Trauma and Violence

In the chapter of Abramowitz’s text, Searching for normal in the wake of the Liberian war, Abramowitz describes the post-war Liberian society and the collective trauma engulfing its members after years of civil war violence. The statistics that begin the author’s exploration are sharp: 50% of the country’s population reported “significant levels of PTSD symptoms,” 40% reported symptoms of depression. However, as the author mentions herself, these statistics allow one to understand the symptomatology of mental illness in the population, but to really understand the trauma one must look at the stories of the people.

Stories of the Liberian civil war feature atrocities ranging from human sacrifice to child soldiers being provided with cocaine and guns in preparation for battle. The war ended with an estimated 200,000 dead and 1.5 million displaced, and a society in complete disarray. As Abramowitz mentions, “violence had transgressed the most basic social values” during this war. I did not fully comprehend what this meant until I read an article in Newsweek featuring an interview with an ex-combatant named Mary who was 16 when the war ended in 2003. After the bar, she opened a bar which she manages with another 10-year-old girl, catering to “homeless crack-smoking teenagers” and older men. The article reports that Mary frequently engages in violence, beating and kicking her “manager” in the stomach if she breaks glasses, and getting into fights with adults.

Such a story can only be imaginable within the context of a place that lacks any sense of social order and sense of normalcy. It seems to me that the point Abramowitz is conveying is that the collective trauma of the Liberians stems from not only the violence of the war, but additionally from the collapse of social order under the pressures of civil war. The author retells the stories of those who have lost their roles in society – Valentine, who has lost his role as a loving son and student; Kumba’s neighbor, who has lost his role as the sub-chief of his village. In sociological theories pertaining to violence, when people can claim well-defined identities and roles in a given context, the situation is problem-free. Problems start to arise when a society cannot afford for its members to have well-defined situated identities and roles, because the societal structure is a mess. This lack of definition is echoed in the text – there were “voids of social and cultural space” allowing for violence to breed. This, in turn, would lead to more trauma, and more disorder and violence. Valentine describes feeling stuck without “forward momentum,” as his society continues to spiral down into more trauma and violence.

Present-day conflicts have the possibility of following the same trend as Liberia. What will post-war Syria look like? Already the war has been taking place for 4 years, with over 300,000 killed (June 2015 SOHR estimate) and over 4 million refugees (July 2015 UNHCR estimate). Already horrific stories have spread of children beheaded and women forcibly impregnated by members of the Islamic State. When Syria emerges from this civil war, will it have a functioning societal structure in place to prevent the downward spiral of post-war trauma and violence?

As Abramowitz mentions, Liberians who had fled during the war were the ones who seemed happier and healthier in the post-war society. The solution I have to prevent societal collapse in Syria is improvement in the global effort to accommodate its refugees. If people can be allowed to live and work in functioning environments with strong moral codes, if and when they return to their home country these people can transition back into recreating a sense of normalcy for themselves as they rebuild their country.

Discussion Question 1: Is it idealistic and demanding to think that European countries should just “open up their borders” and allow in as many refugees as they can without collapse of their infrastructure and economy?

Discussion Question 2: How can one even judge how many refugees countries can take in without total collapse? Many countries have stated that they can only take in and handle a few thousand. This to me appears to be out of Islamophobia and laziness.

Additional sources:

Left, S. (2003, August 4). War in Liberia. Retrieved from The Guardian:

MacDougall, C. (2013, July 31). When Liberian Child Soldiers Grow Up. Retrieved from Newsweek:

Writer, S. (2014, November 14). ISIS Accused of Crimes Against Humanity. Retrieved from Al Arabiya News:


13 thoughts on “Trauma and Violence”

  1. I completely agree that allowing the refugees to leave the war zone and start again in a safer environment is the best option for the health of the refugees and the future of the country, should they return. However, I’m not sure how this works out logistically, especially with certain countries closing their borders to refugees, many countries setting a cap on the number of refugees they plan on taking in, and other countries not welcoming in any refugees at all. Do you think it is the role of the UN to mandate that other countries allow refugees in or to set a minimum number of refugees allowed for all countries with a certain GDP or economic stability?

    Another aspect that is important to consider is the difference between treating children and adults with PTSD. I think health care providers should be trained on differences in how PTSD manifests in these different groups as well as the proper way to treat each. Finally, I like the idea mentioned in another post (by Julianne) about making sure that victims of trauma do not succumb to drug and alcohol abuse as an escape from their situation and their illness. I think this should be a priority when countries are providing living spaces, employment, etc. to refugees.

