War Rape Survivors Syndrome – Part I

Wiola Rębecka:

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish-American journalist, brought to the world’s attention, a completely different understanding of cruelty. She was the first journalist who openly reported the trial of Adolf Eichmann on April 11, 1960, in Israel. She wrote an outstanding piece, “Banality of Evil,”  which contributed to expanding the social narratives regarding complex trauma at the time. Her narratives inspired me to think deeper about how to change general diagnoses, treatments, and allocation of resources for trauma survivors, especially those suffering from War Rape Survivors Syndrome.  War Rape Survivors Syndrome comprises many symptoms, physical and emotional, and unique experiences endured by women who have survived being raped during war/conflict. As humans, we have an innate desire to know and understand. We need to identify and articulate our pain so as to start the healing process.  Words are powerful symbols that can add significance and relevance. Through words, we can share experiences, feelings, thoughts, and trauma.  An event or experience that is overwhelming and painful must be first identified and conveyed in order to begin the healing process. This identification must additionally take place within understandable and visible social, political emotional, and cultural contexts. This context is essential in trying to understand war rape survivors’ experiences.War rape survivors are mostly invisible to members of their communities and homes, even when they live with relatives who themselves have been subjected to war-related trauma.  Our natures are constructed by the life drive. To experience war or the appendage of war, rape is against our human life drive power. To encounter war and rape is to face total destruction. Both elements destroy families, communities, nations, and the survivor’s personal sense of safety and identity.  It can be common for survivors immediately after their rape to deny pain and downplay the magnitude of their massive trauma.

My work with war-rape survivors has brought me another level of understanding of the complex trauma meanings. This work particularly opened my eyes to the indescribable aspects of the human experience and moved my attention to the lack of individual narratives of war-rape survivors and their subsequent experiences.


Prior to when Hannah Arendt started her journey with the Eichmann trial in Israel, no one discussed the consequences of Shoah. No one before her was able to use language to describe personal Holocaust experiences and a distinct narrative voice of the war-trauma survivors did not yet exist. Ms. Arendt (October 14, 1906, to December 4, 1975) understood that evil does not announce itself with highlights.

Evil instead creeps upon its unsuspecting victim and appears in the form of your friendly neighbor, your classmate, or even your family.


In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to report on the trail of A. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt, a German-born citizen who had fled the Nazis after they arrested her in 1933, was able to escape capture through wit and foresight and evaded transit to Auschwitz. Arendt, who reached the United States in 1941, was now appraising the face of evil in her spiritual homeland, Israel.  She had taken the job with the realization that this was her last opportunity to see a major Nazi, “in the flesh.” The monster is alive and touchable.


Who was this man who had killed so many and ordered the murders of so many more?  Was evil so humdrum, that the sink of degraded humanity was wrapped in the form of a little grey man?  This incarnate of evil was a bureaucrat who had overseen the trains that sent millions of people to their deaths. Here before the world, he sat in a glass box within a Jerusalem courtroom, ready to be tried by the people whose existence he had sought to rub out. He was the manifestation of, “The dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” He was, “Terribly and terrifyingly normal.”  For Arendt, Eichmann epitomized the “banality of evil.”


Using language to describe pain related to complex trauma is a part of the narratives’ transition towards the healing of deeply traumatized people. The challenge is for the greater society to provide the platform to listen to the survivor’s painful account, free from personal biases and judgments. The hard work of Hannah Arendt provided the language Holocaust survivors utilize and describe their own experiences. The silence around trauma was broken by visibility and description of the evil that was.


Eichmann’s due process and Arendt’s work opened up global social consciousness by equipping Holocaust survivors the framework to share their experiences and narratives with the world.  Arendt’s narratives became a  social template used to officially chronicle the most horrific experiences and traumatic events related to the Holocaust.  Hannah Arendt clearly creates a platform for Holocaust survivors and their narratives concerning the evils exacted by Holocaust perpetrators.  War-rape survivors need a social platform as well.  This safe space where they can expose their painful trauma to create social awareness and personal healing.


