Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Sarajevo: Ending The Internal Siege

by Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett.

Warning: Take care of yourself while reading this story.

The Background

Imagine, as if in a TV movie, Sarajevo -a modern European city, with high rise apartment blocks, nestled into scenic, forested hills. In the winter the hills are covered in snow, and recently the winter Olympics have been held here in the city's state of the art sports venues. The city is a tourist centre and a showpiece of multicultural cooperation. Mosques, Catholic churches and Orthodox Christian churches are crammed into the same inner city blocks.

Now imagine that in this country an extreme Serb-Christian-nationalist group gets control of the Government and the news media. They begin building fear amongst the Serb population, suggesting that the Moslems are about to seize control, about to turn the country into a fundamentalist Moslem state. They report non-existent Moslem acts of atrocity. At first, there is little response. After all, people have lived together in peace for a half a century (as long as almost anyone else in Europe has!). And people have friends, neighbours from every "ethnic" group. Many people don't even know which religion or "ethnic group" they or their neighbours belong to. Many people are married to members of another ethnic group. But after a few years of nationalistic propaganda, people begin to look warily at each other. It is at this time that the army begins to clear Moslems from village after village, using whatever means they consider appropriate. Atrocities are reported by the flood of refugees who pour into the city from these villages. Sometimes, the atrocities are matched by revenge atrocities.

If you've seen the film "Welcome To Sarajevo" you know the story. Let's take one small example. Namka Hedis was interviewed by Paul Harris in his excellent book Cry Bosnia. She is from the village of Hadzici in north Bosnia. In June 1992, her husband and all the other men in her village were shot in front of her, by Serb soldiers. She was asked to choose which of her children would die. When she refused, a knife was held to the neck of the youngest, Anita, who was four. Anita was terrified and has never talked since. Women in the village aged 14-70 were raped, and many had their throats cut after. All the survivors were ordered to leave the village without any possessions. Their houses and the mosque were dynamited. This is the process called by the press "ethnic cleansing".

Now imagine that the hundreds of thousands of refugees huddled into the city where they have fled find that their city itself is under attack. The hills around it are filled with landmines, so there can be no escape. Day and night the sound of mortars punctuates the air. The sides of most apartment buildings and houses are pocked with bullet holes and bomb craters. Many of the larger buildings have been burnt out, but people still live in them, because there is nowhere else. There is very little water, because the invading army has cut off the city supply. The electricity mains have failed. Just to walk outside the house to get to the bread and water each family needs to survive puts them in danger of being picked off by snipers in the hills and outlying apartment blocks. Winter has a different meaning that year. Day after day, people watch their family and neighbours dying. To see human remains in the street becomes commonplace. And this goes on not for one year, but for three years. Trapped in this city for three years, the people find that the "United Nations" has made a deal with the invading army. Under this deal, the United Nations is allowed to bring in certain limited supplies of food and water, provided that they allow the army to continue its attack. The United Nations is allowed to keep the airport running, provided that they ensure that no one from the city escapes. Reporters are allowed in and out, but nothing changes.

Here's the sort of thing they are reporting. A Sarajevo resident, Alma Duran says (on the TV screen, quoted by Sharon Machlis Gartenberg of the Bosnia Action Coalition): "Every day when I wake up in the morning, I am so happy because I am alive. Many of my friends are dead and so you can see why I am so happy, because in Sarajevo to be alive is a luxury that many people cannot afford. Right now, I am not afraid, but if the shellings start again, I would go out of my mind. Those things are the worst experiences in my whole life - besides seeing my best friend's brain blown away.... Do not think that in general people are strong. They were before but after three years of constant horror everybody is exhausted or they are out of their minds. A lot of people are really crazy."

Facing The Internal Siege

Alma Duran is referring to what might be called the second siege of Sarajevo. The one that has continued ever since the fragile peace treaty was made at Dayton in November 1995. It is an internal siege still going on in the minds of many Sarajevo citizens. It sounds so clinical to call it post traumatic stress disorder. If you read the previous paragraphs you know a little of what it really means. These are people who are every night dreaming the same dream, every day being triggered into the same terror. For them, the siege goes on. Their courage in that siege is extraordinary.

