Personal Histories of Collective Trauma after the Second Karabakh War

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This series of articles explores the phenomenon of societal trauma through the personal stories of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, how this trauma manifests, and how it contributes to ongoing conflict dynamics. 

If war doesn’t kill us, it traumatises us, both as individuals, and at the societal level.

Related articles in the series of Personal Histories

Trauma, which influences how we as individuals and as societies function both during and after the traumatic events, is not always taken seriously either by the individuals directly involved, or even by those working on post-war rehabilitation. This ‘blanking’ of trauma can indeed be seen as a part of the trauma itself, as part of its impact on everyone who encounters it.

While individual trauma has been well-studied, and a wide range of psychotherapeutic tools and practices exists in this area, societal or collective trauma, is frequently overlooked. International responses mainly focus on political and humanitarian issues. Not enough attention is paid to the socio-psychological factors and ways in which people and entire societies are impacted by traumatic events, and how their needs can change as a result.   

Between April – June 2021, Indie Peace conducted a series of 50 one-to-one interviews, inviting people from all the sides in the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh to tell their personal and family stories of how they have been affected.

Some of these stories we publish here (see links above). Others are feeding into an analytical paper published here. Through these interviews, we have been exploring how trauma develops and is passed on, and trying to understand certain indicators and features of war trauma: how trauma can manifest at the individual and societal levels, and how deeply it can affect even those who have never personally experienced the horror of war, i.e. those outside the ‘primary’ trauma group. People who are emotionally close to victims of war or have witnessed traumatic events – for example, as first responders, medics, journalists or even members of society at war, but far from the front line – can also be affected by ‘secondary’ trauma. At times, this can be just as profound, and can impact a person’s life just as heavily, as direct, primary trauma.

Trauma can change not only the lives of individuals, but the lives of entire generations, affecting models of behaviour and overturning the development dynamic of a society. If unable to work through their trauma, those who have been impacted pass on the trauma narratives through the family and other networks and relationships. It then becomes collective. Indirect and inter-generational trauma can significantly affect the entire context of a conflict.

Trauma is a sensitive topic, but is a normal response of our psyches, bodies, and societies to abnormal circumstances. Trauma could be described as an emotional response of our inner coping mechanisms to traumatic events which threaten our sense of security, our sense of reality and our place in it. This makes us seek out and reconstitute a new sense of normality to help us to feel safe again. Following a traumatic experience, most people and societies are able to return to their normal functioning, and even use the experience for their own growth and creativity. However, the tendency to seek safety can persist, becoming the behavioural norm, even once the immediate danger has passed.

A traumatic experience like war can destroy much of what we believed in, our sense of belonging and security, and of a social framework in which we can live, develop and plan our future.  But as individuals and societies, we possess an impressive ability to adapt in order to continue to feel safe. Even in situations where we must exist without security for a prolonged period, we adapt. We find ways to perceive life in a situation of unresolved, simmering conflict – or authoritarianism, for example – as a secure and comfortable space for everyday life and development.

Reflecting on the impact of societal trauma in the context of the Karabakh conflict and listening to people’s frank outpouring of thoughts and feelings, one realizes that the societies are seeking a new social framework or model to bring a new sense of security. This search can take completely unpredictable turns, yet the main driving force is the search for security. All the respondents I interviewed were certain that a new military escalation is inevitable. 

In such circumstances, we might see attempts to remain in the past psychologically, in a familiar and safe condition; or to return to the past, to attempt to replay events differently, taking into account lessons learned. Both these conditions can be interpreted as a rejection of reality. Fear and unpredictability drive the search for security, often through the creation of cohesive and closed groups, with high levels of mutual support that transcend even the most serious disagreements of the past. In such a situation, the level of anxiety remains high, and alarm signals can emanate from any direction, even from within the most cohesive society, giving rise to the tendency to seek out and identify internal enemies – especially when the external enemy is out of reach.  The loss of a sense of security and trust in the world around us generates a universal suspicion, which itself is debilitating – and the desire to shake off the debilitating effect can develop into a need to distance oneself and find some respite in self-isolation away from sources of danger, while maintaining one’s distrust of the world.

With a better understanding of trauma and its dangers – if we are better able to recognise and respond to it, to understand its consequences for ourselves and other individuals, groups, communities and the entire nation – we will be better able to foresee new tendencies in society and the future course of events. Trauma that has not been properly worked through, for instance, can resurface years later, suddenly throwing us and our societies back to the state we found ourselves in, when we were first exposed to it. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in the autumn of 2020, when we witnessed the resumption of military action in the Karabakh context, with many of my respondents describing how they found themselves thrown into an emotional state as though the tragedies of decades previous were just yesterday. 

Working with societies in a post-war context, it is crucial to take into account the impact of trauma on their perception and interpretation of the conflict. This must be done with all societies, regardless of their status as victors or defeated. The post-traumatic condition plays a big part in how the conflict dynamic evolves, how justice is sought, and both who defines and who takes part in this process.

An appreciation of the impact of trauma and acknowledgement of its role in the conflict context is crucial in finding ways to heal both individuals and societies. Likewise, understanding trauma can become an important tool in the search for peaceful conflict resolution.

This article is part of the ‘Healing Collective Trauma’ initiative implemented by Indie Peace and funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the series of articles are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.