The Price of Armed Conflict: Trauma in Women and Children

In an interview with Jessica Zafra, Amy Tan, author of the modern classic The Joy Luck Club and other bestsellers, said “without trauma, you’ll never be a writer.” Now let’s see if I can write.

Last July 11, New People’s Army (NPA) rebels raided the Civilian Volunteer Outpost (CVO) in Alagatan, Gingoog City, Misamis Oriental where soldiers of the 58th Infantry Battalion were camped in.

At around 5:30 p.m., some 30 members of the Eastern Misamis Oriental-Northeastern Bukidnon (NPA-EMONEB) Sub-regional Command opened fire at the government troops who were then playing basketball in the village center.

Residents, mostly women and children were in the area watching the game when the raid happened.

A firefight ensued and lasted 20 minutes, killing one soldier and wounding seven others. A rebel was also wounded along with two innocent civilians – Leticia Bonghanoy Cabrera, 52, who was hit by a bullet in the right shoulder; and Ellen May Hinampas Hiludo, 14, who was wounded in the back.

No one died among the innocent but the tragic encounter left several women and children traumatized.

Imagine innocent children and women in the middle of an attack by insurgents. Imagine them scampering for safety, trying to find refuge. Imagine them fearing for their own life to eventually end. Imagine them fearing for their parent’s life and the distressful possibility of losing them all at once. Imagine them crying for help. Imagine them shouting in great horror as they see bullets flying. Imagine them shaking all over in deep anxiety.

The bloody encounter in Alagatan is vile because innocent civilians were caught in the middle. And what did the rebels gain from it? A K3 light machine gun, an M203 grenade launcher, two ammunition vests, three machine gun ammunition links, 12 40mm ammunition, and two military packs plus a captured soldier. Was it worth the suffering and trauma they inflicted on the residents?

After the incident, the National Democratic Front-North Central Mindanao said it is “open to start negotiations for the safe and orderly release of the POW (prisoner of war) as soon as possible.”

Their spokesperson, Cesar Renerio, even referred to the possible release of the POW as another gesture of peace, underscoring their call for the resumption of the peace negotiations between the NDFP and GPH so the people can understand the root causes of the continuing armed conflict in the Philippines and the means by which just and lasting peace can be achieved.

Setting a POW free may be a “gesture of peace” but will it change anything at this point? Will it erase the trauma that the women and children of Alagatan suffered through? Will it finally end the armed struggle that has claimed lives, destroyed properties, and scarred the innocent for life?

Normal reactions to abnormal events

According to the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, trauma is a word used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless.

Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience. Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t always hold true. For some groups of people, trauma can occur frequently and become part of the common human experience.

In insurgency attacks such as described above, the situations are emotionally painful and distressing. Not only are they physically draining and exhausting, they can also leave lasting psychological effects, mostly on women and children.

In the book “The Therapeutic Relationship in EMDR Treatment,” Women and children who have been through traumatic experiences, may suffer the following physical and emotional reactions:

Physical Reactions

  • Aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
  • Sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
  • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
  • More susceptible to colds and illnesses
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs and/or overeating

Emotional Reactions

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Fear and/or anxiety
  • Grief, disorientation, denial
  • Hyper-alertness or hyper-vigilance
  • Irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
  • Emotional swings — like crying and then laughing
  • Worrying or ruminating — intrusive thoughts of the trauma Nightmares
  • Flashbacks — feeling like the trauma is happening now
  • Feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control
  • Increased need to control everyday experiences
  • Minimizing the experience
  • Attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma
  • Tendency to isolate oneself
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Concern over burdening others with problems
  • Emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
  • Difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt
  • Shame
  • Diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
  • Unpleasant past memories resurfacing
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future
  • Anger towards religion or belief system; loss of beliefs
  • Desire for revenge

Coping with trauma

Coping with trauma is never easy and to help one overcome trauma is as difficult. The time needed to heal from traumatic experience varies from person to person, the gravity of the incident, and its impact on the person. Sometimes reactions to trauma can last longer than expected.

The following are some helpful tips in coping with trauma:

  • Mobilize a support system — reach out and connect with others, especially those who may have shared the stressful event.
  • Talk about the traumatic experience with empathic listeners
  • Cry.
  • Engage in hard exercise like jogging, aerobics, bicycling, walking.
  • Do relaxation exercises like yoga and stretching. Get a massage.
  • Humor
  • Prayer and/or meditation; listening to relaxing guided imagery; progressive deep muscle relaxation
  • Hot baths
  • Music and art
  • Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle as much as possible.
  • Avoid over-using stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or nicotine.
  • Commit to something personally meaningful and important every day.
  • Hug those you love, pets included.
  • Eat warm turkey, boiled onions, baked potatoes, cream-based soups — these are tryptophane activators, which help you feel tired but good.
  • Proactive responses toward personal and community safety — organize or do something socially active.
  • Write about your experience — in detail, just for yourself or to share with others

Trying to push victims of traumatic incidents to get over it before they are ready is not helpful. It may take weeks, months, and even years for someone to regain stability.

According to David Baldwin, many people find that individual, group, or family counseling are helpful, and in particular, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a phenomenally rapid and wonderful therapeutic method. Another superior therapeutic method is IFS (Internal Family Systems).  Either way, the key word is CONNECTION. Ask for help, support, understanding, and opportunities to talk.

Social justice

Social justice is sought by every victim of a traumatic experience. They are most of the time silently longing for it. Their pleas for refuge and cries for help in times of crisis are the exact opposite of their battle-cry for justice. How many of them have undergone destressing and crisis management? They are just silently waiting for help. In fact, some of them are not even aware of their plights. They are not even aware of the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of the events they have gone through. Where is social justice here? Protecting women and children is everybody’s concern. But the government should take the initiative in addressing this very personal and compassionate task of helping distressed victims of rebellious activities. If we put ourselves in their shoes, we will realize how badly they need our help.