The Effect of Birth on Later Health Issues

by John Wilks

The potential impact of how we are born on our long-term health prospects, has been studied for many years by the French doctor and author Michel Odent amongst others (Gluckman et al. 2008). Although the conclusions of many of the research papers in Odent’s extensive database ( are considered controversial by some (he calls them ‘cul-de-sac’ research because many of their conclusions are too difficult to integrate into mainstream medicine because they would involve too radical a re-think of birthing practice), they nevertheless show overwhelmingly that the birth experience has a major imprinting on the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of the adult to be (Odent 1986).

Even if we look solely from the point of view of how birth affects the baby on a physical level, it is not difficult to see why this is so. We are the only mammals that rotate as we come down the birth canal. In evolutionary terms this is because our heads are rather too large for the mother’s pelvis so that we are essentially born 9 months early compared to other mammals. Ask a mother how she would feel about an 18 month pregnancy and then giving birth to a baby double the normal weight and see what response you get. This need for rotation causes torsion in the various articulations of the baby’s cranium and the neck, which has additional sutures and fontanels compared to the adult. Osteopaths and chiropractors have observed that the majority of us have a degree of imbalance (termed subluxation by chiropractors) at the junction between the axis, atlas and the occiput (the top of the neck) resulting from this anomaly of rotation. Rotational forces from birth also affect the jaw and the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ). In the opinion of many health professionals, imbalance in either of these two relationships (the occipito-atlanteal joint or the TMJ) can lead to distortions elsewhere in the body and specifically have a marked effect on posture (Sakaguchi 2007), with a more general knock-on effect on efficient functioning of the organism (Cuccia & Caradonna 2009). Indeed, some pediatric dentists work extensively with the relationship between posture and bite (Levinkind 2008), helping conditions such as scoliosis and kyphosis by adjusting a child’s bite. The rotational effect of descent down the birth canal can be more pronounced with posterior births (back to back position, common with first time mothers), which either leads to a longer rotation or, in some cases, interventions such as epidurals or caesarians. Midwives have commented that this position appears to be more and more prevalent nowadays, possibly as a result of extended periods of sitting and lack of exercise during pregnancy.

If you add into this evolutionary mix the effect of obstetric interventions, it is clear that the potential for further pressures on the baby’s head and body is extreme. Many health visitors will say that minor distortions in the cranium will subside over the days following birth. This is often true of the cranial vault, which is quite soft. However, many interventions put a strain on areas of the head and neck which are not visible, particularly the cranial base. This is an area of the cranium formed by the more solid parts of the occiput, sphenoid and temporal bones, that derive embryologically from cartilage. For example, the area around the foramen magnum (at the top of the spinal cord) is formed partly by the condyles of the occiput, which sit in the concave superior facets of the atlas, allowing for easy flexion and extension of the head. However, in the baby, the occiput is formed by four bones (not just one as in the adult), and more specifically the condyles, which articulate with the atlas, are not fused at birth. This means that forces such as traction and/or torsion (inevitable in births that involve caesarian section, forceps or ventouse, but often also occurring in normal vaginal births), will create an imbalance here, with potential effects such as restricted blood flow to the cranium (Flanagan, 2010), a pulling up of the brain stem, as well as stress on the short suboccipital muscles, dural membranes, venous sinuses and ventricles (particularly the fourth ventricle). As a protective reflex, you will often notice that babies born this way will have a tendency to contract through their psoas muscles, thereby putting undue pressure on the diaphragm and abdominal cavity. This can result in symptoms such as colic and also the kind of long-term neck issues that Isobel describes in her books.

This brief focus on the physical ramifications of birth has so far not considered the psychological effect of interventions such as ventouse (used in around 10% of births in the UK), forceps or even such routine procedures like induction. Few mothers realize that research shows a clear potential link between a baby’s exposure to synthetic oxytocin (as used in induction) and long-term emotional and psychological health, for example an increased risk of developing ADHD (Kurth & Haussmann, 2011) and the ability to maintain stable relationships (Carter, 2003). It also used to be generally accepted until recently that babies did not experience pain in the adult sense of the word, and that even if they did, they would not remember it. This resulted in practices such as operations being performed on neonates and even on babies as old as four without anesthetics. Even today babies are routinely subjected to circumcision with little or no anesthetic. This has been shown to affect a baby’s ability to create secure attachment. (Laibow 1991). Common sense would suggest that being subjected to a trauma of this kind might have a life-long effect on a child, and indeed this is borne out by research (Van der Kalk, 1994, Chamberlain, 1998). When I started lecturing on birth I used to take around a small disposable ventouse suction cap, which I used to apply to the arm of poor unsuspecting members of the audience to give them a taste of the forces involved. I never encountered a single adult who was able to endure the suction cap being brought up to pressure, let alone any traction being applied. One has to ask; if this is the kind of welcome that we give to a baby as it enters this world, is it not surprising that it might feel a little upset and angry later in life?

