War and its effects on the psyche

My true story

A paralyzing terror came over me, my heart pounded and my body trembled. I gasped for air, my chest was so tight I could barely breathe. I was spinning out of control. I just wanted to flee, to escape or to run far away. I had been back in the States for one week and this was the first time that I steered my car onto the freeway since leaving Sri Lanka. I quickly realized how the ‘act of war’ I was involved in had affected me. Right there on a nearly empty freeway, I was having a full-blown panic attack. In an instant, I relived the terror of an incident that happened weeks before in the jungle of Jaffna. Yet there was no hazard in sight on that freeway.

Up to that moment, I thought the terror of that day had left me unscathed. I quickly found out on that chilly December morning that I was wrong. The sheer panic and total loss of control completely overwhelmed me. What was happening? I felt freaked out, like a caged, wild animal. All I could think about was fight or flight. Luckily, the next exit was just ahead. I managed to drive the car down the off-ramp and then just sat there for about 30 minutes, reflecting on what had just happened.

Jaffna, Sri Lanka, December 6, 2005, 8am:
It was the last day of our humanitarian mission in Sri Lanka. After another couple of meetings, we would enjoy a one-week vacation at the beaches south of the capital Colombo and then fly home. Our so-called ‘fact finding mission’ in this beautiful, yet troubled part of the world was about to come to an end. I spent almost one year on this Island and came to love this place and its friendly, always smiling people. Innocence comes to mind when thinking about the Island’s inhabitants. An almost childish purity emanates from Sri Lankan features. All of us were relieved and at the same time, sad, that our mission was almost accomplished. This last assignment had been rather exhausting and dangerous – a nonstop road trip around the Island. Even though it was scary at times, I would have not missed it for the world. I had met so many amazing people, had so many unusual experiences and felt grateful for what I could experience. I knew back home most people could not fathom what my life here looked like.

This exotic Island could be one of the world’s premier tourist destinations if it wasn’t for the 25-year civil war between the Tamils (Hindu) and the Sinhalese (Buddhist). This civil war came to a temporary halt in 2002 but slowly started to flare up again. The Tamil Tigers – a guerilla organization for some, an Army for others – had been fighting for their own state within Sri Lanka for years and had left the Northern part of the Island in sheer poverty and despair. The tsunami that struck the area on Boxing Day December 26th, 2004 affected many of these poor areas and conflict victims lost their livelihoods yet again.

It was that massive tidal wave that brought me to Sri Lanka. My work with a leading aid organization led me to a politically difficult area – Trincomalee. Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims live in that city in almost equal parts. In the past, the war had begun several times right there in that melting pot of religions. Trincomalee had been my home for ten months. And for the last two months of my mission, I was to visit seven districts (states) and collect information about a tsunami housing rehabilitation program and its progress. It was a somewhat difficult undertaking since the mission required traveling to many unstable areas. Also, many government officials we visited had been very reluctant to share accurate information out of fear. Fear of the omnipresent Tamil Tigers and factions thereof.

Our aid organization, together with some partners and the Sri Lankan government had been in charge of managing this rehabilitation program in a three districts. Our mission was it to measure progress in the districts not managed by us.

The total amount of donations assigned to the Sri Lankan tsunami relief effort came to nearly three billion US Dollars. A tremendous number of aid organizations were present. In essence, too many players and too much money. With so much excess came a lot of confusion. Who’s doing what? Who’s coordinating the overall effort? In Trincomalee, early on, a UN organization took charge of local project coordination and it worked out fairly well. Conflict victims did not receive any tsunami aid although at a major lack. Many of these conflict IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) had lost everything and had been living in makeshift homes or tents for years. Hitherto, according to international law, donations for a certain cause must be spent on that very cause.

On the morning of my group’s last assignment I reflected on all this while breakfast was being served. It was the usual; string hoppers (skinny rice noodles) with curry, roti (a type of bread) and other goodies. It was delicious. I knew I would miss the Sri Lankan cuisine greatly back home. My colleagues and our Tamil driver Mahendran slowly got ready to hit the road and drive to a remote village at the Northern beaches of Jaffna.

After breakfast, we started our drive North to meet a Government Official. All appeared normal, and the mood was light. We had made similar trips often over the last two months. I made a last call to the UN Office to check security in the area. The UN confirmed there had been no reported incidents that morning and that the situation appeared calm.

