The impulse to undo a history of ruthless devastation and loss, by symbolically immobilizing all potential judgment, guilt, and shame over participation in unthinkable violence, would become an ongoing theme in a DMT group that I launched for former boy soldiers in Koindu with three male Kissi-speaking paraprofessional supervisees. As I have documented elsewhere in significant detail (Harris, 2007a, 2007b, 2009, 2010), this group of a dozen teenage ex-combatants, all of whom had joined in one way or another in perpetrating egregious human rights abuses during their childhoods, underwent an incremental transformation in the course of 16 sessions over six months of dancing together. Masters of surviving adversity before coming to us, they were especially adept at suppressing disclosure of their innermost thoughts. Desensitized through direct involvement in both organized slaughter and more impulsive acts of mayhem, they would speak openly about such abuses from the start, but with great detachment and regardless of whether they had been targets or perpetrators of the crimes in question. They would not reveal the least capacity for empathy, in fact—for their victims or one another—until they had joined in several weeks of DMT. By gradually discovering in dance and movement the collective courage to mourn their own losses, they moved toward restoring their capacity for connection.

As was the case in Siawoh’s DMT group for teenage females, each session of the former boy soldiers group—which took for itself the name PVK, Poimboi Veeyah Koindu, in Kissi, or Orphan Boys of Koindu—included improvised dancing to the beat of recorded Sierra Leonean hip-hop. In a calculated fusion of the African dance circle and what DMT innovator Marian Chace had developed with much older war veterans in the United States six decades earlier, the dancing would begin with a warm-up in a circular formation and devolve into all varieties of spatial organization, depending on the PVK youths’ predilections in the moment. Typically, the youths’ movement expression included powerful gesturing and numerous vigorous outbursts, but not without frequent ventures into quietude and intimacy.

From the very first session, in fact, the former fighters took advantage of what we called “The Circle Dance” to invest themselves in primary-process (Freud, 1958, as cited in Brenner, 1973) imaginings through which they engaged with pivotal aspects of their traumatic experience. Within minutes of starting to dance together, the former fighters began walking to the beat around the circle, counterclockwise, one behind another, then lunging, dipping, and eventually crawling, all the while maintaining the circle’s protective enclosure. After a while I chose to play with qualities of time, deliberately slowing our pace. Soon everyone stopped, collapsing in place on the floor—with many of the ex-soldiers quietly cradling each other. I asked, “What are we doing now?” and a collective response came back, “We’re hiding from our enemies.” Despite the relative stillness, the former boy soldiers, in their very first hour of dancing together, had brought their wartime suffering into the room in the form of hypervigilance, a common post-conflict phenomenon. During their time with the rebels, staying constantly on guard had been an essential survival mechanism. Although this nervous system adaptation had served these survivors well, it was no longer beneficial—just one of the somatic markers (Damasio, 1991) of traumatic experience—that called for transformation through the DMT process. Opportunities for venting and modulating aggressive impulses, which to that point the former fighters little understood as their own patterned responses to systemic violence and devastating loss, would prove equally important.

At play as well in that first session’s dance was an emerging, unstated sense of these dozen teenagers and four adult men as having banded together, not unlike the ragged platoons the youths had been part of when serving under rebel commandos. Survival tactics from that earlier time remained as habitual responses to danger and perhaps reinforced the youths’ malleability in readily accommodating almost any verbal or nonverbal directive that we co-facilitators presented them.

Week after week, improvised dancing together—invariably with strong rhythmic synchrony, given a culturally ingrained capacity for collective attunement—enabled the PVK youths in-depth exploration of much that they could not then have verbalized about their lives or histories. Repeatedly, for example, in a number of early sessions they joined at some juncture in their improvising in stealthily trapping one or more of my limbs and, using their collective might, holding me down on the floor. The meaning of their joint effort to fix me in place was multilayered and may perhaps be considered emblematic of a tacit aspiration through dancing to defy human impermanence. The youths were certainly aware of the satisfaction I found in dancing freely, and by immobilizing me, they put a stop to it: I genuinely could not move. Their action also clearly amounted to a wartime reenactment, in this case, the symbolic capture of an enemy. Had the repetitions been performed as dull, unfeeling, robotic acts, rather than the energetic and sometimes rather spirited contests that I witnessed bodily, I would have worried that the youths were manifesting in such reenactment susceptibility to Freud’s pathological “repetition compulsions” (Herman, 1992, p. 41). Even so, when the youths held me down, I wondered if they were unknowingly seeking a form of symbolic retribution for the abuses they had endured under the unscrupulous commandos they had served. At the very least, they could be seen as “killing off the leader” (Yalom, 1970) in order to wrest control over our gatherings. In fact, one of the PVK youths had by this stage in our process directed a role-play in session of having been forced by his commander to execute his own parents as a show of the boy’s loyalty to the rebel cause. In the drama, which might have been based as much on imagination as history, the boy had afterward slain the commander himself in retaliation. At this stage in PVK’s dances, inventive play deconstructed but rarely obscured memory’s curse.

Indeed, a web of stark meanings emerged through primary-process embodiments during PVK’s unstructured improvisations to music. It seemed more than likely to my co-facilitators and me, for example, that in holding me down, the ex-fighters evinced an unconscious desire to punish me for encouraging their individual and collective investigation of wartime experiences, an almost invariably taxing process. Further, my white skin made me an appropriate stand-in for the British soldiers who had defeated the rebel army and brought an end to the boy soldiers’ pillaging of civilian communities. This desire for revenge was largely unspoken, as was an irrevocable association of whiteness with the rapacity and dehumanizing violence of centuries of colonial subjugation.

