Psychological Trauma – Repression’s Silent Toll

Police make mass arrests during a protest in Managua, Nicaragua. 14/10/2018. Photo: Oscar Navarrete/ LA PRENSA.

Young people have had to shelter in safe houses to prevent being arbitrarily detained by the Nicaraguan police and paramilitary groups.

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – Following the 2018 protests in Nicaragua, the youth became the target of arbitrary detentions. Some are still in prison for thinking differently. There are also those who the police and paramilitary didn’t succeed in capturing. These young people are deprived of their freedom nonetheless, because they’re hiding in safe houses, unable to resume their normal lives. This situation violates their human rights and affects them physically and psychologically.

Many young people became involved in the peaceful protests against the Ortega-Murillo regime’s repression, and some of them assumed responsibilities within different social organizations. These young leaders have suffered multiple threats against their physical integrity. As a result, some have had to opt to go underground.

This way of life hasn’t been at all simple for them. It has brought them numerous problems in their physical health, plus serious repercussions in their emotional stability. Still, they’ve decided not to go into exile, since they believe that any change in the country must be brought about from within.

“Apart from legalities, this situation constitutes psychological aggression. It poses an objective limitation on freedom of movement, the right to free expression, the right to communicate, and the right to free association,” affirms human rights defender Vilma Nunez, who directs the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh). In addition, Nuñez stresses, the violations of freedom are still greater when the activists and/or leaders have no access to any kind of internet communication.

“I feel afraid every day when I get up; I have nightmares about what I experienced in 2018, and being shut in between these four walls makes it worse. I’ve had to change houses several times, but the fear constantly follows me,” a young woman from the Pacific side of the country recounts with clear distress. She was involved in the occupation of a university in the capital, and later became involved in the civic organizations. The price she paid for having participated in the opposition groups and becoming the face of one of them, was having to flee the house where she’d been born. As she says: “I couldn’t continue dealing with so much harassment, under siege from people I’d known since I was little.”

Vilma Nunez notes that such infringements are part of an entire set of human rights violations. People are forced to preserve their lives and safety by opting to self-isolate. “In reprisal for what they express publicly, they can be attacked by the authorities or become victims of organized crime, at the hands of party militants who are utterly submissive ideologically.” To the long-time human rights advocate, the situation in which these young people find themselves amounts to a restriction of personal and individual liberty, because they didn’t personally decide to lock themselves in. Even the term used – “self-imposed confinement” – isn’t very accurate, since it implies some percentage of free will. In reality, these activists are forced into hiding by fear of persecution from the Ortega-Murillo regime.

“For about a year and a half, I’ve been under siege from police groups working for the regime. They watch me in my house, in my relatives’ houses; at some moments, [the police] have prevented me from leaving. All that worsened after I was elected to a position in the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB).  I’ve received threats on social media, and through the official media.  In addition, I’ve been the victim of persecution in the streets, following events where we were preparing for the electoral competition at the year’s end,” comments a young leader with the UNAB. The speaker asked to remain anonymous, due to the vulnerable situation he’s currently living in.

Another youth comments that she had to stop participating in public activities because of this situation. As a result of her involvement, she’s essentially given up a normal life. “I haven’t been able to hold a normal job for a long time; only informal work. First, because I distrust places where I don’t know what kind of person is inside, or if they could denounce me. I can’t have anything in my own name. I’m in a safe house, and almost no one can know I’m here, so that no one connects me with the zone where I’m being safeguarded,” she says.

Psychologist Whitney D’Leon Nuñez explains: “Fear is a biological response to situations we perceive as threatening our physical integrity. Fear pushes us to find a means of safety and protection. However, in the context of real and latent risk, it seems to me that such confinement can be accompanied by many other factors: for example, the attempt to ensure personal and collective safekeeping; the defense of life. It’s essential to ask those who have lived through this, or are living through it, what they think and how they feel,” affirms the mental health specialist.

The feminist activist adds: “I had to leave my home a few months ago, because since I became involved in the 2018 protests, my neighbors all knew what I was immersed in. That’s where the problem began. At first, I stayed with relatives, but the situation became unsustainable because I attended different events where the police and paramilitary later located some of the kids who were there. So now I’m in a safe house. I look out the window to see the street. I miss going out, even if only to the corner.”

Concern for how to support themselves

Some of these young people have chosen to share their houses with others, because they’ve concluded that solitude under such difficult circumstances isn’t a good idea. Also, they need to satisfy basic necessities like food and human contact. “Some of my friends go out occasionally to obtain the basic things we need. Sometimes they don’t sleep here. Those days are worse for me, because I have to be sure that none of the things I need are lacking, like soap, toilet paper, or basic items that I could normally go to a store and get, but now I can’t even go outside to receive an [online] order,” the young woman recounts.

