It’s nearly two weeks since Australian defence force chief Angus Campbell released the Brereton report, alleging war crimes perpetrated by Australians in Afghanistan. Two immensely difficult and challenging weeks not just for the ADF but for Afghan-Australians.
The US-led “war on terror” and intervention in Afghanistan has been ongoing for nearly two decades now, and follows the Soviet invasion in 1979. In almost 40 years of conflict, the people who have suffered the most are Afghans.
Beyond any doubt, the Brereton report has added to that suffering. For us Afghans and Afghan-Australians, it has reawakened old traumas, stirred up our grief for the land of our ancestors and, although these atrocities were committed by just a few, it has shaken our faith in Australian values, fairness, honour and truth-telling.
Media reports have understandably provided details of support services and helplines for current and former ADF members and their families, but as a professional psychologist, I have really deep concern for the people of Afghanistan and Afghan-Australians.
As a psychologist, having worked in the trauma space for more than 15 years, the first thing that went through my mind when reading the allegations in the report was the unspeakable trauma that the Afghan civilians, farmers and children endured while being held captive and at the time of death. It was both horrifying and damning to read through the detail – and hard to forget.
These are concerning issues for us a community because we have experienced years of watching our country being torn to pieces by internal conflict and external intervention. This is a trauma that cannot be shaken off if such acts of violence continue to be perpetrated – not to mention the intergenerational trauma and long-term devastating impacts on children for generations to come.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a term that is widely used for ex-military soldiers and we understand how those who have experienced trauma directly or indirectly present issues such as behavioural problems, violence, harmful substance use and mental health issues.
Intergenerational trauma can have similar presentations but it is often minimised and almost never discussed openly in the Afghan community, especially among the diaspora which is spread all over the world. It is a term used when a person’s response to a major and overwhelming catastrophic event leaves that person unable to come to terms with it, so that the trauma passes down from the first generation of survivors who directly experienced or witnessed those traumatic events to future generations.
I have had first-hand experience of the impact that war has on people whether they are directly or indirectly involved. My father was a military officer and the son of a general in the Afghan army. He fled Afghanistan for fear of being executed after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Even though my parents created a beautiful life for our family in Australia, my father continues to suffer severe nightmares to this day and his PTSD has impacted every aspect of the way he experiences and views life.
The implications of intergenerational trauma are tremendous, it affects every aspect of your life: career choices, relationships, parenting, mental health, even physical health is compromised. One of the many reasons I decided to pursue psychology as a profession was watching my father go through what he went through.
Afghan-Australians left their careers and aspirations in their homeland for a better, safer future living in Australia – a place which most of us call and think of as home. But the reality is that most who migrated to Australia came with significant signs of PTSD, and have continued to carry years of burden where their sense of identity, values and beliefs have been compromised.
The Brereton report has been another blow to an already deeply traumatised people trying to rebuild their lives and restore their faith in systems that have repeatedly failed us. Most Afghans – like any ordinary person in Australia – are just trying to live their lives free from harm in a place where our children are safe to live their lives fully.
The arbitrary, extreme and senseless violence allegedly perpetuated by the SAS will mean that Afghans will most likely continue to suffer from traumatic symptoms for years and generations to come.
The cycle of violence must be broken, and the perpetual suffering of Afghans must stop because as a community we have collectively suffered enough. It is imperative that the Australian government understand the impact of trauma that has been caused by the Brereton report and should offer support to new and existing Afghan refugees. We desperately need to start the journey towards healing, otherwise our nightmares will continue to be our reality.
Nasreen Hanifi is a psychologist, community activist, director of clinical services for My Ability Care and president of Mission of Hope.