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Walking the long trail to reconciliation

[South Africa] A group of ex-combatants who have recently taken part in the ecotherapy wilderness trail. Anna Ngabayena is second from right and Sandile Ntonga is on the far. [March 2006]
Ex-combatants who have recently taken part in ecotherapy. Anna Ngabayena is second from right and Sandile Ntonga far left (Bill Corcoran/IRIN)

For the last 10 years Anna Ngabayena has been haunted by her past. The memories of the violence she encountered as a foot soldier in the African National Congress (ANC) struggle against apartheid have plagued both her dreams and waking life.

Her most vivid nightmares recall her boyfriend being beaten to death in a railway carriage by the police, his body thrown out of the moving train.

She is also disturbed by her involvement in an attempt to murder a sangoma (a traditional African healer) accused of killing a young child. The form of excution was to have been 'necklacing' - placing a car tyre over a victim's head, dousing them with petrol and setting them alight - but the healer was rescued by the police.

"What I saw and did during the struggle filled me with a deep hatred, and it led me to isolate myself from my community. Many days I thought I was going to be murdered by IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] people or the police, so I would rarely leave my home," she said.

"Neither could I sleep very well, because I always had bad dreams. During the day I would suffer from flash backs, and this made it hard to be around people."

In recent weeks things had begun to change, said Ngabayena, now 42 years old. Sitting at a table in the dilapidated resource centre at the Rietvallei township on the outskirts of the commercial capital, Johannesburg, she declared she had "found a cure" for the trauma that had afflicted her.

She had just taken part in a unique rehabilitation programme run by the National Peace Accord Trust (NPAT), which uses the natural environment as a means of coming to terms with a turbulent past.

Before joining the ecotherapy trail, a five-day group hike into the wilderness of Pswaing, near the capital, Pretoria, Ngabayena admitted she was skeptical about the unconventional approach, but since completing it she said she had "made peace with myself, and my former enemies".

Programme coordinator Tozi Sabi explained that the treatment involves setting in motion a process - via nature - that supports an individual's attempts to confront their problems.

At the height of the struggle in the townships between the ANC and the government-supported IFP, local self-defence units were formed by both sides, ostensibly to protect their communities. According to NPAT, once political parties were legalised, the role and importance of self-defence unit members quickly diminished.

"Many people who fought in the struggle still harbour feelings of anger and resentment towards the government and those they perceived as enemies. These emotions, when allowed to fester, have an extremely negative impact on a person's life," said Sabi.

"A lot of ex-combatants feel that they are owed something for the pain and hardship they have suffered. What we want to do is to try and eradicate their dependency on others, so they can lead fulfilling, independent lives."

A survey carried out by NPAT among 214 ex-combatants on both sides of the political divide found that almost two-thirds of respondents said they had received no psychological, moral or social support from the government.

That has had a knock-on effect in terms of personal relationships. The majority of former fighters said their "entire family suffered because of political violence", but no support had been forthcoming.

More than 10 years after independence, the survey also found that only 18 percent of former combatants - just seven percent of the men - had managed to obtain full-time employment. A significant 51 percent were unable to find employment of any kind.

Sandile Ntonga, 31, is another ex-fighter who has struggled to deal with the consequences of his past actions. In 1991 he was one of a group of people who tried to form an ANC Self Defence Unit in the Lunason squatter camp outside Johannesburg, then controlled by the rival IFP.

"Our leader was killed by IFP people during a riot, so we wanted revenge," he said. "I saw an IFP man on the street, so I went to him and stabbed him to death. After that I was sent to prison and I was not released until 2000."

While Ntonga was in jail his father and sister died. He maintains the combination of prison time and an inability to control events affecting his family made him extremely angry with the people he saw as his enemies.

"The problem of prison made me very angry with the world - I hated everyone, I could not help it. I joined a church and they put me in touch with this treatment. At first, when I went on it I did not know what was happening. I thought, 'how can this work?' but it did," he said.

"Many ex-combatants have been unable to come to terms with the physiological fallout from their violent past, and feel increasingly alienated from life in the new South Africa, and that is why we provide ecotherapy," Sabi commented.

The theory behind ecotherapy

Ecotherapy is based on the emerging field of eco-psychology, which looks at the relationship between our mental and emotional health and modern culture's increasing disconnection from the natural world.

The therapy is designed to help a person find balance, direction and healing in their life by strengthening their relationship with nature.

The National Peace Accord Trust (NPAT) is one of two NGOs in South Africa that operate ecotherapy wilderness trails, an activity that facilitates the treatment process. It is one of the main methods they use to address the needs of communities affected by violence.

"Ecotherapy is a therapeutic process that takes place in the wilderness, usually in close vicinity to a sacred site, as well as a water source, over a period of about five days," NPAT literature states.

"The method is premised on the notion that there is a process of awareness that operates throughout the body, and that in interaction with the physical, natural environment in the wilderness, the body makes conscious, or evokes, the trauma buried inside it."

NPAT programme coordinator Tozi Sabi says it is important to have a "sacred" site or water source at hand because participants often experience a spiritual awakening during the trail that can be magnified by a place they believe to be special. They frequently feel the need for a physical cleansing, a washing away of their past lives.

"The pressures of modern society are not conducive to clear thought. We take them out of their everyday existence so they can confront their fears without the clutter of modern living. We effectively aid a self-help approach to healing by providing a process in which it can take place," she explained.

The wilderness trail begins with a difficult group hike, which symbolises that the difficulties each individual faces are surmountable. Once they reach their destination, the group discusses the four stages in the cycle of life - birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood - to help them identify the issues affecting them.

Once these issues are identified, participants are sent alone into the bush for a 24-hour period. Known as 'isolation time', it allows them the space to reflect on the problems they have identified. In the next stage the individual returns to the group, where they consider their problems collectively.

Once they open up and share their fears, the healing process begins to take place, said Sabi. "Holding anger and pain inside is very self-destructive, and the emotions involved often manifest themselves as physical problems like headaches, nightmares and flash backs," she commented.

"By opening up and talking they start a mental emancipation, and it has visible affects straight away: they begin to relax and become less guarded, and often tell the group secrets they have never told anyone before. Hearing about these experiences also helps others to identify and purge themselves of the barriers they have created in response to their emotional pain," she said.

Between one and two months after going on an ecotherapy trail, the individuals involved meet again to take part in a support group session, which helps them tackle any problems that have arisen since returning to everyday life.

Ntonga said the five-day trek through the wilderness gave him the time to think deeply about his problems with anger and hate, and he came to the conclusion that he was alone in the world because of his inability to reconcile with people.

"Now I think that if I have a problem with someone, then I will take it to court. When I try to take things into my own hands, I fail. Inside, now I am a different person; now I take things cool when I have problem," he said.

For Ngabayena, being able to talk to others who had experienced similar traumas and suffered similar reactions was the most important aspect of the therapy.

"The process, the togetherness and the energy from people - that made it all possible for me. At first it was strange because I did not want to open up; I did not want to trust the people with me. But the good energy made me at ease.

"There has been a change since the trail. I can sleep now, although I still have bad dreams. I had a lot of resentment towards IFP people and whites, but now I realise we are all just humans," she concluded.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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