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The Trauma And Beyond Trauma
of Political Displacement:
An Exploratory Case Study of
One White Zimbabwean Farmer

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2006-1

The Trauma And Beyond Trauma of Political Displacement:
An Exploratory Case Study of One White Zimbabwean Farmer

Professor Zelda G Knight, Department of Psychology, Rhodes University, 6140, Grahamstown, SOUTH AFRICA. Email: z.knight@ru.ac.za
Keywords: Political, Displacement, Zimbabwe, Trauma, Farmers, Aftermath, Psychologica

Professor Zelda G Knight

Department of Psychology
Rhodes University, 6140


The world is witnessing a mass movement of between 15 to 20 million displaced persons and refugees. This speaks to the global political instability of many nations. Zimbabwe is one of those nations, with its lack of democratic principles and freedoms as well as gross human rights abuses. It is within this context that many Zimbabweans have been politically displaced. Three phases of displacement have been identified in the literature but these lack a psychological developmental process. Not much has been documented regarding the experience of displaced persons in Zimbabwe, especially of individuals of European descent. The focus of this article is to describe and understand the experience of one white Zimbabwean farmer in the aftermath of being politically displaced. To this end, an attempt is made to describe the psychological developmental process of the experience of displacement. A phenomenological - interpretative approach was adopted, with qualitative methods of data collection and data analysis used. An in-depth investigation of a single case study was selected. The notion of psychological growth in the aftermath of trauma is often overlooked, and this participant displayed a remarkable ability for self-determination and personal growth. Conclusions reached are a) it is possible to experience psychological growth in the aftermath of the trauma of political displacement, and b) this case points to the possible mapping out of a psychological developmental process of displacement.

The Trauma And Beyond Trauma of Political Displacement:
An Exploratory Case Study of One White Zimbabwean Farmer


There is an increasing attention paid to the world-wide phenomenon of political displacement. It is estimated that between 15 to 20 million people are currently displaced (IDP Database, 2003; Leus, Wallace, & Lorretti, 2001; Turner, Bowie, Dunn, Shapo, & Yule, 2003). This is a vulnerable group, exposed to new hazards and open to greater risks for the development of illness and death, mental disorders and further persecution and violence (Kerimova, Posner, Brown, Hillis, Meikle, & Duerr, 2003; Leus, et al., 2001; Porter & Haslam, 2001). The movement of displaced people contributes to strains on the local health care systems, and often host populations end up sharing the suffering of the displaced (Haug, 2002; Shami, 1993; Grein, Checci, Escriba, Tamrat, Karunakara, Stokes, Brown, & Legros, 2003).

Although Zimbabwe has a record of human rights abuses spanning three decades, in the past five years there has emerged a record of increased human rights violations and intimidation, organised violence and torture (OVT), murder and rape, as well as high levels of poverty and unemployment (Blair, 2002; Hill, 2003; Human Rights Forum, 2000, 2003). In addition, there is evidence of an epidemic of AIDS and a lack of adequate response to this health risk. There is governmental corruption, an absence of democratic principles and freedoms, and a controversial government land re-distribution policy (Alexander, McGregor, & Ranger, 2000; Amani Trust, 2002, 2003; Hammar, Raftopoulos, & Jensen, 2003; Hill, 2003; Human Rights Forum, 2000, 2003; IDP Database, 2003).

Since the referendum in 2000, it is estimated that 90% of all white Zimbabwean farmers and their families were politically displaced as a result of the Zimbabwean government’s policy of land re-distribution (Alexander, McGregor, & Ranger, 2000; Hammar, et al., 2003; Hill, 2003; Stiff, 2000). Little is understood of the experience of displacement for Zimbabweans of European descent. The psychologically-informed research in the area of specifically white Zimbabwean farmers political displacement is disappointingly scant. Knight and Wallace (2004) explored the psycho-social effects of the political violence directed against two white Zimbabwean women farmers. They discovered that the lived-experiences of these two participants during the last three years in Zimbabwe have been profoundly stressful, and in many circumstances, traumatic. The continuous threat and pressure of the on-going political violence and unrest was noted to be especially stressful. This research however, did not draw attention to the process of displacement nor the psychological impact of the stages of displacement.

Definition and process of displaced people

The forced migration literature lacks consensus regarding the definition of displaced people perhaps because there are different groups of displaced persons. Despite this, two broad groups of displaced persons are identified according to the nature of the displacement (Thomas & Thomas, 2004). These two groups are; a) groups of internally displaced people (IDPs) who are displaced within the borders of their country, and b) refugees and asylum seekers who are displaced internationally (across borders). For the purposes of this research, an internally displaced person is, and loosely based on the United Nations    (See footnote 1)  definition, someone who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is forcibly removed from their present home and residence within their country and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return.

