Tufts Initiative on Mass Atrocities and Genocide

Author: Bretton J. McEvoy

Faculty Spotlight: Laura Graham

In our regular faculty spotlight, we highlight the diverse array of multidisciplinary Tufts faculty whose research, teaching, and external work engages with the theme of organized violence.  This week:


Laura Graham
Peace and Justice Studies
Ph.D., University of Aberdeen, 2013


Can you tell us about how your research, teaching, or other work intersects with organized violence and its impacts?

My research examines the causes and consequences of conflict in divided societies such as Northern Ireland and South Africa, as well as the mechanisms which aim to resolve conflict and promote peace after conflict and mass violence.  In particular, my recently published book, Beyond Social Capital, examines the role of leadership, trust and government policy in Northern Ireland’s victim support groups.  My teaching directly addresses the causes, consequences, prevention, and resolution of mass violence through the five courses I teach within the Peace and Justice Studies Program: 1) Genocide; 2) Human Rights; 3) Social Justice; 4) Conflict Resolution; and 5) Introduction to Peace and Justice Studies. Each of these courses examines case studies such as the Holocaust, Herero genocide, Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa and Northern Ireland, where genocide and mass violence have had different causes, consequences and resolutions.

Do you have any current projects, research or otherwise, on this topic?

I started a project in August 2015 on policing and justice in Ferguson, MO. I am currently looking at the causes of structural violence and institutional racism through policing and justice in Ferguson, Mo. The project, “Voices of Ferguson” addresses six themes: Violence, Loss, Truth, Justice, Rights, Forgiveness-Reconciliation.

Why did you first become interested in studying organized violence and its impacts?

I became interested in the impact of mass violence on victims/survivors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland when I moved to Northern Ireland in 2007 to complete an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies.

Does the work of a particular organization or individual inspire you?

I have been inspired by the work of the International Center for Transitional Justice in seeking to promote restorative justice processes in societies emerging from conflict.

Do you think there are any personal or professional challenges unique to teaching, researching, and working in the field of organized violence?

Working in the field of organized violence is especially challenging for researchers. It comes with a great deal of risk for both the researcher and participants in studies. It can be very difficult to justify “studying” a group of victimized people for the sake of scholarship. Ideally, researchers will be well-practiced in sensitive research in conflict zones. It also can be very challenging to teach. In both teaching and research, secondary or indirect traumatization is a real risk for those working in the study of organized violence. I try to approach teaching organized violence in a way that is sensitive to the needs of my students, to my own needs, and to those who are being studied.

Faculty spotlight: Kelly Greenhill

In our regular faculty spotlight, we highlight the diverse array of multidisciplinary Tufts faculty whose research, teaching, and external work engages with the theme of organized violence.  This week:

imagesKelly Greenhill
Department of Political Science
International Relations, Security Studies
Associate Professor
Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004


Can you tell us about how your research, teaching, or other work intersects with organized violence and its impacts?

I am finishing a book on the security-related effects of unverified information, such as rumors and conspiracy theories; previously wrote a book on the strategic creation and exploitation of refugee and IDP movements; and co-authored and co-edited a third book on the politicization of crime and conflict statistics (including claims and denials of genocide).  I also have a side field survey research project on the adoption and dissemination of rumors in conflict areas (in south and southeast Asia). Teaching: I teach courses on the causes (and international responses to) civil wars as well as on unverified information in international politics (see above). Off-campus: I episodically consult for various organs of the US and foreign governments about internal conflict and mass population displacements; and I previously and currently serve on boards of directors for relevant NGOs. I am also now co-teaching another somewhat relevant course; namely, Ethics and International Relations with Professor Ioannis Evrigenis.

Do you have any current projects, research or otherwise, on this topic?

I am working on finishing up the first of the books mentioned above. As the project has come to fruition, I would describe it as follows:

The book is a multi-method, cross-national study that explores why, when, and under what conditions, contested sources of political information—such as rumors, conspiracy theories, myths and propaganda, sources I collectively refer to as “extra-factual information”—materially influence the development and conduct of states’ foreign and defense policy. Case studies are drawn from Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, from the late 19th through the early 21st century.

Why did you first become interested in studying organized violence and its impacts?

Although I did not have an inkling at the time that I would grow up to study such issues professionally, I have been deeply interested in what drives people to engage in mass killing since I first read The Diary of Anne Frank in grade school.  

Do you think there are any personal or professional challenges unique to teaching, researching, and working in the field of organized violence?

While I don’t know that they are unique to the study of organized violence, there can be noteworthy material, ethical, and logistical challenges associated with conducting fieldwork in conflict zones, with gathering data about sensitive topics and with protecting researchers and subjects in unstable environments.

The Past is Present

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Transgenerational Trauma

By Saskia Brechenmacher, MALD 2016, The Fletcher School

What happens in the aftermath of mass violence? How do traumatized communities and individuals heal after systematic destruction? And by what means do the experiences and suffering of one generation manifest themselves in the next? Scholars have long recognized that mass violence shapes affected communities for decades after the original traumatic event. Emerging research in the social as well as medical sciences is attempting to shed new light on these mechanisms of intergenerational transmission.