The body tends to hold physical patterns it experiences at birth which manifest later in life when the person is stressed or anxious. These might be compressive patterns, which to some extent the baby’s body is designed for, or the opposite, which it is not. Patterns can be held in the tissues for many years unless resolved (possibly by a skilled therapist). There are some common patterns that tend to show up in clinical practice; for example the temporal bones can suffer medial compression from the tight fit in the birth canal or from external forces such as forceps. This can (and often does) result in symptoms such as headaches or even torticollis (due to the pressure on the accessory nerve as it exits the cranium through the jugular foramen).

I remember many years ago when I first started in clinical practice as a craniosacral therapist, working on a young woman with severe regular headaches and migraines, which she had suffered from since she was a child. Whilst palpating her temporal bones it became clear that there was an unusual pattern being manifested that involved medial compression, rotation and a pull inferiorly. I worked with this over a couple of sessions and the patterns eased off to the point it was hardly noticeable. Her migraines and headaches also improved dramatically. Because this was such an unusual pattern, I questioned her about what might have caused this. It turned out that she had been born breech but with forceps and the temporal area was still manifesting this unusual pattern some 35 years later.

There are various mechanisms by which the body might hold ‘memories’ of birth apart from the purely mechanical (e.g. inter-osseous or intra-osseous patterns). For example the actions of proprioception and interoception involving the myriad of receptors in the joints, skin, muscles and fascia are well developed and very sensitive in the newborn. Research by Prof. Stephen Porges (2001) has also shown that a baby is born with a highly developed ‘social’ nervous system, able to pick up on the emotional nuances of all around it. Hameroff (1998) describes other mechanisms that might be at play whereby memories can be held on a tissue level in the cellular microtubules. This is sometimes referred to as ‘tissue memory’. James Oschman (1995) poses the question: Can “memories” encoded in connective tissue and cytoskeletal structures lead to a conscious mental image of past events? How might such information be “released” during massage or other kinds of bodywork? And how is such information communicated from the tissue being worked upon to the consciousness of both the client and the practitioner?

Many early feelings and emotions are experienced by the adult as a ‘felt sense’ of the kind described by Damasio (2010). Perhaps because these felt sensations derive from powerful but pre-verbal experiences they are more difficult for adults to conceptualize and rationalize later in life. This is why early experience can have such a dominating effect on our unconscious desires and emotional outlook throughout our adult life.

The good news is that there are a lot of therapeutic interventions such as Bowen, Craniosacral therapy and other body-based psychotherapeutic approaches like Somatic Experiencing out there, that can help to address issues arising from pregnancy and birth as well as many organizations that help address the long-term consequences of how we are born (see web resources below). The bad news is that despite the large body of evidence and some vocal campaigners, little has been done over the last 30 years to improve the potentially negative impact of the birthing experience on both mums and babies. There is so much information in the public domain (for example the link between acquired immunity and psychological and developmental problems in children (Campbell-McBride, 2010)), which for some reason is not promoted in mainstream practice, but which could, with a little effort, make a huge difference to the lives of so many.

© 2012, John Wilks all rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from Understanding the Complex Chronic Patient: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Managing Ehlers Danlos-Hypermobility Syndrome Type III and other Chronic Conditions Isobel Knight, Jessica Kingsley pub. 2013.


John has been practising the Bowen Technique and Craniosacral Therapy full time since 1995, and works at clinics in the South West of England. He teaches specialist classes in the Bowen Technique all over the world and is the author of several books and DVD’s.


CAMPBELL-MCBRIDE, N, 2010, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, Mendinform Publishing

CARTER, C S, 2003, Developmental Consequences of Oxytocin. Physiology and Behaviour 79 (2003) 383 – 397 Elsevier

CHAMBERLAIN, D 1998, The Life of your Newborn Baby. North Atlantic Books

CUCCIA, A & CARADONNA, C, 2009. The Relationship Between the Stomatognathic System and Body Posture. Clinics vol.64 no.1 São Paulo

DAMASIO, A, 2000 The Feeling of What Happens – Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness. Vintage.

FLANAGAN, M, 2010. The Downside of Upright Posture. Two Harbors Press

GLUCKMAN PD et al, 2008. Effect of In Utero and Early-Life Conditions on Adult Health and Disease. NEJM 2008; 359: 61-73.

HAMEROFF, S., S. Rasmussen, and B. Mansson, 1988. Molecular automata in microtubules: Basic computational logic of the living state? In: Artificial Life, SFI Studies in the sciences of complexity. Vol. VI. Edited by C. Langton, Addison-Wesley, Redwood City, CA,p. 521-553

KURTH, L & HAUSSMANN, R, 2011, Perinatal Pitocin as an early ADHD biomarker: neurodevelopmental risk? J Atten Disord. 2011 Jul;15(5):423-31. Epub 2011 Apr 28.