Three phases or stages of the process of displacement can be identified (Thomas & Thomas, 2004). The first phase, ‘Pre-flight’, is characterised by a vulnerable group being susceptible to the effects of conflict and persecution. This vulnerability may be the result of poverty, poor housing, violence and intimidation, ethnicity, religion, or limited access to resources such as health services. The second phase, ‘Flight’, is the actual process of forced removals. The risks associated with flight include a lack of basic necessities such as water, shelter and food. Added to this would be the lack of access to emergency services, and possibly poor sanitary conditions. The third phase, ‘Post-flight’, is the process of arriving at their destination and attempting to find some stability and access basic needs, as well as a way forward in re-building their lives (Thomas & Thomas, 2004). Although this three-stage process of displacement is helpful to an extent, it does not give an account of the concomitant psychological impact of displacement of each stage and thus does not provide a developmental perspective of the process.

The experience of displacement

The psychological impact of war trauma on civilians reveals a disturbingly high level of social upheaval and economic plight (Krippner & McIntyre, 2003). Although Zimbabwe is not officially a war zone, the political upheaval in that country appears to closely resemble a country at war with its own citizens (Hill,2003). Traumatic stories of survivors, of not only acts of war, but other trauma, indicate the psychological difficulties they endure (Rogers, Leydesdorff, & Dawson, 1999). Such stories also hint at the possibility of growth in the aftermath of suffering (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995).

The Amani Trust (2002)    (See footnote 2)  and the IDP database (2003) have produced preliminary reports on a survey on internally displaced black Zimbabweans from commercial farms in Zimbabwe. The Amani Trust (2002) report focuses on 139 politically displaced black farm workers. This report provides valuable information on the pre-flight and post-flight experience of political displacement in Zimbabwe. Such experience included a high percentage of reported torture and physical assault (71%), with the spouse usually witnessing the violence (78%) as well as a high percentage of psychological torture such as verbal abuse (85%), threats against person (82%), false accusations (83%), witness of simulated execution (33%). In addition, the report indicates that the most commonly reported psychological impact was PTSD, but other forms of disorders, such as depression, were also commonly reported. Furthermore, such trauma had a negative impact on the state of physical health, with reports of headaches, dizziness, impaired concentration and memory, numbness and or overall pain in the body, chest, abdominal and back pain as well as nausea. The report also suggests that any political affiliation has been highly problematic in recent years, indicating that the black farm workers belonging to a political opposition group would be at risk, and displaced from the farm. Can the same be said of the experiences for the white farmers who were also displaced and dispossessed? Did belonging to a political party also make them a target? Did they also experience physical and emotional problems similar to these black farm workers or similar to the white women farmers, as documented by Knight and Wallace (2004)?

Definition and effects of trauma

The American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) defines a traumatic event as one in which the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event, or events, that involved actual or threatened death, or serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of the person or others. Linked to this definition is that events or situations that are experienced as traumatic are defined as events or situations normally outside of individuals usual experience, and which, by most standards, would be deemed difficult to cope with because the usual repertoire of coping skills are not sufficient (Aldwin, 1994; Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995).

In the past two decades research into trauma has mushroomed into well over 20,000 articles. However, literature on coping with trauma as a result of being politically displaced is meagre. What is available are mostly reports by Human Rights Forums and other organisations working for the elimination of human rights abuses. Research on trauma indicates that individuals exposed to stressful events are likely to experience a constellation of distressing emotions. Although the specific pattern will vary from person to person, it can be argued that unpleasant emotional states are likely to occur (Cameron, 2000; Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). Post-trauma symptomology (features of PTSD) or PTSD is the most commonly reported psychological impact of trauma (Parkinson, 1993; Paton, 2003; Paton, Violanti, & Smith, 2003; Sattler, Preston, Kaiser, Oliviera, Valdez, Schleuter, 2002). In addition, these negative emotions result in changes in behaviour and thought patterns as well as changes to the body (Etherington, 2003; Frank, 1995). The idea that ‘the body remembers’ trauma relates to the notion that memory is ‘stored in’ the tissues of the body, and remembering trauma is also a bodily re-experiencing of the trauma (Rothschild, 2000; van der Kolk, 1987, 1994).

Other psychological responses to trauma include depression (Rothschild, 2000), ‘traumatic grief’ (Jacobs, 1999), anger and irritability (McCann, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1988; Thompson, 1995), guilt (Raphael, 1986, Van der Wal, 1990), fear and anxiety (Etherington, 2000; Whitfield, 1995), stress and ‘traumatic stress’ (Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995). Depression is so common in people dealing with trauma and major losses, its absence is sometimes regarded as a sign of mental disorder, although this notion has been challenged (Calhoun & Atkeson, 1991). Although the nature of a trauma, the age of the victim, predisposing personality traits, and community response all have an important effect on ultimate posttraumatic adaptation, the core features of posttraumatic syndrome are fairly constant across these variables (van der Kolk, 1987). Would white displaced farmers find some support from their community or become isolated and vulnerable because the community is also displaced and dispersed? What impact would the community response or lack of response have on the experience of displacement?