She had to drop out of her studies due to the polarization in the universities after the sociopolitical crisis began. “Although I wasn’t directly expelled, I couldn’t continue attending classes due to harassment from my classmates and even from the professors. I abandoned my studies and decided to work informally at jobs that gave me enough to live on. But then I lost my job, because in this situation no one is completely stable. Now my parents are supporting me, plus I receive some assistance from the organization I collaborate with.”

According to psychologist Nuñez, this represents an infringement of her rights, because those who live in this situation have had their “personality annulled, transforming them into a nobody. They feel objectified, incapable of exercising all their rights, in a kind of civic death. If you can’t work, if you can’t study, you become a non-person, which is what Daniel Ortega is imposing on all on all these people under extreme security measures.”

Despite everything, some of these activists must hold more than one informal job to be able to pay their living expenses. This all must be done very discretely. These informal jobs don’t offer benefits, or pay into social security, and they can’t be put on a resume. But, “to get ahead, you have to make a triple effort,” one of the young women comments.

Tight security affects mental health

Mental health specialist Whitney D’Leon believes that the first thing to consider is if these are really voluntary confinements, when specific conditions pushed the young people to make this decision. “To me, it’s not a voluntary decision, but a measure imposed by the political violence and persecution,” she says.

The young people note that following the inception of the latest arbitrary imprisonments, their principal security measures had to be tightened. “When the imprisonments escalated, I first went into partial hiding, and then went totally underground. This means staying in a safe house, no contact with family, keeping my electronic records secured, not offering any public declarations or live interviews in the media, and above all, not leaving the house,” says the young UNAB member.

All of this has provoked serious consequences in his emotional health, with repercussions to his physical health. “The lack of family affection, added to the fact of being confined and not being able to leave has caused me to have anxiety attacks. I live under constant stress, which has reached the extreme of keeping me from eating. On those days alone I’ve only eaten a bare minimum, because I’m dwelling on the uncertainty of not knowing what might happen to me the next day, or what will happen in the future. Also, I’m pondering the decision to leave the country, depending on circumstances. The accumulation of all these situations has triggered skin problems,” the young dissenter adds.

The female UNAB activist notes that all her problems seem to be tied to one factor – stress. “On a psychological and emotional level, I’ve had to take serious measures. In 2020, I was alone for a long time and I went through a period of fairly strong depression. The persecution against me at that time was the most critical factor. It triggered a ton of repercussions, not only psychological but also physical. I developed illnesses that I hadn’t had previously, different allergies. They diagnosed me with endometriosis, I had daily migraines, and I also developed fibromyalgia. Even though it might seem like all those illnesses weren’t connected, they’re all a product of stress and the psychological conditions cause your body to develop a ton of ailments. Not only do we have to watch out for our physical safety, we must also take care of all the psychological risks this brings,” the young woman affirms.

The female activist also developed eating disorders resulting from the stress and anxiety. “Because I wasn’t used to doing what I was doing and was thinking constantly about what was going to happen, I began to have problems with my eating habits. I wasn’t home anymore, I didn’t eat regular meals, I spent half the day sleeping, and when I couldn’t bear up anymore, I began to eat large quantities of whatever there was. After that, I’d end up throwing up, because I even ate while I was crying. I’m getting therapy now, but with this uncertain situation I’m not sure I’m going to improve easily.”

The psychologist explains that human beings are naturally sociable, and isolation can affect us in a lot of important ways. The levels of anxiety and stress can disrupt our sleeping and eating routines, triggering uncomfortable emotional experiences like irritability, sadness, and intense worry. Depending on the material conditions of the confinement, there can be changes in our physical health for the lack of exposure to sunlight, lack of contact and lack of movement, she assures.

The decision to remain in Nicaragua

Several of the most visible opposition leaders have opted to leave the country, in order to safeguard their physical integrity. However, that’s not a solution for everyone, since many don’t have the economic resources to be able to leave, even illegally. Others prefer to continue in the country because of their convictions.

To them, the decision to leave the country is a “subjective” one. After analyzing their personal situations, these young people have assumed the risks of remaining in Nicaragua because they refuse to believe that any change can come from outside. “I continue in Nicaragua because I refuse to accept that one powerful husband-and-wife couple, and the group around them, can force me to leave the country. In addition, I believe that hopes remain of getting rid of the dictatorship. The dictatorship is going to fall from inside Nicaragua; it’s from inside Nicaragua that the political prisoners are going to be freed. You also must have a little empathy with our fellow citizens who are political prisoners, and with the large numbers of territorial leaders that are inside the country resisting the dictatorship. It’s very improbable that you can conduct political action and lead an organization from exile, when a lot of citizens are left vulnerable within the country,” states one of the young men.

Vilma Nuñez, Cenidh director, notes that this problem shouldn’t only be analyzed as a mental health problem, but as a reaction to a violation of human rights.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.

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