Children play to tackle war trauma

A little girl at a makeshift children’s recreational centre dances her fears and sadness away. (Serene Assir/IRIN)

TYRE - In southern Lebanon, one major component of the overall rehabilitation and recovery process is to ensure that children overcome the trauma of living through war as well as the distress of returning to heavily damaged villages.

Agencies working to improve the psychological health of children believe there is no better way to begin the journey towards recovery than through that which children enjoy best - playing.

“According to research, 95 percent of children are able to overcome stress and mild trauma by simply playing,” said Soha Boustani, Beirut communications officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef.

“It then becomes possible to identify the other five percent of children with more severe trauma, who can then be counselled by the appropriate specialists,” she added.

Southern Lebanon bore the brunt of hostilities in a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. At the end of the conflict on 14 August, the UN estimated that a third of the 1,189 Lebanese casualties and up to 45 percent of the million displaced were children.

Throughout the war, Israel said it was targeting terrorists and blamed Hezbollah for using civilian shields.

In Tyre, 80 km south of Beirut, and Nabatiyeh, 80 km southeast of the capital, Unicef is coordinating and funding two children’s recreational areas. Volunteers have sought to bring in as many children as possible from villages in the south to spend at least part of their day in safety, playing sports and games, singing, drawing and dancing.

“The aim in bringing children here is to give them a chance to express themselves, to expend the energy they have stored up, and to feel happy even if it is just for a day,” said Khudur Salem, who coaches children sports at the Tyre-based Hoops recreational centre.

In less than three weeks, more than 4,000 children have visited the centre, said Salem. “Many of them have come here from border villages such as Bint Jbeil and Aitaroun, which suffered massive damage during the war and bombing,” he said.

Children appear to be making good progress. “During the war, we were very worried,” said Hussein Mugniyye, 9, whose family had to flee their home in the outskirts of Tyre for Beirut through most of the war. “Even when we came back, I still felt sad. Now, I feel happy, and I have made many new friends.”

An additional problem that children have had to face upon returning south from displacement elsewhere in Lebanon or abroad is the widespread presence of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in the fields and open spaces they once played in.

“My friends and I used to play in the fields all the time,” said Hussein Thine, 10, in Aayta Shaab. “Then, when we returned after the war, I was injured by a cluster bomb and spent five days in hospital. Now, I warn my friends against going out into the fields.”

Cluster bomblets are the most common form of unexploded munitions. The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) estimates that at least one million cluster bomblets from rocket and artillery strikes continue to pose an extreme risk to civilians - with children being the most vulnerable.

“Children are imprisoned by the continued presence of cluster bombs in their areas,” said Dalya Farran, MACC media and post-clearance officer.

The lack of available safe spaces for children to play has rendered the albeit limited pilot projects for children in southern Lebanon all the more valuable.

Intersos, an Italian-based international NGO, is helping with the projects by providing children with participation-based UXO education. “We use cartoons, games, animation activities and painting to educate children thoroughly on the risks posed by the UXOs,” said Simona Pari, Intersos programme coordinator in Tyre.

Also involved in the project are local associations, NGOs and scouts organisations. Many of the participants are young people from the south who are keen to help their peers recuperate from the stresses of war.

“As Lebanese youth, we feel an obligation to help these children,” said Mohamed Abu Jahjah, a 21-year-old student from Tyre who sings and plays the derbakeh (Lebanese drum) for children at an Intersos-coordinated recreational centre in the outskirts of Tyre.

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