On December 3, 2015, the Tufts University Initiative on Mass Violence and Genocide (IMAGe) convened an interdisciplinary panel to highlight the work of Tufts University professors in this budding research field.

Lisa Shin, Principal Investigator in Tufts University’s Department of Psychology, examines the brain function and cognitive processing of patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During the panel discussion, she spoke about her research with US war veterans and offered a medical perspective on the logic of transgenerational trauma. Researchers previously believed that parents’ suffering affected their children primarily through environmental factors: children absorb their parents’ anxiety through imitation, stories and troubled family dynamics. However, Shin noted that new research increasingly points to the biological and corporeal dimensions of trauma. Across the board, children of traumatized parents appear to be more vulnerable to PTSD and less capable of metabolizing stress, primarily due to lower cortisol levels. Studies comparing twins indicate that certain individuals may have brain structures – such as smaller hippocampuses – that seem to genetically predispose them to PTSD. Moreover, a new wave of research is exploring the epigenetic effects of trauma: the ways in which traumatic experiences can alter the expression of genes (by changing the chemical coating of chromosomes) in an enduring and potentially transmissible manner.

Barbara Grossman, Professor of Drama and Dance at Tufts University, reflected on the potential healing effects of artistic production. As a theater director and teacher, Grossman examines the ways in which communities impacted by mass violence translate their experiences into writing, drama and film. In 2015, Grossman worked with a group of Tufts undergraduate students to put on Joyce Van Dyke’s Daybreak, a haunting depiction of trauma based on the true story of two survivors of the Armenian genocide who emigrated to the United States. In a play that evokes both profound cultural dislocation and hope, Van Dyke recounts the experiences of her own grandmother and her best friend, deported together from Mezireh, Turkey, in 1915. Artists, Grossman noted, can play a crucial role in “saving something” of a community or way of life that has otherwise been destroyed. They can bear witness to past suffering, and refuse to allow people’s lives to be erased. Van Dyke’s play also constructs an explicit dialogue between the past and the present: dreams woven throughout the action take the audience from Providence in the 1930s back to Turkey in the years of the genocide and to a far-distant future in which reconciliation becomes a possibility.

Transgenerational linkages also stand at the center of Kenda Field’s historical scholarship. Field, who is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Tufts, takes a micro-historical approach to slavery, exploring how enslaved individuals survived and made meaning of their traumatic experiences. Her current research traces her own ancestors’ between the Civil War and the Great Migration – “Freedom’s First Generation” after the abolition of slavery. One of slavery’s greatest tragedies, Field noted, was the forced separation of enslaved families by sale, and the associated denial of family bonds. After abolition, descendants of former slaves searched for those who had been separated and began reconstructing their family histories. What stories did enslaved people tell themselves and each other in the midst of and after repeated separation and suffering? What kinds of catharsis and redemption did family history and storytelling offer to affected families? These are the questions motivating Field’s scholarship. Without using the language of “trauma,” Field highlights the ways experiences reverberate across generations – and the fact that people’s stories and insights matter, and help illuminate larger economic and political structures that shape people’s lives.

Lastly, Dyan Mazurana, Research Director at Feinstein International Center and Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, discussed key insights from her work on post-war recovery in Northern Uganda. As part of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, Mazurana co-led a sub-regional panel survey in northern Uganda aimed at gathering data on exposure to shocks and coping strategies, access to services, and the impact of serious crimes. She found that across the region, households with members who had experienced serious crimes during the conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army were systematically more likely to have ongoing war-related injuries, less food security and worse access to health care, education and water. The more serious crimes the household experienced, Mazurana noted, the worse off the households today – a decade after the end of the conflict. Moreover, households that had a member who suffered sexual violence were found to be significantly more likely to experience a variety of crimes (e.g. theft, land grabbing, burglary) in the last three years, even compared to households that suffered serious crimes other than sexual violence. Mazurana emphasized that the long-term effects of serious wartime violations, including sexual violence, remain poorly understood – and the affected populations as a result seem to get trapped in cycles of deprivation and abuse.

In the Q&A session, the panelists discussed common themes across their various research fields. In particular, they highlighted the repeated finding that those who experience major emotional and physical trauma – as well as their offspring – seem to be systematically more likely to suffer from socio-economic shocks and experience adverse health outcomes, even after the immediate effects of mass violence have subsided. The panelists also addressed prospects for recovery and effective outside support systems. Professor Mazurana noted that with targeted and sustainable assistance, a number of former child soldiers from northern Uganda, considered by many to be “hopeless cases,” proved capable of reintegrating into society with remarkable success. She cautioned, however, that targeted assistance to the most vulnerable can often perpetuate local inequalities and local animosities. Any government and donor efforts should therefore be carefully designed to either benefit entire communities or make use of modern technologies and disbursement systems that do not put aid recipients at even greater risk.

