Peacebuilding and Trauma Trasformation. Is sustainable peacebuilding possible without addressing and transforming trauma?

Cvijeta Novakovic, Global Education MagazineCvijeta Novakovic

Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding Specialist in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Abstract: The role of past in lives of people is significant: according to an ancient philosophy, people walk in front of the past, while the unknown future stays  behind of them. Hard experiences of conflict, war and trauma have inevitable and negative impact on social, economic and political life of individuals and communities, with long term effects on their function and development, creating number of dysfunctional individuals and traumatized societies, and trauma transfer on generations. Trauma is in newer researches seen not only as the legacy but also as the cause of conflict, building a raising spiral. This points on the need for trauma healing, and a question “Is sustainable peacebuilding possible without addressing and transforming trauma?” Experiences form communities which survived horrible of war and genocide show difficulties in their reconciliation, recovery and progress, and their interrelation with the high level of trauma. The link between conflict and trauma points directly on need for trauma transformation in order to broke the conflict spiral. Trauma transformation is a necessary part of rebuilding relations on which is based the whole community. Relational issues create the environment for peacebuilding, political, economic and social development of the society, with impact on each aspect of the process. This confirms the role, and necessity of trauma transformation in peacebuilding. Dealing with trauma is actually dealing with the past – necessary to achieve reconciliation of society for the purpose of its progress towards just and long term peace. Sustainable peacebuilding is impossible without addressing and transforming trauma – and a choice to do that for the better future.

Key words: peacebuilding, trauma, conflict, transformation, past, future, addressing.

Introduction: the Past

..(people say) the past lies before me and the future lies behind me. They point ahead of them when they talk about the past. They point back when they refer to the future”

(J.S. in Lederach, 2005,135).

This ancient wisdom from an African tribe, speaks a lot – addressing a role of the past we all bring with us, especially the past linked with hard, painful and traumatic experiences as these of war and violence surely are. Observations and number of researches confirm significant a long-term impact traumatic experiences from past have on individual and collective life, influencing all levels and aspects of economic, political and social life of the war-thorn countries and their development.

Living in a deeply traumatized society – my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which in the last decade of the twentieth century happened one of the hardest wars in the newest history of Europe, if not the world, I could experience and observe that on my own. Even before I had opportunity to learn about trauma and its effects on the whole society, I was aware about enormous quantity of a complex emotion mixed of pain, anger and fear, floating between sorrow, rage and depression, present on both individual and collective level, and its potential to turn on in a new cycle of hate, violence and war.

Then: Is sustainable peace possible without addressing and transforming trauma?

What are links between trauma, conflict and peacebuilding?

Trauma: the Consequence and the Cause of Conflict

In a history of humankind, the twentieth century will be marked as a century of violence: the two world wars and hundreds of local and regional conflicts occurred in it, with dramatic change in a profile of those who suffer in wars, which shifted from military to prevalent civilian victims (in some statistics, it is more than 80% of civilians), beside to enormous level of individual violence happen daily all over the world. Nothing is changed in the first decades of the twenty first century – wars and violence on all levels continue, including the hardest form of violence on children and women, these who has the less power to protect themselves. Beside the culture of violence, after decades and centuries of silence, addressed is the culture of rape used as civilian and military power or – better to say- weapon, the cultures in which extreme forms of human behavior became daily, usual, accepted or even expected.

Among losses in human lives and material goods, and danger from billions of land mines in war regions all over the world, there is one more, hard, long term legacy of war: trauma – present on both individual and communal level, creating traumatized, dysfunctional societies which capacities to recover and progress are inevitable lessen, according to some authors even lost in genetic degeneration trauma could have on generations of human population long-term.

In newest theories, trauma is seen not only as the consequence but also one of causes of war. Many authors state that trauma increases possibility to provoke new conflict and further the cycle of conflicts with increased intensity. According to Mitchel trauma is “an inter-related cluster of emotions, attitudes, prejudices and perceptual distortions accompany most forms of conflict, and lead to its continuation and exacerbation” (Mitchell, 1981, 71).

The Consequence – Individual and Collective Trauma

Many authors suggest – and it is easy to observe – that most of population in war-thorn countries suffers from some level of trauma. According to Clark “Over three-fourths are demoralized and physically and mentally exhausted; half are clinically depressed or suffer from post-traumatic disorder (PTSD); and one-fourth also are mentally incapacitated. They can not function in society” (Clark, 2002, 335). There is also a definition of traumatized society, in which destruction of systems and values are evident together with high number of trauma-affected and dysfunctional individuals, resulting in a dysfunctional, traumatized society.

