Dealing with the Past: Aspects of Trauma and Healing - A Personal Reflection by Dana Buenaobra

Her name is Net Savoen, the only survivor from the 30 women who were taken by the Khmer Rouge to be raped from dusk to dawn before being brutally murdered in Pursat Province, 1978.

He was only a child when he experienced sexual abuse and decided not to clean himself as defence for what had happened.

Both are survivors of trauma and both chose to live their lives despite the horrors of the past hunting them until this day. Their stories may be different from the rest of Khmer people who suffer the physical, psychological and spiritual harm caused by trauma. But the complexity of healing will always be the same. In order to shed light on those issues,  the Heinrich Boll Foundation Cambodia invited various experts  from the global North  and  South last July 22-25,  2018 to the Cambodian-German Cultural Centre Meta House, Phnom Penh, to discuss with practitioners, students and the public to develop a deeper understanding on the origins, impact and recovery from  trauma. “Healing is nothing easy for both the victims and perpetrators. Therefore, this conference aims to encourage people to talk about the past to give us direction.” (Benjamin Knodler, Deputy Ambassador from the German embassy in Phnom Penh during the opening speech).   Indeed it is true that a direction is needed to move forward for the future by revisiting the past and having a space to evaluate what had happened and a discussion on what should happen in the present.

When Culture and Spirituality Play

“Baksbat” or “broken courage” is described by Dr. Chhim Sotheara from Transcultural Psychosocial Organization TPO as a culture based trauma in Cambodia.  It means being afraid forever, a psychological breakdown of courage, a state of oppression or a pain that is non-transferrable. The question was raised in which way Khmer culture and spiritual practice influence this syndrome.

Kep Dei’s mother, a survivor from the Khmer Rouge regime suffers from ‘thinking too much’ about the past.  “They dont bring it up and we don't ask questions.” According to Dr. Carol Kidron from Haifa University, this is physically and cosmically damaging not just to the individual but also to their family because trauma is transferable from one generation to the next through the interaction of survivors. “Even if Khmers are strong, proud and forgiving, we are not forgetful and we don't like to speak about the past, just listen if it comes up.” In other words, respect for survival silence wherein faith or karma is accepted without hesitation. This is pointed out by Dr. Kidron as culture specific mentality of the Khmer people largely influenced by Buddhism wherein suffering is emphasized and accepted as part of life.

However, the question remains whether simply accepting one’s suffering will make things better. On the one hand acceptance can be helpful in terms of embracing the fact that suffering happens. Because it is expected to be lived through by everyone. On the other hand people tend to accept their fate, affecting their overall standard of what it means to have a happy and a much more deserving life quoting Buddha “What you think, you become. What you, imagine you create.

It is suggested that medical (e.g. consultation) and non medical treatment can counter problems coming from “Baksbat” while family support and descendants saving stories of their predecessors are necessary in liberating the silent voices of genocide. It’s not just the survivor’s responsibility to work on their problem but also the people around them who need to take time, be understanding and listen actively. People need a space to speak out without worry of being harmed and audiences listening and being open without judgment.

On Gender Based Trauma 

Her name is Vivienne. She’s hard working, kind and vulnerable. Every time her husband gets drunk; screams, cries and the sound of a woman being punched and pushed against the wall can be heard. During the first months of the abuse, the community security and the police came to intervene. Also, the women neighbors encouraged her to leave the relationship. With all of these warnings, she chose to stay.  After 4 years,   from the streets to the houses, almost everything had changed but, the situation of the couple remains. Except that now, there’s a kid screaming and crying too.

This story is not uncommon, especially to patriarchal societies. Jolene Hwee from Womancare Singapore raised the question of why a woman can’t leave or why she stays in that type of relationship despite the obvious wrongs that the partner has done puzzles everyone outside of the relationship. Reasons behind this decision vary; from denial, cultural stigma, social isolation, dangers in leaving, abusive behaviour, manipulation and the beauty and beast syndrome wherein the woman expects the guy to change for the good. According to Ms Hwee one should also consider that a brain in trauma does not function like a healthy brain wherein the judgment of reality is often limited. There’s also the unpredictability of rewarding the victim by the perpetrator that encourages the former to cling on the latter. Thus, a never ending cycle of abuse is established. To combat the culture of violence against women, public education is deemed necessary but dissemination of related stories would be difficult if women’s voices are silenced in the media. 