LAIBOW, R. 1991 Circumcision: Relationship Attachment Impairment. NOCIRC Intl Symposium on Circumcision., San Francisco April 1991:14

LEVINKIND, M, 2008 Consideration of Whole Body Posture in relation to Dental Development. Oral Health Report, Vol I, 2008 British Dental Journal Supplement

ODENT, M 1986. Primal Health. Century Hutchinson. London

OSCHMAN, J & OSCHMAN, N, 1995. Somatic Recall Part 1 – Soft Tissue Memory Massage Therapy Journal Vol 34 No 3

PORGES, S 2001. The Polyvagal Theory: Phylogenetic Substrates of a Social Nervous System International Journal of Psychophysiology pp123 – 146

SAKAGUCHI, K et al, 2007 Cranio: The Journal of Craniomandibular Practice, Chroma, Inc.

Volume: 25 Issue: 4

VAN DER KOLK, B 1994 The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Post traumatic Stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Vol 1, pp. 253-265

Resource Websites


The Bowen Technique

by Joanne Figov BA RGN BTAA

Racked with five years of pain, his face grey with suffering, the car accident victim’s last resort before surgery was the Bowen Technique. After a few gentle finger movements across his muscles by Bowen therapist Suzanne Payne of Dorset, the patient felt an energy surge through his body. The chronic neck disorder, which had blocked all his movement, was suddenly freed.

Emotional with the joy of his release, he said: “It was absolutely wonderful. I fell asleep on the couch and then stood up and was able to see the ceiling for the first time in five years!” His recovery is no surprise to therapists world-wide practising this dynamic system of muscle and connective tissue therapy developed in the 1950s by the late Tom Bowen of Australia.

Oswald (Ossie) Rentsch, director and founder of the Bowen Therapy Academy of Australia, and his wife Elaine worked directly with Tom Bowen. Ossie said: “The Bowen Technique is possibly the greatest discovery ever in health care. Bowen training is attracting medical doctors as well as chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and acupuncturists, all who praise the technique for its power”.

How Australian Tom Bowen came by his remarkable technique and put it into action is the stuff of legend. Tom claimed his discovery that tiny movements across muscles effecting remarkable recoveries, was a “gift from God”.

In the small town where he worked in an industrial plant he treated his work colleagues at home in the evenings. He became so busy he had to give up his day job and opened a clinic which was soon attracting patients from all over Australia. Eventually he was seeing over 13,000 a year – more than 80 per cent recovering after only two treatments.

As Ossie always says at the seminars he holds all over the world: “The man was a genius – he was the Mozart of healing.”

Researcher Dan Amato from New York calls it the “feed back loop”. And like many others, New Zealand therapist Lou Hassik believes: “The body-mind is one. It’s a complex lawful system of interactive processes from head to toe. “ In other words the Bowen Technique empowers the body to heal itself – the gentle precise moves on specific areas could be said to ‘reset’ the body’s ‘computer’.

Registered nurse and Bowen therapist Joanne Figov of Dorset says: “I’ve treated patients with ME who regain much energy after a couple of treatments and I’m currently treating a lady recovering after chemotherapy, who has found relief from her aches and pains and depression.”

An example of Bowen’s ability to help difficult and obscure conditions is Joanne’s pilot study on a small section of patients diagnosed with a form of Dystonia called Blepharospasm. This neurological condition is characterised by involuntary muscular eyelid spasms causing forceful contraction of the eyes. The condition can be mild to severe ranging from twitching to excessive blinking of the eyelids to severe cases where the patient is functionally blind as the spasm forces the eyes shut. Consequently the sufferers are in great emotional distress.

The standard hospital treatment is Botulinum toxin injections that temporarily lessen the spasm by weakening the muscles around the eye. With the permission and encouragement of a hospital consultant, Joanne began treating his patients.

She explained “Through my work as an ophthalmic nurse and working with these patients I realised that as Blepharospasm is primarily a neurological disorder, surely Bowen which works along those principles, could help reset the signal to the brain.”

Joanne has a waiting list for patients in the small pilot study which is still in its early stages. The results so far she describes as “very encouraging”.

“Because I have to fit the study group around my private practice and my nursing, I’ve so far been able to work with only eight patients” explained Joanne. “One has recovered completely in four treatments – all the rest have had relief for a couple of days following each treatment session. The lady who recovered completely had suffered the condition for three months – the shortest time, whereas the others were long term sufferers of up to 50 years and they may need many treatments to unlock the deep rooted patterning.

What’s exciting is that such gentle Bowen moves are obviously addressing a condition which mainstream medical science is finding difficult to resolve.

A 75 year old woman in the study wanted to continue Bowen treatments after her sessions ended. Asked why, she replied: “The sense of relaxation and well being are adding so much to my quality of life.”

Another woman was able, with her doctor’s permission, to come off her anti-depressants.

You are never too young for Bowen, therapists report, even babies in the womb can benefit. Registered midwife and Bowen practitioner, Rick Minnery runs workshops to teach Bowen therapists how to help mums-to-be cope with pregnancy and baby care. Rick, from Lancashire, is working towards getting Bowen recognised in hospitals as a gentle technique for pre-natal and post-natal health care.

