The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Scott Romaniuk, Manish Thapa, Péter Marton

Trauma in Conflict

  • James Okolie-OsemeneEmail author
  • Patrice Natalie Delevante
Living reference work entry


Conflict Trauma Violence War 


Conflict refers to the competition between parties whose incompatible goals make them to disagree with each other, to the extent that if not prevented at the latent phase, it could lead to confrontation and escalate when not managed at the right time (Boulding 1963; Zartman 2015). When this situation manifests, they would fail to cooperate because of the interest or position they desire to gain at the expense of the other. Conflict means the disagreement between individuals, groups, or states at local, regional, or international levels.


The term “conflict” has attracted the attention of various scholars both in peace studies and international relations to the extent that different definitions have been given to it. Conflict is an integral part of human relations across the world. Conflict refers to disagreement between two or more people in which parties strategize on ways of being on top of goals at stake and issues concerning them. Conflict is the manifestation of a breakdown in social expectations and a means by which new expectations can be developed. Conflict is a situation where parties fail to agree on certain issues. Albert et al. (1995, p. 2) described conflict as a universal human experience, to the extent that its origin and nature are best described or explained within the framework of human nature and human environment with different causes, such as corrupt practices by dictatorial regimes, support of such regimes by international arms traders, chronic poverty and underdevelopment, as well as marginalization of minority groups. Resources, values, or the desire to acquire power makes people or groups to engage in conflict. According to Wallensteen (2002, p. 16), a conflict has generally been defined as a situation in which two or more parties strive to acquire the same scarce resources at the same time (cited in Swanström and Weissmann 2005, p. 9). Vogt (2007) posits that in Africa, some of the conflicts are ethnic, others religious-oriented, while some are mainly identity-based conflicts which are often difficult to resolve.

Trauma is consequently the aftermath of conflict which affects people. During conflict, embittered citizens or the government causes patriarchal domination and oppression that affects the psyche and emotional buoyancy of its victims. War is described by Nico Carpenter as the center of cultural exchange and is a danger to democracy (2005). Conflict elevates victimization from its civilians as citizens oftentimes sort through nihilism, or feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness in low-income countries (Van de Goor 1996). Besides war, conflict also includes “insecurity, oppression, dehumanization, torture, and other forms of human rights violations, perpetuating so called ‘complex emergencies’” (Goor 1996). Victims of conflict include those with psychosocial issues. The suffering caused from conflict spells trouble for the impaired or failed government to assist its civilians. Other examples of trauma stem from government tyranny or its absence, known as anarchy. Trauma also includes mental health anguish and human rights. Trauma also stems from environmental disasters, death, violence, disease, impairment, disappearances, genocide, famine, physical injuries, hazardous industrial working conditions or accident, locomotive disasters, and wronged imprisonment, among others. Trauma negatively affects the memory, culture, and identity politics of nations. Conflict causes emotional and physical distress and traumatization from a psychosocial and mental perspective. According to Hutchinson, emotions caused by conflict include “fear, grief, anger, shame, resentment and hatred” (Bleiker and Hutchinson 2008).

War causes violence, anarchy, oppression, displacement, and deaths affecting communities and government. Since World War II, 127 wars have taken place with 21.8 million deaths related to conflict. The majority of these wars occurred in third-world countries (McFarlannne and DeGirolamo 1996). Such wars can cause unimaginable trauma on its victims and in the government. In 1996, the UNICEF stated that four to five million children were victims of war, a million children separated from their parents, and two million children died in conflict in the past 10 years. Some have been severely injured or crippled. The major cause of conflict in third-world countries is militarization, along with lethal weaponry which has caused displacement of women and children – and third-world country’s host of religion and political systems contestations have also caused conflict. The influx of refugees in developing countries has also led to conflict in areas such as access to education, land ownership, drinking water, and healthcare.

