Mozambique can be captured in a few statistics. * More than one million people, the vast majority of them noncombatants, lost their lives in the war. * The war orphaned over 200,000 children. (Some estimates are much higher.) Adequate assistance is more a wish than a reality in a country where one-third of all schools and hospitals were closed or destroyed by RENAMO and only a single orphanage operates. * The war displaced nearly a quarter of the 15 million people in Mozambique from their homes. More than half of all Mozambicans were directly affected by the violence, famine, and destruction unleashed by the war. * Ninety percent of Mozambicans live in poverty, 60 percent in extreme poverty. Forty percent are malnourished, and in the last year of the war more than half of the country's inhabitants were in need of direct food aid. Famine, limited resources, inadequate infrastructure, and fighting hindered aid efforts and took the lives of many. * We can only guess at the numbers who were raped; beaten, tortured, and maimed; burned out of villages and homes; kidnapped by RENAMO for forced labor and concubinage; or forced into fighting - not to mention those who were forced to watch this happen to loved ones.


The people who theorize about and wage war tend to try to control its definitions. These definitions, however, are narrow ones that focus predominately on military engagements and troop interactions. Even if civilians and communities are recognized casualties of a war, the military apparatus, and by extension the war itself, is seen as something apart from the ebb and flow of everyday life and cultural vitality. The Mozambicans cited in this article challenge the traditional assumption of political and military science that war's violence applies only to soldiers, political ideologies, and governments. Violence comes unbidden and unexplained into the heart of the civilian population, the center of war's destructiveness.

Since World War II, when civilian wartime casualties began to far outpace combat casualties, modern wars have only vaguely resembled the formal "textbook" definitions of war. This is nowhere more apparent than in an armed conflict such as Mozambique's, in which the use of terror against noncombatants - as a way to enforce political acquiescence - was a primary strategy of warfare. Civilian life and society not only become the battleground in these wars, they become the targets. Violence spills out across the social and cultural landscape to affect the country's entire population.

It is the abhorrent brutality that has most captured the attention of those investigating RENAMO's war of terror: journalistic reports, government analyses, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) all focus on physical acts of brutality, especially RENAMO's. Stories that most violate notions of human decency - gruesome mutilations, rapes, murders - tend to circulate most widely.

Yet when I listened to average Mozambicans discuss the war, these barbarous accounts, although present, weren't the focal point of the violence. People were concerned type of violence: the destruction of home and humanity, of hope and future, of valued traditions and community integrity. Psychological, emotional, and cultural violence rank equally with, and in many cases outrank, physical violence.

Consider the words of an old traditional healer in a town in the center of Zambezia Province that has been the site of intense conflict for several years:

Wounds [from the war] can be easily treated. That is, the physical wounds. Some of these kids have wounds because they have seen things they shouldn't see, that no child should have to see - like their parents being killed. They change their behavior. This is not like being mad; that we can treat. No, this is from what they have seen: it is a social problem, a behavioral problem, not a mental problem. They beat each other, they are disrespectful, they tell harsh jokes and are delinquent. You can see it in their behavior toward each other: more violence, more harshness, less respect - more breaking down of tradition.

Mozambicans consistently pointed out that not all severely disruptive wounds stem from direct physical violence:

The war brings many types of violence, and some we can deal with better than others. The physical mutilation and massacres are horrible: the women raped, the ears and lips cut off, the friend chopped to death with a machete... There is no excuse for this, no easy solution to the suffering it causes. But you want to know what I think is the worst thing about this war? It is sleeping in the bush at night. [Because RENAMO often attacked at night, many people slept in the bush.] Animals live in the bush, not humans. My marriage bed is the center of my family, my home, my link with the ancestors and the future. This war, the Bandidos Armados ["armed bandits" - RENAMO], have broken my marriage bed, and with that they try to break my spirit, break what makes me who I am, make me an animal. This is the worst violence you can subject someone to.

The war also kills hope and any sense of normality. One day I was speaking to a child of five or six who had walked hundreds of miles with his family after RENAMO had attacked and burned his village. He had the countenance of an adult and the weakened body of a child half his age, and he spoke about the violence he had witnessed with a detached seriousness, much as an old man might speak. Asked about a small wound on his leg, the type of injury children are prone to get, he answered:

The wound? I will die of it. We walked here many days, and we had nothing while we walked. I watched my brother starve to death during that time. We had to leave our home because the bandits attacked it, and I saw them kill my father. Now we are here and I watch my mother dying slowly, because we have nothing. I will die too.

These forms of violence are only marginally recognized in traditional conflict studies, and solutions to these types of problems are seldom even broached. Among those most affected by war, however, finding solutions to these kinds of violence are paramount. This is not only because violence is so crippling to the sustainability of life, limb, and community, but because Mozambicans who have seen violence first hand recognize the dangers of the growth of a culture of violence. Virtually every Mozambicans I spoke with agreed with the wisdom captured by the healer who said:

People have just seen to much war, too much violence - they have gotten the war in them. We treat this, we have to - if we don't take the war out of the people, it will just continue on and on, past RENAMO, past the end of the war, into the communities, into the families, to ruin us.