Coping with trauma

The literature on trauma and coping indicate that coping strategies have a direct impact on the psychological and physical response to the trauma (Davis, Lehman, Wortman, Silver, Thompson, 1995; Delhanty, Herberman, Craig, Hayward, Fullerson, Ursano, & Baum, 1997; Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995; Helgeson, Cohen, Schulz, & Yasko, 2000; Holman & Silver, 1998; Linley, 2000). How individuals appraise situations is the primary determinant of how they cope (Stone, Schwartz, Neale, Shiffman, Marco, Hickox, Paty, Porter, & Cruise, 1998; Tennen, Affleck, Armeli, & Carney, 2000). The main appraisals are benign, threat, harm / loss, and challenge (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) and these are influenced both by environmental demands and individual beliefs and values (Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Zeidner & Saklofske, 1996). In the Zimbabwean context, it is documented that two female displaced farmers appraised the situation as extremely threatening (Knight & Wallace, 2004) but more research is needed to know if there are other kinds of appraisal by displaced white farmers. Furthermore, there are different types of coping such as problem-focussed coping and emotion-focussed coping (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), social support (Smythe, 1998; Lee, Vaillant, Torrey, & Elder, 1995), religious coping (Pargament, 1997), self-disclosure to empathic persons (Rook; 1998; Silver, Holman, & Gil-Rivas, 2000), and making meaning (Mikulincer & Florian, 1996; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). What kinds of coping strategies did other white displaced farmers use? Making meaning is a coping strategy that is least well understood. It is uncertain whether displaced black Zimbabweans use this making meaning strategy in a different way compared to displaced white Zimbabweans. The strategy of making meaning entails both a reappraisal or reinterpretation of not only the event but also the context of the event in a person’s life. In this sense, trauma may involve a search for meaning (Wortman, Battle, & Lemkau, 1997). Making meaning therefore involves trying to make sense of the crisis or problem, and it includes strategies as thinking positively and looking for the best in the worst. It is the attempt to find something good about the crisis. Making meaning may be most often used in coping with extreme stressors, such as trauma or major losses (Mikulincer & Florian, 1996). Given that the experience of political displacement in Zimbabwe for black farm workers is one of persecution and violence, it becomes important to understand how, in the face of the trauma and adversity, black and white displaced persons make meaning of their experience, and what these meanings may be.

Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) envisages stress and coping responses as being influenced by a number of factors, including usual coping style, personality factors, tangible resources, social support, and concurrent life stressors. What would these personality factors, tangible resources and concurrent life stressors be for the white displaced farmers? Would some of these factors have an impact on the tendency to make more positive meanings out of the situation and appraisal the experiences as less threatening and traumatic?

It may be useful to adopt the concept of trauma as an extended on-going process rather than as a single event (Eyre, 1998). This idea includes understanding crisis or trauma as a cumulative process extended over time and space. Furthermore, the concepts of recovery or rehabilitation in the latter stages of the trauma need to be operationalised in a way that looks beyond the first few months and years to address the social, legal, and political systems in place to respond to disasters since they will determine the nature of lessons learned as well as the processes of accountability and responsibility (Eyre, 1998). It is perhaps only over time that a fuller understanding is made regarding the impact of, and recovery from, trauma, and in this case, the trauma of political displacement. It is thus necessary to contribute to what is known by adding more case material to the white experience in order that a wider understanding of this process can be achieved.

Psychological growth in the aftermath of trauma

As indicated, the way individuals perceive an event or trauma rather than the event itself has a marked impact on how they cope. Research suggests that in the shadow of the trauma and the possibility of making meaning lies the potential for the trauma to constitute a major source of psychological growth and positive personality change (Aldwin & Sutton, 1998; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998). Victims come to adopt a perspective of having survived and use this survival experience for inner growth, demonstrating a psychological resilience. Could the use of trauma in this way be a possibility for some white displaced farmers? This recognition of the positive effects of trauma or the psychological growth in the aftermath of trauma is still in its infancy. Although there are only a few studies that have provided direct information on the kinds of perceived benefits reported by respondents, there are consistencies in the available data. Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) have organised ‘this psychological growth’ into three categories of experience, namely, changes in a) self-perception, b) interpersonal relationships, and c) philosophy of life. These three categories are described below.

One of the benefits cited by some survivors of trauma is positive changes in perceptions of the self. These survivors have testified that they experienced ‘emotional growth’ as a positive outcome of dealing with their trauma difficulties (Affleck, Allen, Tennen, McGrade, & Ratzan, 1985; Affleck, Tennen, & Gershman, 1985; Jacobs, 1999; Rogers & Leydesdorff, 2004). Some people dealing with bereavement (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1990, Hamera & Shontz, 1978; Jacobs, 1999), surviving massive burns and disfigurement to the body (Andreasen & Norris, 1972), surviving sinking ships (Joseph, Williams, & Yule, 1997), victimisation (Collins, Taylor, & Skokan, 1990), surviving being a prisoner of war (Aldwin, Levenson, & Spiro, 1994) have reported a variety of positive changes resulting from their struggle to come to terms with their emotional pain and distress. They report feeling stronger and more self assured, as well as more self-reliant and less vulnerable. Living through life traumas may provide a sense of confidence and competence, as well as the likelihood of addressing future difficulties with more assertiveness (Aldwin & Sutton, 1998; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Rogers, et al., 1999; Tedeschi, et al., 1998). In addition, it appears that some survivors experience a sense of pride in managing the effects of the trauma, and this has made them feel a willingness to take risks (Tedeschi, et al., 1998). It is suggested too that those who feel a sense of control over events experience a sense of well-being, and this enhances a sense of self-reliance and personal strength. Can the same be said of displaced Zimbabwean persons?

