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A polar vortex recently sent temperatures plummeting in some US states, including Michigan and Chicago. When the vortex that keeps freezing air and low pressure close to the Arctic starts to sag and bulge, it moves southwards. I have often thought that war can be likened to a vortex. In peacetime, norms and systems form a vortex that keeps societies in check. War disrupts this vortex, causing it to become distorted. In the shift from a peacetime to a wartime vortex, anything can happen.

A cup of coffee with the milk still mixing with the coffee in a vortex

A few days ago, I did an interview in Sarajevo with a survivor of conflict-related sexual violence. When I asked her what title she would give her life story, she had to think about this for a minute. She suddenly said ‘Život je kao vrtlog’ – Life is like a vortex. During the Bosnian war, she was caught up in a vortex and did not know what would happen next; displacement from her town, hunger, detention in a camp, rape. At the end of the interview, I returned to the question and asked whether she would now change the title. She said that she wouldn’t; she could see herself in the vortex. Thinking about it in this way, wartime and peacetime do not form separate but rather overlapping vortices that share common elements.  In Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), there are turbulent vortex flows that feed deep resignation and the sense that nothing is changing or getting better. Caught up in these flows, it is striking how frequently research participants have described their lives as a 'borba' (struggle) and emphasized the need to ‘boriti se’ (fight). The war vortex has become part of everyday life, creating uncertainty and the sense that you still don’t know what might happen next. What will the next day bring?

Levine has identified a ‘trauma vortex’ and a ‘healing vortex’. These two vortices, similarly, are overlapping rather than distinct. A person can move between one and the other through a process that Levine has termed ‘pendulation’. According to him, ‘trauma is about being stuck or frozen whereas pendulation is about the organismic rhythm of contraction and expansion'. [1] People’s everyday lives naturally pendulate, just as there are inevitable ups and downs. Yet, when the rhythm of contraction dominates the rhythm of expansion, and when the social environment limits the space for pendulation towards the healing vortex, both individuals and societies can become 'stuck or frozen' in trauma. This perpetuates the existence of a war vortex, while also giving it a frigid and polar form.

[1] P.A. Levine. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Bekerley, CA: North Atlantic Books.Levine 2010, p. 78).