Fear--a sign that we are alive

Roberta Bacic

As a participant in an action of the "Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture" shortly before the plebiscite in 1988, we gathered in front of the National Library located in the heart of Santiago, the capital of Chile. The action was planned for 12 o'clock sharp and it was supposed to last not longer that 3 minutes. It all started perfectly and, as soon as we started, we heard the police cars and the doors of the library closing up. Fear was immense. What would happen? Could we find a way to escape if the doors were closed and in front was the street full of transit? There was no time to think or discuss. We read our pledge naming people who were held in custody and were being tortured, threw it so that people could collect it and hold hands while singing our song, "Por el pajaro enjaulado. . . ." ("For the caged bird...")

The police was already there, spraying water mixed with acid towards our group. We finished our song and tried to escape but without allowing anyone to depart alone, as we were trained. We had internalized our training. Some managed to disperse amidst the normal crowd and the spectators who had come to see what was happening. Some were taken by the police while I fell on the library's stone steps--the force of the water was so strong that did not allow me to stand. One of my colleagues held my hand, aware that it was a risk to be alone. Somehow we ended up in a taxi, after having rejected one that offered help, but we rejected it for security reasons. It took us to office of SERPAJ (Latin American NGO Peace and Justice Service) quite far from the library. We had to take off our clothes as the acid was irritating our skin and reacting with our clothes. We were welcomed by our friends who had not come to the action, then we took a shower and sat down to lunch. Nobody asked anything. It was up to us to share. The evidence of abuse was clear. . . . months later we learned that the acid thrown on us was the same used in South Africa to disperse demonstrations in favor of ending the apartheid.

When I was asked to write about living with fear--a topic that had been so crucial in resisting the dictatorship in Chile--I didn't think it would be difficult to share part of the experience of living with fear and to talk about how we managed it at personal and social level. But it has not been easy at all. My experience of fear was re-awakened and I have had to deal with it again.

The fact that Pinochet was in London (and that he was sent back to Chile to live a life in impunity instead of returning to face trial), has triggered internal processes and stimulated a need to evaluate the way we dealt with fear during the dictatorship. My thoughts have been on how I as an individual and we as a community would face it now. I will try to share with you that which remains constant.

Fear is an emotion that works as a survival instinct. It lets us know that we are in danger. Because of this we have to look into it--face our fears and deal with them. If we deal with fear adequately it can become a very empowering experience, but if we do not succeed in dealing with it, fear can disempower us. We cannot expect to overcome fear, nor we will defeat it. But we can hope to develop the ability not to panic, to live with our fear, and to use it constructively to take the necessary steps to move towards our goals or targets. In my case, the goal was to stop the dictatorship and struggle towards a more just society.

When I share this experience with the human rights and social action groups that I have been involved with, I use a passage from a story that helps us understand the ideas I have tried to express in words:

"And the boys knees trembled as he felt he was lost in the forest. So, he said to himself in loud voice: -Get away fear!,
-and as his legs kept trembling he shouted:
-Get away fear! Leave me!
And then the legs continued trembling, but only because it was cold.

(Taken from: La Piedra Arde, by Eduardo Galeano. Graficas Ortega, S.A. Salamanca. Spain. 1983.)

In situations that push us to our limits and we perceive ourselves at risk, fear will likely surface as a response. We have to face it. What situations am I referring to? Any situations in which we live with insecurity and anguish. In war situations, or as was the case in my country, during dictatorship, the feelings of insecurity and anguish merge: fear of being arrested, fear of being denounced, fear of being tortured, fear of being caught in an illegal meeting, fear of being betrayed, etc. Fear can arise in response to the unknown (what happens if I am arrested?) and in response to what is known (a specific threat over the telephone).

The Components and Consequences of Fear

As a mechanism, fear can act to prompt us into protecting ourselves or others. Fear can also inhibit us. Fear itself is not necessarily negative. It acts as a defense mechanism that allows us to take precautions in a dangerous or threatening situation. But fear can also push us towards paralysis, obsession, and feelings of guilt.

Fear creates a general state of alertness, a sensation that we must always be on edge and that we are under stress because of what might happen. Fear makes us feel that we are vulnerable, that we are unprotected, and that we can be harmed. We might feel impotent. Fear might make us feel unable to act in the face of difficult circumstances. Or we might feel that what happens to us does not depend on our actions, and is out of our control.

Because of fear, we may even experience an altered sense of reality. We might lose sense of where fear really is, or if it even exists. The sense of anxiety and fear might appear diffuse and we might even be unable to perceive what is happening in or around us.

Facing fear directly during extreme situations seems the best way to deal with it. Sharing different experiences of fear and methods for dealing with it, as part of a group, proved to be very helpful for us. These are some of the resources that we have found to be particularly useful:

  • Have an active attitude in the face of fear. If we do nothing to face the anguish it creates, its power will increase and probably consume our energy when we try to control it. There seem to exist two different ways to face this anguish. One is to do it directly, that means getting into the situations that provoke it. If we cannot eliminate it, then we might do something about it, like taking precautions, etc. The other option is to face the consequences--try to keep control over situations and avoid impulsive behaviors. For example, if we have to face the fact that the police might arrest us during a demonstration, we can try to control our fear by deciding beforehand how we will act if the police confront us. If that does not work, then we can try to imagine and prepare for police repression, arrest, and even torture if we are taken into custody.
  • Working out our fears, meaning that we deal with them in different ways and follow a variety of steps:
    1. Acknowledge the fear, meaning that we are aware that we have fear and that we are able to express what we feel and think about it.
    2. Analyse the fear in order to evaluate risks and implications.
    3. Socialise our feelings to share the experience and overcome the negative self-image we might have of ourselves for being afraid.
    4. Deconstruct the fear into its components; for example, decide as a group how to act if the police arrest some--but not all--of the participants at a protest and how to deal with police violence directed at activists.
  • Avoid taking rigid positions in the face of fear. Often, we try to deny fear exists or we try to hide from it and act as if it doesn't exist. None of these options helps us to move forward in our actions or to deal with the presence of fear.
  • Share the feelings and emotions that arise from fear. Talking about these feelings with trusted associated helps us to understand the deep commitment we have to our struggles, and the motivation of other individuals have to join us.
  • Last, but not least, is the need for promoting solidarity. To live and survive in extreme political situations, the feeling of being part of a group--of being a member of a body and not an isolated individual--is a fundamental resource in our struggle. We feel co-responsible for the progress we make and we share our failures.


Lastly, I'd like to add that we used to run workshops on dealing with fear which proved to be incredibly helpful. A key resource has been the book, Salud Mental: La Comunidad Como Apoyo by Carlos Martin Beristain and Francesc Riera based on their experience of working in El Salvador and Guatemala during periods of intense repression.

Roberta Bacic is a War Resisters International Program and Development Officer. A version of this article appeared originally in Peace News.

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