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5 Crucial Tips About Working With Former War Victims

Working with former war victims in a post-conflict setting can be one of the most challenging aspects while investigating human rights violations. Helping people who were victims of violence and injustice and hearing about their sufferings is often an important step in returning to normal life. An honest quest for the truth, which will ultimately identify the harm done to people, is a powerful remedy for the victims.

I have been working as human rights violations researcher in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for almost two years. I work closely with former civil war victims, prisoners of war and former camp detainees. During these two years, I have met with a significant number of victims who, in majority of cases, still suffer from the consequences of the abuse, sexual violence and torture they have been through during the period of conflict. My job is to record their stories and testimonies and eventually write report about each case of human rights violations. The job is at the same time both satisfying and hard. To be given an opportunity to record stories that have never been recorded before is truly an amazing thing.

However, working with former war victims can often be frustrating. There are multiple traps that you as a researcher have to be aware of. This is particularly a matter of concern if you are working in your local community because it can be very difficult to maintain objectivity in the situation when you know the victims on personal level and see the effect war crimes have taken on them. The best way to help victims is to keep your objectivity indispensable for conducting an investigation and finally write down a report on the abuse they have experienced. Therefore, in this article I offers five crucial tips that you have to keep in mind if you consider working with former war victims.

  1. Be Careful About the Promises You Give

As someone who works closely with war victims, you have to be very careful about the promises you give. The first thing that the victim will evaluate when they meet you is the value of your words. If you promise something and you do not complete it, the victim will, in the worst case, consider you a liar. Even if you do not explicitly promise something, you need to keep in mind that your words are not interpreted as a promise. The words you say during the interview with the victim are very important, because in many cases the victim will give you their full trust by risking their own safety and security of their family.

For example, in my work I meet with a lot of former inmates and war victims who want to remain anonymous for their safety. If I promised them that their identity will remain protected, I have to fulfill that promise. Otherwise, I play out their confidence which can further affect my work in a particular local community, as other victims will see me as an unreliable person. Therefore, it is important to be cautious about the promises you give to the victims. Learn to commit yourself to only those things that you can guarantee. If a victim asks for something that you cannot fulfill, be completely honest with him or her saying that you cannot fulfill it. The victims with whom you will most likely meet are accustomed to the crude reality of a tough life. They prefer to hear the unpleasant truth that is certain rather than pleasantly spoken words in which they have little faith.

  1. Be Professional

It is very important that you pay attention to what you say to the victim. Professional standards in documenting serious human rights violations require that you, as someone who moderates and conducts conversation, carefully choose your words in a conversation with victims. The person you are interviewing is not your colleague or your friend. Once you begin an interview you enter in a professional relationship with them. It is best to avoid jokes and sarcastic remarks. Experience has shown me that every additional comment is superfluous. For example, many times it happened that the victims were cursing and saying ugly words about the perpetrators. This is quite understandable and should not be surprising given that many victims still carry anger and fear in themselves for all the injustices they encountered. Many of them suffer from the effects of PTSD and simply cannot control their words. However, as someone who is in charge of conversation you need to be able to listen, but not to comment.

It is very important to know how to “return” the victim to the right conversation. If the victim turns from the topic and begins to talk about other things, you need to ask him or her the question from the interview in order to “return” him or her to their focus. Many times it happened that during the interview the victim turned away from the topic and began to talk about his or her current state and life. Then it is best to ask questions and sub-questions so that the conversation would not go in the wrong direction.

  1. Helping Out the Victims – Yes or No?

Many of the victims you encounter will be in a difficult economic state or will live in bad conditions. It’s a very difficult question whether you need to offer your direct help as a researcher. Very often you can be in a situation to help the victim, but, unfortunately, providing such assistance to victims can affect the integrity and credibility of the research. The moment the victim accepts your help he or she loses their credibility. For example, if you offer money to the victim or some other kind of material assistance, this can be considered as a bribe. Your intention was probably not to bribe the victim but to help. However, your credibility as a researcher will fail. In some cases, the victims may give false testimonials in order to gain your sympathies and thus get more help.

The best you can do in these situations is to send the victim to appropriate organizations that can help them. If the organization in which you work is the one that offers help, then it would be most suitable if that is done by another person, not you. If your organization does not offer direct help to victims, then it should collect data and make a list of organizations dealing with this type of work and the rights of victims. This type of assistance to victims is acceptable, but direct material help from you is not.

  1. Create a Safe Space

When you are arranging an interview with a victim, it will take some time until he or she does not give you their trust. Many victims need encouragement and some guarantees before they agree to talk. You may need a little skill to persuade the victim to hear your explanation of why it is important for them to work with you and you should be able to explain the importance of this cooperation. Start by presenting yourself and your organization. You need to explain what is that you are researching and why it is important for you to talk to him or her about it. Most victims will usually have additional questions which you should answer honestly and completely.

When you arrange an interview with a victim, it is important to ensure there is a safe space where they feel comfortable enough to talk. A safe space will also enable you and the victim to talk without distractions. Approach the victim to the moment and place where they will not be seen in order to eliminate their fear of talking to you. Avoid coming to their workplace, unless you have previously agreed with them to do so. Experience has shown me that it is best to adapt to the victim and ask her or him where they would feel most comfortable to talk. It is very important to choose a place where you can talk and negotiate a time when the victim is not in a hurry. Most often the victim will usually choose his or her house because it is the place where they feel most at ease, and as a researcher you must always adapt to their desires related to the place.

  1. Treat Each Victim Equally

This tip is very straightforward – you must treat each victim equally and with the same respect. Many times you can find yourself in a situation where you think that one victim suffered more than others or that one victim went through the worse abuse than other victim. Of course, the cases are not the same because these are individuals who have a very different experience. However, your opinion on who suffered more or less is not important. What is important is to treat each victim equally.

During the interview, the victims must see that you respect them. Each victim should be carefully approached and treated professionally, sympathetically and with respect to their human dignity. Victims must be given space and opportunity to express their opinions, concerns or objections to your work. The opinions of the victim need to be carefully considered and given the importance they deserve. The victim’s concerns should always be taken into regard, unless this raises the question of the integrity of the research.

About the author

Ada Hasanagic

Ada Hasanagić is a human rights professional currently working as a researcher at Association Transitional Justice, Accountability and Remembrance, a non-governmental organization that is concerned with documenting war crimes and massive human rights violations during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. Previously, Ada graduated with honors from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Buckingham in the fields of Political Science and International Relations. Also, she earned a master’s degree in Democracy and Human Rights from the University of Sarajevo and University of Bologna.

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