He explained: “I’ve trained five midwives to be Bowen practitioners – it’s tailor made for them as midwifery is a hands-on activity. With Bowen they can give on the spot help with minor problems of pregnancy. I’m getting increased interest about Bowen among colleagues in mainstream medicine.”

Recently Rick and his Bowen colleague Alastair McLoughlin lectured and demonstrated the technique to doctors and midwives in Italy where they received a standing ovation – especially from a doctor whose frozen shoulder was freed with two simple moves!

“You can’t solve this – it’s an arthritic problem” the doctor had told Rick as he prepared to do the frozen shoulder procedure. After a couple of minutes the shoulder was freed and the astonished doctor was able to lift his arm right up touching his ear, a feat formerly impossible.

Another amazed and satisfied ‘patient’ at the talk was a professor of obstetrics whose long term neck restriction was freed in an instant. The professor told Rick he would recommend that the midwives at his hospital be funded to learn Bowen.

Incidentally, Bernie Carter, PhD of Manchester Metropolitan University is currently conducting research into the Bowen frozen shoulder procedure for the Bowen Therapy Academy of Australia.

One therapist who has successfully added Bowen to his repertoire of already successful modalities is Michael Burgess from Devon. An acupuncturist and herbal practitioner for 16 years, he says:

“The Bowen Technique has had a huge impact on my practice as the results are so effective and so profound. It’s very rewarding. Being a truly holistic modality, it has broad application and can be used safely on anyone from the new born to the aged. Many people who experience Bowen as a patient are enthusiastic to learn this simple non-invasive technique for themselves.”

He added: “I have seen people with problems of 10 to 20 years resolved in one or two treatments. I also frequently see long standing muscular skeletal problems, migraine, insomnia and sports injuries resolved in remarkably few sessions. I even treated a five year old child for bed-wetting which stopped after three treatments.”

Michael has experienced a perfect example of the scope and possibilities of Bowen.

A patient of his with full blown AIDS presented with many symptoms, the most pressing being extreme muscular pain all over his body. His sensitivity to touch was such that no other hands-on modality could have been tried except for so-gentle Bowen. After two treatments all pain had vanished and for a year he came for weekly treatments which helped him cope with everyday life.

Like all Bowen therapists Michael finds children respond particularly well and rapidly. Michael explained: “Because Bowen has such gentle moves they feel completely safe and relaxed and this may help the energetic response.”

He added “One five year old child asthmatic I treated was on the usual inhalers and was quite unhappy and withdrawn. After three treatments the mother reported that not only was the asthma and wheezing gone but he had turned into a happy child.”

As remedial sports therapist Craig Mattimoe from California has written in a Bowen magazine: “After five years of treating and preventing athletic injuries I can confidently report that no other broad based modality in all of North America comes close to Bowen. Nothing else compares. I work mostly with athletes, particularly football players who are big business in America, and Bowen literally outshines all of the current accepted sports medicine techniques, both traditional and alternative.”

As Bowen becomes increasingly popular, teaching programmes are already established in Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A, Canada, Israel, Italy, France, Austria, Norway and the UK. It will soon be taught in South America and South Africa. Because two hands are the only practical tools needed for Bowen it is envisaged the technique will be taught in the Third World to relieve suffering without major expense or technology. And still the full potential of the Bowen Technique is to be realised.

Ossie and Elaine Rentsch learned advanced moves from founder Tom Bowen before he died in 1982. These procedures are being included in advanced seminars now being taught in Britain and around the world.

Ossie explained: “We have waited to release this material as the fundamentals have first had to be fully understood. We are now drawing on a treasure of vital knowledge which we trust will bring new hope and health to the world.”

Further Information

For full details of Bowen courses, therapists and instructors contact: The Bowen Association UK.

This article was originally published in Positive Health Issue 44 (Sept ’99)


The Bowen Technique and Frozen Shoulders

by John Wilks

Although the Bowen Technique is relatively new to the UK, a recent study on the evaluation of the Bowen Technique in the treatment of Frozen Shoulder (1) undertaken by Dr Bernie Carter, principal lecturer in Children’s Nursing at the University of Central Lancashire found:

  • ‘A high level of satisfaction with the therapy, a commitment to using Bowen in the future should they require it for another episode of frozen shoulder or other condition, and the intention to recommend the therapy and therapist to friends and family’
  • ‘A significant improvement in shoulder mobility and associated function for all participants, with 70% of participants regaining full mobility (equal to the non-affected side) by the end of the treatment.’
  • ‘Markedly reduced pain intensity scores and pain quality descriptors for all participants, although some participants recorded scores of 1-3 that they described as a slight ache to a mild pain. Participants at the end of the study no longer used the intense and invasive pain descriptors.’

The Bowen Technique cannot, from this study, claim to be 100% successful but it demonstrated a significant improvement for participants, even those with a very longstanding history of frozen shoulder. For the majority of participants it provided a good outcome particularly in relation to improved mobility.

All participants experienced improvement in their daily activities. None of the participants reported that their pain was having a severe impact on their daily activities, and there was a decrease in the reports of mild and moderate impact by the end of the treatment.