It is evident that surviving trauma may also lead to an enhanced appreciation of one’s vulnerability, sensitivity and emotional experience as well as a change in relationships with others (Rogers & Leydesdorff, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Pargament, 1997). Research suggests that when people are confronted with traumatic events, the apparent continuing need for contact with others and the opportunity to discuss experiences may lead them to become more open and more self-disclosing as well as risk trusting. The recognition that others may be willing to listen allows for emotional expressiveness, perhaps not experienced before (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Pargament, 1997).

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that surviving trauma may result, for some, in an increased appreciation of being alive and a thankfulness for their own existence (Affleck, et al., 1985; Rogers & Leydesdorff, 2004; Wortman, et al., 1997). This increased value in life may be expressed in changing life priorities and assessing what is important (Klass, 1987). This research suggests that trauma has brought them to a pivotal point in their lives where there has been a ‘reckoning time’ in which they feel their lives have changed for the better. Such a change in the philosophy of life may entail a spiritual component or the strengthening of religious beliefs and practice (Pargament, 1990, 1997).

It appears that the process of assimilating the trauma into the life narrative and allowing for possible assumptions of life to be transformed for the better involves great effort and determination (Krippner & McIntyre, 2003; Pargament, 1997; Rogers, et al., 1999; Rogers & Leydesdorff, 2004; Wortman, et al., 1997). Despite these efforts and profound changes that are reported in some survivors, outcomes of trauma are perceived by these survivors as beneficial (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). Are there certain forms of trauma where this kind of growth-inducing response is more likely than others? The current trauma literature does not provide answers to these questions. It may not be possible, given the exploratory nature of this research, to answer these questions but it is important to pose such questions in the attempt to broaden the view of trauma as not necessarily negative.

As indicated, the literature on forced migration suggests that there are three phases of the process of political displacement (Thomas & Thomas, 2004) and that these phases are characterised by a sequentially progressive move towards obtaining some kind of stability and possible resettlement. This notion of phases is helpful to an extent but these phases seem to lack a description of possible psychological themes or pattern of experiences. The three phases of displacement from a psychological developmental perspective has not been documented in the literature. This omission results in a lack of knowledge regarding this important aspect of the process. This case study was instrumental in being able to provide some idea as to what the psychological developments may be.


The case study research method was adopted (Edwards, 1996, 1998; Yin, 1993, 2003) with a focus on the phenomenological-interpretative approach. The value and validity of single case studies in psychology has been demonstrated in its ability to form the basis of the building blocks of psychological knowledge (Edwards, 1996, 1998; Gillham, 2000; Gomm & Hammersley, 2000). In keeping with a single case study, depth of understanding was given a higher premium than attempts to generalise the findings to the wider population of displaced people or trauma victims.

Five randomly selected white Zimbabwean displaced farmers and their families were invited to participate in the research. The inclusion criteria for the displaced farmers was 1) a minimum of ten consecutive years farming in Zimbabwe, 2) racially classified as white, 3) a Zimbabwean citizen, 4) displaced for 18 months or more so as to capture both the short-term and long-term effects, and 5) a willingness to share their experiences. The experience of one of the five participants was selected to be documented and described as his material was judged psychologically rich and detailed. His experience was also the most intriguing in terms of the experience in re-building his life and the apparent psychological growth in the aftermath of being politically displaced. Details and names of people and places have been changed so as to protect the identity of the participant and his family.

Data was collected by means of researcher-participant observation (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999) and face-to-face semi-structured interviews (Kvale, 1996; Seidman, 1998). Interviews lasted about two hours each and three interviews per participant were conducted. Where it was considered necessary, follow-up discussion and clarification was done. In addition, participant confirmation of the transcribed interview material was sought and provided. In line with the process of qualitative research, participants were co-opted into being co-researchers and took an active part in what was finally documented with regard to their experiences. They had the opportunity to expand or delete the material, and could continue the discussion through e-mail (because by that time the researcher had left the country). The data was coded, categorised and summarised by way of content analysis (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999).

Results and discussion

The participant, a male aged 45 years old, was born and educated in Zimbabwe. He was conscripted and served in the Rhodesian Army during the Liberation War of the 1970s, although he called it the “Terrorist Bush War”. He farmed tobacco in the northern part of Zimbabwe. The farm belonged to his father-in-law but the participant had spent 15 years working the farm. He reports that eighteen months ago, the so-called “war vets” came onto his property and demanded that he leave within 24 hours. These war vets were black youths claiming they fought in the Liberation War and that their land had been stolen by the whites. The discussion below is separated into the three phases of displacement and incorporates the psychological developmental process of this experience.

