A dear friend sent me an article recently on rates of PTSD among children of Cambodian refugees, and how the trauma inflicted upon one generation of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge genocidal dictatorship has seeped into further generations. Children who have never set foot onto the famous killing fields are still feeling the affects, and I am absolutely positive that is true for children of trauma survivors the world over. The article goes into some specificities of Cambodian culture and how it manifested in American refugee communities, but my brain pivoted to (doesn’t it always) Northern Ireland.
I was once talking with a friend who grew up outside of Belfast. We were a few pints into the night and, for one reason or another, the talk had turned to ‘the past’. It was during the early winter of 2013, when most of the city was talking about flags and identity, about what represents who and who gets to make those decisions. These conversations flowed frequently.
“You know what I hate?” my friend leaned in, as to ensure that no one around would hear. Although, over the din of conversation and the pub playing Rhianna’s latest single just a little too loudly, I’m sure we were safe. I asked her what she hated.
“I hate that since my ma wasn’t shot by the IRA, I’m not allowed to talk about how hard life was growing up. Like we weren’t poor, and I had a good childhood by a lot of standards, but my da was never home, my brother was a bully, and I’m sure my ma was an alcoholic by the time I was five. And why was my ma an alcoholic? Because my da was in the police and she lived in a constant state of absolute blinding panic that he’d be shot or we’d be shot or we’d be blown up.”
I took a long sip of my pint and told her I was sorry and that I couldn’t imagine what her life was like or her mother’s life. My father made dye for a living; I had no frame of reference for fearing for his life on a daily basis. She waved me off, saying that I wasn’t who she was mad at.
“Theseuns want the flag up because that’s how they think they matter, how their voices are heard, and I suppose I should agree with them since I’m Protestant and all. The thing is, my dad was threatened in the name of that flag just as often as he was in the name of the other one.”
We talked further about what her identity was (she claims Northern Irish and hates being called either Irish or British) and what she remembers of her childhood. I remember feeling the moment was sacred, like I was getting pieces of her other folks didn’t get. This happened frequently in my Belfast life – since I was a ‘safe American’, I got stories that natives did not. A privilege I do not take lightly.
Finally, I asked her what she thought of the phrase “post-conflict” as I had come to a point where I knew I couldn’t use it in good conscience. I would eventually move to “frozen conflict”, but at this point in history, I was still grappling with how to classify life post-ceasefire.
She said she knew it was over because she could go to Primark with having her bag checked and security alerts were more inconvenient than life threatening, but she said she doesn’t believe for a second anything was *actually* over. A different phase of the conflict, yes, but not a finished conflict. Besides, she said, who gets to say it’s over in people’s lives?
That question has rolled around my soul for years now. Peace treaties are grand and important, but who is to say the war ended for the people caught up in it? When did it end for the family whose mother was disappeared or whose father was murdered? When did it end for the children who grew up thinking that bombs were a normal risk of life? When did it end for the nurses, and doctors, and priests, and teachers who sat in the trauma of others, but had no one sit in theirs? When did it end for my friend who felt told by her leaders, her country, that her fear and pain weren’t valid – or at least weren’t as valid as someone else’s? When did it end? Does it ever?
For the children of Cambodian refugees, the article at the beginning says their PTSD means the killing fields are still there and present. They still dictate the lives of people in their shadow, programmed brains to live as though that history isn’t in the past. In all the years I’ve spent studying conflict zones, this is a pattern I’ve noticed. The war never ends for the people who lived it, it just enters different phases, and those phases can last generations. And while us academics swoop into study the triumphant political maneuvers that guaranteed peace, the day-to-day life of folks is still stamped by trauma. It’s still happening, even though it also happened and the happened was different.
All of which demands listening and accepting and pausing and offering grace, and all of those just may be harder than any formal agreement, but actually build lasting peace.