Learning to see through the eyes of the victims

Friederike Repnik

It's midday on Thursday. My colleague, Laura, and I are sitting in a circle with 25 men and women and chatting about the past few days and the rain in Bogotá. Everyone is relaxed. They ask me questions about Germany and smile when I say “la corazón” again instead of “el corazón”. It is hard to believe that only two hours ago we were in a completely different world – a world full of violence and suffering, a world without any smiles. What these people here in this circle of chairs have in common and what has brought them to this meeting are their experiences of violence and displacement. During the workshop on "dealing with grief", they tell their stories, paint, or remain silent about what has happened to them. They cry. They are angry and at a loss as to what to do or say. They are grief-stricken. And they are hurt. But they have survived. They are here. They are communicating and carrying on with their lives. This is unimaginable for many displaced persons in Colombia.

In the middle of our conversation they ask me, "Will you tell the people in your country about us?" And then all of a sudden the pain returns. But there is courage and hope as well: Courage to tell their stories. And the hope that they will be heard. How could I not talk about them? – about these people who have revealed so much of themselves in four years, people who do not trust the word “trust”, but have nevertheless entrusted themselves to me, people who have told me each day once again about life with a combination of hope and fear, joy and sadness, anger and tenderness.

“Will you tell the people in your country about us?” are the first words of my PhD thesis on dealing with trauma in situations of continuing structural violence and the role of religion with special reference to the armed conflict in Columbia, which I submitted to the University of Bremen in March 2017. The question forms a bridge between the people of Colombia who tell their stories and the people here in Germany who listen to them. It connects people who know far too little about each other. And it takes the work to a deeper level in a way which could hardly be more moving, energising, and challenging. So I tell people here about the people I got to know in Columbia. I made the conflict there the subject of my thesis. I continue to concern myself with the provision of psychosocial support for people who have been displaced. And I’m looking for answers to the question as to how these victims of violence can take control of their own lives once again. I also ask myself about the role of religious faith in overcoming displacement and experiences of violence. I deliberately keep focusing again and again on the perspective of the victims of conflict.

I’m learning to see through the eyes of the victims. I’m helping others to see some of the insights which I was only able to gain through walking some of the way together with the people of Colombia. One of the things I’m doing is examining the degree to which violence impacts people’s lives in Colombia, where it has been an endemic feature of political discourse for decades. I’m also discovering how important it is to create some stability in people’s lives, when supporting the victims of conflict, and how – in the eyes of those who have been affected by violence – religious faith and churches have a valuable role to play: They provide a setting in which people can come to terms with what has happened to them and rebuild their lives. They facilitate the creation of community. And they give people something to hang on to as a way of articulating their feelings in their attempts to overcome violence and its consequences. I tell others what people in Colombia have told me, thus keeping my promise. And I hope that I’m able, in this way, to give back something of what I gained during four years in Colombia.

Friederike Repnik lived in Columbia from 2009 to 2013 (published in transfer volume 1/2017)