Inside Violent Worlds

Political conflict and terror look different up close and local

On the porch of a small house in war-ravaged Sri Lanka, a weary-looking woman known as Saktirani listens to a man’s anguished plea. His son has not been heard from for the nearly 3 years, since he and 158 other people were arrested by government soldiers at a nearby Tamil refugee camp. Tamil families in this part of Sri Lanka are caught in the cross-fire of a brutal struggle between Tamil rebels fighting to establish a separate state and government forces representing the Sinhalese majority population.

Suspected rebel soldiers taken prisoner by the Sri Lankan army in June 1987 sit under guard in an abandoned church. Andrew Tarnowski/Archive Photos

The fate of the man’s son remains unknown, like that of other so-called disappeared persons in the war zone. The distressed father asked the government for answers but received a letter from the Ministry of Defense saying there was no record of his son’s arrest or imprisonment.

That’s when the father did what increasing numbers of his countrymen have been doing to cope with their pain—he turned to Saktirani, an oracle. She wields immense spiritual power by virtue of her widely accepted status as a flesh-and-blood conduit to the locally revered Hindu goddess Kali. Will Saktirani tell this man what happened to his son?

Not at first. For 15 minutes, she vividly enacts what may have been the son’s experience of torture and saturates herself in the pain that he may have endured. Saktirani writhes on the ground, calls out incoherently, sometimes says the word burning, and vomits. She gets up, abruptly bends over as if absorbing the blows of a blunt instrument, and vomits again. She complains of pain throughout her body and crawls into her shrine room.

A few moments later, Saktirani returns to the porch where she tells the man—much to his surprise—that his son survived imprisonment and was released. She says the boy now lives in southern Sri Lanka and has changed his identity by becoming a Muslim. Tears streaming down his face, the father wonders aloud, “How am I going to find him there?”

In 4 years of fieldwork in eastern Sri Lanka during the 1990s, anthropologist Patricia Lawrence of the University of Colorado at Boulder has been studying the growing tendency of local folk caught in the war zone to seek out oracles such as Saktirani. Amid the constant terror wreaked by rebels and government soldiers alike, oracles represent a rare source of benevolent power. They express searing emotions that often go unspoken and encourage family and community healing in a region stripped of medical care, public transportation, and other basic amenities.

“It has become [the oracles’] work to address agonizing doubts about lost family connections, memory which cannot be erased, and wounds which cannot heal,” Lawrence says.

It has become the work of researchers such as Lawrence—a small corps of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others—to explore how deadly conflicts play out at the level of states, local communities, and individuals. Since the end of the Cold War, their work has assumed greater urgency because violence has spread in many parts of the world.

“Studies of violence and its consequences must go beyond the analysis of specific psychiatric symptoms to account for a range of social and political forces,” says Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and anthropologist at Harvard University. “The time has come to develop a new international mental health research agenda.”

Emotional carnage

Kleinman acknowledges there’s no groundswell of scientific interest in formulating that agenda. Psychiatrists and other behavioral researchers mainly study the emotional carnage wrought by war on individuals. For instance, they’ve documented elevated rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and major depression among war survivors and refugees. Brain processes associated with violent crime also draw researchers’ scrutiny and media focus.

That might be valuable information, but community- and society-wide violence transcends psychiatric diagnoses and miswired brains, the Harvard researcher asserts. In the past decade, more than 100 violent conflicts have occurred, from the Balkans to Indonesia, Rwanda, and Colombia. These wars killed at least 5 million people and created tens of millions of refugees and orphans.

A devoted cadre of ethnographers has garnered what Kleinman considers unique insights into social violence and its psychological aftermath. Ethnography is the anthropological practice of living in and simultaneously studying a local world, such as a village, neighborhood, or hospital. Some anthropologists regard this approach as unscientific and prey to the personal biases of ethnographer. However, ethnographic research challenges conventional wisdom about the causes of social violence and raises new possibilities for prevention and healing, Kleinman asserts.

