How to talk to strangers about violence

As part of data collection training this week, we spent some time talking about how to give a good interviewer. Training included a discussion of how to approach someone you’re going to interview, active listening, using non-judgemental words and body language, and most importantly for interviews concerning violence, how to recognize distress, take care of victims of trauma, and prevent recurring traumatization from occurring during the interview process.

My team seemed to be very familiar with how people might show distress, brainstorming worst-case scenarios with me and easily offering quick solutions to difficult situations. However, it took a lot of prodding for them to meet me with the idea that talking about violence might ultimately be distressing to them. You’re going to do this a lot, I told them. It’s exhausting, it’s hard work, and it kind of sucks to hear over and over again about really unpleasant things. They nodded, laughed at my bad jokes, and a few jotted something down when I mentioned they might try journaling.

But it’s not any different than what we hear every day, Erin, one offered.

The weight of years of war, and everything that came before it, smacked me in the face. Trauma peeked out from every corner of the room. It had been hiding, and still was, but that doesn’t mean it was absent. Okay, I said, but that doesn’t mean that self-care isn’t important. Isn’t that part of the issue? That the way we talk about violence once it’s passed doesn’t preclude it from happening again? That no one recognizes the lasting effects?

Up to that moment, I hadn’t heard any of their stories. I knew where they came from, cities and places that stream out over the news and maybe hint at something terrible, but I didn’t really know where they came from. Over lunch, though, a few opened up, telling stories of the times when they had been displaced themselves, what they missed about their homes, what they had seen, and where they had gone.

In one year, they told me, everyone left the city and headed to the border regions. In another, just the political people left, the ones whose party was being replaced by a new one. One of my enumerators remembers enjoying the camp she stayed in for only two days when she was four years old, as if she were talking about summer camp, or visiting her grandparents on vacation. Then, it was sort of a game, fun, you didn’t realize what was going on, she told me. Another recalled the chaos that dominated parts of the city, while other parts seemed totally normal. I was just walking down the street, laughing, with my aunt, until someone told us we shouldn’t be so lighthearted while everyone was afraid and packing to flee.

But then it ended, they said, and people mostly forgot. Isn’t that how it works? one of them said to me. Lots of people die and there’s a lot of violence and then the politicians act as if nothing ever happened.

And they say it so nonchalantly. Matter of fact. There’s violence. People die. The politicians move on.

When there’s enough violence, maybe you don’t have to work so hard to get people to talk about it. They eventually come to you. But you might not like what they have to say.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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