War victims demand justice, not therapy

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THIRD-WORLD survivors of famine and war, starvation and torture are being subjected to a new horror - the post traumatic stress counsellor.

Aid workers can usually be relied upon to bring much needed food, medicine and schooling to people in parts of Africa, Asia and the Indian sub-continent. But now, teams of counsellors are flooding into the Third World hunting down victims to debrief, counsel and analyse.

But a group of psychiatrists, academics and aid workers have warned that the rapidly growing numbers of counsellors, whose zeal is only rivalled by that of the early missionaries, may be harming the very people they are trying to help.

In Rethinking The Trauma of War, to be published shortly by Free Association Books, the group says that counsellors are upstaging local healers, undermining native cultures, subverting religious beliefs and often leaving some people they subject to checklist-therapy worse off.

"All of us have extensive experience of working with adults and children who have survived war, violence, torture and rape and we have all come to share deep misgivings about the rapid expansion and unquestioning export of trauma counsellors," says the co-editor of the book, Dr Patrick Bracken, consultant psychiatrist at the University of Bradford, who spent three years in Uganda with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

"Different societies and different cultural groups have their own ways of coping with suffering and the arrival of Western experts can have the effect of undermining these ways. Their very presence says there is a scientific knowledge about trauma which we possess and you do not. This can undermine both the position of local healers and the cultural institutions essential for communities to rebuild their way of life.

"There is an assumption that Western understanding of suffering and Western approaches to healing are superior. Our book challenges that assumption."

The book points out that justice rather than lessons in stress management is what victims want. It quotes an 11-year-old Rwanda boy who was found amid the bodies of the rest of his family: "I will hunt the killers to the end of the world. If the government doesn't arrest them I will kill their children. Even 70 years from now I will remember them."

And that, says Dr Bracken, is a plea for justice, not for therapy. "It is a plea that the international community, UN agencies and non-government organisations may well ignore, but at enormous cost," he says.