For the majority of participants (even those with a longstanding problem) it provided a good outcome particularly in relation to improved mobility. In terms of the outcome measures used in other studies – success rate, mobility, pain and functional status – Bowen can be seen to be a positive intervention and certainly one which participants in the study evaluated as being highly satisfactory.

For details of training courses and practitioners world-wide, please contact The Bowen Association of the UK.

Notes (1) Reviewed in ‘Complementary Therapies in Medicine’ Issue 01/032, ‘Health Which’ (July 2002) and Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery.


Posture and the Bowen Technique

by John Wilks

Posture is a major influencing factor in the origin of our physical aches and pains. Our bodies are incredibly resilient at absorbing and dealing with the physical and emotional knocks that life throws at us. However, in order for us to function, we develop coping strategies and complex compensation patterns that enable us to maintain balance and order in our lives, both on a physical and psychological level. However, these compensation patterns can have a physical and frequently an emotional cost to us in the long run.

If someone has experienced a car accident that has involved a blow to their pelvis, it is likely that this will be reflected in every other part of their body, from the feet right up to the neck and shoulders. What is interesting to observe is how tight and weak areas of the body will compensate each other to allow us to maintain balance. These relationships often change dramatically after a Bowen session.

The key to effective treatment is to find where the original organising factor in someone’s condition is located. For example, a knee injury might be occurring because that person has a weak toe joint or a pelvic imbalance, which is putting undue strain on the knee as they walk, or headaches might be occurring because of an old fall on the tailbone.


Bowen and Research

Although the Bowen Technique is relatively new to the UK, the technique has proved itself as a highly efficient and cost-effective tool for physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and other CAM practitioners. A recent study on the evaluation of the Bowen Technique in the treatment of Frozen Shoulder reviewed in ‘Complementary Therapies in Medicine’ Issue 01/032, ‘Health Which’ (July 2002) and Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery undertaken by Dr Bernie Carter, principal lecturer in Children’s Nursing at the University of Central Lancashire found:

  • ‘A high level of satisfaction with the therapy, a commitment to using Bowen in the future should they require it for another episode of frozen shoulder or other condition, and the intention to recommend the therapy and therapist to friends and family’
  • ‘A significant improvement in shoulder mobility and associated function for all participants, with 70% of participants regaining full mobility (equal to the non-affected side) by the end of the treatment.’
  • ‘Markedly reduced pain intensity scores and pain quality descriptors for all participants, although some participants recorded scores of 1-3 that they described as a slight ache to a mild pain. Participants at the end of the study no longer used the intense and invasive pain descriptors.’

The Bowen Technique cannot, from this study, claim to be 100% successful but it demonstrated a significant improvement for participants, even those with a very longstanding history of frozen shoulder. For the majority of participants it provided a good outcome particularly in relation to improved mobility.

All participants experienced improvement in their daily activities. None of the participants reported that their pain was having a severe impact on their daily activities, and there was a decrease in the reports of mild and moderate impact by the end of the treatment. For the majority of participants (even those with a longstanding problem) it provided a good outcome particularly in relation to improved mobility.

In terms of the outcome measures used in other studies – success rate, mobility, pain and functional status – Bowen can be seen to be a positive intervention and certainly one which participants in the study evaluated as being highly satisfactory.

To date there have two RCT trials into the effectiveness of the Bowen Technique and numerous small scale studies:

Overview of research into the Bowen Technique

RCT Study on the effectiveness of the Bowen Technique in pre and post-operative knee surgery

Large-scale study by Occupational Health into the health benefits of Bowen

RCT Study on Hamstring Flexibility

There are currently 10 instructors in the UK who have been accredited by the Bowen Therapy Academy of Australia, by far the largest and longest-established Bowen teaching organisation in the world having trained over 9000 therapists.

Bowen Association teachers are currently teaching the technique in many European countries including the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and France.


Hope and Healing in El Salvador – Tom Gibb

About_CharitableProjects_salvador2Getting back in Touch.

Ex-guerrilla Captain Uzziel Peña is 41. He joined the guerrillas at the start of the war when he was only fifteen. He spent the next twelve years living a life of extremes. He fought in the intense battles and bombardments endured by guerrilla units in the countryside. He spent years in the city, conspiring, living a double life, inventing names and pasts, never sleeping in the same house from night to night. He was captured four times by the security forces and tortured.

When the war ended in 1992, he had the equivalent rank of captain. But he never formally demobilised, not trusting in the leaders and politicians running the peace process. Instead, plagued by doubts about the past and the future, he decided to embark on his own search to find peace.

Since then he has gradually dedicated more and more of his time to acting as an informal counsellor for veterans from both sides of the civil war. This was never the result of a conscious decision or design. Rather it evolved from a way of life, an instinctive search to find answers for the overbearing emotions left from the war, which he and other survivors felt.

