Summer Institute




From the APA MONITOR (Vol. 29 , No. 8) August 1998

In Northern Ireland,

stories of ethnic conflict from war-weary lands

In their eyewitness accounts, scholars link psychological theory of war to cruel reality.

By Patrick A. McGuire

Monitor staff

It’s one thing to discuss the theoretical and psychological impact of ethnic conflicts on families and children. But quite another to hear a psychologist describe firsthand how he looked down a street in Kagali, Rwanda, and saw more child amputees at a glance than you would see in a lifetime in North America.

Such realities of ethnopolitical warfare were vividly described during a five-day conference of experts who gathered last month in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The discussions are to become the core scholarship of a new discipline that will encourage psychologists to research ethnopolitical conflicts, make direct interventions to resolve such warfare, and even head it off before it starts.

Part of the education process will be sensitizing psychologists to the realities of ethnic violence. They can draw, for example, on the experience of psychologist Michael Wessells, PhD, of Randolph Macon College, who did his field work in Angola.

'The big problem there today is not open war,' said Wessells, one of the co-chairs of the conference, 'but the post-conflict situation. It is arguably as dangerous as any phase of the fighting because of armed bandits. They are mostly young kids who have been left with no jobs and no future. But they have guns and they have very real needs and know how to satisfy those needs using violence as an instrument.'

That is why, he said, resolving such conflicts requires more than politics. 'When you think of transformation, you can’t think just of change at the top, of signing the treaty. Because the fears, the hatred and violence remained deeply imbedded in the social fabric.'

The case of Rwanda

Nowhere was that more tragically obvious than in Rwanda, the site of a genocide that claimed 850,000 lives after a peace treaty had been signed in 1993.

Gerard Prunier, PhD, of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris delivered a clear and powerful recounting of the colonial manipulations that led to the vicious wars between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, and created group paranoia that is still fueling killings there.

Prunier, however, was pessimistic of any outside intervention to resolve the still raging conflict between Hutu and Tutsi—even predicting more genocide.

His only hope, he said, was for 'realistic negotiations' between the two sides. 'Not the Pollyanna type that says ‘lets all be nice and embrace each other.’ But you need to let people say ‘Okay, we hate each others’ guts. Fine….What can we do about it? Is it in our best interest to go on killing each other?’' Ultimately, he said, peace in Rwanda would come about the way peace has finally begun to settle on Northern Ireland. 'It was not well-meaning foreigners' who got the violence in Ulster to stop, he said. 'It was people saying we are just so tired of it. This is usually the way it ends.'

Though many argued there was no 'usual way' of quantifying ethnic conflict to develop, one common ingredient is fear, said Anthony Oberschall, PhD, of the University of North Carolina. In Bosnia, where Oberschall has studied, fear was built up subtly through propaganda, spread by scientists, academicians and church leaders 'willing to go along with this falsification of reality.'

Moderates become extremists

Another tactic was the recruitment among soccer fan clubs and convicts of young men to form paramilitary groups. 'The peer pressure to join them was intense,' he said. 'Reacting to these extremist groups, a lot of the population became confused and fearful.

They started moving towards the extremists when authorities and moderates could not protect them. It was fear more than hatred. The hatred came later after the wars got going.'

Hatred has not been eradicated in South Africa, according to psychologist Don Foster, PhD, of the University of Capetown, although one reason for it has.

He explained how South Africa had been constituted over a period of 400 years in an ideology of racism, fueled by the power of Western imperialism and colonialism. But cutting across all of those ideological considerations, he argued, was the ideology of patriarchy.

'We hardly ever talk about the notion that violence and ethnic violence is almost entirely a gendered phenomenon,' he said. 'It is men, in the main, that kill. We are silent about these matters. That relates to ideology, and patriarchy is the ideology that comes along with the flags of colonialism, imperialism and all the rest.'

Yet all of that is now gone, he said, replaced by a new ideology reflected in the four slogans of the newly reconstituted South African government: nonracial, democratic, unity and nonsexist. 'Insofar as those four can be put in principle as a way of challenging the dominant ideology,' said Foster, 'we have won enormous struggles in South Africa.'


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