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Still searching for peace: the plight of ex-fighters.

They were the actors and witnesses of war, unwilling and willing, participants in a deadly combat of wits and brawn. Fifteen years after the struggle for national liberation was won, the PEACE Centre* decided to carry out an investigation into the lives of Namibian ex-fighters. The research was coordinated by Dr Debie Lebeau.


Launched in November 2005, the research examined the effects of the war on the people who were engaged on both sides of the struggle, former South African apartheid government fighters (South West African Territory Force, SWATF), and former Swapo fighters (People's Liberation Army of Namibia, PLAN). Apart from investigating the effects of war the Centre also wanted to obtain a holistic picture of the present life circumstances of the ex-fighters.


The build-up of long term psychological distress

The study found that many ex-fighters might be suffering from 'long term psychological distress'. This can occur where the survivor has experienced prolonged repeated exposure to trauma (involvement in military experience), yet almost two decades might have passed without seeking treatment for any manifestation of psychological distress.

During this time, the ex-fighter might have been exposed to additional social and psychological stress factors, which could reduce the individual's ability to cope, resulting in the original trauma being re-experienced. Add to this poverty, unemployment, and accompanying low social status, and the ex-fighter becomes highly at risk for maintaining long term psychological distress.

Of the 590 ex-fighters who were subjects of the research, 23 per cent (138) were women. All the women fighters came from PLAN because SWATF did not have any women in its fighting ranks, according to information gathered by the research team. The research covered three northern regions as well as Khomas Region, which holds the largest urban population.

The difficulties of re-integrating into society

According to the researchers, the educational level of ex-fighters, and in particular of former PLAN combatants, was found to be much higher than that of the general Namibian population.

Researchers discovered that after military life, women fighters seem to have integrated back into their communities with more ease than their male counterparts. They do, however, show some signs that they may still be suffering from long term psychological distress.

Women ex-fighters were more likely to have been tortured; to be negatively affected by what they witnessed during the war, and to not have accepted their former enemies and still blame them. Although they report that close family, extended family and neighbours now act positively towards them, they are also less likely to currently be in a relationship than men. "It is clear that ex-fighters remain friends with other ex-fighters," said Dr Gudrun Kober, Director of the Peace Centre. "This is because ex-fighters more readily feel understood by those who have gone through similar experiences."

Vicky's story

Vicky Festus is a former Swapo fighter who shared her story with Sister Namibia. She went into exile at the age of 22. By the time Vicky came back to independent Namibia, she had two children, had experienced life as a Swapo prisoner for alleged treasonable offences, and had been released in 1989 prior to the country's first elections. She said she took a long time to re-join society and begin to live the life she had hoped to have after exile.

"I was so afraid of everybody and everything. People ... my relatives, wondered if I was sick. I went to our farm where I used to lock myself in the house everyday. My sister used to send a small boy to check on me ... What helped me was my prior education before I went into exile. As I told you, I was a nurse ..."

Healing in a non-violent way

And so eventually, Vicky found herself working at Katutura Hospital and later upgraded her qualifications at the University of Namibia. "To a certain extent, I had good support from friends and relatives--this is very important. The problem I got was with my children. They would scream and shout and I would scream back. However, after counselling sessions at the Peace Centre, I realised that we were all suffering from post traumatic disorders due to our experiences in exile. I took a course to understand my strengths and weaknesses and began healing in a non-violent way," she said.

Vicky said many ex-fighters have developed personality disorders due to lack of support from their families. However, the study found that many ex-fighters were comfortable speaking to religious leaders about their problems (87%) while 52% felt that traditional healers were not appropriate people with whom to discuss problems.

The need for recognition and means for survival

Vicky said she knew of other female ex-fighters who are suffering due to lack of government recognition of their role in the struggle. According to the study, the greatest needs mentioned by the ex-combatants were money, employment, and housing.

* The P.E.A.C.E. Centre (People's Education, Assistance and Counselling for Empowerment) is a non-governmental organisation that develops and provides appropriate psycho-social services for victims/survivors of trauma, including the victims/survivors of organised violence, such as war. The Centre can be contacted as follows: Tel: (061) 371550--Fax: (061)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:BUILDING PEACE
Author:Mwondela, Chilombo
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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