Trauma has destructive effects on both social, economic, political and developmental processes of the society. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of countries which in the last decade of twentieth century did experience war with the highest intensity of violence, destruction and genocides happened. Almost two decades after, destruction of material goods are still visible together with many symptoms of traumatized society: high level of organized crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, violence on streets, suicides, poverty and illnesses, feeling of insecurity, fears, anger and hate; difficulties to reach political solutions, reconcile divided groups, make the progress. Unfortunately, there is number of similar, post war and traumatized societies in the world, who experienced and still struggle in wars: Rwanda, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Yemen … the list of over fifty wars happened after the Second World War, number of still ongoing.

Repetitive cycles of conflict happened in the same country or the same region during the history, involving the same parties on the same or different issues. Thus, the dynamic of conflict increases, tending to create growing “spirals” from which is difficult to escape, and which transformation towards peace needs a lot of investment. Consequent to increased level of violence is increased level of trauma which in turn could be a new fuel of the conflict, influencing its relational level. This interrelation is applicable on individual and collective level, reflecting on primary/structural as well as secondary/individual violence – both of escalating in wars.

The Cycle

Those, who suffered, often see themselves as victims; also victimization produces trauma. The link between trauma, egoism of victimization and cycle of conflicts was given my several authors. National groups sometimes have so called chosen trauma – an historical event which caused trauma that is kept in narrative (myth), creating long term feeling of victimization as well as enemies from the other side. In Balkans, historic battle on the Kosovo Fields happen in 1389 between Serbs and Ottomans was used for heating of nationalistic tends and hate even six centuries later. It can result in the egoism of victimization, Mack describes as “incapacity of an ethno-national group, as a direct result of its own historical traumas, to empathize with the suffering of another group” also, “.. ethno-national groups that have been traumatized by repeated suffering at the hands of other groups seem to have little capacity to grieve for the hurts of other peoples, or to take responsibility for the new victims created by their own warlike actions” (in Redekop, 2002, 157).

Many other authors also see this link between trauma and conflict. One of pioneers in research of this tough issue, writes “trauma is among the most important root causes for the form modern warfare has taken. The perpetuation, escalation, and violence of war can be attributed in part to post-traumatic stress.” (Levine, 1997, 225). This interrelation between trauma as the consequence and a cause of war could be observed in many conflicts and their cycles.

Trauma creates not only dysfunctional individuals: it creates dysfunctional, traumatized society which capacities to change and progress are inevitable affected and significantly lessen. More than with other aspects of social life, trauma is related with relational issues and their rebuilding, affecting inevitable on the whole process of building sustainable peace.

Than: Is sustainable peace possible without addressing and transforming trauma?

Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Interrelations between peacebuilding and trauma is possible to observe in many post-war societies. Experiences show faster recovery in communities less affected by destructive violence in a meaning of loss of human lives as well as devastation of homes and economy. Slower transformation and recovery of relational as well as other aspects of social life is evident in communities with bigger loss of human lives – the places deeply traumatized with horrible experiences of genocide and ethnic cleansing. As a peacebuilder-practitioner, I had opportunity to observe these processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Srebrenica – the very place of the genocide, happen in 1995.

More than fifteen years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina with genocide happened in a little town of Srebrenica, this community has difficulty to overcome divisions, reconcile and unit in the efforts to build sustainable community. Despite special status of Srebrenica and its exception from the electoral law this difficulty was evident even in last local elections 2012, confirming deep gap between the two ethnic groups and lack of willing to find a common solution, necessary for functioning of the community. Similar is the situation in divided city of Mostar. Knowing the history of war and violence, consequent level of trauma, and depth of the division within population in both towns, these difficulties are not surprising.

Political issues, often related with trauma, play significant role in both peacebuilding, development and integrative processes ongoing in all post-Yugoslavia states. In Bosnia and Herzegovina processes of transition and peacebuilding, including its accession to European Union, is going much slower than in other states of the region. It is quite easy to see that in wars happened in this region in the last decade of twentieth century, Bosnia and Herzegovina had the highest level of devastation, human and material and – consequently – expected the highest level of trauma.

Trauma in Peacebuilding

Peacebuilding is complex long-term process that touches different spheres and levels of society. Among need for rebuilding destroyed cities and villages, economic and political systems of an destroyed community is the need for healing trauma in order to reconciliation of the society and its progress.

Many authors address trauma transformation or trauma healing as part – I would say essential part – of peacebuilding, point that reconciliation process also depends of level and ability to address and transform trauma – as it shows the case of Srebrenica. In her “Map of Peacebuilding” Schirch addresses four categories of peacebuilding: waging conflict nonviolently, reducing direct violence, building capacities and transforming relationships, where she placed trauma healing, following by conflict transformation, restorative justice, transitional justice, governance and policymaking (Schirch, 2004, 26).