The idea that violence can, as one person said, "stick on a person like a rash on the soul" is pervasive in Mozambique.


What is fairly unique about Mozambicans is their conviction that cultures of violence that can be built up can also be broken down. In fact, in many heavily affected areas, people asked that every new arrival touched by the war's violence - including those who had seen people die of starvation - be treated by a traditional healer who specialized in war trauma to "take the violence out of them."

Traditional healers have incorporated conflict resolution into their healing arts. They counsel marginalized or renegade soldiers (predominately RENAMO) to give up fighting and return to their communities and a peaceful way of life. The healers focus on severing the person from the soldier mentality. They act to reintegrate the person into community life, and they can teach community members to accept the ex-soldier (who may well have committed atrocities there). Healers have even encouraged others to kidnap RENAMO soldiers to "help them get over the war." Conversely, many citizens criticize UN schemes to demobilize soldiers and move them to camps isolated from the community - a situation that could continue the cycle of violence.

Average citizens on the front lines are far more involved in the mitigation of conflict than outsiders might suspect. Granted, the situation at the local level is complex and often contradictory. There are people working in the political, military, and economic spheres who seek to benefit from the fractures caused by war. Others, like the traditional healers, are trying to solve the inequalities, injustices, and abuses caused by war and those who exploit violence for their own gain. These positive forces include local-level political groups (both legal and proscribed) who meet across conflict lines to defuse tension; traders who carry goods, messages, and refugees across no-man's-land; religious leaders who sponsor peace talks in the thick of the battle; teachers who work with traumatized children in battle-scarred villages.

Ongoing narratives weaving violence, isolation, treachery, and hope are often at the heart of discussions by average civilians as they search for better solutions to the culture of violence wrought by the war. These discussions, unlike those concerned only with the physical destructiveness of violence, emphasize the long-term problems, those that will last well beyond ceasefires, that can grow out of the current conflict.

The reverberating effects of violence on uncertain futures are nowhere more evident than with women who have been kidnapped and raped by soldiers, and who have, in many instances, borne children from these assaults. As Joaguim Segurada, a Portuguese anthropologist working with a private organization in Mozambique, noted:

So what happens when these women go back to their homelands? Still they are missing their husbands, their families, and who will want them? Maybe they return to find their lands missing - that they have lost the rights to them when they lost their husband, or maybe some avaricious person or enterprise has taken their land over, and the women have no means, no strength to fight this. But worse than that, they will have lost "normalcy": the context of their family and home can never be the same again - it has been irreparably destroyed. Healthy culture, as they knew it, is gone.

Women working for the Organization for Mozambican Women in Zambezia, one of the provinces most severely affected by the war, were more graphic in assessing this problem. They frequently lamented the many times women forced to have sex with soldiers returned home to find husbands who had taken other wives or who despised them for having been with other men, families who marginalized them for having lived with the enemy, and communities who called the children produced by rapes lixo (garbage).

In Mozambique, many educators, religious and community leaders, healers, and citizens recognize that violence is "formative," that it shapes people's perceptions, self-images, and outlooks on life. That this situation need not exist motivates the work of many who want to change the reality of the front lines.

Local solutions attempt to deal not only with immediate traumatization, but with disrupted social and cultural systems that can linger long after the last bullet has been fired. Many people at the epicenter of a war relaize it is often cyclic: it deposits seeds of conflict that will germinate at a later date. But many are optimistic that specific actions can break this cycle of violence. Few accept that conflict is natural to humans. They have seen that a few soldiers can wreak brutal havoc on an entire society.


One of the most unfortunate barriers to healing cultures of violence is the fact that national and international agencies too often neither support nor recognize much of the local-level work conducted to identify and treat the legacies of violent conflict. These agencies lose the insights of those at the "ground" level, dooming good intentions to failure as local people go without the sponsorship that could carry their ideas to fruition on a large scale. As one old Mozambican villager, recently burned out of his home and village, summed up, "If the governments and all those other outsiders who think they know what is going on would just get out of this, we could cure this country in no time."

As the destructive legacies of cultures of violence become recognized, the wounds of war that can spark new conflicts over time can be healed. The old Mozambican quoted above might be encouraged by some of the programs the government is instituting. In the hope of curtailing the reverberations of war's violence, the Ministry of Education has begun a program to assist traumatized youth in primary schools, and the Mozambican Woman's Organization has projects to help women who are grappling with the effects of rape, dislocation, and chronic poverty. And, as of 1989, the government has elected to incorporate indigenous healers into the health-care system to benefit from the range and depth of healing knowledge they offer - knowledge that heals societies as well as bodies.

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