    1. I think that this issue is very concerning. In response to Methma’s question regarding the UN’s involvement, I think that the UN should mandate how many refugees surrounding countries allow in. However, I believe that no doors should be closed. As I said in Julianne’s post, I think that once the war is officially announced that it is over, people will retreat back to their homes where they grew up. Therefore, this would be a temporary move. IF it is not a temporary move, they could maybe enforce it somehow? Surrounding countries could designates specific areas for refugees to live until the war is over. That seems kind of unnecessary, but if it is that much of a concern that could be an option. The UN could separate Syria into sections and designate certain sections (based on populations) to certain countries in order to balance out how many refugees are going into other countries. Hopefully this will help solve country’s worries about major population increase.
      Anything is safer than being in Syria as it is declared a war zone. Citizens living there are asking for a bad outcome. If it isn’t an immediate death, it will be a slow, and emotionally painful death, which are both awful and can be avoided.

    2. Since the UN is the international body that was designed for these kinds of things I definitely think it has some responsibility, but developed countries themselves have that responsibility with or without the UN. Additionally, while this should not be the reason for European countries allowing refugees in, economists have time and time reminded Europe that refugees will boost their country economically by adding younger people to the workforce in countries with aging populations. The myth of immigrants stealing jobs is simply not true, and these countries themselves should design policies that reflect that.

  2. Ria,

    Very thoughtful post—I thought you drew a strong correlation between the Liberian Civil War and what is currently ongoing in Syria. I agree with your solution that there needs to be a greater acceptance of Syrian refugees into third party nations who have the stability and infrastructure to allow for the integration of asylum-seekers into their societies. Nonetheless, your solution did make me think about the role that the UN and third party nations should play in the civil war of another country. The Syrian civil war has been ongoing for several years, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. Countries in Europe complain that they have neither the resources nor infrastructure to accept the refugees this war has created, and yet no third party has intervened to bring an end to the conflict. Should another nation or global entity intervene in the civil war in order to end to the conflict? Would intervening even be politically possible? What does it mean for certain third party nations to both stand-by without offering aid and also refuse to accept asylum-seekers? Does a civil war cease to be the problem of a single nation when the millions displaced are becoming a burden to be dealt with by other countries?

    1. You raised a lot of interesting questions – I feel like this war has now become much larger than a civil war and not just because of the millions displaced. I disagree that third party nations have not intervened. With greater involvement of Turkey, USA and Russia this war is starting to become a more global problem. Countries understand how dire the situation is and are willing to engage in the war, similarly other countries must be willing to open up their borders.

  3. Hey Ria,

    I really enjoyed your post, you made some very interesting arguments. I definitely agree with your proposed solution. I think there needs to be a united global effort to help find those refugees seeking asylum a safe place to go. But like the other people who commented I worry about the logistics and what entity, whether it be the UN or a third party actually has the political possible to make an effective change.
    I also think it is important to consider that this war can take many years, and when it ends, there will basically have to be a rebuilding of the country and society. While I agree for most refugees this will probably be a temporary move, one has to think about refugees who gain asylum in another country and have children there who consider the “safe temporary place” home.
    It is a complicated issue, and while there is much to figure out logistically I think in response to Sabrina’s final questions, I believe that when there are so many people displaced, it is not an issue of a single country and there is a moral obligation to either offer aid or take in people in desperate need of asylum.

  4. I think you posed some really good questions about the future of Syrian refugees. It seems that the cases of Syria and Liberia are similar in that the social order has been completely distorted because of war. I think that unless there is serious foreign aid going into Syria, Syrian refugees going home would face a “new normal” similar to that of the Liberian refugees. A return to normalcy would require a lot of intervention to produce political, economic and social stability. I’m unsure of what this would look like because rebuilding an entire society seems like an impossible task. However I think it would need start with programs aimed at reducing the mental and emotional trauma that a war of this magnitude would undoubtedly produce. Even though we’d come across the dilemma of the individual vs. the population I think it is still important to try to reduce suffering at even the individual level.
    The article you discussed about Mary was a really good way of demonstrating the dismantling of the social order in Liberia. The way trauma manifests itself seems to be very sporadic when looking at individual cases, but when looking at it on the population level it becomes clear how it correlates with the breakdown of society.

    1. I agree with you about the population vs. individual point, which also ties back to the dilemma of doing nothing vs. doing something. With mental health and trauma I am fairly adamant that something should be done – family rehabilitation programs and counseling might be a good place to start. The ways of dealing with trauma would be so culturally nuanced that I wonder if this help can come from the outside – perhaps from countries that are close by, that share similar cultural values.