It is important to address trauma existing not only within victims but also within perpetuators, and those witnessing the violence and genocide. Closure of bad relations and reconciliation of the society could happen only when the process of trauma healing or its transformation includes all participating sides: victims and perpetuators. Bocharova places reconciliation of society at the end of her diagram which inner circle shows possibility to stuck in traumatic event and behavior, as well as opportunity for its transformation towards healing. There are more similar diagrams and processes described by different authors, in which trauma, reconciliation and recovery are addressed – also, this interrelation is evident in the field, in each post-conflict environment.

Trauma plays the role in each category of peacebuilding, reflecting on environment and individuals involved in the process less or more directly. It impacts capacity of individuals and the society to reach out of conflict relations and limits, build sustainable and collaborative relations, imagine the better future, create the way and reach out to it. On a collective level, progress in reconciliation and transformation of relations reflects on ability of involved groups for collaboration, necessary in each process – economic, social and political. The lesson from Srebrenica confirms that. This also gives the answer on the question: Is sustainable peace possible without transforming trauma? – the answer is NOT.

Trauma is not only the legacy but also the cause of war, fuel for cycles of violence and generational trauma that leads for their escalation. Trauma impacts individual and collective ability for cooperation on which is based each process in society – its recovery and its development. Addressing and dealing with trauma toward its transformation and healing is a necessary step to creation of the environment in which peacebuilding, transitive and integrative processes imply and give the result – sustainable peace.

Simply: Trauma healing or trauma transformation is a necessary part of the process of rebuilding relationships inevitable for progress and development of each post-conflict society and sustainable peacebuilding, defining peacebuilding broadly as variety of processes that “seeks to reduce, transform and help people to recover from violence in all forms” (Schirch, 2004, 9), and – in general – satisfy the human needs.

Than, the answer on the question from the beginning would be:

Sustainable peacebuilding is impossible without addressing and transforming trauma.

The Past and the Future

The real differences around the world today are not between Jewish and Arabs, Protestants and Catholics, Muslim, Croats and Serbs. The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it; between those who look to the future and those who sling to the past; between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists”

(William J. Clinton)

Dealing with trauma is actually dealing with the past. Applied in the context of peacebuilding and trauma, it would be: “the real difference is actually between those who stuck in their trauma and those who choose to transform it”. Because, there is no cooperation, progress and real peace without healing traumatic wounds and transforming the trauma on individual, nor collective level. Still, trauma issues in peacebuilding are often marginalized, almost forgotten. As the first step to successful peacebuilding is necessary acknowledgement and addressing trauma. This should lead further to creating and implementation of collective strategy for trauma transformation, taking into account specific needs of each traumatized community.

In the Expanded Framework of Peacebuilding Lederach addresses four levels of history: recent event, lived history, remembered history and narrative, that has influence on conflict and future. The third part, remembered history is, according to Lederach, this one where is created “chosen trauma” that is particularly connected with deep rooted conflict. As a peacebuilder, Lederach at the end points on the cycles of time, rather than cycles of conflict. He states that: “Peacebuilding requires respect for the center the edges of time and space, where the deep past and the horizon of our future are sewn together, creating a circle of time” (Lederach, 2005, 147).

This new circle of life, in which trauma is transformed and reconciliation of the society achieved for the purpose of development and building sustainable peace is that my children, children of their children, and all the children of the world, need and deserve. To make this dream our reality is necessary to address trauma and work on its transformation on a collective level, setting it as an appropriate – and inevitable – part of peacebuilding.



Cvijeta Novakovic is native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, peacebuilding and conflict transformation professional and activist since 1995, war year in her home country.

M.A. in Conflict Transformation with concentration in Peacebuilding she has completed in 2006 at the Centre for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University USA, with Professor John Paul Lederach and other pioneers of peacebuilding. She has also broad vocational training in the field of peace work, conflict management, leadership and security from recognized institutions of Europe and USA.

Extensive experiences in-field Cvijeta has gained in local and international organizations, in war, conflict and trauma affected environments of BiH, region and wider, including Srebrenica, the very place of genocide. Centre for Culture of Peace and Nonviolence she founded and led from 1997 to 2004, keeping the focus of her work during years on peace education.

As a trainer, a consultant and a scholar of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Cvijeta was part of many peace activities all over the world, published professional articles and poetry in different international media.


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This article was published on January 30th: School Day of Non-violence and Peace in Global Education Magazine

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