There are 13.5 refugees and 20 million internally displaced civilians due to unarmed conflict. The life of refugees or internally displaced civilians is surrounded by violence and oppression from their homeland and as they seek solace and dwell within the populations of either their native country or elsewhere. These conflicts can cause trauma to families and communities in conflict over basic needs, and some families not having access to these resources due to conflict can also experience trauma from poverty. The rejection experienced by refugees explains why they are enmeshed in misery to the extent that their mental health is often affected by the identity question and uncertainty (Cheng and Chang 1999). Refugee communities have high percentages of unaccompanied children, almost 54%. Many third-world countries with refugees are unable to recover from colonization or communism and as a result are lacking in resources to protect their civilians, thus the title given to them as weak nation state. Consequently, the government does not listen to the concerns of the poorer class or need for sustainable development (Van de Goor 1996). As a result, many refugees and other civilians in these countries experience mental disorders that trouble their plight to citizenship and cultural identity (Brewin et al. 1999). Refugees and migrants experience poor sanitation and health and lack of access to health clinics within camps which results in physical and emotional distress and injury. A lack of connection to the host country and social support caused their socioeconomic collapse and continued poor social status.

According to trauma studies, trauma is a biomedical and psychiatric condition but also a social construct and personal. Trauma scholars during the late nineteenth century have observed the condition “a disease of the mind.” And trauma brought on by war scholars attribute to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Trauma is also linked to socioeconomic culture and politics.

Central America

The ongoing wars in Central America have resulted in the mass exodus of individuals and their families to flee and seek refuge and asylum in Mexico and/or the USA in 2018. However, many in the group of migrants experienced trauma during the dangerous plight due to unsafe roads filled with gang activities who have kidnapped migrants and demanded ransom from their victims’ families who were oftentimes unable to pay the large sum requested. Women and girls were oftentimes prone to experience violence attacks from men and abuse while traveling on the roads or in immigration camps in Mexico not segregated or which did not have female guards. The journey for the migrants has been oppressive for they have experienced mental discomfort, persecution, and oppression due also to separation from extended families, loss of home and communities, unmet basic needs, and other human rights violations. Most women required translators to explain the immigration process.

Native Americans

Native American historical timeline reveals trauma as a racist social construct, caused by interactions with Euro-Americans and Euro-American’s quest for land and labor. During the wars between Native Americans and Anglo-Americans over land ownership, Native Americans became victims of this conflict and experienced genocide from war causality and death from contagious European diseases. In the 1830s, in what is known as the “Trail of Tears,” Native Americans (i.e., Cherokee, Choctaw, Cree, and Seminole) were forced out of their lands and into reservations in Oklahoma, and during that treacherous plight, many died or suffered disease, death, isolation, separation from families and extended kin, and malnutrition. The trauma Murray Bowens observed caused by this relocation resulted in loss of closeness, oral traditions, cultural performance, and family values once normalized within Native American villages. This “historical trauma” caused many Native Americans to resort to alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide, and divorce, and the aftermath of such reckless living caused a decline in marriage and family as Murray Bowens observed and later coined as legacy of “mistrust” within marriages and relationships in general.

Japanese and World War II

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sending the USA to participate in World War II. During the war, Japanese Americans were required to live in camps from 1942 to 1945 as per Executive Order 9066 from then US President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, for fear of their allegiance to Japan in the war. Canada and countries belonging to Central and South America followed the USA and led and isolated or relocated Japanese living in their countries. In the USA, on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese communities and their religious leaders were arrested by the FBI and in January taken to camps in New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana and elsewhere. Their homes were searched and their businesses were also halted. This mass incarceration and evacuation caused panic and depression from its victims at wartime residence. Some lived in stables and suffered from poor sanitation and food. In Arizona, the government sent Japanese Americans to relocation centers at Indian reservations. Many have narrated internment camp oppression, violence, overcrowding, and intolerable living conditions. They were killed if attempted to escape or rebel. The Japanese experienced trauma due to unsafe living quarters and distrust of the American government.