  5. Hi Ria,

    Thank you for your post. You discuss a lot of stories that reflect a differing sense of normalcy in post-conflict society. Specifically for those who were born and raised during these long civil wars, how can one expect them to return to the way society was before the conflict? Is there even a society that existed before? I would argue that for this next generation there is not. To them society has only ever been in conflict. I would like to ask your opinion on a question that has been on my mind. As the next leaders of their nation, and having only ever seen their country in the midst of serious conflict, how will the future of their nation and its policies reflect and/or remember its past?

    1. That’s a really interesting question. I have no idea how future leaders would rebuild their nation – for them it wouldn’t even be rebuilding, it would just be building, as they would remember nothing of the past before war. I wonder if they have normalized war so much in their minds that policies might reflect this normalization of war, and therefore stray away from anti-violence stances.

  6. Hey Ria! You managed to ask a lot of questions in such a short post. First off, I agree with your concern about cycles of violence, and the ways in which trauma affects individuals not only directly but also by creating a vacuum of law and morality. As you point out, such manifestations of trauma not only increase suffering but make it harder to rebuild in the aftermath of the violence.

    However, I’m not sure that the alternative you provide – that refugees who live abroad in places with “strong moral codes” can the return home to recreate that “normalcy” – will necessarily work. Yes, I think that countries that are more stable (developed countries) should accept as many refugees as possible. Yet once these refugees are here, are we going to force them home once the violence has stopped? If given the change to remain in the U.S. or in Germany as opposed to returning to a decimated, war-torn country, might many of them not choose to stay? Should we expect these individuals to recreate a country? Additionally, even if they did return home, I worry that there would be a divide between those who were lucky enough to leave, and those that had to stay. Bitterness and anger might result, as well as simply a lack of shared experience and solidarity. This is not, of course, a reason not to help those we can, but I do think it could be problematic if refugees were the main face of reconstruction and that they could face substantial barriers. Finally, life as a refugee in these countries will likely have its own hardships, including discrimination and poverty (remember the lack of work permits given to refugees in France, for example?). Without downplaying how much worse it would be to remain in the country through war, I think the idea of retaining morality by being in a place that has such a solid moral code may end up having its own problems. I don’t have a solution, but I wanted to bring up some points of critique that came to my mind when thinking about the questions you raised. Thanks lots!

  7. Hi Ria,

    Love your writing style!

    I’ll try and answer the first question: Is it idealistic and demanding to think that European countries should just “open up their borders” and allow in as many refugees as they can without collapse of their infrastructure and economy?” By addressing the second one: “How can one even judge how many refugees countries can take in without total collapse? Many countries have stated that they can only take in and handle a few thousand. This to me appears to be out of Islamophobia and laziness.”

    The “total collapse” you are referring to, I believe, has become somewhat of a buzzphrase. A total collapse of what? The economy is a logical guess. Maybe even the government. But you never hear about a total collapse of a culture, which is a possibility when a large group of people with a different way of life suddenly come into contact with a native group of people whom they share little in common with. When you ask “How can one even judge how many refugees countries can take in,” I think for some countries, it becomes a matter of cultural tensions rather than economic, political, or even national security. Europeans are rich in a culture that is endemic to Europe. Their fear of accepting too many refugees may be more a fear of losing their culture. American, on the other hand, has no culture. Well, we do, but it’s a culture that DEPENDS on immigrants. We are a culture of immigrants, and I think we should be the ones to bring in the refugees en masse.
    That said, I would be foolish to say that Islamaphobia isn’t a factor in the some of the xenophobic actions of European governments. (Although France is quite supportive.) I just wanted to point out that there might be another reason for wanting to restrict accepting refugees that transcends in importance any ignorant, irrational belief of superiority over another people.

  8. Ria, I loved this bit of your post: “In sociological theories pertaining to violence, when people can claim well-defined identities and roles in a given context, the situation is problem-free. Problems start to arise when a society cannot afford for its members to have well-defined situated identities and roles, because the societal structure is a mess. This lack of definition is echoed in the text – there were ‘voids of social and cultural space’ allowing for violence to breed.”

    I think this really gets back to the significance, which you mentioned you resonated with from the Abramowitz article, of understanding people’s personal narratives in order to not only diagnose and treat the mental pain, but to better understand the experience of the suffering and the trauma. To me, this is a crucial component of medical anthropology and my hopes for healthcare interventions across the board, because it really gets to the heart of an important issue for those of us who want to help others – understanding them, their experiences, their ways of living life, and their personal encounters with pain and joy, and from this getting to see them as human.

    To touch quickly on your second question, I certainly think Islamophobia is at play in the inefficacy with which Syrian refugees are being accommodated. I think this is where personal narratives and an authentic drive to understand the struggles others are enduring as human beings can be an important tool in overcoming social barriers of prejudice and cruelty that wreak havoc on people and populations in times of immense social and personal loss and suffering.

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