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7/Trauma: Wounds unseen but open
Teaching how to heal

Alison Lemeri
Through peer counselling and trainings, churches and civil society are giving citizens skills to cope with trauma and help their neighbours.
29.01.2017  |  Yei, South Sudan
Nearly half of all South Sudanese suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (photo: Stanley Greene | Noor | laif)
Nearly half of all South Sudanese suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (photo: Stanley Greene | Noor | laif)

Seeing people suffer is a part of trauma, even for brothers and sisters who have not been displaced,” says Reverend Peter Tibi, Executive Director of Reconcile International, an organisation that offers psychosocial aid among other programmes. “You have seen your parents or children being butchered, or you have been beaten very severely – it causes trauma.”

Psychosocial experts say existing acts of revenge killings, suicidal cases, mental disorders, widespread attacks and looting are some triggers of growing trauma since South Sudan slipped into a renewed war in 2013.

Tibi says a lack of immediate healing exercises carried out after South Sudan gained independence in 2011 worsened trauma, adding that many citizens are now suffering from “transferred trauma” after witnessing killings and woes of their impoverished loved ones.

One of the consequences of today’s trauma is revenge.

Other causes of trauma in South Sudan are attributed to home-based, gender-based and tribal conflicts as well as natural disasters like accidents and diseases, according to experts.

“Sometimes you wonder why some of our politicians do not react better. It’s part of trauma and if it is not healed, one of the consequences of today’s trauma is revenge. It can lead to mental disorders and people become suicidal. When the trauma triggers, you can react to certain situations abnormally,” warns Tibi.


Rehabilitating victims of trauma

Reconcile International was instituted in Yei in 2003, running three programmes on leadership and governance, psychosocial rehabilitation and peace. For its programme on psychosocial rehabilitation, Reconcile International has been training peer counsellors and educators setting up ‘Community Psychosocial Support Systems’ in South Sudan’s Greater Equatoria, Upper Nile and Bahr el-Gazhal regions since 2003. “Yearly, we train more than 100 and we send them out,” Tibi says.

Political instability in South Sudan has forced over one million citizens to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in September this year.

In Yei and other cities in South Sudan, residents have been fleeing insecurity to rural areas and neighbouring countries. Tibi says the circle of trauma continues when insecurity persists on or humanitarian aid is lacking to internally displaced people and refugees.

“You are hungry, there is no food. The little bit in the market is very expensive and hard to afford. This current situation could force a mother to deliver before her due date,” says pregnant mother, Keji Viola, a resident of Yei. “For us pregnant women, we need peace so that when we go to the hospital, we can give birth peacefully.”


Helping citizens help each other

The Yei Catholic Diocesan Counselling Centre (DCC) has been offering trauma healing and counselling services since 2007 – more than 1,000 people accessed trauma counselling there, with women making up the largest group – an estimated 75 per cent – according to John Mawa Fredrick, a training officer and counsellor. “Women are the most vulnerable group in the society. There are women who have children and their husbands are not around or dead,” he says.

The centre (DCC) often trains trauma healing guides, peer counsellors and educators ranging from 3-12 months, drawing together people from different parts of South Sudan on post conflict stress and trauma healing, conflict resolution and extending similar knowledge to the community.

The counsellors, peer educators and trauma healing guides who are trained free of charge offer their services in IDP camps, churches and in public and private offices. At this centre, 1,257 people from churches, schools, IDP camps and the local community have undergone such trainings in either intensive (5-6 months), annual (1 year) or a short capacity and practical skill building of three months.

The counselling process is either one to one, a communal narrative, biblical or referred to health experts in case of mental disorders or illnesses that require medication. Both institutions also have outreach programmes.

The biggest war for us is to work in the brains of the people.

Mawa pointed out that that the youth become traumatised over their potentially dismal future citing conflict, unemployment, lack of education and other domestic difficulties. “The biggest war for us is to work in the brains of the people,” Mawa says after training IDPs from the former Central and Western Equatoria states in August this year.

“We shall have the chain of revenge and conflict because any issue that is not solved is a big issue”, adds Mawa, whose centre has now scaled down most of the activities after a funding partner halted funds due to insecurity.

Experts say South Sudan’s churches and trauma-oriented organisations would need to scale up psychosocial support to badly hit populations, such as refugees, ex and current war combatants, health workers, political leaders and media practitioners.

Such trainings would help South Sudanese, IDPs like Poni Joyce, “with knowledge and skills of approach to solve a family, tribal, societal conflict” and those seeking some counselling in the community. “What I learnt is how to solve conflict at home between the father and mother, how to support our frustrated brothers and sisters especially in the camps. So, we need more of this still,” says Poni, an IDP from Wonduruba of Jubek State who attained three months training as a trauma healing guide.

However, South Sudan’s transitional government and armed groups first need to stop fighting to prevent a recurring circle of transforming and transferring trauma, experts say, appealing for humanitarian support and funds to carry out more capacity building of the local force and immediately respond to other mental illnesses.

“Until this war comes to an end, I cannot talk of healing now,” says Bishop Hillary Luate Adeba of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan who witnessed the plight of over 3,000 civilians who engulfed the church compound in Yei for safety following killings in their areas. “We are heavily traumatised. I am traumatised, I just weep,” he says.

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