Long road to heal­ing

The hor­rors of war have left gen­er­a­tions of Colom­bians psy­cho­log­i­cally trau­ma­tised.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By ANAS­TA­SIA MOLONEY

HER voice crack­ing and hands trem­bling, Adri­ana holds up a sil­hou­ette she has drawn of her body in front of 33 other rape sur­vivors sit­ting in a cir­cle at a ther­apy ses­sion in Bo­gota, cap­i­tal of Colom­bia.

“I feel des­o­la­tion and sad­ness in my soul. We need to re­pair our hearts,” she said, point­ing to her heart on the draw­ing. The oth­ers nod in agree­ment.

“Ev­ery day I re­mem­ber what hap­pened. I spent five days in hos­pi­tal af­ter I at­tempted sui­cide. I still carry the pain,” said Adri­ana, as she re­called be­ing raped by a rebel fighter in her home 15 years ago.

The women, aged from their twen­ties to six­ties, have come from all parts of Colom­bia. They have suf­fered sex­ual vi­o­lence at the hands of guerilla and para­mil­i­tary fight­ers, who used rape as a weapon in Colom­bia’s 51- year civil war.

The heal­ing tak­ing place at this govern­ment- run ther­apy ses­sion of­fers a glimpse of the trauma Colom­bia’s es­ti­mated 13,600 rape sur­vivors face as the war- scarred na­tion at­tempts to bring an end to decades of vi­o­lence.

The govern­ment and rebels from the Revo­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia ( FARC) are inch­ing ever closer to sign­ing a peace deal in Cuba, where talks be­gan in late 2012.

But the hor­rors of war be­tween rebels, para­mil­i­tary groups and govern­ment troops have left gen­er­a­tions of Colom­bians psy­cho­log­i­cally trau­ma­tised.

Around a third of Colom­bia’s 7.8 mil­lion reg­is­tered war vic­tims – 17%

of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of 46 mil­lion – suf­fer from some kind of men­tal health dis­or­der, such as anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

“Th­ese are far above nor­mal level of psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma and re­veal the mag­ni­tude and sever­ity of the prob­lem we face,” said An­dres Moya at Colom­bia’s Los An­des Univer­sity, who is re­search­ing the war’s so­cial and eco­nomic im­pact.

How Colom­bia cares for the mil­lions of its cit­i­zens who have been psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aged by war will be a mea­sure of the na­tion’s abil­ity to emerge from five decades of fight­ing.

“The im­pact of the con­flict on men­tal health is one of the main chal­lenges we’re go­ing to face,” Moya said.

Most Colom­bians ei­ther have a rel­a­tive who was killed, dis­placed, kid­napped or dis­ap­peared and or know some­one who has ex­pe­ri­enced such vi­o­lence in a war that has killed around 200,000 peo­ple and dis­placed mil­lions.

For many rape sur­vivors, fear and shame has kept them silent about their or­deal for years.

At the ther­apy ses­sion in a lux­ury down­town ho­tel, some are shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences for the first time.

“No one ever asked us what hap­pened to us. We haven’t had a chance to un­load our grief. This is a space to cry,” said 31- year- old Diana, as tears roll down her face.

When she was 14, she was raped by an armed fighter and had a son as a re­sult.

“Some­times it feels like it hap­pened yes­ter­day. But I feel less alone know­ing that it didn’t just hap­pen to me,” she said.

Other women stare at the ground, clasp­ing their hands and shak­ing their heads.

Over the next sev­eral hours, women are taught breath­ing and re­lax­ation ex­er­cises un­der the gen­tle guid­ance of a psy­chol­o­gist as sooth­ing mu­sic plays.

The women speak of feel­ing an­gry and seek­ing re­venge af­ter be­ing raped, which has of­ten given way to de­pres­sion and de­spair. They de­scribe hav­ing com­mon symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness and panic at­tacks. Some say they can’t sleep and con­cen­trate, oth­ers don’t want to eat and get out of bed.

Af­ter be­ing raped, many women were forced by armed groups to flee their homes in the coun­try­side, seek­ing refuge in Bo­gota.

Over the years, many have strug­gled to cope with the poverty dis­place­ment of­ten spawns, and the loss of homes, liveli­hoods, and the break­down of re­la­tion­ships, which can cre­ate men­tal health prob­lems.

So far, more than a thou­sand rape sur­vivors have re­ceived coun­selling pro­vided by the govern­ment. Rape sur­vivors, like other war vic­tims, are also el­i­gi­ble for up to US$ 7,000 ( RM28,700) each in fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion as part of govern­ment ef­forts to heal the wounds of war.

De­spite such ef­forts, the stigma at­tached to men­tal ill­ness along with a lack of men­tal health care, es­pe­cially in Colom­bia’s ru­ral ar­eas, means many are not get­ting treat­ment.

Aid group Doc­tors of the World says that of the 22,000 peo­ple given med­i­cal care in three con­flict- hit provinces be­tween 2013 and 2014, 30% showed symp­toms of de­pres­sion.

Chil­dren also show signs of trauma, in­clud­ing young teenagers who wet their beds.

“For many re­mote ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties there hasn’t been an op­por­tu­nity for cathar­sis, to talk about what has hap­pened,” said Ilde­fonso Jaimes, a psy­chol­o­gist with Doc­tors of the World.

Most peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas don’t know what a psy­chol­o­gist is and have never met one. Some peo­ple say: “I don’t need to go to a psy- chol­o­gist, I’m not crazy,” he said.

For some men liv­ing in Colom­bia’s ma­cho cul­ture, it can be dif­fi­cult to seek help.

“A ma­cho man wants to hide his pain and not show his weak­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity,” Jaimes said. “Some men say they feel im­po­tent and guilty for be­ing un­able to de­fend their fam­ily from rape and at­tacks.”

Be­cause of the ex­tra­or­di­nary length of Colom­bia’s war – a con­flict that has spanned sev­eral gen­er­a­tions – symp­toms of men­tal health dis­or­ders build up and can be­come chronic.

“Many peo­ple have ex­pe­ri­enced a cy­cle of vi­o­lence. The im­pact of the con­flict on men­tal health is ac­cu­mu­lated and repet­i­tive over time,” Jaimes said.

War trauma could also un­der­mine Colom­bia’s prospects of build­ing long- term peace.

Back at the ther­apy ses­sion, the heal­ing con­tin­ues. With their eyes closed, a psy­chol­o­gist asks women to pic­ture their hearts and go in­side them.

“Find where the pain is and what’s writ­ten there,” she said. “Now you write the next chap­ter.” – Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion


FArc rebel troops sit­ting down in the jun­gle to re­ceive ‘ classes’ on how life will be if a peace deal with the govern­ment is signed.

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