May 25-June 7, 2001
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Probing the mental wounds of ethnic conflict
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Vamik Volkan
Matt Kelly
Vamik Volkan

Probing the mental wounds of ethnic conflict

By Matt Kelly

Vamik 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.

From 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 University’s 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.

Volkan 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 being evacuated.

Volkan 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.

Volkan 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 University’s Blue Ridge Hospital from 1976 to 1995.

After 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 Volkan’s claim to fame for a short period. The book also got him a seat on the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on foreign affairs, which met every six months but did not have much of a foreign policy.

Things 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.

His 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.

“The process is not like the individual’s. 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.

He 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.

“When 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.”

He 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 determination.”

Volkan 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.

“They 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 marker.’”

He said with ethnic markers, groups can take problems that exist with their neighbors today, and infuse them with a trauma from 600 years ago.

“It 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.

In 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.

Volkan said there are two principles to understand about group confl

“Under stress, minor differences become deadly,” Volkan said. “Small changes in words become important. We need to teach this to diplomats.”

He 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.

The second is that borders are important, both physical and psychological.

“People see real dangers and [they] must protect the border,” he said. “We need to keep the border, but make it flexible.”

He said borders are important between neighbors and neighboring countries and groups. Volkan dismissed the notion that differences don’t matter and everybody needs to be friends. He said this gets in the way of realistic solutions.

“We need to keep the identities separate to have a more realistic discussion,” he said.

As 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.

The 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.”

He 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 Jefferson’s 250th birthday in 1993. This fame allows Volkan and other center members greater access on the world stage.

Volkan 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.

One 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, “Dragon’s Egg,” which premiered in Charlottesville.

Volkan and the center have also worked in Georgia, helping traumatized children in South Ossetia, Chechen refugees and Georgians living on the border with Abkhazia.

Volkan 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.”

After 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 to Belong.”

Volkan has built a house on his native Cyprus— “Now I’m not a tourist there,” — and he plans to live there three months a year, raising geraniums. “It’s a lazy way of gardening, but I don’t garden here in my adopted country,” he said. “It is more earthy on Cyrpus and I have to raise something. Here, I raise students.”

Many 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.


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