Much of this work appears in a trio of books he has coedited with anthropologist Veena Das of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and several others: Social Suffering (1997, Univ. of Calif. Press), Violence and Subjectivity (2000, Univ. of Calif. Press), and Remaking the World, slated for publication next year.

An underlying theme of these volumes is that violent conflicts don’t spontaneously ignite out of the dry tinder of ancient ethnic or national hatreds. Instead, wars and riots often arise out of the policy failures of modern political and economic institutions. Moreover, everyday forms of violence that vary from one locality to another also influence outbreaks of fighting and bloodshed.

In affluent Western areas, a subtler kind of violence acts like a “soft knife,” whittling away at well-being, Kleinman holds. Constant time pressures, too little sleep, feelings of anxiety and stress, and estrangement from family and community result from the burden of making a living and striving to get ahead in the modern world.

Everyday violence cuts deeper among the estimated 20 percent of the world’s population that lives in extreme poverty. Inadequate shelter, diet, and security hack away both at the physical and emotional health of these people.

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes of the University of California, Berkeley watched close up as dire poverty unraveled family ties in a Brazilian slum. In her book Death without Weeping (1992, Univ. of Calif. Press), she described the dangers of living in a place where hope for escape or a better life vanished long ago.

For instance, the scarcity of food in this blighted urban neighborhood forced many mothers—who typically raised families on their own—to designate certain of their newborns as weak and unlikely to survive. Although they experienced much emotional conflict about such decisions, the women starved and otherwise neglected these infants, thus hastening their deaths.

In many countries, the poor also face bodily threats created by modern technology and medical advances, Scheper-Hughes suggests. She and a team of ethnographers have uncovered preliminary evidence of a flourishing illegal trade in transplantable human organs in Brazil, India, and South Africa. Rumors about organ stealing that have spread through poor communities in many nations reflect widespread fear about thefts of body parts, the Berkeley researcher says.

Violent undercurrents

Aside from wading into the violent undercurrents of everyday life, ethnographic research challenges common assumptions about civil conflicts, according to Kleinman. Explanations for why neighbors end up killing neighbors in ethnic and religious disputes often cite an irrational tendency of crowds to become murderous and a sudden expression of violent instincts in people groomed to hate all members of certain ethnic groups.

Such assertions certainly have been applied to the bloody conflicts within the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. However, Croatian ethnographers such as Maja Povrzanovic and Renata Jambresic Kirin of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb have found that intense ethnic hatreds in their country represent a consequence of regional wars not their cause. Nationalist and ethnic sympathies blossomed among Croatians as they witnessed the violent destruction of their local communities by Serbian forces, assert the researchers.

The war in Croatia also flourished in the many disorganized communities trying to recover shared values and a sense of trust after the demise of communism, Povrzanovic says in the April Current Anthropology. Experiences of the war vary greatly in Croatia, and many people grimly survive without harboring hatred for all Serbs, she adds.

Political scientist Susan L. Woodward of the University of London makes similar points in a historical analysis of the Balkans conflict. Woodward traces the outbreak of violence in the former Yugoslav republics to the crumbling of the communist state. At that time, the different groups “in a land of minorities” clamored for power and scarce resources, she says. Foreign nations and institutions imposed economic austerity measures on the region’s tottering federal government that gravely weakened it. Violent extremist groups rushed in to fill the power vacuum and solidified their claims on contested national borders, Woodward argues.

“There is no need for any history of ethnic animosity or civil war to [cause] growing uncertainty, social chaos, and potential violence under such circumstances,” she says.

When violence erupts, it only looks spontaneous and undisciplined from a safe distance, maintains Das. Local feuds and networks of friendships exert much influence over who is attacked and who escapes unscathed.

