Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights)

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9780812246261: Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights)
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At the end of Liberia's thirteen-year civil war, the devastated population struggled to rebuild their country and come to terms with their experiences of violence. During the first decade of postwar reconstruction, hundreds of humanitarian organizations created programs that were intended to heal trauma, prevent gendered violence, rehabilitate former soldiers, and provide psychosocial care to the transitioning populace. But the implementation of these programs was not always suited to the specific mental health needs of the population or easily reconciled with the broader aims of reconstruction and humanitarian peacekeeping, and psychiatric treatment was sometimes ignored or unevenly integrated into postconflict humanitarian health care delivery.

Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War explores the human experience of the massive apparatus of trauma-healing and psychosocial interventions during the first five years of postwar reconstruction. Sharon Alane Abramowitz draws on extensive fieldwork among the government officials, humanitarian leaders, and an often-overlooked population of Liberian NGO employees to examine the structure and impact of the mental health care interventions, in particular the ways they were promised to work with peacekeeping and reconstruction, and how the reach and effectiveness of these promises can be measured. From this courageous ethnography emerges a geography of trauma and the ways it shapes the lives of those who give and receive care in postwar Liberia.

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About the Author:

Sharon Alane Abramowitz teaches anthropology and African studies at the University of Florida.

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Chapter 1
Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War
Agnes's Lament

On a hot dry day in the winter of 2006-2007, I accompanied a team of psychosocial workers to a village in the far north of Bong County to audit mental health interviews. Sitting in a dusty, narrow, blue examination room with a table, a few chairs, and an empty bookshelf, Agnes, the psychosocial counselor, looked down. Her typically tall and graceful frame was slumped, and her arms moved slowly and listlessly through her notebook and kit. She seemed far removed from her usual pert, optimistic professionalism—her eyes looked haunted and distressed.

It was a slow day, and few clients were coming round to meet with her, so I asked her what was wrong. Agnes said she was "really discouraged, and upset about my country, my nation." A very senior public official, Willis Knuckles, had been photographed having an affair with two women simultaneously, and in the photograph, the two women appeared to be engaged in sexual acts with each other. The photographs had been rapidly disseminated; they soon hung on walls, billboards, and doors in every large town throughout the country.

Agnes began to sob. "What will become of our own nation? That's a public figure. The immorality! I pray to God, and I know that God forgives, but what can this country be, what can this country become with the behavior of people like this? These are our leaders? And what will become of this man's wife? What will become of this man's children? What will become of his generation? I'm just sick. Where is the pride? Where is the dignity that you are supposed to have for yourself, for your family, for your country? We are totally ruined. The immorality is too deep, and it hurts us. It's irreversible."

Agnes continued: "I tell you. It will take the grace of God. Sometimes I go home, and I just pray to God. And these women! These photographs! Women are supposed to respect themselves and be respected. I was just walking down [in town], and I saw a group, and I went over, and they were all looking at this photograph. This is the first thing I see. These are people who preach against prostitution, against corruption, against immorality, and they go and do the same!"

Agnes's eyes grew red, and she avoided my gaze. In an urgent low tone she moved into a steady patter of stories of shame and fear and horror. As she spoke, the circle of her condemnation grew larger and larger. She talked about ex-combatants, trauma, mental illness, and the local form of brain sickness called Open Mole. She talked about women who were trapped in domestic situations with men who had killed their family members and neighbors and about rumors of human sacrifice during the elections. She talked about community attitudes, noting that many of the Loma and Kpelle people she worked with believed that Open Mole is a sign that you are a witch . . . that maybe you have done something ... and it is playing on you." With a great deal of shame, Agnes said, "Sometimes I feel so . . . African." And then Agnes redirected her lament toward her community and her society.

Agnes's speech struck me powerfully. Unlike the other trauma counselors I had interviewed and watched during the previous weeks and months, she had never broken face. She had never indicated the slightest doubt about Liberia's road to recovery, and she had never criticized the humanitarian NGOs that gave her an ID, a professional identity, and a stable salary. She believed in the psychosocial work they had done with ex-combatant rehabilitation, and as an example, she often cited the story of Princess.

Princess was a young former child soldier whose life history had been written up for the NGO's press kit. Her profile described her kidnaping from her village, her years spent as a soldier and as a bush wife with the rebels, and her reluctant participation in the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, Reintegration (DDRR) program. The narrative ended with a smiling photo of Princess in a DDRR T-shirt and a report that she had been successfully reintegrated into her village and her family. She was an iconic success story of ex-combatant rehabilitation.