As we left the city, we passed beautiful Hindu temples and eventually ended up on a dirt road. A Sri Lankan army tractor pulling a trailer slowed us down. About seven soldiers sat in the trailer. The men looked very tired and groggy as if they had just got off a long shift. We joked that the soldier sitting on a flipped over bucket must be the General. Tired of following the slow moving trailer, our driver made an attempt to pass.

In that very moment my world changed forever. A major blow to the car, windshields and windows shattered. Soldier’s helmets fell on the road. Blood and bodies landed all around us. The tractor disappeared in the woods – unmanned – the driver had been blown to pieces. Branches, leaves, dirt crashed on our SUV. All that happened in one quick second. A mine had detonated. What followed was deadly silence. It felt as if time had stopped. We needed to do one thing – get out! Mahendran started to freak out. I firmly told him to calm down and drive back the same way we came in. This was something I had learned in the humanitarian boot camp. The car was still running, so we backed up about 200 yards. Further than that was impossible, as we were suddenly interrupted by Sri Lankan soldiers.

The soldiers waved their machine guns at us and ushered us out of the vehicle. Panicky, these men – probably no older than 18 – yelled, ‘Get out of the car! Get down!’ The situation was frantic and out of control. Nobody knew how much longer they’d be alive. The smell of death and terror was in the air. Anything could happen next. Anything!

The guerillas started shooting from the spot where the mine had detonated. The soldiers responded. We dropped to the ground – flat. Bullets flew over our heads. A cow was shot fairly close to us and mooed horribly before falling over dead with her big black eyes wide open. The soldiers ran towards the guerillas, some of them were shot on the way.

My only thought as I laid flat on that gravel road was, ‘This is not my cause. I will not give my life for this.’ Over and over I repeated this in my head. All of us knew we needed to get away from this spot if we wanted to stay alive. A second later, as if remotely controlled, we got up and ran towards a house in the midst of the woods, hoping for God to keep the bullets from hitting us. Everything seemed surreal, like a movie. Some soldiers followed us, pointing guns at us again. They just were not sure about us. We did not belong in the picture. Yet, they needed to be on our side and protect us since the government was there to protect the aid organizations.

An old man reluctantly opened the gate to his house. In his face I read that he had seen similar incidents too many times before. He was calm, yet deeply concerned. As we entered, I noticed his van was parked very tightly in a spot so that no one could steal it easily. The soldiers gave us a quick nod, it was ok for us to stay on this man’s property. But they requested Mahendran to go with them. Looking down the barrel of their guns, we reluctantly agreed. At the same time, they asked Mahendran ‘If you’re Tamil we shoot you!’. Mahendran is Tamil, but screamed ‘No, I am Sinhalese – from Colombo’. Having to lie about his roots must have terribly bothered him, but it was the only way to survive. I looked at Mahendran, in doubt if I was ever to see him again. He was trembling as he followed the soldiers.

The remaining three of us hunkered down behind the wall of the old man’s deck and just stayed there – paralyzed – listening to the gunshots. I was convinced either the soldiers or the guerillas would invade the house.

A good girl – I did not leave my purse behind. My hands calmly searched through it for my cell phone. With luck and to my surprise I had reception. I called our field office in Jaffna. I did not have to give much of an explanation. By the sound of my voice, my colleague grasped the severity of our situation immediately. The mine explosion was heard across town in our office. My colleague promised to get us out as soon as possible.

After the longest 90 minutes of my life, the gunshots finally died down. The old man’s dog next to me on a mat started to look less worried. Our eyes had locked during the entire incident. I will never forget that frightened, petrified dog face. We bonded in terror.

Suddenly, we heard a vehicle nearing. Audaciously, I peeked my head out and spotted one of our organization’s vehicles flying a white flag. I probably have never been happier to see a coworker. We had been saved. Some soldiers appeared as well, excused themselves for the disaster and nervously put an innocent Sri Lankan smile back on their face. ‘How ironic’, I thought.

Quickly, all of us jumped into the vehicle and drove off. I felt relieved, but was not sure we were safe yet. My memory of the ride back to the office remains a blur.

At the office, our colleagues had already arranged for arrack (palm schnaps) and cigarettes to calm our nerves. Nobody could believe the story. Had we succeeded in passing the tractor as intended, all of us would be dead. We slowly realized what astonishing luck we had had on our side. Death had looked us in the eye but decided our number was not up yet. Our mission here on Earth was not over.

