Last week West Belfast hosted a delegation of Tamil citizens, affected by the massacre of an estimated 70,000 Tamils by the Sri Lankan government in 2009. In emotional exchanges of experience the issues of truth and justice, human rights, the failures of the international community to intervene and the residual effects of trauma were discussed.
Despite our experience of conflict and engagement with the issues of rights for victims of state abuses, the scale of slaughter was overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. What became clear was the impact of trauma on those who survived the slaughter. Some of the delegation spoke of guilt, pain and inadequacy. Those themes certainly resonated.
As I watch images from Gaza, Syria or Iraq, of devastated buildings, of hospitals deliberately targeted, and civilian populations who have borne years and years of devastation I think about how resilient their peoples are but also know that there will be impacts of such repeated traumatic events. Impacts that some will go to their graves, with and others will suffer with in decades to come.
Our population is obviously no different. Our community lived through a 30+ year conflict, that was called low intensity, but whose pernicious effects devastated lives and souls. We are really only beginning to name the harms that were experienced, – bereavements, injuries, tortures, imprisonments, abuses, – let alone really grapple with their long-term effects.
Many like to think about traumatic reactions as something the health service is responsible for. While it clearly has a role the truth is that a far more wide reaching approach is required. International human rights law recognises the role of health services, truth and justice mechanisms, acknowledgement and guarantees of non-recurrence. They interlink. What will be the long term benefits of counselling if the state continues to repeat its abuse of denial of truth, a truth that is so connected to healthy recovery? Counselling will help yes, but its potential will be limited.
The event in Manchester this week will have touched many, including those affected by conflict harms here. The response by Paul Gallagher, who experienced life changing injuries at the hands of loyalists and lives with the aid of wheelchair was as generous as it was heartbreaking. He wrote of the real difference kind words and generous actions make to the potential for long term recovery. The population of Manchester has responded to an egregious action with love, compassion and practical ways to make things a bit easier. Just like our own populations did, despite their own trauma. Those who have experienced any trauma first and foremost need safety. Their world and its certainty has been fundamentally compromised. Whether the event happened on Monday night or 40 years ago safety remains critical to sustained recovery. Simple reassurance and gentle, non-judgmental understanding is the bedrock of that. Most of us can offer that to those we know live with the pain of trauma.
No one in Manchester will tell its victims to get over it, move on or pull themselves together. Well I hope not. But sometimes people who mean well say things like that here. All victims around our world, no matter how long ago or how recent the trauma occurred need our ongoing support and solidarity. Love and gentleness can honestly make all the difference.