Pre-flight phase

The events leading up to the displacement
The participant reports that this part of the experience of being politically displaced was “very traumatic” and “highly stressful”. He initially ignored the demand to vacate his home and leave his farm and instead appealed to the police for protection. The police ignored him. Over the next few weeks these war vets came to his house and prevented all farming work and processes from taking place. They continuously harassed him in the form of verbal abuse and insults, racial hate speech and death threats. He was also falsely accused of crimes. During this pre-flight stage, the war vets also systematically destroyed his property, farming equipment, trucks and cars, and trashed and burnt his home while he was forced to witness this. The Amani Trust (2000) report describes the violence and intimidation of black farm workers, and lists the kinds of de-humanising actions taken against them during the pre-flight process of displacement. This white farmer and his family experienced similar experiences of violence and intimation, but, he admits, not to the same degree as the farm labourers. He was never physically assaulted. Instead he experienced other kinds of violence as viewed them as extremely distressing as he believed he would be killed, never knowing if the death threats were real. This experience confirms that trauma is an event or situation in which individuals normally coping strategies as insufficient, and by most standards, most would have difficulty in coping. He reports that this period lasted about three months, with the levels of violence increasing and the damage to property becoming more extensive.

Emotional response and coping
During this time, he and his family suffered from symptomatic features of PTSD such as intense fear, helplessness and emotional numbing. He also experienced recurrent distressing dreams as well as feeling as if the events were recurring. This made him feel hypervigilant and tense. This response to the trauma confirms that a common feature of trauma is PTSD or symptoms of that disorder (Parkinson, 1993; Paton, 2003; Paton, Violanti, & Smith, 2003; Sattler, Preston, Kaiser, Oliviera, Valdez, & Schleuter, 2002). He describes this period as the worse of the entire process of being displaced because he never knew what to expect. He was constantly fearful and anxious. A way of coping was to attempt to ignore the death threats and verbal abuse, and while in public put on “a brave face”, but in the private sphere he was not coping and would feel frightened and vulnerable. Depression was a major emotional response and he often just stared at a blank TV screen after the family went to bed at night.

The experience of painful and distressing emotions confirms the literature that reports that unpleasant emotional states are likely to occur as a result of trauma (Cameron, 2000; Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). In this case, the pre-flight phase of displacement can be described as ‘traumatic stress’ (Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995), and coping strategies are minimally functioning. This phase can also be described as one in which all inner resources are stretched to the limit and the main appraisal of the situation is one of ‘threat’ (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Feelings of depression and fear were predominant, confirming the research documenting some of the common emotional responses to trauma are depression and anxiety (Calhoun & Atkeson, 1992), as well as mirroring some of the psychological experiences that the two white Zimbabwean women ex-farmers had endured (Knight & Wallace, 2004). Moreover, the participant reports that the white farming community had largely been displaced and dispersed at this time. This community support being non-existent increased his feelings of depression and anxiety. The farming community had consistently been a source of friendship and assistance in times of trouble. This loss had a negative effect on his ability to cope with the continuous trauma characteristic of this phase. There was no one to talk to or ask for help. Perceived community support is one factor among other factors that can assist individuals in coping with trauma and the posttraumatic adaptation (Davis, et al., 1995; Delhanty, et al., 1997; van der Kolk, 1997). The lack of police protection heightened his sense of vulnerability.

Flight phase

Leaving the farm
The decision to leave was a family decision and hinged on the perceived lack of security on the farm and the lack of police protection for his family. He feared for their lives as well as his own. The witnessing the damage to property was unbearable and the constant verbal abuse and hate speech was unendurable. The situation had reached a stage where he could no longer “put on a brave face”. There was no government re-location plan so the participant was forced to make his own arrangements as to where to go. The experience of flight was emotionally distressing. He reports he continued to display the same kinds of feelings he had experienced before leaving (pre-flight) but that he was relieved to go as it meant the end of a “bad situation in which there are no winners”.

Not much is documented in the literature on this phase of displacement with regard to the psychological impact. Based on this case, it seems that there was only a marginal change in the emotionally distressing experience, that being one of relief as an escape from an intolerable situation is immanent. The literature on displacement is also silent about the time duration of this process. This will depend on how much time is given to pack up and move (as in the case of forced removals) and how far the displaced persons need to travel to the new location as well as the means of travel. In this case, the distance was 150 km and it took only less than two hours to reach the new location. This participant had two days to pack up from the moment of the decision to leave, and there was one small truck and a private car to transport their belongings into the city. This is an important aspect as it indicates that the participant did have various tangible resources such as finances, his own transportation and fuel (in a time where fuel was scarce). Without diminishing this traumatic episode of leaving, it is apparent that he had the essentials required to make the move to another location and where he had also signed a lease on a house in the city.

Post-flight phase: 0 - 6 months

Emotional response and coping
The participant reported that in the first six months after being displaced he continued to experienced post-trauma symptomology such as intense fear, helplessness, intrusive and distressing recollections of the event, sleeplessness and hypervigilance. At that point he did not seek supportive psychotherapy as he considered it unhelpful and expensive. It is uncertain what the outcome would have been had he sought psychotherapy as a means of coping. In addition, during this time he continued to experience and express (to his family) states of fear and anxiety about being attacked in his new home in the city. He also continued to experience unwanted and intrusive memories of the pre-flight experiences. The anxiety and excessive worry about being attacked is also understandable given the nature of the trauma and the direct links to his experience of violence and intimidation, as reflected in the work of Alexander, et al., (2000), Amani Trust, (2002), Hill, (2003) and IDP Database (2003). In this context, he took advantage of emotion-focussed coping (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) and self-disclosure with its potential of buffer, to some extent, the effects of the trauma. He also suffered from stress-related medical problems in the form of a stomach ulcer. This health problem confirms research that there is a direct relationship between high stress levels and health problems (Hodgkinson & Stewart, 1991; Somerfield & McCrae, 2000). It seems that although he was in touch with his anxiety it is possible that he somatised this stress. It is also possible that his unwanted memories of the pre-flight experience were embodied, perhaps confirming the literature that the body remembers (Rothschild, 2000). This on-going stress or continuous trauma was compounded by the fact that he did not seem to have social support beyond his family during this time, and there was no indication of using religion as a means of coping.

