The social-psychological effects of sieges

Associated Press / Evgeniy Maloletka

The war in Ukraine will likely devolve into a series of ugly sieges. These are battles of will, as it were, between a besieging army and a population cut off from medical supplies, food or arms.

Even if the Ukrainians under siege ultimately outlast their Russian besiegers, we know from history that the symptoms — extreme social isolation, boredom, stress, anxiety, lack of mobility — and psychological and emotional effects of such kinds of warfare can linger on for decades.

The evidence is both encouraging and discouraging. A popular myth is that civilians under lockdown or siege somehow emerge with stronger bonds with their fellow neighbors, not unlike Londoners who braved the air raids of the Luftwaffe during the 1941 Blitz.

But, in reality, this feeling of bonhomie is not always the norm. While not to diminish the heroism of besieged populations or the volunteerism evident in previous cases, there is also disturbing evidence of a breakdown in interpersonal relationships and social networks combined with a deep loss in faith and trust in institutions. Post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and psychological trauma, suicide, even potential neuro-degenerative diseases and other forms of violence were also commonplace. “Sieges destroy the body,” as author and  senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Janine di Giovanni wrote in The Atlantic of the siege of Aleppo, “but… what’s far more damaging is the annihilation of the soul.”

Resilience to stress and siege-like conditions vary across communities and cultures. In places where an outward expression of emotion is the norm, there may be a greater likelihood of acceptance or some kind of cognitive restructuring that goes on. In others, denial or avoidance might be how a society copes. Some cultures place a higher value on courage and heroism, which can make the feeling of helplessness during a siege or pandemic lockdown that much more stressful. 

Whenever a population of humans finds itself huddled indoors, forcibly removed from their daily familiar patterns of work and play, the initial phase is typically one of shock and disorientation. Once the shelling tapers off after the first phase, that is typically when suicide becomes more apparent, along with depression and apathy-induced alcoholism (and reliance on other substances). In some contexts, religion becomes a stand-in for substance abuse.

Age plays a big factor in coping strategies. We see evidence of underage delinquency in youth who grow up under lockdowns or sieges. These are kids whose lives have been both upended and sped up, having to prematurely think about their (or their family’s) survival. A stunted growth can have severe symptoms long after a siege is lifted, including emotional numbness, erratic or robotic behavior, feelings of helplessness and prolonged depression. A study of Sarajevo found that stress levels were nine times their prewar levels. Another study showed that mental distress can persist for well over a decade after a war. It was estimated that one-quarter of the hospital beds in Kosovo during the war were people suffering from PTSD

What’s more, interestingly survivors who fled their homes for safer pastures often suffered worst psychological stress after the war than those who stayed put. The logic is unclear but perhaps those who remained were “hardier” to begin with (“Hardiness” being a social-psychology term to describe people who adapt better to challenging conditions). Often those who stayed put had less means to move their families so were forced to be more resilient. 

And women tend to handle the stress and trauma of sieges better than men (some argue their fat stores and fat energy utilization are key to greater physical and psychological resilience), although tend to face greater anxiety and somatization. Similarly, rural populations tend to experience less stress and are more resilient than people living in cities.

The longing for some sense of normalcy or familiarity is a feature of virtually all sieges. To pass the time during the siege of Sarajevo, for example, schools were improvised in homes and basements. Kids were given as much daily structure as possible, even as half of them reported having seen someone being killed. A popular fairy tale in the city envisioned a magic tablecloth that brought any food so desired. 

Others, according to diaries retrieved, experienced acute disruptions in time and space. Even the boundaries of a city or landmarks were literally transformed in their eyes. “Support and information networks began to unravel,” according to one accounting of the siege of Sarajevo. “Disorientation and fear became the primary motors driving their narratives.” Foraging for water, fuel and food became one’s lifeblood. The description of feeling boxed in and bored, like a caged animal, pop up often in diaries of survivors.  In Bosnia, a survivor recounts that they “feel like animals in a zoo.” During the siege of Vicksburg in 1864, women described feeling “hemmed in” and “caged,” literally digging caves as makeshift dwellings to ride out the siege.

The economic fallout of sieges also holds lessons for Ukraine. Like the sieges of the past — Leningrad, Stalingrad, Sarajevo — there are large cities full of unemployed people, huddled indoors, able to work but denied that right. People then, much like today, will have to reinvent themselves to fill “gaps” in a siege economy. We know of archivists at the museum in Leningrad finding work at a nearby medical clinic, and a woman recently awarded her doctorate degree in philology taking a job making grenades. Volunteerism was a strong commonality of virtually all sieges on record, even as public faith in institutions wanes and social cohesion weakens.

A siege also semi-permanently alters one’s social circle, identity and sense of purpose. People no longer self-identified by the work they did or the circles they kept but rather their ration category. Money accrues less value in siege economies as barter becomes more commonplace. Money becomes secondary to food and other commodities.

Perversely, a siege economy features people being both overworked and underworked at the same time. During the sieges of the early 20 century, there were laborers who had to meet Soviet-driven production quotas, typically in defense industries, but also to fill in the gap left by conscription (and desertion).

Even while humans are a resilient and adaptive species, as social creatures we are extremely sensitive to forced isolation. The lesson from past sieges is not whether Ukraine or Ukrainians will survive; it’s what their soul will resemble once the siege is lifted.

Lionel Beehner, Ph.D., is a director at ReD Associates and was previously an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously researched urban and siege warfare as research editor at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Tags impact of war Kosovo Lionel Beehner Mental health PTSD Russia Sarajevo seige Ukraine War WWI

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