Jews and World War II

During 1938 and World War II following, millions of Jews were sent to concentration camps as ordered by Germany’s Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. These concentration camps proved destructive to the Jews as millions died due to oppressive and extremely poor sanitation conditions and so severe and inhumane mistreatment. The torturing and annihilation of German and Austrian Jews has remained a reference point for scholars studying mass murder. Not only German Jews but also Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals were sent to these concentration camps and were annihilated. Extermination camps murdered Jews with carbon monoxide poisoning and other lethal gases. At the end of World War II and Nazism, the Death March showed how Jews walked 20 miles in snow and ice from Auschwitz to Gleiwitz. Jews sought healing from the trauma of the Holocaust. Psychiatrists termed their conditions post war as “survivor syndrome,” “concentration camp syndrome,” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Survivors refused to speak, which resulted in their experiencing nightmares, fear, panic, extreme stress, or horror.

Abu Ghraib

During the US war in Afghanistan, numerous Afghani men supposedly linked to terrorist groups were imprisoned and held captive to deplorable suffering and sadistic treatment particularly in the Abu Ghraib prison. The Abu Ghraib prison was former leader Saddam Hussain’s place of torture and execution, declared Amnesty International. Photos taken by US soldiers or the military police guard force confirm that these Afghan male prisoners were tortured and forced to pose in intolerable conditions. Photos reveal they were naked, some standing while others crouched in positions that left bruised and humiliating bodies. Afghani men were the victims of American soldiers feeling it was their right to dehumanize Afghan male prisoners. Afghan prisoners were also beaten, and some were doused with hot water and stepped on while some were hooded while connected to electrical cables. The US’s “War on Terror” left soldiers with the wherewithal to terrorize prisoners and take photos of their actions. Some soldiers had smiles on their faces while prisoners had chains around their neck or were photographed naked with bodies piled on top of each other, or placed naked in a vulnerable and dehumanizing position. The prison closed in 2014. Some Americans called the incident revenge from 9/11, while some scholars attribute the horrible “misconduct” as Islamophobia.

Iraqi victims and survivors described their ordeal as dehumanizing and frightening. They emerged from post-traumatic stress syndrome, evident when they testified of re-hearing the cries of fellow detainees and having had been forced to stand for hours, naked. The humiliation suffered by Iraqi men and their families reveals trauma as a community and/or family felt feeling. District Judge Leonie Brinkema observed that the detainees suffered from “severe and lasting physical and mental damage.” Each had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, and each had submitted an expert report detailing how the mental illnesses have caused significant problems in [their] “personal and professional lives.” (Hall 2019). One detainee Selah al-Ejaili once confessed, “I have nightmares…I lost my self-confidence. I was tired mentally. I had fear of facing others, and bursts of anger. I tried to heal myself. That process of self-healing was long.”

Conflict Scenarios in Africa, Europe, and Other Parts of the World

Conflict and uncertainty also manifested in the grievances and fears of Quebecois in Canada, of Russians in Ukraine and Estonia and Kazakhstan, of Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania, of Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, of Catholics in Sudan and Ulster, of Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, of Zulus in South Africa, of Armenians in Turkey, of Turks in Germany, and of Basques in Spain and France confronted by cultural issues with implications for political institutions due to majority-minority histories of conquest and subjugation (Lagan 1995; de Jong 2006; Martz 2010; Ekins and Stewart 2011; Zembylas 2015; Casper 2016). Similarly, the nature of conflict in the Balkans also had ethnic causes with different costs and consequences especially in Macedonia, Yugoslavia, and Kosovo.

Since the end of the Cold War, various ethnic conflicts have continued to create the perception that they are linked to religious issues and usually militant in nature, and notable are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the ethnic rebellions in Chechnya, Sudan, Cyprus, India, Indonesia; and the civil wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and former Yugoslavia (Fox 2003). This has caused numerous problems for the adherents of these religious movements who blame one another on the hostility perception affecting them. The trauma associated with the aforementioned conflicts cannot be quantified.

The resource-based and political conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia are case studies of intra-state conflicts that caused traumatic experiences for civilians especially the vulnerable groups who lost their sources of livelihood and parts of body in some cases. Apart from the loss of lives, the amputation of people in Sierra Leone has remained a lifetime scar for those affected.

