Post-war reconciliation can open wounds, deepen trauma: researchers

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Reconciliation programs to bring together communities divided by conflict can re-open old wounds and deepen problems such as depression and trauma by reviving war memories, researchers said on Thursday.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers analyzed the outcome of a reconciliation program in Sierra Leone between 2011 and 2012, a decade after the country ended its civil war, in which more than 50,000 people were killed and many tens of thousands more were mutilated or raped by fighters.

The program, carried out across 100 villages, brought together victims who described violence they experienced and perpetrators who admitted to crimes and asked for forgiveness.

While forgiveness toward perpetrators increased, the prevalence of severe trauma among the participants was more than a third higher than among those who didn’t take part in the project, said the study, published in the journal Science.

“Talking about war atrocities can prove psychologically traumatic for people affected by war,” Oeindrila Dube, assistant professor of politics and economics at New York University and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.

“Invoking war memories appears to re-open old war wounds. At the same time, the reconciliation program we examined was also shown to improve social relations in communities divided by the war.”

The study recorded mental health, social ties and attitudes toward former combatants of nearly 2,400 people, both among those who participated in the program and those who did not.

Among the benefits of the program the study noted increased forgiveness toward perpetrators, better relationships between community members and increased participation in community groups and religious organizations.

The researchers from Georgetown University, New York University, World Bank and the non-profit Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) said reconciliation programs should be redesigned to reduce their negative impact.

“Policymakers may need to restructure reconciliation processes in ways that reduce their negative psychological costs, while retaining their positive societal benefits,” Annie Duflo, IPA executive director, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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