In June this year the two of us went to Sarajevo at the invitation of Stephanie Perrott, a Christchurch counsellor who has been working with humanitarian organisations in Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina for over a year. We spent a week in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We visited Bosnian people in their homes and in offices, in both "entities" set up by the Daytonagreement (Bosnia itself, and the "Serb Republic"). In the Serb Republic we went to the town of Pale, where some of the Serb leaders wanted for mass murder are still being sheltered. While we did find people who were clearly angry at Moslems (people who would be willing to go on murdering if the United Nations troops were not patrolling the country), we also found peaceloving people in Pale as in Sarajevo. Often the first thing a person would rush to tell us would be that they believed that Serbs, Muslims, Croats and others could all live in peace.

Their attitude is epitomised by Sarajevo resident Vanja Filipovic, whose story appeared in the New York Times Bosnia Internet Forum. After describing the horrors of the war, he says "One time, when I was carrying two 10-liter jars with water home, a mortar landed a couple of meters from me. It didn't explode. Our army specialists have dug it out of the ground, where it fell, and then they said someone had pulled out the detonator, purposely, so the shell could not go off. The Serb soldier, who pulled out that detonator, had saved my life. That is the reason I still believe in living together. There are a lot of people who oppose their nationalistic leaders and their sick psychologies of hatred, and those who work for them. I know many such people. I lived there."

Ending The Siege

We were invited to Sarajevo to run a two day training course. We taught a group of thirty people, most of whom were Psychiatrists, some of whom were Charge Nurses or Social Workers. The course was run at the Kosevo Clinic, Sarajevo's central Psychiatric Hospital. Our course materials were translated by a number of people in New Zealand and in Sarajevo, and one of the hospital's Computer Centre organisers, Dubravko Vanicek, was our interpreter at the training.

What could we teach people in two days that would help significantly with the vastness of the Siege of Sarajevo? Well, in NLP terms we taught a basic NLP model of internal processing, rapport skills, resource anchoring, using positive language and positive presuppositions, and the trauma-phobia cure (previously called VK Dissociation). We taught this collection of techniques within an integrating structure moving from the initial establishment of rapport and pretesting of the problem, through the setting of an outcome, the preframing of change as possible, the actual trauma cure, and the post-testing and futurepacing of change (see our book Transforming Communication, p 106-112). The professionals present were quickly able to identify that what we had was a whole new approach. They learned the process and demonstrated its effectiveness during the course. The following case examples give a sense of what the effect was like for them.

One thing is for sure. When you ask Sarajevo residents to think of something they'd like to change, they have examples. So naturally, when I (Richard) asked for someone to demonstrate the anchoring process a woman came up and said "The problem situation is the fear I have every day since the war. The resource situation is how I felt before the war." I was tempted to ask for a smaller example. However ten minutes later she was smiling as she thought about her life now, glowing with the same glow she'd had remembering the times when she was a teenager before the war.

When I (Margot) demonstrated the trauma process, I worked with a man who was triggered into anger and panic by military uniforms. A few days previously he had been stopped by traffic police, and nearly attacked the person. Understandable in the war, but rather a risky reaction in peacetime (especially when the police are armed). But ten minutes later he was able to recall that incident with a sense of calm.

Of course, here we were testing using a post-war incident. An even more interesting example came later that day and outside the course when I took a woman through a trauma cure on the entire war experience. She began quite tearful, anouncing in English, "I hate the war; and I hate talking about it!" She said she had had nightmares every night since the war. For her, sounds were powerful anchors, and the sound of explosions produced uncontrollable panic. The previous week someone had organised a fireworks display in Sarajevo. Rationally, she knew she was safe, but her panic put her right back in the war situation. She ran into a nearby house and hid in their basement until the display was over.

After attempting unsuccessfully to explain the trauma process to her (her knowledge of English was limited), I simply asked her to imagine being in a movie theatre and ran the process. Her movie went from the time before the war to the time after it, a period of over three years. Then I asked her to think of the fireworks and find out how it felt now. She laughed. Next, I asked her to remember some of the worst times from the war, and check how they were. She gazed ahead with a dazed expression. "So how is it?" I checked. "Well, she said, with a smile "I'm seeing the pictures, and its as if they're just over there, and I'm here." The entire process had taken twenty minutes.