Two years after her rehabilitation program had ended, Princess still came to the clinic to visit Agnes; her initially successful reintegration had faltered. She was lonely. Her boyfriend had promised he would come back and pay a dot (dowry) to her parents, but he had left and hadn't called for more than six months. The people in the community didn't like her very much, and it was hard for her to make friends with anyone who hadn't previously been a fighter. Princess came often to visit with Agnes, and during her visits she sat humbly across the table from a psychosocial counselor who was no longer mandated by her NGO to work with her. For Agnes, her routine of peppering Princess with questions about work, dress, family, and drugs was a form of kindliness and support, but at the same time Princess was a living reminder to everyone that the immediate exuberance of postconflict interventions was wearing down into an extended period of uncertainty and ambivalence.

Reviving her critique of the immorality of public leaders, Agnes told a story that I'd heard elsewhere in Monrovia, in the Bong County capital Gbarnga and in some of the smaller trading towns between. Agnes, a Seventh-day Adventist, was a frequent churchgoer. In the years after the war, she attended Sunday services, as well as weekly Bible meetings and evening prayer sessions as often as she could. On a crowded weekend morning at her church, word had circulated that a nine-year-old girl—a church member—had recently been raped. The pastor brought the accused rapist onto the podium before hundreds of congregants and begged for their forgiveness for the rapist. Agnes's voice swelled with rage and disgust as she recited his preaching:

Everyone in this congregation must forgive this man and give him our protection, for this is a time of reconciliation! If we are to recover from this war, if we are to rebuild to assume the riches of Liberia and to become the blessed nation as we were born, we cannot harbor anger in our midst! This man needs our forgiveness, and we must forgive him, for this is the time when truth and reconciliation will set us free from the wickedness of our past! We must bring this man into our arms, into the arms of Jesus, and we must forget all the wickedness we have done against each other! For now is the time when we must forgive, when we must let the past remain in the past, and move on with our future!
Agnes's lament seamlessly transitioned into her own story of sadness and loss, her trauma, as she put it. Several years earlier during the war, Agnes, along with her sister and niece, were fleeing toward the Ivorian border in search of shelter. Agnes's sister was pregnant, and their journey induced premature labor. Agnes had some training as a health worker prior to the war, and she guided her sister to a locked clinic in an evacuated village, where she managed to find an entrance. Inside the clinic there were no medications, no staff, and no supplies. Her sister and the baby died of a hemorrhage, and today Agnes is the guardian for her teenage niece.

Agnes demanded, "Who is to blame for my sister's death? Was it someone carrying a gun? No. Was it someone you can go to the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and say this person did this thing? No. But it was the war that killed my sister. If it was not for this evil war, my sister would not have been left to die in that place, we would not have had to run away from the war, there would have been someone to help. And people talk about war trauma. Hmph! Can I ever be a mother to my niece? No! Can I give her what she has lost due to this wickedness? No!"

The Sociality of Trauma

As Agnes's words demonstrate, the search for the new normal roamed beyond the tents and examination rooms in which trauma counseling took place. The purpose of this book is to examine the relationship between individual and collective trauma and the project of postwar social repair during a moment in which the Liberian state and its citizenry were in a state of traumatic transition, and to explore the architecture of the new normal through the lens of the massive global humanitarian project of trauma healing and psychosocial intervention in Liberia's early postwar reconstruction, from 2003 to 2008. The story of postwar trauma has a life of its own that runs across humanitarian programs, through the the subjectivities of all those who provided or received psychosocial care or lived just beyond program eligibility, and in mental health and psychosocial programs, policy, implementation guidelines, and budgets. The context for this narrative is Liberia—a small West African country that struggled to rebuild under international peacekeeping forces, while receiving the support of a vast apparatus of humanitarian assistance that sustained the Liberian population until the Liberian state could re-assert its sovereignty.

Following other analyses of mental illness, politics, and violence that probe the "deep structure" of trauma and recovery in massive societal transitions (Pinto, Hyde, and DelVecchio Good 2008), I focus on the "superstructure" of trauma, especially the psychiatrically oriented pacification that has been present but made invisible in the history of military interventions in Africa and elsewhere (see Fanon and Philcox 2008; Elkins 2005, Pupavac 2004). In Africa, and particularly in Liberia, the interactions between international peacekeeping and psychiatry, mental health, and the psychosocial are not, and have never been, neutral, benign, therapeutic, or apolitical. Mental health and psychosocial interventions were directed towards the creation of a new postwar social order that would subordinate past habits of violence to a future of postwar political and social tolerance. The most curious feature of these efforts, however, was that they were uncoordinated, decentralized, ad hoc, and ambivalent. As such, they were indicative of some of the distinctive structural features of twenty-first-century humanitarian aid.