All of these meanings, and more, were likely operative in the PVK dance circle. Indeed, when I saw my own arms isolated under those of my captors, one arm sprawling atop another as if detached from our bodies, I could not help but envision what looked like a pile of hands spilled across the floor. This image, as my Kissi co-facihtators confirmed in one of our routine debriefings, appeared visually reminiscent of the heaps of severed limbs these child soldiers would have seen when their assaults on villagers had included forced amputations. In Sierra Leone’s war, this had been such a common atrocity that few of the PVK youth could have managed not to witness it; probably some had joined, willingly or not, in committing such crimes. Recreating this haunting nightmare in play, certainly without forethought or intention, by no means represented a conscious coming to terms with the ex-combatants’ horrific past. But just as surely, this rough, aggressive—albeit decidedly not violent—play helped these former soldiers transcend, or at least tolerate, the horrors that violence had engraved upon their memories.

Moreover, as everyone in the PVK group was aware but no one discussed openly, in our first weeks together one youth missed a group session in order to attend a funeral rite for his own mother. By magically fixing me in place, the Orphan Boys of Koindu were symbolically responding to the terrifying fear of abandonment by a caring adult, which all of them had experienced in quite horrific ways. By restraining me, the youths both neutralized my capacity to judge them for their crimes and likewise made it impossible for me, unlike their parents and grandparents, to die or disappear or desert them.

This freedom to embody among us such existential dread arose, paradoxically enough, given a restored sense of safety within the group’s liminal space. When pinning me down, the youths were asserting power and playing with the threat of violent usurpation, and in doing so, engaging in a common adolescent behavior: testing unawares the limits of our acceptance, as if trying to coerce us into giving up on them and thereby endorsing their guilt-induced fear of their own worthlessness. The youths could not yet embrace me as a parental substitute; neither could they bear, then, for me to leave them before they would have a chance to bring appropriate closure to our prolonged dance together.

Throughout our process, the Circle Dance thus enabled the former child combatants to examine their collective history in ways that remained largely unspoken. Similarly, on occasion, individual PVK members, when joining in various group exercises, utilized gestural expressions that belied their growing, though still largely unformed, awareness of vulnerabilities shared between them and the people they had attacked. More than once, for example, a former fighter illustrated the liquidation of a military target by using one of his own hands as the cutlass blade with which he slit the person’s throat. I was struck that the neck over which the blade was drawn was the PVK youth’s own, such that when illustrating his killing of someone else he appeared to be demonstrating suicide. The disturbing duality in this gesture conveyed an implicit sense of oneness with the victim and unknowingly portrayed how gravely the child soldier himself had ended up mutilated by his own violent act. The youth may have meant to demonstrate his fearlessness as a fighter, but his body symbolism betrayed, instead, persistent subconscious regret.

The emergence of such burgeoning hints of self-knowledge undergirded the co-facilitators’ commitment to advancing an agenda that paired unconditioned acceptance with enhanced personal accountability. The PVK youths had demonstrated mastery of unconscious symbolization in gesture and dance, embodying images of violent perpetrations, which implicated them in human rights crimes that went otherwise unnamed. Once the youths themselves began to talk frankly in sessions about how their rebel leaders had abused them, we co-facihtators opted to devise dance/movement exercises that might encourage the youths to find symbolic means of examining such leadership. Potentially, this would transition them from compulsively reliving a horrific and unnamable past toward eventual comfort in living in the here and now. Just as repetitive practices involved in learning traditional dance techniques allow for strengthening muscles and rerouting synaptic pathways so as to encode and later replicate complex movement sequences, so improvising together and exploring repeated wartime imagery in the process had enabled the building of ego strength and coping capacity.

Given such growth, during the group’s ninth session, PVK as a collective endorsed the practice of a newly created exercise, which we facilitators had devised to enable mourning of their painful experience among the rebels. One by one, again in a circle, each of the former fighters would perform a gesture of his choosing, paired with a word, as representation of his own “suffering under someone”; his peers and we facilitators would immediately reflect that picture back to him. The ex-soldiers for the most part successfully performed precise and evocative gestures that allowed for overt expression of a decade’s hidden sorrow. Upon thus fulfilling this first round’s aims, the youths voiced consent to undertake a parallel exercise, which required depicting in gesture and word "how someone else felt when suffering under you.” The PVK youths performed this distillation of empathy for a victim mindfully and with dignity. In turn, the attuned reflecting back of these same images rewarded each youth with a substantial sense of the group’s acceptance, of communal support for tolerating long-buried guilt. A third exercise called on the dozen ex-combatants to both say and show how they had felt when victimizing others during the war, and how they had come in the course of PVK’s few months to feel about that same victimization. In every case, the youths acknowledged remorse both verbally and nonverbally, something that to our knowledge they had never done before.

This tailored movement practice, performed with solemnity and purpose, had its desired outcome. Linking the unconscious, improvisatory exploration of primary process with the declarative understanding of secondary process, these dance-inspired exercises enabled the young men “to represent their ambivalence and confusion over the dynamic interplay of power and powerlessness in their lives” (Harris, 2010, p. 349). The practice afforded a creative means of consciously embodying insight into the duality that they had repeatedly portrayed unconsciously before: their simultaneous identities as both victim and perpetrator. Ultimately, performing these exercises proved to be crucial first steps toward the former boy combatants’ surprisingly lasting reconciliation with the community that had shunned them for their part in the war’s unspeakable atrocities (Harris, 2010).

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