After gulping down some arrack, I dialed Mahendran’s cell phone number. I was afraid to get his voicemail thinking that if I did, he was in serious trouble. The soldier’s threat to shoot him if he were Tamil was not an idle one. I was ecstatic when he picked up. He rambled on about the soldiers having forced him at gunpoint to speed back to their camp with the dead and wounded soldiers in the backseat. Some of these young men died on that trip crying ‘Amma, Amma’ (Mom, Mom). The vehicle was riddled with bullets and full of blood. An Officer apologized and promised to drop Mahendran at our office within the hour. Apologies really did not help at this point. Our driver needed psychological help quickly. We all did.

News traveled fast. An Army Major and several aid organizations called to inquire about the incident. I was tasked to type an urgent report about the catastrophe and send it to Headquarters. As if in a trance, I started writing. I felt nothing. Adrenaline had taken over my mind and body and helped me survive. Like a robot I finished the report and drank more arrack. I felt sober, my head clear, the alcohol had no impact on me. I called my boyfriend back in the States to tell him the story. He was shaken. Then I called my family to give them the news before they saw it on TV. My mom was in despair, my dad speechless. Everyone was shocked and crying, except me. Adrenaline did its magic. I just functioned.

That evening, our entire crew went out to dinner. We analyzed the incident. Over and over. We later got the report that it was a claymore mine planted next to the road, intended to kill the soldiers in the trailer. Even though I was numb, I wanted to get out of Jaffna on the next plane the following morning.

Back home one week later, I still seemed unaffected by the incident. My organization had convinced me to see a psychiatrist. Yet, I had no flashbacks, no nightmares. The only thing I did feel when still in Sri Lanka was how sorry I felt for all those young soldiers whom were out there on a death mission. I could not bear to look in their eyes. It was painful and made me cry. The Island paradise was back at war and I had seen the beginning of it.

Yet, I was not safe and sound for long. My life changed on that chilly December morning on the freeway where I had my first panic attack.

I was quickly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), which is very common after a traumatic incident. I am certain the returning soldiers from Iraq can relate to me outstandingly well. PTSD is a bad beast, there is no miracle medicine for it, except perhaps, anti-depressants. But that was no option for me. Anti-depressants are prescribed to numb emotions, I wanted to heal, I did not want to anesthetize myself. I went on an almost one year saga – trying different therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, talk therapy, homeopathy, kinesiology, different supplements, biofeedback – I responded to none, still could not drive and grew increasingly frustrated.

My psychiatrist kept pushing me to start taking anti-depressants. I kept resisting. After several months of major setbacks and my condition getting progressively worse, I felt like I finally found something that seemed to work – the somatic experience. Through specific exercises, bottled up anxiety in the body may be released via movement and visualization therapy. Anxiety and panic is controlled in the reptilian brain – our ancient, instinctive and also irrational brain – it is difficult to communicate with that part of our head. That’s why a lot of conventional therapies fail in treating panic disorders. ‘Panic or anxiety really is excessive energy circulating the system’ according to Dr. Peter Levine, founder of the Foundation of Human Enrichment. He studied animals in the wild and why they don’t suffer from anxiety, even though they’d have plenty of reasons to. Animals shake or run off the fear after a traumatic incident. Humans immediately start ‘acting normal’ after an accident or traumatic incident. Unlike animals, we don’t give our bodies time to ‘be shocked’ and shake, shudder or escape. The fight and flight response gets interrupted. And that unreleased energy gets trapped in our bodies to haunt us for months, years or a lifetime. We become prisoners to fears and phobias as our universe gets tinier and tinier.

So, I religiously attended somatic therapy group sessions. I also, followed a rigid supplement regime based on a hair analysis and gradually started to feel better. I practiced the exercises at home for months on end and slowly, the sight of my car did not scare me in the morning. It was a long, tough road, but I was so happy to have found a therapy that worked. I wish all returning soldiers had access to this.

After nearly one year I was able to safely drive on freeways again. At times, I still avoid bridges and stay in the slow lane, but I can drive without any panic.

It was amazing how this incident had reshaped my brain in general. I believe I will never be the same person again. I learned to be more grateful through the experience, to appreciate what I have, my family, friends and my life in general. There’s a reason why I needed to experience this trauma. It taught me some needed lessons about life and not to take everything for granted. I had to eat some humble pie and it wasn’t unhealthy for me. But seeing what I have seen damages innocence. Damaged people are different. The chemistry changes, innocence is lost. Yet, insight is gained. Insight to a part of life most of us never have to deal with. Insight into the fear that so many people feel every single day of their lives. Fighting for survival. I had a glimpse of it and it makes me appreciate being alive on this Earth.