Unlike other works on war and trauma, this book focuses on the sociality of trauma in Liberia, or the ways in which trauma was managed, displayed, communicated, and imagined, at every level of society during the postwar period. A vast literature in anthropology, history, and the humanities explores the history of trauma as a social, medical, and legal fact (Fassin and Rechtman 2009; Young1995; Shephard 2000) and plumbs the densely interwoven theoretical substrates of how trauma functions in the interiority of the unconscious mind and produces effects in the subjective self (Leys 2000; Caruth 1995; Scarry 1985). But the sociality of trauma is also a crucial axis for analysis. The sociality of trauma can be thought of as the performance of trauma, as the habitus of trauma (Bourdieu 1990; Bourdieu and Accardo 1999), as manifestations of trauma, as symptoms of trauma, or as the externalization of trauma. But however one chooses to think about the sociality of trauma, the ontological presence of trauma in postconflict life often exceeded the limits of the explanatory frameworks, etiologies, and genealogies that we use to try to understand and contain it. In Liberia, trauma was a critical modality of the social experience of rupture and of repair, and we need to explore it thoroughly to understand how societies undertake the search for post-violence normalcy. (The psychiatric research literature on trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the neuroscience of trauma continues to grow exponentially, and lies beyond the scope of this work.)

In the first five years of Liberia's postconflict reconstruction, humanitarian agencies often used the language of trauma, healing, and recovery to describe the challenges confronted by the Liberian nation, but "mental health" was not the focus of humanitarian attention. Managing the trauma of the Liberian population was seen as a tactical necessity to prevent a backsliding into war, and consequently, trauma healing was regarded as a precondition for sustaining the new social order that the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was trying to solidify. To a population that had been shaken by the death of one-tenth of its citizenry, years of massive population displacement, and the inability to end a destructive thirteen-year long civil war, psychosocial interventions were introduced as a way to exercise a global mandate to restore social order, break the cycle of violence, and introduce pro-social, anti-violent behaviors and ethics.

International NGOs like Save the Children, Médecins du Monde (MDM), the Center for Victims of Torture, and the Lutheran World Federation/World Service (LWF/WS) were charged with implementing trauma healing and psychosocial interventions, and through them, instilling postconflict peace subjectivities (Charbonneau and Parent 2011), the individual and collective dispositions of nonviolent participation in postconflict life. In places like Bosnia (Locke 2009) and Sri Lanka (Argenti-Pillen 2002), and in the context of asylum courts and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (Fassin and Rechtman 2009) anthropologists have explored how the international community has come to regard trauma as a problem of humanitarian management, and how those discourses have been localized. Through Liberians like Agnes, NGOs trained, counseled, and educated the Liberian population one-by-one and en masse, and attempted to mediate personal disputes and community conflicts as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Psychosocial techniques like group trauma counseling, play and sport therapies, and human rights trainings were designed to bring Liberian selves and subjectivities in line with new postconflict ideals of political, social, and economic participation. Although the stated objectives of these programs were psychological healing, peacebuilding, and community reintegration, in practice, the strategy was to socialize Liberians into prosocial, propeace, proliberal postconflict forms of sociality in order to achieve the primary ends of peace, military and economic stabilization, and national sovereignty. Rather than healing social, psychological, cultural, and political pathologies, mental health, trauma-healing, and psychosocial interventions were, at their foundation, efforts to manage and mitigate the social, psychological, and behavioral sequelae of the Liberian war rather than cure the war's social, psychological, cultural, and political pathologies. The implicit cure for wartime trauma was to be found in the construction of a new environment of postwar normalcy.

How does trauma work as a social fact, a pervasive cultural force that is both constitutive of social life and functions as a substantial limiter of social possibilities? Like Agnes, many Liberians slipped seamlessly between a psychological understanding of trauma as a consequence of enduring exposure to violence, poverty, displacement, and corruption, a behavioral understanding of trauma as a social pathology, and a moral understanding of trauma as a sign of the moral and dispositional disorder that per...

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