The Civil War left a legacy of deep pain, an un-talked about and largely untreated malaise affecting not just veterans but which has been passed on through families, from generation to generation. It left a legacy of violence, with murder rates still as bad as during the war itself. However the war also demonstrated some of the extraordinary capacity of human beings to overcome extreme adversity, producing examples of immense courage, love and commitment.

Using instinctive tools of his own inventiveness and creation, Uzziel has been dealing on a daily basis with friends and former enemies whose feelings and emotions have eaten away their ability to cope with everyday life leading sometimes to isolation, anger, distrust, depression and disillusionment. Yet many of these people were, not many years ago, willing to lay down their lives for ideals or for their friends.

Uzziel’s “method” has been to use friendship and love to try to revive some of the strength of the past. This has primarily concentrated on nurturing the individual. But it also has a wider aim to harness some of the altruism which emerged during the war and redirect it towards the difficult task of building peace.

Without any plan or goal in mind, Uzziel has ended up building an informal network of veterans and their families who can help and support each other. Through what started as chance encounters he ended up deliberately seeking to creating ties between former enemies, seeking reconciliation as a crucial step in the process of healing. And not only reconciliation between former enemies, but also reconciling individuals with their past and the wider society.

There is no religion or ideology behind this network. The philosophy, as far as it goes, is to find ways to disarm the minds that fought the war, help people get back in touch with their humanity and reduce the levels of stress and violence in the society which are today undermining efforts to build peace. The same is true of this project. It aims to build upon the empirical start made by Uzziel, strengthening the informal network which already exists with new knowledge and new techniques.

The broad aim will be to reduce levels of stress in the society. It will centre on training for veterans, but will not deal exclusively with them. It will seek to turn hands which once killed into hands that can heal; to redirect minds trained to fight a war to help in the new task of reconciliation. A Twelve Year War and no Heroes.

The Civil War was only one chapter in a long and continuing history of violence. It was the culmination of decades of brutal dictatorship, punctuated by rebellions and massacres. Since the war ended El Salvador has continued to be plagued by earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, floods, an economy dependant on mass migration to the United States which divides families and communities and almost the highest murder rate in the world.

Fought between left wing guerrillas and a government army, trained, armed and directed by the United States, the war claimed the lives of between one and two percent of the population most killed in cold blood. A quarter of the population left the country during or after the war. Tens of thousands were “disappeared.”

When the war ended in 1992 in a UN brokered settlement, there were around 10,000 guerrillas and 55,000 soldiers but the overall numbers who fought were much greater. While undoubtedly a massive human tragedy, the experience for individuals was much more complex.

For many it provided the opportunity to serve and develop loyalties that veterans now find very difficult to cultivate with civilians. It brought out the very worst of human nature – but also the very best. Some guerrillas demobilised. Weapons were presented to be destroyed at UN sponsored ceremonies.

These symbolic events, where guns were sawn in two, should have been followed by a comprehensive and ongoing program to help veterans disarm their brain and soul from the long years of war.

But that has still not happened. Instead the years of peace have been marked by shocking cases of brutality in which veterans from both sides have been sadly involved. Hand grenades thrown into parties, homicides, organised crime, domestic violence – the facts lead too often to depressed, drunken, drugged or psychotic veterans.

And yet little has been done to help these people regain their lives, to prevent rather simply punish after it is too late. The violence is not limited to Veterans, but has become generalised, moving to families, spreading through the political system and organised crime.

The most clear example of this spread of violence is the warfare between street gangs, estimated to be 20,000 strong. The gangs share a similar culture, using the same clothes, the same language and listening to the same music. There are no differences of ideology, religion or class. And yet they are deadly enemies, killing each other for territory and almost tribal loyalties.

This almost only explainable as copycat violence – the generation that grew up with the values of the war following the example of their parents. To survive the war and the “disasters” that have followed, Salvadorans have built up a series of defences. Most of these are the natural and very human responses to the type of conflict fought in El Salvador. Some of these traits are deeply damaging in terms of building a more peaceful, open society.

But at the same time they provide the strength for people to get on with their daily lives. Understanding this paradox is crucial to develop initiatives which will build on the positive aspects of the culture, and try to adapt the negative.

* El Salvador is a tiny country – the most densely populated in the Americas. The war split communities and families down the middle rather than setting communities against each other as has happened in ethnic or religious conflicts. Uzziel, for instance, found himself fighting on the opposite side from his brother who was a member of the paratroopers and now suffers from severe schizophrenia. Such situations were common. This is why we believe it important to have a joint project with veterans from both sides, building on the unique friendship built up between Uzziel and officers from the army, in particular Captain Barra Mendoza.

* Among the guerrillas especially, many were involved in the revolution since they were children. All their formative years were spent in war. It is not that they have lost or forgotten the values of a society at peace. They never knew them. Many gave up their individual identities to take on false names. They made up fake pasts to hide behind. Life became and still is, one long conspiracy. Mistrusting even close friends and family was a normal mechanism for survival. Trust could mean death. So it is not surprising that many now face acute difficulties in building up relationships within their families which rely on trust. During the war paranoia was normal and encouraged.