Making meaning of the process as a way of coping
During this period the participant attempted to make some sense of the experience. He reported that the displacement of white farmers had nothing to do with land re-distribution and more to do with racial discrimination and election campaigning. It seems that for him what made sense was that the issue of white displacement was fundamentally an issue of racial discrimination. The notion of trying to make sense of an event or trauma assumes that this is a way of coping with trauma. This meaning-making process (Mikulincer & Florian, 1996) cannot always be assumed to be helpful in coping with trauma. Instead it may worsened the situation if the meaning making process results in a negative self-appraisal. This displaced farmer experienced himself as a victim of racial discrimination.

For the participant the worst thing in being politically displaced was not the loss of the farm but how his workers betrayed him, and turned away when he most needed their support and loyalty. He remarked, “Losing the farm was one thing, I can get over that, but what was even worse than losing the farm was the betrayal (of the workers). They turned on me. Made things really difficult. I had been really good to them. Provided for their needs beyond what I had to. I did more than was required. I felt betrayed by them. After all that I had done for them, for all the years of secure work that they got, after everything good that happened to them as workers on my farm, they did not support, they turned on me. I am angry because they betrayed me”. The loss of the farm, the displacement itself was not as traumatic as being betrayed by the workers.

Although there are a variety of emotional responses to trauma (Freedy & Hobfoll, 1995; McCann, et al., 1988; Raphael, 1986; Thompson, 1995; Van der Wal, 1990) the response of betrayal is not one widely documented, although it may be more common in the case of political displacement. It is possible that the perceived injustice of being displaced was overshadowed by the bitter disappointment and loss of hope in what was presumed to be a kind of reciprocal relationship between him and his workers. He perceived himself to be a fair-handed farmer and when he was not supported by the workers, this experience negatively altered his perception of the workers. There is no indication that his self-perception changed and as a result of this experience, he identified himself as a victim.

There is no evidence that he questioned his part in the betrayal, both personally and on a collective level. He seemed to think it was justified in the way he felt and that the workers owed him something. He also reported feeling betrayed by the government in that he had contributed to the economy, paid his taxes, and provided jobs for black labourers. He believes the same government targeted him and his farm. Perhaps, on the one hand, his anger towards the collective government masks his denial of his own personal powerlessness and lack of control in an uncontrollable situation. Perhaps, on the other hand, the distress and pain of white displacement may also reflect the lack of collective responsibility in the political situation that led up to the displacement. In this case, the sense of betrayal may imply a lack of insight on the part of the white farmer into the political dynamics between himself and his black labourers. Unlike the Amani Trust (2002) report that indicated that black labourers were displaced because of their political affiliation, in this case the participant was not a member of a political party. The displacement of this white farmer hinged around the occupation of land and not political party affiliation. Whether his perceptions of being racially discriminated against are accurate or not, it remains that the process of forced removals had a negative effect on his attitude towards Black people.

Linked to this meaning-making process of viewing himself as being betrayed, and the racial relations between himself and his black labourers, is the theme of loss of trust in working with Black people. During the post-flight phase, the participant experienced a loss of trust in working with Black people. He reported that when his farm workers betrayed him on the farm, he lost a trust in not only them but all black people. This loss of trust has continued to the present day. He said, “I can never work with them (blacks) again. I have lived with them, and I have observed how they are to each other and to me. I will never want to work with them again. They are not worth my trust”. It is possible that the pre-flight and post-flight phase of displacement may create a loss of trust in people who are perceived to have colluded with the process of displacement. Based on this particular case, such loss of trust can be both short-termed and long-termed. Trust, or the lack of it, seems to be a reasonable response.

However, in the context of a multi-racial society like Zimbabwe, the negative impact of a loss of trust between inter-racial relations does not facilitate the development of a process of reconciliation and reparation. The literature on politically displaced persons does not pay much attention to this loss of trust as an effect of being displaced, and very little is documented on how such loss of trust may be restored in the service of better racial relations. Rather, it is assumed somehow that internally displaced persons will simply psychologically ‘move on’ and forget the past. It is perhaps this oversight that leads to a sense that ‘if one can betray me, they all can” (he lost a trust in not only black workers but all black people).

