Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up In Wartime Bosnia by Lynne Jones
The children who distanced themselves from the war, who avoided talking about it and trying to make sense of it, were often the healthiest psychologically.
We've come to believe that, for most people, the horror of war persists long after the ceasefire. The scenes of death and destruction seared into the recesses of the mind replay themselves in nightmares and flashbacks. (Think of Tom Rath in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.) Naturally, we assume that children are irrevocably scarred by war, given their more sensitive psyches. It's hard to imagine the children of, say, Iraq or Sudan, emerging from the devastation and loss around them without psychological trauma. But it turns out that children are more resilient than we think, argues Lynne Jones in her important new book When They Started Shooting: Growing Up In Wartime Bosnia.
One of the more enduring images of the Bosnian War is that of children suddenly cut down by sniper bullets as they crossed the street. The market massacre in Sarajevo in 1994 and the murder of roughly 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 are the war's most unforgettable atrocities. For the children who lived through that ghastly period, those memories will not soon be forgotten.
Along with daily reports of indiscriminate shelling, mass rape, and ethnic cleansing, the media frequently brought us the stories of Bosnia's "war-traumatized" children. Humanitarian organizations, warning of a "lost generation," put out urgent calls for help. Jones, a British child psychiatrist with the NGO International Medical Corps, worked with Croat, Serb and Muslim children during and after the war, and came away with an entirely different picture. In her interviews with children in the towns of Foca and Gorazde, Jones found little evidence of trauma. "They were angry, unhappy, grieving, bewildered, but not, in most cases, psychologically disturbed. They had complex and sometimes discomfiting moral and political perspectives, but certainly not stunted ones," she writes. In short, they were "normal reactions to horrifying events."
Interestingly, Jones's view that, by and large, children emerge from war free of psychological trauma was widely shared in the mental health profession until the 1990s. Studies of children who endured the London Blitz in WWII and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict supported her conclusion. (These studies showed that a supportive family was the most important factor in helping children cope with the experience of war.)
So what happened? Psychiatrists working with Vietnam War veterans successfully campaigned for the recognition of what came to be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis was simple: If you selected the appropriate number of boxes on a checklist, you were said to suffer from the disorder. Such a superficial method naturally inflated the number of people suffering from PTSD. The media began to publicize the disorder whenever it covered a war or a disaster. "This was particularly true of the media-accessible Balkan wars," Jones writes. "Civilians were increasingly the deliberate targets of the late twentieth-century conflicts, and PTSD became a recognized medical consequence of civilians' exposure to violence."
Jones, however, found no such consequence in the children she spent time with in Foca and Gorazde. Generally, both Serb and Muslim children were more preoccupied with their futures and personal relationships than with the war. The children who distanced themselves from the war, who avoided talking about it and trying to make sense of it, were often the healthiest psychologically. On a PTSD checklist, however, this would be categorized as being in denial. Conversely, those who tried to find answers -- what was the war about? who was responsible for all the massacres? -- were more likely to be troubled. On the whole, these children, Jones concludes, had developed their own natural methods of coping. "Those children who are engaged in the search for meaning are clearly looking for their own recovery. The question is how they can be best supported in doing so," she writes. "Social and political interventions that rebuild their social world may have a far greater impact on emotional well-being than individual psychological ones." The gutted neighborhoods and bullet-marked buildings that dotted the bleak landscape of post-war Foca and Gorazde were often the greatest source of children's unhappiness, Jones discovered.
Foca, a predominantly Serb town, experienced less shelling than Gorazde, a mostly Muslim enclave that endured a state of siege for several years. Serb children in Foca were more likely to distance themselves from the war than their Muslim counterparts in Gorazde, who were more actively engaged in trying to understand what happened. Consequently, Serb children were less informed about the crimes committed in the name of a "Greater Serbia," and displayed stridently nationalistic (and separatist) attitudes, often marked by hatred of Muslims and the West. They also defended the Serbs' policies of ethnic cleansing on the basis of their people's historic suffering at the hands of "Turks" -- the pejorative term they used for Muslims. In short, Serb children were often animated by strong feelings of resentment and victimization. By contrast, many Muslim children displayed empathy for Serbs who had suffered during the war, and were more likely to acknowledge their side's crimes. Surprisingly, many were open to the idea of living in a multi-ethnic state that included Serbs.
Ironically, the Dayton Peace Agreement reinforced the logic of separation, rewarding the Serb extremists whose vision of an ethnically pure state became a reality with the creation of Republika Srpska (fka Serb Republic). The war was not the result of ancient antagonisms, but, rather, created the ethnic hatred that tore the country apart for most of the 1990s. Prominent politicians and the media manipulated the Serbs' fears, inciting hatred of Muslims, who in turn saw no alternative but to seek an independent state. The war unleashed what Peter Maass described as the "wild beast" in his harrowing account of the conflict Love Thy Neighbor. People who had peacefully coexisted now showed no compunction in murdering their neighbors or shipping them off to concentration camps. The children who honestly confront this past, questioning the myths and the official stories, offer the best chance for ethnic reconciliation in a country that today remains severely divided.