This is the reason why Story Kitchen Nepal, an organization that aims to process the stories of varieties of women and make their voices heard emphasized the role of fair media towards healing. “Shame is a powerful silencer.” (Mibusha Ghimire, Project Officer). Indeed it is, therefore spaces are necessary that embrace and understand the difficulties faced by women to generate publicity and raise awareness amongst the masses.

An Artistic Affair

Trauma is defined as a result of a distressing event. Consequently, most people envision art that deals with trauma as negative, dark and unpleasant creations. However, “Art does not have to be beautiful.  Art can hurt and polarize. Art does not come with a menu” (Nico Mesterharm of Meta House).

Firstly, art is an expression. It does not have a set standard that should be followed. The creator’s purpose is to convey what had happened or how he/she feels from the event. When audiences perceive what was expressed by the artist, it becomes a dialogue and they have a responsibility to give back to the artist and society by interpreting the piece with an open mind and share what they have felt to other people to raise awareness of what had happened. “Art should not be deprived of the potential to communicate and to offer a concept of what it is to be human.” (Ellen Steinmuller, Dance Therapist).

Secondly, art is where healing process is channeled. One example is dance where the body is the actual resource of strength rather than an object of trauma. Emotions are deeply embedded in the body and communicating with it is expressing oneself to build connection by telling a story through dance. This is where relationships are built to self and others and where healing occurs. Since it promotes opening up the experiences that was deeply locked up.  “Dance is cathartic and dance can create.  We are physically and emotionally present in dance.” (Ellen Steinmuller).

A need for Space

Are museums places for healing or reminders of the atrocities that can ignite revenge? Chhay Visoth, director of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum answered this by comparing it to a scar in the hand wherein a wound has healed and a scar remains as a reminder of what had happened.

As human beings, forgetting the bad memories and retaining the good ones are ways to move forward. But in some cases, trying to forget the former and clinging to the latter just makes people live in the past. In the end, it depends on the how an individual perceives a scar. It can either be a symbol for healing wherein an event is accepted or a constant reminder that it did happen therefore moving on is complicated.

For museum experts, having a space where commemoration of memories is necessary for a nation to heal, to preserve an event, to move forward is a sign of a healthy democracy.  For some spectators it could be a source of fascination, a familial connection, a means of finding out the truth, searching for someone’s identity or purpose which can guide in answering questions such as Why them? Why did this event happen at that time? Why not now? What should I do?

There will always be a constant need for knowing what had happened wherein museums are there to provide proof. Museums are spaces for reflection but healing and closure will depend on the interaction of the individual with the space. Most importantly, museums are sources of knowledge to rebuild what was once lost.

It’s Okay not to be Okay

The norm that society sets to have a good and meaningful life is that a person must be okay. In reality, not being okay is what many people’s situation is. Issues may occur due to financial, physical, social and emotional distress and the truth is that not everyone is okay. Therefore, being not okay must be okay as well. Working on how to be okay should not be discouraged. It might be a difficult task but it does not mean that it is impossible.

Healing takes time. However, time alone is not healing. It’s the effort of the individual and the people around him/her that can provide healing.  Society also has a responsibility in the process of healing. This is done through respect for the survivors, by not judging who and what they are now because of what they have gone through, nor sympathizing with them. Instead, they should empathize. Governments have the obligation to support the survivors through the provision of healing programs that are accessible and affordable. Inclusion of genocide history and mental health in the curriculum of schools and universities is needed as well as providing spaces to discuss traumatic events. Civil society organisations can also provide platforms in that regard. Either way, all sectors should cooperate with each other to deal with trauma in society. In this way survivors will know that they are not alone in their daily struggle. In the end success will depend on the question whether or not the survivor is willing to help himself/herself first.