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War, Conflict Trauma, and Media

Current events in the Ukraine, in the Yemen and Palestine remind us that war devastates and changes lives forever. It is not just the lives lost that is so shocking but the trauma that many will live with for the rest of their lives.

As the former Head of Country of Save the Children in Northern Ireland I’m only too familiar with the impact of conflict trauma on young lives. I was the media spokesperson for our international campaigns. I campaigned for Syrian refugees, and I supported the Dubs Amendment that led the British Government to commit to resettle 3,500+ Syrian families, in the UK. Indeed, I had the humbling experience of the most recent screening of my film about conflict trauma, The Quiet Shuffling of Feet, to have 4 Syrian refugees view the film and engage in the Q&A afterwards.

The aftermath of the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika 1937
Picasso's Guernica

What do we know about War? At the beginning of the 20th century, at the time of 1st World War, the Great War, the War to end all Wars, 80% of the casualties were soldiers and 20% civilians. Now, in the 21st century, in the era of the “smart bomb”, the laser guided missile, and remote-controlled drones, over 80% of causalities are civilians. Syria, the Yemen, Ukraine and Palestine, just some of the countries in which such lethal weapons are regularly deployed against unarmed civilian populations. Indeed, modern warfare has a lot in common with warfare waged in the Middle Ages when towns were besieged, and civilian populations battered and starved into submission.

Media Control

We live in an era when combatants control much of our media, or access to the war zone, presenting challenges in reporting the true nature of conflict. Journalists themselves are frequently targeted by combatants. We have invented a whole new lexicon to minimise emotional responses to the horrors of war. Civilian casualties are dehumanised and referred to as "collateral damage". Journalists are "embeds" carefully monitored within active combat units their access and ability to broadcast what they see mediated by security concerns. In Russia we have witnessed the passing of new laws forbidding media to accurately report the war which must only be referred to as a “special military operation.” And journalists within the Ukraine have found themselves under fire from all directions and a number have been killed. Irish journalist, Pierre Zakrzewski, 55, a cameraman and Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, 24, died in gunfire earlier this month in Horenka, on the north-west outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. The British correspondent Benjamin Hall was injured in the attack.

The old model of war had nation-states facing off with standing armies of uniformed soldiers. The wars we fight now are “interventions”, “counter­insurgencies”, “wars on global terrorism”, “police actions,” and “proxy wars.” We have defence forces and defence weapons that disguise and mitigate the lethal nature of their armoury. What is interesting about the Ukraine conflict from a media perspective is the use of social media to report and assess contacts and engagements by military personnel. This war is being fought on social media as well as within the field and Russia is losing on both fronts while wreaking devastation against civilian populations.

Humanising the Victims of Conflict

One of our challenges is to humanise the “casualties” of war. From a humanitarian perspective, we know that the victims of war are not just those who are killed and injured, but the many civilians who flee war zones. Over 4 million Ukrainians have crossed international borders to become refugees while almost 3 times as many have been displaced within their own country. When you put children and old people on the road they can die in large numbers from exhaustion, dehydration, and disease. Refugee camps are meant to be temporary before people are either returned home when violence ends or given humanitarian protection and residency in a third country. But in the 20th century few countries in Europe want to give refugees permanent asylum and refugee camps become permanent rather than transitory.

When we remember war, we need to remember the victims and survivors of war and not just the combatants. To ensure a peaceful future, we must first reconcile ourselves with our painful past. If we don’t, then we will live with a culture of conflict that all too quickly can erupt once more into cycles of violence. Truth recovery is an important tool in peace building and reconciliation. As a documentary filmmaker, I believe in truth recovery and healing through remembering. The challenge for us as truth tellers is to construct a narrative that enables people to learn the truth about violent conflict and its continued impact on people’s lives, long after the guns fall silent, while not exposing them to distressing imagery that itself can be traumatising.

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