A generation traumatized

21 October 2009

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Ten-year-old Hiba Hammad at the center.

Like many other children in the region, 10-year-old Hiba Hammad from the northern Gaza Strip witnessed atrocities by the Israeli army against the population of Gaza during its assault on the coastal strip last winter.

Hiba’s smiled returned only after four months of intensive psychological therapy at the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.

“Thank God that Hiba returned back to normal after we almost lost hope of her recovering. Right after the war, Hiba kept silent, isolated, fearful of everything around her, especially strangers. But now she is getting much better as she scored 91 percent in the final exams of her school year. Moreover, she now smiles, socializes and even jokes, thank God,” said Hiba’s sister Ettaf, who lost her husband during the attacks.

Wearing a red dress, Hiba sat opposite to her therapist, Haniya Balousha, at the center. It was her first visit there since her treatment was completed four months ago. On that day, Hiba received gifts to celebrate the end of her treatment and her recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hiba described her trauma confidently and with a smile. “I saw on TV children being dragged from under rubble. From the roof of the house, I saw a tank dragging another [child], I also saw my three cousins’ martyred and mutilated bodies.”

Hiba merrily responded to her sister’s request that she tell us a joke. Hiba proceeded, “Once someone asked his friend, ‘Why is the ambulance parked next to the bakery?’ The friend answered: ‘In order to give first aid to the burnt bread.’”

Even her jokes reflect an ongoing problem in Gaza where Israel continues to periodically attack the Palestinian population. Parents cannot guarantee the safety of their children in the Strip.

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Therapist Haniya Balousha in her office.

Following last winter’s attacks on Gaza, Balousha explained that Hiba’s performance at school suffered while previously, “she used to get high marks in her exams.” Balousha added, “Throughout our observation and treatment of Hiba, I noticed that she feared strangers, kept isolated and withdrawn. Hiba suffered [post-traumatic] stress disorder.”

Balousha added that Hiba began to gradually respond to the treatment after three sessions, after which her self-confidence began to be restored. She described the means she used to treat Hiba: “In the beginning I used to encourage her to express herself by drawing what she had seen during the war. Then I asked her to inflate balloons and then pop them. At the beginning she appeared frightened of the balloons because they reminded her of the sound of Israeli bombardment and shelling during the war. But eventually she began to be responsive until she was totally recovered as you see [her now].”

According to Balousha, Hiba’s case is quite similar to the situation of many children in Gaza during and after Israel’s attacks. She explained that since the war came to an end in January, the center treated more than 350 children suffering from PTSD.

Fourteen-year-old Yasser, who declined to give his last name, was also in a therapy session at the center. Therapist Saed al-Sersawi explained that Yasser had witnessed the killing of his father in eastern Gaza City.

“Mr. Saed teaches me how to express myself, he helps me to draw and write poetry sometimes. With his help I am feeling better now to the extent that my relations with [my environment] have improved, thank God,” said Yasser.

According to the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), more than 60 percent of Palestinian children in Gaza suffer PTSD symptoms.

The GCMPHP’s survey also shows that hundreds of children were exposed to white phosphorous fired by the Israeli army during the 22 days of attacks on Gaza.

Abdelaziz Thabet, who works with the GCMHP, said that exposure to white phosphorous has made the majority of children and parents in Gaza feel unsafe.

“The most common traumatic events still include hearing sonic booms from the jet fighters, hearing shelling of the area, witnessing mutilation on TV, deprivation from water or electricity during detention at home, [and] shooting by bullets or rockets or bombs,” Abdelaziz explained.

Asked what kind of treatment the GCMHP offers, Abdleaziz responded, “We are doing programs like school-based intervention such as role-playing or story telling. We have also reached the most-hit regions in Gaza, such as al-Attatra, Ezbet Abed Rabo and Zaitoun. According to our own assessments there are more than 45,000 children in Gaza who need mental health treatment.”

Figures from Palestinian and international human rights organizations estimate that more than 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli forces during last winter’s invasion, including more than 300 children. The three-week-long war also left approximately 6,000 others wounded, 4,000 houses completely or partially destroyed as well as hundreds of institutions and mosques.

According to Abdelaziz, the mental suffering children face will not disappear since “the majority of children fear the return of Israeli attacks to the region.”

All images by Rami Almeghari.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.