The Far Reaches of Psychoanalysis: Mozambiques’ Child Soldiers



Belonging to an international organization like the IPA has opened unanticipated doors for me and exposed me to many interesting problems worldwide.  A Brazilian psychoanalytic society has undertaken the task of providing mental health consultation in ex-Portuguese colonies.  In 2011 I was invited to participate in a conference in Mozambique to discuss therapeutic approaches to assist the nation as it struggles with the problems of former child soldiers–children  who   fought in the civil war that ended in the mid nineteen-nineties. Reintegrating these former child soldiers into society is one of the most challenging tasks facing Mozambique as well as other countries that engaged in the same practices.


The forced conscription of children to become soldiers is one of the most egregious crimes against humanity. This practice not only harms the children themselves but also the society as a whole. In Mozambique both sides consistently practiced abduction and forced recruitment. The stories we heard about recruitment practices were unimaginably inhumane and horrifying. Boys were forced to engage in violent acts that were witnessed by their villages, effectively closing the door to any possibility of a return home. This insured the boy’s alienation from his village. To harden their psyches the children were deliberately exposed to horrific scenes. They were physically and sexually abused and made to witness the killing of family members.  Such experiences made the children commit violent acts during and after the armed conflict. Obviously the psychological wounds and traumas suffered in childhood reverberated throughout their lives as they grew up.


The children are utterly and, in most cases, irrevocably altered by their child soldier experience.  Former child soldiers have no skills for life in peacetime and have had great difficulty in letting go of the conviction that violence was a legitimate means of achieving their aims. This conviction has made the transition to a non-violent life style very difficult. In addition, to having been exposed to years of unrelenting killing and violence, these children lost years of stability and schooling. The result has been a reduction of human and economic potential for Mozambique.


The challenge at the conference was to come up with a way to address these emotional consequences.  Western psychodynamic therapies obviously were not an answer but psychodynamic understanding was of value, especially theories of attachment and the sequelae of trauma. A local psychiatrist who had psychoanalytic training in Germany came up with a solution. He recognized the importance of myths in the local tribal culture and the fact that many traumatized former child soldiers consulted the shamans for help. The challenge was how to form a therapeutic alliance between the mental health professionals and the shamans.


He had succeeded in forming a collaborative program with shamans where psychodynamic concepts were discussed in the terms of the local myths. The mental health professionals, university graduates themselves, told us that when they were sick, they first consulted the shamans to invoke the help of the spirits and only when that didn’t work would they visit a conventional western trained physician.


The results of the conferences with the shamans have been promising; the main bottleneck has been the difficulty in training sufficient mental health professionals to talk  psychodynamically in myth language to help the shamans deal with their patients.


The impact on the participants in the conference, confronted with this unspeakably brutal reality, was enormous. It was hard to process the powerful emotions generated in us as we worked to help the local people cope with this overwhelming trauma. The analysts from the Brazilian Society who were present have also continued their work in other ex-Portuguese colonies particularly in Angola where the same practices prevailed in their civil war.


We all left the conference traumatized by the horrific stories we heard and it reminded me of my work interviewing holocaust survivors seeking reparations from the German government. The latter experience had a more direct impact on me because I could feel the pain and suffering in the person I was talking to in the room.  The Mozambique experience however shook all of us up because we heard about events where the most basic human taboos had been breached  in a most brutal manner.


Despite the painful content of the conference and the work I was proud at these times  to be part of international psychoanalysis, learning about the courageous work of colleagues like those in the Brazilian societies, and thinking together about the far extensions and applications of psychoanalytic ideas.



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