Between 2011 and 2012, for instance, several African countries recorded incidents that troubled the peace including Libya, South Sudan and Sudan, and Cote D’Ivoire, to the extent that six conflicts already registered were restarted (Themner and Wallenstee 2012). Preventing the conflict that characterized Sudan required tolerance and people-centered development strategy, but this was not the case as the country had about 19 major ethnic groups and 597 subgroups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects before the independence of South Sudan in 2011, became independent (Smith and Braein 2003). Discouraging armed groups and governments from breaking peace agreements would sustain the peace in many societies.

Most of intra-state conflicts involving non-state actors and states also led to arms trade and violation of human rights, abuses that made life brutish with victims being traumatized in the process even after suspension of hostilities by the belligerent parties.

Poor sanitation due to conflict has resulted in poor health in third-world countries. In third-world countries, wives and their daughters are responsible to return water from wells for their families. During this journey, they are vulnerable to unsafe roads and gang activity. And oftentimes, they are unable to access adequate and safe drinking water and, if sick, healthcare due to poor social networks and support. In East Africa, women were fraught with anxieties due to unsafe water, water harvest, and irrigation and also access to toilet facilities. Poor sanitation affects the health of families, and the lack of water in general has caused cultural and government panic in these countries. In Kenya, there are reports that girls have limited or at times no safe drinking water or proper sanitation which includes inadequate toilet facilities during school time (Zerai 2018). In Kiberia, there were talks of water distribution issues that affect women. Unsafe water and poor sanitation cause trauma because there are anxiety and guilt of exposing one’s family to using unsafe water during cooking or while in school, for example.

In April 2014, more than two hundred girls from a school in Chibok, in the northeastern part of Nigeria, were kidnapped by the heavily armed extremist Boko Haram group led by Abubakar Shekau and were forced into his secret hideout in the Sambisa area to a life of enslavement that included beatings from lashes and cane and being taken captive as slaves to Cameroon. Boko Haram disapproved of the inclusion of Western education in Nigeria and planned along with the kidnaping to begin a “medieval Islamic caliphate in modern Nigeria.” Haram denounces girls and gender equality using intimidation and militarism to prevent women educational and security agenda. The UN Security Council termed Haram’s actions as terrorism, against international law, and in its statements has ordered the girls’ safe return. The government have freed many; however, for the remaining in captivity, protesters protest everyday: for the ones freed some have made public ongoing trauma and have insisted that the government has a responsibility to guarantee public safety in volatile areas.


Conflict whenever it escalates causes psychosocial stressors inflicted on individuals. Conflict that includes war and oppression influences negatively the mental and emotional states of its victims. According to Nico Carpenter, the enemy is a threat to the victim’s sense of self, and so destroying the enemy is essentially killing the self (2005). Conflicts create enmity and fear of attack. Further into his examination between the self and the enemy, the identity of the enemy resounds, and it is critical to the identity of the self. In other words, the enemy influences the positive self. Between the self and the enemy, the victim is most likely a minority belonging to a marginalized ethnic group, and the author sees this as the prime victim during conflicts. He calls victim a sociopolitical identification. The self is consequently attacked by the enemy during intra-state and/or civic wars; thereafter the self’s perception of the enemy characterizes it as evil and oftentimes fights the enemy – thus war. Creating human rights awareness and implementation is essential for the emotional recovery of victims of conflict and prevention of conflicts from escalating to the level of displacing people. Trauma causes mental health disorders (Brewin et al. 1999). Traumatized victims of conflict are recommended to join and participate in organizations and community events that offer support and activities that can attribute to the healing and rehabilitation intervention processes. Interventionists could be a means of recovery for individuals and their communities. Rehabilitation facilitates the healing process and the return of normalcy (Shalev 1997, p 421). The consequences of trauma are noteworthy. Trauma makes victims lose interest in the future and life in particular. Having been traumatized, it is difficult for people to overcome their psychological state without assistance of neighbors.

