Short, low-cost interventions can help communities to recover from a civil war, a new study evaluating the efficacy of a postwar reconciliation strategy in Sierra Leone shows. However, while the strategy created positive effects, it also had negative ones, suggesting policymakers need to restructure such processes. In a Perspective related to this study, Katherine Casey and Rachel Glennerster highlight the frequency of civil wars globally. "How can individuals and groups recover from such violent conflicts?" they ask. Efforts aimed at recovery are particularly daunting in developing nations, where resources are limited. While community-driven reconstruction efforts have shown some promise (namely related to improving infrastructure in such communities), they've been costly, and they've done little to promote trust among individuals. Meanwhile, truth and reconciliation process (whereby victims can air war-time grievances) continue to be promoted as methods for restoring social ties in war-torn communities, but researchers have little knowledge of whether and how such strategies - particularly those that induce person-to-person forgiveness - help societies heal.
Here, Jacobus Cilliers and colleagues evaluated such a process conducted by a nongovernmental organization in Sierra Leone called Fambul Tok. The Fambul Tok events included 2-day reconciliation ceremonies, at a cost of just about 200$ each, where victims spoke about atrocities endured and perpetrators asked for forgiveness. Cilliers et al. studied the impact of Fambul Tok-led ceremonies across 200 villages in Sierra Leone, which had been ravaged by civil war a decade earlier, collecting data from more than 2,300 participants. The researchers observed both positive effects (i.e., increased trust among victims for ex-combatants and increased contribution of village members to public goods), and negative effects (i.e., worsened anxiety and depression for individuals asked to revisit war atrocities). Both types of effect persisted for more than two years, the researchers say. Overall, their results indicate that gains in societal healing associated with reconciliation come at a substantial cost in individual psychological healing. As such, they suggest that policymakers find ways to conduct reconciliation processes that reduce these psychological costs while retaining the societal benefits; for example, by coupling these programs with sustained counseling.