Does reconciliation heal the wounds of war?

Behind every data point on civil conflict, there are people who have been attacked, displaced, and traumatized. Once the conflict recedes, they often live in close proximity to their attackers—and must somehow find a way to rebuild their homes and govern their villages together.

This was the case in Sierra Leone, a West African country torn apart by civil unrest for more than a decade. To restore social cohesion, a Sierra Leonean nongovernment organization called Fambul Tok designed and implemented a reconciliation program. As a part of this effort, Fambul Tok set up community-level bonfire events in which victims detailed war atrocities and perpetrators confessed to war crimes. These processes took place nearly a decade after the end of the conflict. To understand the long-term effect of this reconciliation process, Oeindrila Dube and her research colleagues used random assignment to study its impact across 200 villages, drawing on data from 2,383 individuals.

Measurement

Researchers matched sections of 10 villages into pairs and randomized one section in each pair into a treatment group and the other into a control group. They collected data on individuals residing in villages within these sections using original surveys designed for the evaluation. They measured social capital outcomes by measuring individuals’ social networks and contributions to public goods. They also used an inventory of questions that are commonly used in the psychology literature—including those that are designed to measure respondents’ feelings of anger and resentment toward a potential offender. They measured outcomes at three different durations: 9 months, 19 months, and 31 months after the interventions.

A young inmate in the Pademba Central Prison’s yard cries following an argument with a fellow prisoner.

 

Photo by Fernando Moleres

Consequences

The study revealed that reconciliation had both positive and negative consequences. It led to greater forgiveness of perpetrators and strengthened social capital: Social networks were larger, and people contributed more to public goods in treated villages. However, these benefits came at a substantial cost: The reconciliation treatment also worsened psychological health, increasing depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder in these same villages. These results show that the effects, both positive and negative, persisted into the longer time horizon.

The study shows that war casts a long shadow, and people do not self-heal: Reconciliation processes conducted 10 years after the end of the civil conflict led to greater forgiveness and higher social capital, suggesting the need for reconciliation still remained. At the same time, recounting war experiences from 10 years prior still had the ability to undermine psychological well-being. These results suggest that post-conflict reconciliation has the power to help communities heal, but policymakers should find ways of restructuring these processes to minimize the psychological costs while retaining the societal benefits.

Read Full Paper (PDF)

Results from the study were published in Science.

Prisoners from Pademba Central Prison.

FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE – AUGUST 9, 2010: Every morning dozens of prisoners from Pademba Central Prison are taken to the court for trial. Many of them will need to go many times before the court reaches a final decision. They will be remanded in prisons during the years before sentencing.

 

PANOS PICTURES / Fernando Moleres