Implications For NLP

If there was any doubt, I believe that our work in Sarajevo is demonstrating that the core NLP techniques are robust enough to deal with the psychological aftermath of the worst experiences humankind can face. We intend to do followup to support this claim further. For those reading with NLP training, there are some important learnings we would like to share, in terms of what seemed to work:

  1. We came in with some knowledge of the background of the war and the cultural situation. It helped to have people in the area who could brief us on codes of conduct (eg taking shoes off when entering a Moslem house, not publicly announcing where the bathrooms/toilets were in a training).
  2. We had an excellent interpreter for situations where the client could not speak English. One who could translate into positive language, and adjust his voice tonality to produce embedded suggestions, and relaxation processes.
  3. We were clear about which situations the techniques would be useful for (the diagnostic description of PTSD, for example) and which they would not be adequate for (eg Psychosis). We were careful not to make outrageous claims.
  4. We taught rapport skills, anchoring and the use of positive language before teaching the actual trauma cure. By positive language we mean language which suggests positive or useful internal representations. We used these three patterns extensively, as we ran the trauma cure. Before running the trauma cure we pretested the problem by having the person briefly think of the trauma, and pointing out the resultant distress. Afterwards we post-tested and pointed out the resultant comfort. We thus used the RESOLVE model for NLP as described in our book Transforming Communication (p 107-108).
  5. We found running the trauma cure movie from before the war to after it more powerful than dealing with incidents piecemeal. We also had the person identify a resourceful time before the war and a resourceful time after the war, and used these both as resourceful states to anchor, and as the beginning and end of the movie in the trauma cure. We ran the trauma cure as described in our book (Transforming Communication p 118-120) using two chairs (a chair in the movie theatre and a chair in the projection room) as spacial anchors.

Implications For Peace

In a discussion with one Moslem woman we discovered how important the healing of PTSD is for social healing to occur. The woman described how she had fled her village and her home, and her father and brother were taken to the Serb concentration camps. She said she would like to be able to go back home to meet with her friends and neighbours from before the war (many of whom were Serbs). However when she thought about going back, the remembered feelings of terror overwhelmed her. For communities to be able to reform and cooperate, people need to be resourceful enough to face each other again.

Our hope in future is to run further trainings both in trauma healing processes and peace-promoting relationship skills in Bosnia. Whether we are able to depends in part on the continuation of the still fragile peace process, in Bosnia and in nearby Kosovo. The war in Kosovo has followed an identical course to the war in Bosnia. While we learned a lot about running the trauma process in post-war situations, we also felt that we learned a lot about the social origins of war and peace. Before going to Bosnia, we visited the concentration camp memorial at Dachau near Munich. After reading so much about the Bosnian war, Dachau looked strangely familiar. The rise of Serbian nationalism and anti-Moslem feeling was as dramatic in 1980s Yugoslavia as the rise of German nationalism and anti-Jewish feeling in 1930s Germany. A Europe that had said "never again" to Genocide watched in shock as history repeated itself in Bosnia. Concentration death camps, rape camps, terror campaigns, and the destruction of villages and cities all emerged again to haunt the "International Community". This war was not about "the Bosnian psyche" any more than Nazism was about "the German psyche". As we point out in our book Transforming Communication (p 163-164) research demonstrates that any people can be trained to obediently murder others. Part of the solution is to be vigilant at the start of ethnic hate campaigns. In the month that we were away in Europe, we watched support for the (anti-immigration, anti-aboriginal rights) One Australia Party rise to 15% in Australia. Now is the time to speak out there. Cooperation and peace are precious.

Sarajevo kind of "outframes" a lot of the smaller problems we have in our daily lives. Working there vindicated both the importance and the effectiveness of the skills we teach. In discussing the results afterwards with other NLP trainers we felt proud -not of our small achievement, but of what NLP can offer the world. Every one of you who has trained in the use of these skills is part of that contribution. You are the giver, and you are the gift.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz