David Niyozima, a former professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and himself a survivor of war, whose experiences are discussed in his book ‘Unlocking Horns‘ is the director and founder of THARS, standing for Trauma, Healing and Reconciliation Services. Believing that unaddressed trauma sows the seeds for future conflict, they aim to provide a ‘holistic approach’ to pyschosocial healing and resolutions of differences. They approach this by providing counselling sessions to victims of war, including victims of torture (in which definition he explicitly includes rape, including marital rape, and domestic violence), and setting up self-help groups including different ethnicities to provide peer support, collectively save money, and invest it in microprojects. They believe that this approach can effectively address trauma, as well as fostering reconciliation and peaceful dispute resolution.
THARS was founded in 1999, and was originally linked with the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Burundi; David Niyonzima is himself a Pastor and former General Secretary of the Burundi Yearly Meeting. However, he is keen to emphasise that they are a secular organisation who help everyone, regardless of faith. They began by training community Listeners in how to listen, the stages of trauma, strategies to overcome it, and avenues of further assistance, such as further psychological help, or legal options. These Listeners went to work in ‘Listening Centres’, around the country, where people suffering from trauma could come and tell their stories. Severe cases from the Listening Centres could then be referred to specialised psychologists. These Centres were accompanied by ‘support groups’ of survivors and communities who could help those people with the slow process of overcoming trauma, as well as promoting peace and reconciliation in their districts.
THARS also works on issues to do with torture and sexual violence, providing shelter houses for women who have been raped. Here they can access medical and psychological assistance, while THARS staff work with their families to encourage them to welcome them back – without which intervention, these women often have few options and have a high risk of further assault. They receive further support while in their communities through support groups, and participation in the ‘peace through pieces’ project.
As well as practical work to aid trauma survivors, THARS has a campaign element, promoting the importance of mental health to the authorities, by advocating for its inclusion in the national health strategy. This is an issue of much importance that is far from being confined to developing countries; even in the developing world, mental health advocates complain that their problems are treated less seriously than problems of physical health. Their campaigns, using the radio, television and public meetings, also target the population at large, educating people to be aware that they need not suffer in silence, and services are available to help, and that breaking silence, for example about rape or domestic violence, can be an important means of healing, and a crucial first step in overcoming the problem. They also campaign for peaceful dispute resolution through the Alternatives to Violence Programme (AVP), pioneered in US jails, and adapted for use in a post-conflict African country. Finally, they document all of their interventions and the survivors who visit them, providing a rich source of information for those studying trauma in countries emerging from conflict, that, it may be hoped, will allow programmes such as THARS to be gradually improved and duplicated in other countries.
For anyone further interested in THARS’ work, I would strongly recommend reading the ‘stories of healing‘ section of their website. The section closes with a quote that sums up for me the importance of grass roots work:
“Often it feels as if our progress is small in comparison to the size of the problem. But we now have files full of cases where a huge difference has been made in the lives of individuals. We are beginning to see changes in the communities where we work. It is difficult work, but all of us feel good about doing it.”
Survivor Corps will be partnering THARS to train some of their survivors in Survivor Corps’ Peer-to-Peer support method. I will be assisting with this project by adding to THARS’ stock of profiles, photographs and film, aiming to link together their aims and work with that of Survivor Corps, and show how Peer-to-Peer support can complement THARS’ other interventions.
Posted By Laura Gordon
Posted Jun 22nd, 2009