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  • Peace and Reconciliation! ... but what about Healing?

    As the interest in the NPRC heats up, with the Commissioners appointed and the draft Bill in the public eye, it is worth looking at one of the most central reasons for having this Commission: the consequences of the deliberate infliction of harm. This may seem to many an overly emotional way of talking about the violence of the past, but, as I hope I can show briefly, not if you look at history through the eyes of those that have suffered under the decades of violence. And, for those unconvinced that Zimbabwe (and Rhodesia before it) has a very violent past, I recommend a read of Lloyd Sachikonye’s excellent book, “When a State turns on its Citizens”.

    It is worth pointing out at the outset that the effects of violence have long been a cause of concern for health workers, and not merely those dealing with the effects of war, but also of those concerned about violent crimes such as rape. Ann Burgess and Lynda Holstrom first described the rape trauma syndrome in 1974. But health workers dealing with the effects of war eventually came to consensus on a description of a consistent set of symptoms that was first called a gross stress reaction in 1952, and then emerged as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 1980. This has not been an entirely accepted definition, but has nonetheless become a useful way for looking at the effects of war, rape, torture and even terror. And all of these have strongly featured in the 60 years of violence documented by Lloyd Sachikonye.

    An additional point, and why I raise PTSD, is that we too often think about the physical effects of violence – death, wounds, disability, etc. – but rarely about the psychological consequences which are probably the most common and frequently long-lasting consequences. And not just PTSD but also depression.

    Now none of this is probably new to Zimbabwean citizens, but it does seem that we are largely unaware of the scale of the problem that 60 years of violence has left us, and must be a central preoccupation for the NPRC. As the Constitution expresses this in Section 252 (e), the NPRC has the function to develop programmes to ensure that persons subjected to persecution, torture and other forms of abuse receive rehabilitative treatment and support.

    This will be no small task, because, as one might understand from the introduction, time does not easily heal, and hence we have the victims, and some survivors, from 60 years. This includes the political violence and torture of the 1950s and 1960s, the immense violence of the Liberation War, the thousands of casualties of the Gukurahundi, and all the sustained violence since 2000. And how many people might this be? There are attempts to estimate the scale. A recent report tried to estimate the scale of the problem, and even suggested some ways in which the problem might be addressed.

    Take a look at the effects of the Liberation War, and there is no national study on the psychological effects, but the severity was partially captured by the National Disability Survey in 1981. That survey estimated that there were 276,300 (4% of the population) persons living with moderate to severe disability, some of which was due to war. The survey, however, did not capture the psychological effects; after all, PTSD had only been “invented the year” before. But later work showed that the psychological burden was not trivial. A study carried out in Mount Darwin in 1998, severely affected during the Liberation War, showed that 1 in 10 adults over the age of 30 years, and coming to a primary care clinic for assistance, was primarily there because that person had been a victim of organised violence and torture during the Liberation War. This was nearly two decades after the war had ended and people were still suffering: time does not necessarily heal!

    The figures were worse when the Gukurahundi was examined. One study in Matabeleland South showed that 5 in 10 adults, over 18 years, were attending a primary care clinic for problems related to the violence of the 1980s. Even more startling was the finding that 9 out 10 adults in the same study reported being a victim of organised violence, but clearly not all were suffering. However, that half of the population studied had significant psychological disorder was distressing, and, if this actually extrapolates to the population of Matabeleland North and South, we are talking about a very large number of people in need of assistance.

    And it just goes on. An ActionAid study on the effects of Operation Murambatsvina indicated that nearly 70% of the people interviewed had consequent psychological symptoms. It is always dangerous to extrapolate from such surveys, but, if the conventional figure for the number of people displaced by Operation Murambatsvina, 800,000, is correct, then we are talking about half a million people.

    This may not be so fanciful. A study carried out in 2006 in the clinics of Harare showed that the prevalence of psychological disorder had risen to 39%, up nearly 10% from the estimates of the 1990s. The risk factors for becoming psychologically disordered corroborated the ActionAid study: multiple experiences of violence and having property destroyed or confiscated were far and away the most common precipitants of psychological disorder.

    Hopefully, the point here is becoming clear. Violence has long-lasting effects, and we in Zimbabwe have had an enormous amount of violence inflicted upon us. This will be an enormous task for the NPRC, and probably not able to be fully dealt with in the proposed life span of the Commission. It is a pressing reason to stop all the delays in establishing the NPRC, and getting on with the job of spearheading the task of healing the nation. After all, victims that are healed are probably more forgiving than those that are not; victims that are healed might make more informed participants in how truth and justice might operate; and, of course, there is the urgent need to ensure that we do not add more victims to the existing population.