Openly speaking about sexual violence is a challenge in itself.  As humans, we tend to deny things that bring us discomfort. Sexual violence creates physical and emotional pain for survivors, however, confronting the audience about such an event brings discomfort for those listening. We do not know how to talk about sexual violence, about trauma, and we do not know how to listen and understand.


The act of using language to describe one’s traumatic experience begins the healing process. Once the person can identify and communicate what they are struggling with as a symptom it can then be observed, digested, and treated.


The utilization of language to share experiences with others is a psychological technique used to help survivors of trauma create a context for their experiences. Though this process creates understanding, this is a form of exposure to painful memories for both the narrator and the listener.  Without treatment, the memories of trauma can feel like a jumbled mess, an unbearable mix of sensations and unclear emotions. When war-rape survivors are able to start using verbal descriptions to construct their narratives from the jumbled mess, the healing began. This part of the healing process is crucial to provide a social platform for the traumatic narratives to be shared and received.


When completing a trauma narrative, the story of a traumatic experience will be told repeatedly through verbal, written, or artistic means. Sharing and expanding upon a traumatic narrative allows the individual to organize their memories, making them more manageable, and diminishing the painful emotions they carry.  Trauma stories are often shared organically through conversation, both in and out of treatment. Sometimes, the organic retelling of a traumatic experience can be distributive especially when audiences are not ready to listen and understand.


When rape occurs during the war, the world is simultaneously falling apart. The survivors’ body is destroyed and their emotional world is damaged. Trust has vanished. Physical pain is a constant. The brain becomes hyper-vigilant to any perceived threats. The body becomes tense as if to brace for potential impact. The trauma survivor’s sense of personal security has just disappeared.


Shame becomes prevalent after rape. The stigma around rape and survivors’ perception of their own individual responsibility for their rape, controls the rape survivors’ desire to seek help and justice. This experience is deeply blended with physical and mental trauma, now complicated by interaction with law enforcement to seek justice. If access to legal justice does not exist, psychological trauma will intensify. If the rape survivor’s culture does not recognize and support the rape survivor’s social needs, the survivor runs the risk of continued psychological retraumatization.


Trauma can come from a variety of sources for rape survivors; such as the perpetrators, social norms, gender roles, and religion. War-Rape Survivor Syndrome is referred to as complex, because of the many factors that we need to consider and address to start the healing process.  Rape survivors’ healing process is also dependent on how socially open to providing a platform for survivors to be heard and supported.


     War-Rape Survivor Syndrome complex includes the following symptoms and experiences: Negative body image, general mistrust, hyper-vigilant senses, guilt for their rape and socially internalized shame which keeps survivors silent, the inability of rape survivors to linguistically identify their rape-related trauma, anxiety/PTSD, flashbacks, massive disassociation tendencies, depression, emotional numbness, insomnia, at-risk behaviors, substance abuse, freezing of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. We will try to talk about this next time.

(Continued in Part II)

About the writer:

If I could use four words to describe myself they would be psychoanalyst, feminist, activist, and traveler.
My education and occupational choices were influenced by my family’s story as Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. My Grandma was imprisoned at Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp during the Holocaust. She was raped by a Russian soldier upon the camp’s liberation. From this narrative of initial pain, loss and shame came my inspiration for understanding, acceptance, and empowerment for her and all rape survivors.
I have worked in many countries, immersed in many cultures, and I have seen how survivors have been socially silenced by the shame placed on them. I fight to end this social stigma. I fight to have survivors be heard. I fight to bring justice to those who have stolen the safety and innocence of survivors.
I am the founder of Rape: A History of Shame project, author of the book Rape a history of shame diary of the survivors, a proud graduate of The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, International Psychoanalytic Association, clinician, and social worker. Currently, I am a clinical director of the Residential HANAC program, a Rape counselor at the emergency room of the Presbyterian Methodist Hospital, and a private practice therapist working with and for war rape survivors.”
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