The panel thus ended on a hopeful note: while the after-effects of mass violence transcend generations, pathways to recovery and healing do exist. However, supporting and strengthening these processes more effectively requires better knowledge of the mechanisms by which trauma and suffering get passed on – and the ways individuals and communities themselves make meaning of recurring violence.

“Am I really alive? Don’t laugh. I’ve never known.”

By Ayla Francis, MALD 2017, The Fletcher School

The production opened in a dream – a dream of what was, a dream filled with the celebration of culture, of family, of identity. And it ended with a dream of reconciliation.

The Tufts Initiative on Mass Atrocities and Genocide (IMAGe) attended the University’s Department of Drama and Dance production of Joyce Van Dyke’s Daybreak on November 6, 2015, the play’s closing weekend.  A small theater filled with a cast of only 10, the play told the story of Victoria Boyajian, an Armenian woman who is haunted by her memories of the forced displacement and genocide of 1915. Her trauma is triggered by the catastrophic 1938 hurricane in her new city of Providence, Rhode Island. The audience watched as Victoria was plagued by flashbacks of her life before coming to the United States, remarrying and attempting to start a new life as an actress. Through Victoria’s dreams, the audience was exposed to the struggle of understanding a trauma, working through one’s narrative of that experience and determining if and when that story should be told.

The performances were beautiful, powerfully demonstrating the complexity of a post-traumatic experience like genocide. It reminded the audience of what we know to be true, the underlying theme that at the very core, we are all human. We were reminded to Victoria’s role as a mother as she wailed “my children! my children!” after a memory of all of her children’s deaths during the deportation. She is a close friend. This is made very clear in her frequent flashbacks of her dear friend Varter, with whom Victoria was deported from Mezireh. Varter also lost all of her children during the deportation and ended up in the United States, creating a new life.

Victoria’s story progresses as the audience began to understand her daughter Rose. Rose’s narrative introduced another layer of complication. Her cries to Victoria raised an issue that is not always discussed – what happens when all of your family is lost in a tragedy but you remarry, have more children, and create a new life for yourself? How is the trauma from your past transmitted to your family and how does one move forward? Moving forward is not always easy nor does it always seem necessary for some survivors. Victoria’s second husband, Harry displayed that sometimes one must just move forward with their new life instead of reflecting on the past because the trauma is too great.

Daybreak ended with a reunion in the future. At 130 years old, Victoria was able to come face to face with a Turkish woman 100 years after the genocide, speak with Rose and meet her great-grandson, a historian. Collectively the characters seek to find a word to describe the place they wish to be. What is beyond forgiveness, beyond remembering, beyond revenge? Has humanity found that word and if so, is that what we need to move forward?

A small group consisting of Daybreak Director Barbara Wallace Grossman, members of the audience and cast, IMAGe Fellows, Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the World Peace Foundation and Dr. Paul Summergrad of Tufts University School of Medicine convened after the play. Barbara Grossman highlighted the importance of art bringing important issues to light, not only to tell a story but to hopefully invoke action. Trauma’s impact on our ability to develop and maintain a sense of our ourselves and our identity was raised by Dr. Summergrad. He highlighted that scientific research has shown that the transmission of trauma can and does occur through genetics and biology. This is an important consideration as focus is often on the cultural transmission of trauma. Professor Conley-Zilkic stressed the importance of looking at genocide and mass atrocities in the “long view”. In the Armenian case demonstrated in the play, the long view included the spectrum from the deportations, the damaged interpersonal relationships between Victoria, Rose, Harry and others, and the transformation of intimacy in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

This year, the international community commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide and continues to attempt a formal reconciliation process, a term that is loaded with complications. This is made even more complicated when we consider that what happened to the Armenians is still not universally considered to have been genocide. How does a community reconcile when there is no consensus about what happened? Daybreak ended on a positive note, with Armenians, Turks, and others coming together to commit to telling their stories and begin to reconcile, at the very least. Though this is not the solution, getting to that point is an important and critical start.

Stories of survival: grappling with the Armenian Genocide on stage

Showing this weekend at Balch Arena Theater, a haunting depiction of trauma and its aftermath, Joyce Van Dyke’s Daybreak is based on the true story of two survivors of the Armenian Genocide: one of them, the playwright’s maternal grandmother; the other, a woman with strong ties to Massachusetts and to Tufts. As shards of the past intersect with scenes in the present and prescient glimpses of the future, the play offers the possibility of reconciliation and healing. Without minimizing the pain of those who endured the events of 1915 and beyond, Daybreak’s focus is on courage, resilience, transformation, and the universality of hope. (Daybreak originally appeared under the title Deported/A Dream Play, produced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in association with Suffolk University and directed by Judy Braha.)

Directed by Tufts Professor of Drama and IMAGe Steering Committee member, Barbara Wallace Grossman.

You can see “Daybreak” this weekend, November 5 – 7, at 8 p.m. in Balch Arena Theater. Tickets are $10 with a Tufts ID.

For more information and ticket sales, please visit the Tufts Department of Drama and Dance website.

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