* Many went to war because of dreams of building some kind of Utopia or at least a better society afterwards. Such dreams have come crashing down. The war of ideas that lay behind the civil war ended up killing those very ideas and ideals, sending a whole generation into an empty vacuum. Many ended the war deeply cynical about their leaders and the values they had once been prepared to die for, not surprising given the nightmare of violence into which these ideals led them. They ended the war unable to distinguish the more positive aspects of their wartime beliefs from the propaganda and political interests of their leaders. Trying to rebuild values necessary to live in a normal society is still a desperately needed task. Veterans need to re-conquer some of the dreams and ideals that they lost, and feel again a sense of honour and dignity. Many would like to use the skills and abilities they learned during the war in a positive way for the wider society, but first need to put their own house in order, recuperating a sense of themselves, their mental and physical strength.

* Most of the killing in El Salvador was done in cold blood, leaving a vast legacy of guilt. Among the guerrillas suspected spies and sometimes political enemies were shot. Often a very small amount of suspicion would be a death sentence. There were widespread purges in some rebel units which were then hushed up at the end of the war. But this is worst in the army. In the cities it was the security forces which carried out the famous death squad war in which tens of thousands of people were murdered or “disappeared” – usually captured, tortured and killed. In the countryside the army carried out a scorched earth policy. Because most people of fighting age were able to hide the villagers they caught were old people, women and children. Many soldiers have stories of carrying out appalling massacres images which return to them constantly in their nightmares.

* The way the war ended in El Salvador accentuated the isolation of veterans. After the peace settlement there were no decorations, no parades, no marching proudly with uniforms, medals and flowers. All of a sudden veterans were exposed to fend for themselves. Indeed many of the guerrillas, mistrustful of the peace process never demobilised. Society wasn’t ready to deal with all the problems posed by veterans, neither were families. A truth commission was set up by the United Nations in 1992. But, with only a few months to collect evidence of a few bloody events in the war, it was designed more to close the whole chapter rather than start a public debate in which society as a whole could come to terms with its past. Just as many combatants have simply tried to forget pretending that the war never happened so has society following the motto “forgive and forget.”

* Finally, and perhaps most important, the country’s long traumatic history has created an internal strength, a kind of stoicism, sometimes verging on fatalism, which allows people to keep going with their lives. This is a defence mechanism, still necessary to confront many of the difficulties people face in their daily lives and which we believe it would be folly to change. It is a huge advantage which should be built upon rather than undermined. A project which goes to people in El Salvador and tells then that they are all suffering from Post War Trauma and need treatment could end up doing more harm than good, creating more problems and needs than it resolves by fomenting a mentality of victim and dependence. This would do little to restore people’s faith in themselves and their dignity. A chat at the sauna house – Uzziel’s informal network. Every week, soldiers and ex- guerrillas meet at a sauna house for an afternoon to relax and talk. This is been a tremendous mind saving activity, one of several which my cousin, Uzziel, developed, thanks to which many veterans have achieved a little internal peace, starting to build the ideal of an extensive family between veterans. Sometimes he simply accompanies one person, dedicating time to an individual. Sometimes he sets up groups of veterans to meet and talk about the past, either at the sauna or in the patio of someone’s house.

Earlier this year he organised a group of fifty people, mostly veterans and families to go to a small island off El Salvador and spend several days in a tiny fishing community. The community donated food and places to stay. The visit helped to reinforce and remember the value of solidarity with dignity. While most of the meetings are informal, the content is always complex. The problems that emerge include alcoholism, abortions, drug addiction, suicide, crime, rage, business, love, politics and philosophy.

Most veterans are very untrusting of other people. They trust Uzziel because he fought in the war. They share their story with him because they know his response to them would only nurture them, they trust he would have the right answer, the right comment, the right silence, the right embrace. All these people share similar complaints and difficulties adapting to peace.

Even in the simplest of everyday situations, life is difficult, with a massive world of violence separating them from the rest of the people. Some are dealing with their difficulties, but others are in denial. Some are slowly killing themselves seeking ways to castigate themselves.

The talks/conversations are aimed in the first place to help these people deal with everyday problems, helping them to stay a bit longer with their families (prevent couples from splitting up), some need a chat to understand and deal with domestic pressures, a talk might help them understand how to handle partners, kids, teenagers and parents. But he also tries to give veterans a wider perspective, so that each can build the self confidence to make their own choices. He nurtures them with amongst others, examples of Ghandi, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Wilde, Zorro, Jesus, Mandela. And often there is material need.

Uzziel tries to find emergency funds either from his own funds or using a network of friends he has built up over the years, veterans and others with a better economic situation, some of whom have already benefited from this informal network of support among friends. In particular he looks to find opportunities for people to get work.


The idea of this project is to strengthen this network through a series of ad hoc initiatives to provide training to veterans to work not only amongst themselves, but also in the wider population. This must, as Uzziel has started, be centred on building up the internal strength and abilities of the individuals involved, helping them to identify and develop their best qualities for the common good.