Post-flight phase: 6 - 12 months

Emotional response and coping
In the past six to twelve months he reported that he continued to experience anger and moderate states of anxiety, but to a lesser extent than the previous six months. The feelings of intense fear, helplessness and emotional numbing, characteristic of the pre-flight phase, were now non-existent. The intrusive and unwanted thoughts that persisted in the first six months were also less. He continued however, to feel bitter and betrayed by his workers, and his sense of being a victim in this regard did not change. He also continued to feel a loss of trust for black people in general, and black farm labourers specifically. Despite these continued feelings of betrayal and loss of trust, he claims he used this time to focus on re-building his disrupted life. It seems that he used mostly the problem-focused coping strategy, as described by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) to deal with the immediate impact of the trauma of being displaced. In this regard, he became ‘business-like’ in his focus to work out what needed to be done in order to move beyond the crisis. He analysed the situation and made strategic plans to solve his problems. This motivation was not present before this time.
This fundamental shift marks a distinctive point in feeling more settled. Perhaps predictably, his ulcer healed. The reason for feeling more settled, despite a lack of social support beyond his family, is in his re-appraisal of the events and consequences of being displaced. The shift indicates that it is possible to recover from trauma despite no social support or psychotherapy and counselling. Perhaps this recovery is because there was no psychotherapy of crisis counselling which calls into question the current understanding of placing traumatised people in crisis counselling or other forms of therapy in order for them to recover. This is not to suggest that professional help is to be ignored or is unnecessary. More research is needed to assess when crisis counselling should be offered and in what circumstances, and for what kinds of clients. The question remains, why the shift and thus why the re-appraisal?

Beyond trauma: Psychological growth in the aftermath of displacement
Farming was all he knew and the pressure to find an alternative means of income was intense and critical for survival. Perhaps it is this fear of not surviving that gave rise to a sense of determination to succeed. He remarked, “When I was first chased off the farm I had enough money for six months but I needed to get something going. I could not sit and do nothing. I was always busy on the farm and so I had to get up and get going with something. I could have gone the other way and become depressed and done nothing about things. It would have been easy. But I knew better. I had to get going. But I was not so sure what to do”. The sense of determination to begin again, coupled with an anxiety about the future is evident. This determination was not always present. In the initial days after being displaced he was consumed with anger and paralysed by the perception of being a victim. Now as the months passed, the need to focus on generating an income became paramount. He would not allow himself to become passive and give up, to sit around and do nothing, feeling self-pity and beaten. Instead he reported that it was important that he felt “productive in some way”, that he became actively involved again in re-building a life for himself and his family. This positive and renewed appraisal of the situation was one way he managed to cope with the experience of being displaced.

This appraisal confirms existing research that how individuals appraise situations is the primary determinant of how they cope (Stone, et al., 1998; Tennen, et al., 2000). Such appraisals may include threat, harm/loss, benign, and challenge (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). His appraisal of the situation was now one of challenge and opportunity, not as a threat, unlike during the experience on the farm before the move (pre-flight).

During this period he began to explore his first but unspoken passion - creative painting and sculpting. He explained, “I knew that I had always wanted to be an artist and to paint, and this longing had not gone away”. He wanted to find out if he could somehow become an artist but was not sure how to go about it. At first he felt too angry and bitter about being betrayed to be motivated, but he also realised he needed to find work and re-build his disrupted life. He remarked, “At the time there was Mr X (a famous national painter) who invited me to his studio. He was very encouraging and really urged me to get going with painting. But he was also preparing to leave the country, his son had died the previous year, and he was in the process of getting a divorce. Then I came along. So he did not have much time for me but he tried. Then I met Mr Y at a party and I spoke to him. He was an internationally renowned artist with a world reputation. He lived out of town about 100 km away and invited me out there. He had his studio there on a small plot of land. I would travel out to him every week and spend a lot of time being taught to paint under his supervision. He was inspiring and very keen to support me and get me started. I began to work with him more and more. Eventually I was painting most of the day every day and things were really working well”.

This experience was the start of becoming an artist and finding a way forward. It was the uncovering of an unspoken yearning and the development of hidden potential. It seems that in the face of misfortune and crisis, as in this case, there is potentially an opportunity to re-invent oneself. It is as if the trauma of displacement for this participant provided an opportunity for an inner journey of self-discovery. This understanding confirms the notion, offered by such researchers as Aldwin and Sutton (1998) and Tedeschi, et al., (1998) that trauma may constitute for some survivors a major source of psychological growth. It seems that in losing the farm he found himself. He explained, “I am happier than I was when I was farming. This is the best thing to happen to me. Who knows, if I had stayed farming, this (painting) would never have happened. I would never have become an artist” Not only did he ‘find himself’ through the painting, he acquired new and positive changes in self-perception such as a sense of greater happiness, confidence, competence and self-reliance. This change in self-perception refers to the enabling effects of successfully coping with the trauma resulting in an enhanced sense of competence and control, as well as increased personal strength (Aldwin & Sutton, 1998; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Rogers, et al., 1999; Tedeschi, et al., 1998).

Moreover, it seems that he also experienced the trauma as bringing him closer to his wife and into a more meaningful marriage. His experience confirms the literature that improved interpersonal relationships in the aftermath of suffering and trauma are possible and that surviving trauma may lead to a greater sensitivity in relation to others (Jacobs, 1999; Rogers & Leydesdorff, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Pargament, 1997).

