Author: Gresa Rrahmani

Collective trauma: Revisiting us in Pandemic times

These past few months have found us humans cooped up in our private spaces, be they large family homes, tiny apartments or shared accommodation. The global pandemic hit pause on ‘regular life’, creating this new state of being, unimagined and alien to many of us. Schools are closed, jobs have been lost, and travel is restricted, leaving many of us greatly questioning our lives and how we live them. Our relationship with nature, the ways we connect with each other, our staggering inequalities - from access to healthcare to the privilege of social distancing – discussions that have sprung up abruptly and with a new perspective. In this mishmash of thoughts and concerns, an underrated topic has presented itself: How will the anxiety and isolation that follows from COVID-19 impact our mental health? Especially in Kosovo, where mental health is rarely prioritized or given much thought, the topic has resurfaced into the mainstream. After all, we are undergoing a collectively traumatic experience. Yet, while individual trauma has been explored to an extent, collective trauma has yet to receive the attention it deserves. There are several aspects of this situation that I have found eerily familiar for us Kosovars and a few personal occurrences that drove me to revisit this topic. 

In late March, ‘balcony protests’ emerged all around the country, an outcry to the current political situation. Personally, I found the experience utterly ‘Albanian’, after the macchiato, our protest abilities should be our biggest trademark. You name a cause, we have protested it, you name a form of protest, we have performed it. Whereas in Italy or Belgium, people would take to the balconies to give thanks to their healthcare staff or raise their morale as an alternative to socializing and keeping spirits high, we Kosovars were doing what we do best, protesting. For my parents, it forced them to confront past blocked memories from the 90s when they took to the same balconies to protest the regime at the time. What was somewhat of a captivating experience for me, a baby of the 90s, was difficult and uneasy for them. 

Days later, I was having a passionate discussion with a friend about the new restrictions to our human rights while walking our dogs in the neighbourhood. In particular, about the anxiety of seeing police cars everywhere and the fear of being stopped by them. My friend who is 20 years older than me simply shrugged. After a longer than usual pause, she told me she felt indifferent and distant. She had to master the skill of talking to the police in the 90s when her life and wellbeing depended on it. “It does feel surreal to speak in Albanian” she noted, since in the 90s she had to speak Serbian to the police.

It was at that moment that it hit me that we are undergoing a collective traumatic experience and not just any traumatic experience, one of global proportions. I parted ways with her, wondering: How will this new COVID19 trauma interact in a society that is already suffering from wartime trauma?

While there is no agreed concise definition of collective trauma and the term is used in many diverse ways, König and Reimann, two established mediators on conflict transformation and trauma, define collective trauma “as a not yet completely accomplished process of learning how to deal with and integrate extreme levels of stress, impacting the social dynamics, processes, structure and functioning of a collective.[1] Traumatized individuals show many different symptoms, like sadness, anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, grief, pain, despair, loss of self-esteem, and loss of trust. This kind of trauma impacts not only our collective health but also our collective (dys)functional coping mechanisms. However, not every trauma shared by a large group of individuals can be collective trauma. In order for it to be marked as such, the trauma symptom patterns that are formed by the group and become part of the shared group reality must be framed and used as a collective identity marker.[2] Collective identity markers come in the form of collective narratives, collective emotions and collective mind-sets. The term ‘collective trauma’ is rarely heard beyond small spaces of activists who deal with the past, sometimes making me wonder if we can really talk about it in Kosovo. Despite this, if you dwell a bit more into our society, these markers start showing themselves bit by bit. For example, it is not uncommon for collective narratives to be of victimhood, especially in our society, where we have suffered immensely from war crimes and atrocities. Interestingly, this narrative exists hand in hand with the denial of the narrative of the victimhood of the ‘other’. Even today, more than 20 years after the war, talk of crimes committed by Kosovo Albanians or victims of other ethnicities incites national controversies and (un)surprisingly more protesting. Not to mention how these narratives are used for political purposes. König and Reimann cite ‘political exclusive narrative’ as one of the consequences of collective trauma. A specific chosen narrative ensures ‘a given political status quo and political bargaining power’.[3] Further, collective emotions are dominated by mistrust, insecurity, and fear. The collective mind-sets are characterised by black/white thinking, prejudices and stereotypes, one example of which is our stubbornness to present partial and one-sided stories of history in textbooks.[4] Collective emotions, narratives and behavioural patterns collaborate to reinforce this trauma. Although these examples are merely a glimpse into this complex issue, which deserves a lengthier detailed inspection, they do show the presence of collective identity markers in Kosovo society.

Which bring me to: How do we deal with it?

Firstly, we have to understand our trauma in the wider socio-political context, as it does not exist in a vacuum. An understanding of the root cause of any trauma is also important in successfully addressing it. Secondly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We must adapt it to our specific circumstances. Research suggests that its consequences can be mitigated through a combination of recognition, remembrance, solidarity, therapy, and cooperation.[5] Our individual experience is undeniably interwoven with the collective dimension. Thus, relying in our communities and social resilience has been one of the effective ways of countering the negative impact of the abovementioned markers and enforcing conflict transformation. Being aware of this is the first step, but being aware is not enough. It may give more insight into ourselves as a society and as individuals, but it won’t really heal our collective trauma. For that to happen, we have to work on creating the right environment for healing. 

Undoubtedly, the experience of living in a ‘stable’ country and then going through individual trauma is heavily different from that of living in a traumatized society. This blog merely grazes upon a complex topic, and how the COVID19 aftermath unravels, only time will tell. Nonetheless, I think this experience has shaken us down and made us revaluate our positions, especially in regards to mental health. When this time passes, it would be worth revisiting and inspecting the interactions of war trauma with COVID-19 trauma, and the implications of this interaction on our societal fabric.

Gresa Rrahmani is a feminist activist from Prishtina, focusing on intersectional discrimination, gender justice and mental health.


[1] König & Reimann, Closing a gap in conflict transformation: Understanding collective and transgenerational trauma, 2018, p.5.

[2] Ibid., p.8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Discriminatory language in school textbooks, 2018, at: https://advocacy-center.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Gjuha-diskriminuese-ne-tekstet-shkollore.pdf.

[5] See more at Healing Collective Trauma http://www.healingcollectivetrauma.com/.

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