Isoa Tupou remembers a 32 year old man once told him that when he gets angry, his eye twitches, right before he throws a punch.
‘His father beat up his mother. That’s the first time he remembers his eye twitched. He was about five years old,’ Mr Tupou said.
‘The beatings were regular.’
Mr Tupou suspects his friend has lived with the trauma of his mother’s beatings for so long and needs healing.
‘I believe if he is healed from his traumatic experience he will be able to respond better to conflict and make the choice to peaceably resolve conflict situations instead of always resorting to violence,’ Mr Tupou added.
The son of a Methodist Church minister, Mr Tupou came to this realization during a session on ‘trauma’ part of the ‘Responding to Conflict Induced Trauma’ training held at the Pacific Theological College from the 17th to the 28th of June.
The training is the merging of two capacity building courses offered by the Institute for Mission and Research, ‘Pastoral Counseling’ and ‘Peacebuilding Training Intensive’.
‘We don’t know what is happening inside of a person, the only thing we see is the physical aspect, his mind and heart and what are his past experiences and we need to be aware of who,’ said Mr Tupou.
‘For now because I am not a counselor the only thing I can do is to listen.’
Responding to Conflict is a Choice!
Conflicts are a natural, positive and all pervasive part of life, from between two individuals, to groups and communities. Positive in that they help bring about change. People’s perceptions or reactions to conflict are shaped by their personal experiences. Trauma has a bearing on this, and the choices people make when faced with conflict situations. People’s reactions matter because they can either bring about a peaceful resolution or degrade it to violence and even death.
Peacebuilding specialist and trainer Paula Baleinakorodawa said the ultimate aim of Peacebuilding is to avoid violence.
Course Coordinator Rusila Nabouniu said the training is a way the churches, through the Institute, tries to respond to the many faces of conflict and trauma. The ultimate aims of the training are to help people respond positively to conflict and build peace.
Trauma can mask itself as a violent husband, a belligerent child, or a depressed youth. Untreated trauma can perpetuate more violence and trauma in a devastating cycle that ruptures families, communities and even nations.
‘These things are not visible to the eye but their effects are real,’ said trauma specialist and trainer Vosita Lenisaurua.
When Category 5 Cyclone Winston, the most intense in the Southern Hemisphere struck Fiji on the 7th of February, 2016, it stayed for just about a week, but left behind $1.4billion in damages and a trail of shattered lives, and years on many are still trying to recover.
‘A couple of months after Winston, the men in communities that were badly damaged were not able to function,’ said Ms Lenisaurua.
‘They’d go down to the teitei (plantation), not know what to do and go back home.
‘So when NGO’s, government officials visited these communities with rehabilitation plans, and advice on rebuilding, the information they were giving was going beyond these men’s rational thinking because they were still in their coping mode.’
This, to an extent, disrupted recovery efforts.
Fiji has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre reports that 64% of women have been in violent relationships. About 1101 cases were reported in 2018. Ms Lenisaurua said some women are so traumatized they find it hard to describe the abuse when interviewed by police or counselors.
Exploited children are housed in special homes supported by charities, the Fijian Government and churches. To date, just one such home, called Homes of Hope has dealt with more than 500 cases of exploitation. Children are giving birth to children because of forced sex or they were sold by their parents or members of their families into sex trades. At the homes, they are reoriented through counseling to the reality that they are, children. Some have forgotten because of their traumatic experiences.
What is not healed?
What’s not healed gets transferred, says Ms Lenisaurua explaining victims can become perpetrators as in Mr Tupou’s friend’s case. Or they ‘act in’ their trauma and inflict self harm like suicide or ‘act out’ harming others. It affects the way they deal and respond to conflict.
Children who are abused may develop socially abnormal behaviors with others later in life.
Healing can help the healthy growth and development of a child post trauma according to Fijian pediatrician Dr Reati Mataika who is advocating for child psychologists to be integrated into Fiji’s health services.
However, Dr Mataika observed in a 2016 Radio New Zealand interview the lack of resources in psychological counseling and rehabilitation service for childhood victims.
Ms Lenisaurua noted that though there are hundreds of counselors in Fiji, not many can identify trauma.
‘There is a difference between people that just want a listening ear and advice and another that needs healing. Trauma victims need healing.
‘We need to be able to understand what trauma is, its causes and impacts so counselors need to go through trauma training,’ she added.’
Possible manifestations of trauma can include abnormal behavior. In some instances it’s a drug addiction, promiscuity, lack of self worth or depression. Labels, such as the person is under a spiritual curse, are possessed by demons or suffering the sins of his fathers is casually bandied to explain away the abnormal behavior.
‘But a professionally trained trauma counselor is able to draw out information from the affected person by letting them tell their story,’ explained Ms Lenisaurua.
‘The specialist can then identify the critical moment of trauma and assist with the person’s healing.’
Pacific cultures that value a stoic outlook on life as a mark of strength can also be a hindrance to healing. ‘Just getting on with it’ despite the traumatic experience and hardship leaves many putting on a brave face, masking their pain.
Shifts from extended families to individualistic societies means the aunty a niece could share with or the guidance and advice and moral encouragement of the elders are disappearing.
In a nutshell, there are many untreated, traumatized people walking around, inflicting more traumas on others. The scale of untreated trauma begs the question, whose job is it to address the problem?
Principles of Christ
Just about everyone has a role to play in helping people heal; family members, community groups, government and the church, in raising the awareness about trauma, and supporting the provision of services that are needed.
According to Ms Lenisaurua, the church plays an influential role in the lives of people. It can reach out beyond the pulpit and show empathy for the emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of its members.
‘The church can help identify people, who are already doing counseling and provide them with the training and skills to nurture and encourage trauma counseling,’ she said.
‘For example the prisons have a special place for the church leaders of offenders to come in and prepare them on how they will live and adapt when they get out of jail but these church leaders themselves lack the appropriate counseling skills.
‘With training they can look and deal with the prisoner through peace building lenses and offer the appropriate counseling that will enable the prisoner to integrate peacefully in society and thereby reduce recidivism and further crime.’
Forty five year old Meregina Gataurua of the Salvation Army Church rallied a group of youths from the Church to be part of the training.
‘But really we should be reaching out to even younger people considering the traumatic experiences of children today and how healing can really help them deal with conflicts later in life and stop the cycle of violence and abuse from continuing,’ said Ms Gataurua.
‘The churches need to deal and talk about this. Domestic violence for instance needs to be talked about. The number of children being exposed to it, growing up with the hurt and eventually becoming abusers themselves is alarming.
‘It shapes the way individuals deal with conflict so there should be more training and trauma counseling right from the grassroots and the churches can help with this. Our actions speak louder,’ she added.
Even louder is the horror and gruesomeness of avoidable death – a woman dies at her partner’s violent hands, a child’s suicide and a mother’s heartbreak over her jailed progeny as a result of the continuing cycle of violence, unresolved conflict and trauma.
The Peacebuilding Training Intensive and Pastoral Counselling capacity building courses are available on request from the Churches or groups from across the Pacific Islands.