International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Book Review: War-Torn Lands Speak Brutal Truth

Posted 1 January 2002 in StressPoints by ISTSS

Sharing the Front Line and the Back Hills: International Protectors and Providers: Peacekeepers, Humanitarian Aid Workers and the Media in the Midst of Crisis by Yael Danieli, New York: Baywood Publishing, 2001, 429 pages. Hardcover $59.00. Reviewed by Frank Ochberg.

Eighty-one authors speak in this book-some just a paragraph, some several pages, all informed from hard-earned experience. Most are witnesses to war and crimes of war. They serve in posts that carry titles like "humanitarian aid worker," or "freelance foreign correspondent." A few are fellow ISTSS members, even though most of us help others in the relative comfort and security of offices, universities and clinics in safe communities. The voices you hear in Yael Danieli's book echo from the front lines and back hills of parts of the world where caprice and cruelty overwhelm civility. It is not easy to absorb their experiences:

The sad face of a man on the plane attracts my attention...In the luggage compartment lies the dead body of a little girl, his daughter, who had been sent (from Angola) to Germany for medical treatment-unsuccessfully (Miczaika, p 135).

One (Balkan) child described seeing a pregnant neighbor thrown to the ground, screaming wildly as her stomach was slashed open...her fetus torn out (Ricchiardi, p 303).

When you go into the field, you believe that the people back at headquarters are professionals who will take care of you if something happens to you. In reality, you feel like a lemon, squeezed and thrown away when they do not need you anymore (Vachon, p 187).

I am reminded of reading Against Forgetting, Carolyn Forche's deeply haunting anthology subtitled Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (W.W. Norton, N.Y. 1993). Every poet who wrote in that volume wrote from direct experience of trauma and tragedy.

O too lightly he threw down his cap
One Day when the breeze threw petals from the trees.
The unflowering wall sprouted with guns
Machine gun anger quickly scythed the grasses;
Flags and leaves fell from hands and branches;
The tweed cap rotted in the nettles. (Spender, p 277)

Something deeper than sadness litters the alleys.
The old mama-san who always
collected scraps of yellow paper,
cigarette butts & matchsticks
through field-stripped years
hides under her cardboard box.
(Komunyakaa, p 693)

Forche's collection of poetic voices and iconic images are lyrical. Danieli's collection of prose reports and policy failures are bluntly truthful. One reads on and on, awestruck with the courage and honesty of the witnesses, saddened and sickened by the indelible evil they make us remember.

Both the poet and the psychologist/ reformer take a brave stab at optimism. After all, every poet lived long enough to apply beautiful language to ugly images. And every healer, humanitarian and journalist who bring the truth of outrageous suffering to the eyes and ears of the rest of us has done something noble, something significant.

Embedded in the reports from war-ravaged lands are fascinating research findings (e.g., Feinstein's study on PTSD rates in war reporters, pp 305-315) and interesting program descriptions (e.g., Olivier on Handicap International, pp 211-220; Fawcett on World Vision International, pp 223-232). There are lessons in coping effectively (Danieli, 379-380). There are thoughtful outlines for institutional reform (Cramer and Newman on media, chapters 26 and 28) and many authors on UN and UN components.

Although the book's fly leaf accurately states, "The book celebrates, commemorates and honors those who put their lives on the line for others," an undeniable, underlying message emerges in this collection: Our species continues to torture and kill each other, and our international institutions continue to neglect their humanitarian workers, with insufficient procedures for selection, training and succor in the field.