The research has also indicated that there are factors such as tangible resources, concurrent life stressors and personality traits that influence coping responses (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Mikulincer & Florian, 1996). It is evident that some of these factors did have an impact on the participant’s tendency to make more positive meanings out of a normally distressful situation and appraise this situation as a challenge and opportunity for person growth. Once this farmer had moved to the city, there were resources available for him to explore possibilities. He was able to travel to the artist’s home who later became his mentor. He was also able to support his family while this potential work opportunity was being more firmly established. He had the financial resources and thus it was possible for him to pursue other directions and develop his talents. It is not possible to know, based on this single case study, that there are certain forms of trauma where this kind of growth-inducing response is more likely to occur. It is suggested however, that if perceptions prior to the trauma are generally optimistic, then it is more likely that the response to the trauma may not be as distressing, and the potential to transform adversity into a growth facilitating process is more likely. There is some evidence that this participant viewed his displacement as something positive in that it allowed him to pursue other interests that would not have been developed had he remained on the farm. Although the experience was traumatic for him, he also was much happier than he had been while on the farm.

Post-flight phase: 12 - 18 months

During this time the participant expressed that he had now moved forward with his life and could “see a future” for himself. This kind of positive affirmation and a sense of a future is not possible in the earlier stages of post-flight. There was too much of a focus on coping and surviving. Now that re-settlement was more stable, the participant began to make social contact with neighbours, and this widening social network assisted him to maintain a positive outlook as he was encouraged by these new friends. This is the period at which he could “stand back” and be more objective about the experience. Some negative emotions previously experienced, such as depression and anxiety, did occasionally return. The depression at this time was more about the loss of the friendships of the other ex-farmers, many of whom had left the country. It is as if in finding new friends and connecting with neighbours painfully reminded him of these lost friendships. This implies that the depression was not so much about losing the farm and the way of living, rather the depression was about losing the friendships. He remarked concerning this, “now we are all ‘Scatterlings of Africa’, dispersed and spread out and never to return”. One psych-social consequence of being politically displaced is this loss of community and friendship, as well as the sense of familiarity and belonging. It is possible to psychologically and socially survive for a while without this community, but it seems that such support, as in this case, is soon sought after, and once again becomes a valuable asset in the process of recovery and re-settlement.


The forced migration literature indicates that displaced people experience hardships and are especially vulnerable to persecution and victimisation (IDP Database, 2003; Leus, et al., 2001; Turner, et al., 2003). It seems that the experience of political displacement for this particular Zimbabwean displaced farmer of European descent was traumatic and one of intense psychological distress. In this regard, his experience partially mirrors the research into the experience of displacement of white Zimbabwean farmers (Knight & Wallace, 2004). However, this case is different in that the effect of the trauma of displacement was not all negative. Instead, it seems possible to experience psychological growth in the aftermath of trauma. In this case, this includes improved marital relations, a determination to cope and to survive, a greater sense of confidence as well as the appreciation for life and the uncovering of hidden talent. However, questions remain unanswered.

What made this displaced farmer fight for survival and find the determination to move forward and not be defeated? Was it only a fear of not surviving? Is it (also) something within his basic personality structure? Would another have done the same in a similar context where there was a family to feed? What made this displaced person re-appraise the situation and view the trauma of displacement as an opportunity rather than a threat? Is this because the worse thing in this case was not the loss of the farm? Perhaps he was more quickly able to focus on the future plans as the grief for the loss of the farm was minimal? This calls to attention to varied individual responses to trauma and that it is not just the trauma but the perception of the trauma. The dramatic shift in being emotionally distressed and unsettled to being positive and capable of exploring hidden talents and long lost hopes also calls into question what we think we may know about trauma and post-trauma experience. Perhaps the notion of psychological resilience needs to be given more attention in this regard? The three phases of displacement described earlier has been criticised for not providing an account of the concomitant psychological impact of each stage and mapping out the psychological developmental process. This research, although exploratory, has attempted to present a psychological developmental process of displacement. In this case, the trauma of post-flight stage of displacement was experienced as the worse part of the entire process because so much was unpredictable. This phase results in a wide spectrum of intense emotional, physical and cognitive responses. The loss of community was experienced as particularly unbearable. The pre-flight phase is the most risky due to the nature of the violence and intimidation that characterised it. The duration of this phase may depend on the level of violence and intimidation and the resources available to cope with the violence.

These same distressing emotional responses continue during the flight phase except that there is evidence of some relief as the moving away meant an escape from an intolerable situation. The distressing emotional and physical responses continue for some time into the post-flight phase, and the first six months are the most emotionally intensive. In this case, these negative psychological responses decreased within the 6th to12th month as the participant began to appraise the situation in a more positive manner. It is significant that this participant did not experience the loss of the farm as the worse part of the process, rather he experienced the betrayal of his farm labourers as the most appalling part of the experience.


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Footnote: 1 Status of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees adopted by General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) of 14 December 1950.

Footnote: 2 The Amani Trust is a Zimbabwean NGO whose vision is the provision of medical, psychological and social assistance to victims of Organised Violence and Torture (OVT). Apart from the rehabilitation work of the trust, it works for the elimination of torture. The Amani Trust was initially an ad hoc committee, operating under the auspices of the Psychiatric Association of Zimbabwe. The Trust was formalised and registered in 1993, and is supported by local and international funds.


Professor Zelda G Knight © 2006. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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