by David A. Johnson
It began as an ordinary day, and perhaps the fact that any day in that place had become ordinary was in itself telling. I walked along the crest of the hill that formed the center of the IDP camp, struck as I always was by the cruel juxtaposition of such beauty alongside such suffering. The height offered a stunning vista: the plain running a short distance to the shore of Lake Tanganyika which sparkled in the sun, across which, barely visible in the haze, were the mountains of Congo on the far side.
Closer by, looking down the slope of the hill at my feet, I saw the reality of Burundi at war. Tens of thousands of people forced into this camp, pushed into an incredible density of small shelters built from whatever scrap was at hand. A pall hung over the huts as the smoke from the morning cooking fires mingled with the smell of too many people living with barely enough water.
It was my job to get them more water, something that I had been struggling to do for weeks – something which, with a break in the fighting, it seemed might now be possible to do. The new water distribution system was progressing well and there seemed to be hope.
As I stood looking down the hill, I noticed figures dressed in camouflage flitting through the banana trees at the base of the slope. I had just the time to register that the uniforms were not Burundian army issue when all hell broke loose. The air was alive with rounds being fired both up and down the slope. Instinctively I threw myself into a trench being dug for the water pipes, with no idea what was happening.
I do not talk much about my time overseas – I find that it is too difficult to get people to understand what it was really like for me. I say the words “humanitarian aid worker” and I can almost see the idealized hero image begin to slip in between me and my listener. Add “war zone” and “internally displaced persons’ camp” and I begin to feel totally invisible behind what ever image those words call up in people’s minds.
After experiencing this a number of times, I began to rein in what I told people, carefully choosing what I shared and moderating the details. I figured that they were not going to understand anyway, so why worry if they went away with a distorted view of what it had been like for me. I did not realize quite how distorted a view I was leaving them with until a visit to my parents. They were keen to share with us a TV show they had been watching on aid workers around the world – that evening’s episode especially, since it was on Burundi were I had worked for a year.
My wife Ranji and I sat with them watching how the aid team went out to an IDP camp in the morning but after less than half an hour had to return to base when gunfire was heard close to the site. My mother turned to me and said, “Of course, it was not anywhere near that bad when you were there.” Actually, as I watched the episode I had been thinking how much things seemed to have improved since I had left. I felt an urge to tell them, tell them everything, lay bare the moments of anguish and heartbreak and terror that I had seen in Burundi. In the end all I did was gesture to the TV and say, “No, actually that kind of thing was pretty common when I was there.”
While I was still overseas my reticence to get into the details of my experience came partly from a desire to spare those I cared about, particularly my parents, needless worry. Now that I was back and out of any danger I might have been in this rationale no longer held, yet I still found it difficult to talk about some of the things I had seen. Why was that?
Since returning from overseas, Ranji and I had immersed ourselves in NVC (Nonviolent Communication), and I was beginning to experience the relief that comes from talking about painful experiences. Having someone hold me in empathy – truly listen without trying to comfort me or make things better for me had shifted much in relation to my time overseas. I began to open up more, talk about things more as they really were. I healed a great deal.
And yet there were still experiences from my time overseas that I found difficult to discuss, some things I did not even want to try to talk about. My year in Burundi held a few of those experiences, deeply buried and so scarred over that I passed over what might have been an easy opening to tell my parents about them with a bland understatement. It was not until Ranji began to study trauma, and become a certified TRE® (Tension and Trauma Release Exercises[i]) Provider, that I began to understand why that might have been.
Until that point I had not thought much about trauma. If you had asked me I would have said that no, I was not traumatized. I would have pointed to the war-affected populations with whom I had worked and said that they, the refugees and displaced people, were the traumatized ones. I would not have said that I myself, was war-affected, but now I began to see myself as such. Although certainly not in the same ways nor nearly to the same extent as the refugee and IDP populations I was serving, I had been affected.
I had a very intense startle response – certain noises caused me to jump in an almost comic caricature of a person startled – and I would flood, my heart pounding, breath shallow, panicked. It would take me a while, sometimes a long while, to come back down. Other times, I would find myself suddenly vigilant, on high alert, without knowing exactly why. It is not as if these responses dominated my life, but they did happen often enough to affect my well-being.
I was able to relate these responses to my time in Burundi, specifically to that incident at the IDP camp just south of Bujumbura where I was overseeing the installation of the water distribution system. I lay in the trench for about thirty minutes, although it seemed much longer, as bullets whizzed inches above me, no idea what was going on or the real extent of the danger I was in. It was clear at the time that the fighting was intense – I learnt later that the army outpost at the camp had come under fire from a stray rebel patrol. I did not think about this incident much, and when I did only the facts of it came back to me, devoid of emotional content, as if it had happened to someone else. This was one of the things I never talked about.
After practicing TRE under Ranji’s guidance, I began to see that, although I was not consciously aware of it and would have denied it, my body was holding the trauma from these experiences particularly from lying in the trench that day in Burundi. In the years since, my body had not released and was holding tight still trying to help keep me safe, something which led to the hypervigilance and easy startle response.
Working with TRE for a number of months, I began to see improvements in these responses. I would startle less easily and come back down from it more quickly. In addition to Ranji supporting me at home and my working with TRE Trainers long distance, I also attended a couple of weekend workshops on TRE. There is something about the energy of tremoring in a group over the course of a few days that builds a group holding which can allow people to go deeper. I certainly found this to be true and one workshop three years ago in Colorado in particular allowed me to release the freeze that was clamping down on me physically and emotionally around the incident in Burundi.
During that workshop in the TRE session while I was lying on my back, I found my legs making running motions – re-enacting the flight my body had wanted to make while I was trapped in the trench. After a few minutes of this it just stopped, then I looked up at Ranji and said, “I think I’m done.” This weekend released what was being held in my body and opened up the incident to me. I could then recall it more vividly, really remember the terror and helplessness I had felt at the time. While to some this may not sound like progress, for me it was a freeing release; the terror had always been there festering inside, unattended. With the charge in the body released, I was able finally to leave this incident in the past where it belonged. Since then, I no longer startle as easily and I don’t flood – it now takes me almost no time to regroup and recover.
More than fourteen years after the incident I was so relieved to have found freedom from it. This relief is shaded with anguish at the thought of the thousands of others who were also there that day in the camp overlooking the lake – others who have perhaps not been able to experience the freedom I have, and have not been able to live their lives more fully, free from the past.
[i] For general information on TRE, please see the introduction to it on the West Coast Intensive website and the TRE global organization website. For a list of research around TRE, see the TRE LA website.