the mental wounds of ethnic conflict
By Matt Kelly
Volkan knows personally about ethnic conflict. He watched on television
as his mother and sister were being taken from their home a half
a world away in his native Cyprus nearly 35 years ago.
his own suffering, Volkan became more interested in group psychology
under stress. Now, Volkan, 68, a Turkish Cypriot, is stepping
down as director of the Center
for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the Universitys
Medical School. The center probes the psychology of groups, particularly
those involved in ethnic violence, from the Holocaust to more
recent conflicts in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
was born on Cyprus, an island populated by Greeks and Turks, where
ethnic division became a way of life. He was already living in
the United States when conditions in his homeland collapsed. He
said the Greeks pushed the Cypriot Turks, who had occupied 37
percent of the land mass, onto three percent of the land. Volkan
could not contact his family and did not know if they were dead
or alive. At one point he was watching a television program about
the Cyprus situation and that is when he saw his sister and mother
returned to Cyprus in 1968, the first time since he had left in
the 1950s. He found his family living in a Turkish ghetto, whispering
when they were outside their own enclave, fearing Greek retribution
for their thoughts.
became a physician in Ankara, Turkey, in 1954 and came to the
U.S. in 1957, first working in Chicago, then North Carolina, where
he did his psychiatric residency at University of North Carolina-Chapel
Hill. He joined the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia
in 1963. He was the medical director of the Universitys
Blue Ridge Hospital from 1976 to 1995.
his visit home, realizing he was in denial and suffering from
survivor syndrome, Volkan wrote a book, Cyprus
War and Adaptation, which helped purge his anger, shame and helplessness.
The book was banned in Qatar because of his discussion of Jewish
survivors of the Holocaust. This prohibition was Volkans
claim to fame for a short period. The book also got him a seat
on the American Psychiatric Associations committee on foreign
affairs, which met every six months but did not have much of a
changed in 1977 when Eygptian president Anwar al-Sadat went to
Israel and said that 70 percent of the problems between the Arabs
and the Jews are psychological. Volkan, a junior member of the
foreign affairs committee, found himself in Israel studying the
group psychology of the Middle East. This involved face-to-face
discussions with people from all points of view. Many negotiators
in recent rounds of talks were veterans of those discussions.
work in the Middle East with two seemingly intractable groups
helped Volkan create a framework to examine the psychology of
groups under stress. A psychiatrist can predict and outline the
steps of the grieving process for individuals, naming in order
each stage, he said, but they do not have a handle on the grieving
process for entire societies.
process is not like the individuals. There will be [external]
changes, Volkan said, meaning political, social and lifestyle
changes. As an example, many people downwind from the radiation
release during the Chernobyl nuclear accident did not marry for
the fear of giving birth to deformed children.
said that group reactions stem from the nature of the trauma they
suffer. An earthquake can kill people and destroy things, but
be considered an act of God or nature. If the same level of death
and destruction occurs at the hands of an enemy, then the trauma
includes humiliation as well as helplessness.
someone hurts you deliberately, your anger has a target,
Volkan said. Anger against God is one thing, anger against
someone who has hurt you is another. You can get a gun and have
revenge, or the next generation, if it is in a better position,
can have revenge.
said hatred, prejudice and other negative feelings are all involved
in a mass reaction to trauma. You cannot take one emotion
without the others, Volkan said. This is why we have
to take the specifics of a situation, without making a general
said this type of trauma is accompanied by transgenerational
transmission victims select the trauma that is passed
down to their children, keeping it alive for generations. He calls
this chosen trauma, because this is the one they choose
to keep alive.
take this unmourned image and pass it on to their children,
Volkan said. The children share in the same mental image
and there is a change in function, because now it becomes an ethnic
said with ethnic markers, groups can take problems that exist
with their neighbors today, and infuse them with a trauma from
600 years ago.
gets involved in the politics and elections and propaganda. It
has to be studied as a large group, he said, adding that
the solutions are specific to the history of the conflict.
times and places of ethnic tension and conflict, leadership is
key, because leaders can determine the direction of events, whether
the chosen trauma will be exploited or played down.
said there are two principles to understand about group confl
stress, minor differences become deadly, Volkan said. Small
changes in words become important. We need to teach this to diplomats.
said diplomats get frustrated when they work on negotiations for
a long time and everything is derailed at the last minute by a
small, seemingly insignificant, change in language.
second is that borders are important, both physical and psychological.
see real dangers and [they] must protect the border, he
said. We need to keep the border, but make it flexible.
said borders are important between neighbors and neighboring countries
and groups. Volkan dismissed the notion that differences dont
matter and everybody needs to be friends. He said this gets in
the way of realistic solutions.
need to keep the identities separate to have a more realistic
discussion, he said.
part of his effort to promote more realistic discussion, Volkan
founded the Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction
in 1987. Volkan credited Medical School Dean Robert Carey and
contributor Bill Masey for their support of the center. In more
recent years the center has gotten funding from the Carter Center
and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
key to the center, according to Volkan, is combining the work
and talents of psychologists, diplomats, political scientists
and historians. We are the only center at any medical school
in the country to study large conflicts.
said the center, while seldom recognized in Charlottesville, is
known around the world. Volkan was able to use his personal relationship
with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to invite him to speak
at ceremonies in Charlottesville honoring Thomas Jeffersons
250th birthday in 1993. This fame allows Volkan and other center
members greater access on the world stage.
and the center have done a lot of work in the former Soviet Union,
where a lot of ethnic difficulties have erupted. They worked in
Estonia, in conjunction with the Carter Center, designing suggestions
of operations for the government, setting out the characteristics
of the ambassadors and setting up model programs in which Estonians
and the minority Russian population, which was looked upon as
oppressors, could live and work together. Volkan said that the
solutions had to be developed on the ground, because the people
would not tolerate solutions imposed from the outside.
project in Klooga, Estonia, a fishing village with a former Soviet
military base suffering from economic and political collapse,
was the subject of a documentary film, Dragons Egg,
which premiered in Charlottesville.
and the center have also worked in Georgia, helping traumatized
children in South Ossetia, Chechen refugees and Georgians living
on the border with Abkhazia.
said he and Joseph Montville, a former diplomat connected to the
Center for the Study of the Mind, attended a meeting in Germany
with about 200 speakers from Africa and Europe. We were
the only ones who talked about the psychology of conflict,
Volkan said and smiled. We stole the show.
14 years, Volkan is ready to step down as director as soon as
a new leader comes on board. He wants to concentrate more on his
writing. He recently signed a contract to write a book, The
Third Reich in the Unconsciousness, in which he will detail
his theories on transgenerational transmission, and he has written
half of a book on political propaganda, tentatively titled Desire
has built a house on his native Cyprus Now Im
not a tourist there, and he plans to live there three
months a year, raising geraniums. Its a lazy way of
gardening, but I dont garden here in my adopted country,
he said. It is more earthy on Cyrpus and I have to raise
something. Here, I raise students.
of his students are returning to Charlottesville this weekend
for a conference and retirement party to honor Volkan. He is also
proud of his own brood of four children, the oldest a psychoanalyst,
the next an artist, the third studying international relations
and working for a bank, the fourth a journalist and filmmaker
who speaks perfect Turkish.