For example, Das concluded that Hindu thugs supported by certain politicians had gone into selected Sikh neighborhoods in Delhi, India, and provoked the violence after Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination. Sikhs who had managed to befriend Hindu neighbors often avoided assaults on themselves and their property, whereas Sikhs who had long-running feuds with nearby Hindus incurred severe casualties. Das based her conclusions on her interviews with residents of about 500 houses in Delhi.

A similar pattern characterized rioting from December 1992 to January 1993 between Hindus and Muslims inhabiting a huge Bombay slum. Apart from the larger religious conflict, violent acts were strongly influenced by neighborhood gang rivalries, family feuds, and other social coalitions and rivalries, contend Deepak Mehta and Roma Chatterji, both sociologists at the University of Delhi. In 1994 and 1995, they conducted fieldwork in four parts of the slum, which houses about 600,000 people.

Mental health needs

Such findings underscore the need for research on the mental health needs of people who survive political violence and repressive political regimes, asserts Kleinman. The dearth of such work “is a major failure of the social and behavioral sciences,” he argues. Investigators need to focus on local and cultural concerns rather than simply diagnosing mental disorders and importing Western types of drug treatment and psychotherapy, he adds.

In postapartheid South Africa, for one, broken families and disjointed communities have created a crisis of manhood for many African boys, according to physician and anthropologist Mamphela Ramphele of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. These boys no longer participate in traditional rituals marking the entry into adulthood, Ramphele says. In another break from tradition, they also go without advice and support from male mentors who have long set the tone for responsible adult behavior, Ramphele says.

The result has been increased amounts of violence. The apartheid government cordoned black South Africans into ghettos, where white police encouraged power struggles among black male warlords. Young African boys then formed opposition groups that fought against the authority of warlords and their older male followers. The boys also tried to punish and publicly shame men who abused or neglected their families. Many of these boys spent long stretches in prison and never knew or lived with their own fathers.

Ramphele, who has conducted fieldwork in a black township in Cape Town, says that residents of these areas must develop new initiation rituals into manhood and recruit older males as “apprentice masters” for boys in desperate need of direction.

In contrast, emotional recovery for terrorized survivors of Sri Lanka’s turmoil hinges primarily on local religious beliefs and rituals, says anthropologist Sasanka Perera of the World Bank in Colombo. In his fieldwork, Perera has noted that stories of spirit possession and avenging ghosts have spread throughout Sri Lanka communities as a means of remembering and coping with wartime horrors.

In one Sinhalese Buddhist village, for example, residents began to complain of nightly screams and supernatural activity emanating from a government-owned building that rebel soldiers had commandeered as a place to torture and kill people. Soon, no one wanted to enter the abandoned structure. At that point, the villagers held a purification ceremony for the haunted building. Afterward, they resumed community activities there.

“Such traditional methods of coping and compensation may be the only hope in a society where the secular legal system is unlikely to deliver justice, where the state has failed to protect its citizens, and where the normal methods of mourning have been subverted,” Perera says.

Victims in such situations often experience a prolonged type of anguish and bitterness, he notes. Once blatant hostilities end, they must live among many of their former tormenters, who return to their daily lives as if nothing had happened.

Saktirani, the oracle who tends to the emotional and spiritual needs of Tamil families, sees the toll exacted by such experiences. Although oracles have a long history in eastern Sri Lanka, the war’s destruction of civil society has exposed them to unprecedented demands. Tamil families believe that oracles can use divine authority to protect homes from military attacks, to compel children who have fled to other countries to write letters home, to choose the best way to handle extortion attempts by soldiers, and to pressure authorities to release imprisoned relatives.

Even the most respected and resourceful oracles, however, at times fail to deliver accurate predictions or useful advice. Gossip quickly circulates about both the successes and failures of particular oracles. In Saktirani’s case, positive word-of-mouth has attracted a steady stream of supplicants to her door.

“The violence has gotten worse in eastern Sri Lanka over the past few months,” says Lawrence. “I wonder how Saktirani is doing.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.