The uniting theme of these initiatives will be to reduce levels of stress in the society, improve mental well-being and provide broader horizons. They will range from introducing therapies for dealing with the aftermath of trauma to a wide range of community projects designed to strengthen the ability of communities to determine their own future and resolve conflicts.

The initiatives include:

1) Non-violent communication. Uzziel, Reynaldo Barra and Ariel all attended a non-violent communication course in Argentina in October 2005. We wish to adapt the technique for use in El Salvador, seeing this as a valuable tool to resolve conflicts both at a personal level and in the wider society. The technique, however, needs to be adapted to fit El Salvador’s culture and a pilot project carried out to do this.

2) The Bowen technique, Cranio- sacral therapy and other therapies which have been used elsewhere to help overcome both the mental and physical effects of trauma and stress. We wish to train veterans to become specialists in these techniques and introduce them into El Salvador. This is a long term project, probably of several years which will be explained in more detail below.

3) Spread the use of relaxation and other health activities in the wider population, including Tai-Chi and acupuncture. There are already some professionals in El Salvador using these. The idea would be to where possible use people inside the country, recruiting them to start training projects for veterans to themselves become trainers.

4) Art “therapies”. To develop projects for Art, Music, Dance and Theatre, where possible involving veterans. Uzziel has found that taking people to concerts as well as participative artistic projects provide an alternative means of expressing emotions and memories. It is through the senses – touch, vision and hearing – that people can often get back in touch with their humanity and overcome the numbness created by pain.

5) Radio and television projects. After the war Tom Gibb gave a series of short radio courses to people from the countryside, many of them veterans, who were starting community radio stations. Some of these have since taken off and are running successfully. We would aim to provide further training for veterans involved in other initiatives to be able to make and produce radio and television programmes which deal with issues of reducing stress and help promote the other initiatives involved in this project.

6) Historical memory. As a more long term aim the project will seek to break the silence and taboo surrounding the war in Salvadoran society by collecting and publishing testimonies of veterans and encouraging people to talk more openly about the past. In some instances this could give invaluable help for the wider society to heal its wounds. For instance many veterans have information about crimes committed during the war, burial sites from massacres, the whereabouts of missing children, and the fate of the disappeared. They would be willing to share these if the mechanisms to protect their identities were established. More important we believe in the need to build up and publish a non-partisan, collective history of the war with the aim of changing not only Veterans attitudes towards the wider society, but also the attitudes of the wider society towards the Veterans. Only by breaking the taboo can we create a climate in which it will be easier for veterans to break out of their isolation.

7) Mental health. Introduce alternative therapies to psychoanalysis and anti-depressives for dealing with trauma related problems among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals in El Salvador. In the long term we would like veterans to have much more involvement in preventing, diagnosing and treating mental health problems related to the war. Too often veterans with problems are simply filled up with anti-depressives. This could be in the form of group or individual therapies, introducing Cognitive therapy into El Salvador. However we believe that in the first instance a careful pilot study needs to be done.

Opening up the wounds of the past could be counterproductive. We have been in touch with Dr Enriquez de Rosa, a trauma expert in Argentina who has worked with veterans from the Malvinas/Falklands war to help devise a strategy to this end. The idea will not be to set up a formal veteran’s organisation. In the past these have tended to be too easily subverted to political interests or used to raise funds for political and other ambitions. Rather the idea will be to do as much as possible without needing to raise funds outside the country.

On projects which require fund-raising, particularly training projects with outside experts travelling to El Salvador, the fund raising will be done directly for each project and the budgets administered directly by those providing the training People involved in the project. Uzziel and Captain Reynaldo Barra Mendoza Uzziel and Captain Barra Mendoza were once enemies. Now they are close friends. The unique potential of this project is built on this friendship which has cut across the divisions of the civil war to find healing.

Captain Barra joined the US backed army also at the start of the war in 1980. While still a cadet he was assigned to the elite Atlacatl battalion in 1982. Of his graduating class at the military academy half did not survive the war. Another quarter have ended up with severe psychological problems. He fought through the war, ending up with the rank of Captain. The two met when they were both recruited to provide security for a private expedition to look for treasure in a sunken ship off the coast of South America. The expedition never got off the ground, but Uzziel and the Captain have remained close friends since. They have both found they have far more in common than differences.

The friendship has often not been understood by others. Sometimes they have had to hide their pasts. But slowly they have tried to break these barriers down. The contacts of Captain Barra have allowed Uzziel to build up a network which cuts across the divisions of the war.

Ariel Pena

Ariel was a member of the guerrillas, joining half way through the war while still at high school. She also never formally demobilised. At the end of the war she worked for some time with one of the Women’s organisations in El Salvador which broke away from the guerrillas. Since the end of the war she has lived outside El Salvador, working as an artist and freelance camera person with the BBC.

Tom Gibb

Tom Gibb reported for BBC and NPR from El Salvador in the 1980s. He and Ariel, now a film-maker, married at the end of the war.


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