The easiest way to prevent trauma in conflict is to manage conflicts from the root causes for the parties to go through conflict transformation that preserves their relationship.



  1. Albert, I. O., Awe, T., Herault, G., & Omitoogun, W. (1995). Informal channels for conflict resolution in Ibadan, Nigeria. Ibadan: IFRA/African Book Builders Ltd.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bleiker, R. & Hutchinson, E. (2008). Fear no more: Emotions and world politics: Review of International Studies, 34(1), 115–135.Google Scholar
  3. Boulding, K. (1963). Conflict and defense. New York: Harper Torchbooks.Google Scholar
  4. Brewin, C. R, Andrews, B. Roses, & Kirk M. (1999). Acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder in victims of violent crime. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156(3), 360–366.Google Scholar
  5. Carpenter, N. (2005). Culture, trauma and conflict: Cultural studies perspectives on war. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.Google Scholar
  6. Casper, M. (2016). Critical trauma studies: Understanding violence, conflict, and memory in everyday life. New York: New York University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cheng, T. A. & Chang, J. C. (1999). Mental health aspects of culture and migration. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 12(2), 217–222.Google Scholar
  8. de Jong, J. (2006). Trauma, war, and violence. New York: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  9. Fox, J. (2003). Are religious minorities more militant than other ethnic minorities? Altern Global Local Polit, 28(1), 92.Google Scholar
  10. Hall, R. (2019, March 20). “It never really left me”: Abu Ghraib torture survivors finally get their day in court. Independent. March 20, 2019.
  11. Langan, J. (1995). Nationalism, ethnic conflict and religion. Theological Studies, 56(1), 122.Google Scholar
  12. Martz, E. (2010). Trauma rehabilitation after war and conflict: Community and individual perspectives. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. McFarlannne, A & DeGirolamo, G. (1996). The Traumatic Stressors and Epidemiology of Post traumatic reactions. In B. A. Van der Kolk, A.C. McFarlane and L. Weisaeth (Eds). Traumatic Stress. The effects of overwhelming on Mind, Body, and Society. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  14. Shalev, A. Y. (1997). Discussion: Treatment of prolonged posttraumatic stress disorder—learning from experience. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10(3), 415–423.Google Scholar
  15. Smith, D., & Braein, A. (2003). The atlas of war and peace. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  16. Swanström, N. L. P. & Weissmann, M. S. (2005). Conflict, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management and beyond: a conceptual exploration. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University.Google Scholar
  17. Ekins, A., & Stewart, E. (2011). War wounds: Medicine and the trauma of conflict. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing.Google Scholar
  18. Themner, L., & Wallenstee, P. (2012). Armed conflicts, 1946–2011. Journal of Peace Research, 49(4), 565–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Van de Goor, L, Rupersinghe, K. & Sciarone, P. (1996). Between Development and Destruction: An inquiry into the Causes of Conflict in Post-Colonial States. London: MacMillan.Google Scholar
  20. Vogt, M. (2007). Ethnic exclusion and ethno-nationalist conflicts; how the struggle over access to the state can escalate: A quantitative and qualitative analysis of West Africa National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) challenges to democracy in the 21st century, Working Paper No. 18. (accessed January 12, 2020).
  21. Wallensteen, P. (2002). Understanding Conflict Resolution War, Peace and The Global System. London: Sage Publishing.Google Scholar
  22. Zartmann, I. W. (2015). Preventing deadly conflict. Cambridge, UK, Malden, MA: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  23. Zembylas, M. (2015). Emotion and traumatic conflict: Reclaiming healing in education. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Zerai, A. (2018). Safe Water, Sanitation and Early Childhood Malnutrition in East Africa: An African Feminist Analysis of the Lives of Women in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. New York: Lexington.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • James Okolie-Osemene
    • 1
    Email author
  • Patrice Natalie Delevante
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of International RelationsWellspring UniversityBenin CityNigeria
  2. 2.Independent ScholarRichmondUSA