Traumatized children struggle to rise again

AL-BUREIJ, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - Tens of thousands of children in Gaza are still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following Israel’s three-week bombing in December-January.

Several crisis counseling teams run by international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been carrying out intervention programs aimed at helping Gaza’s most vulnerable put the pieces of their lives back together.

But these groups warn that while there has been some improvement in the collective psyche of Gaza’s children, the long-term effects of war are now beginning to show, and unless the rights of Gazans are respected, the next generation’s future will be hard to predict.

“What is needed is sustained advocacy at a political level to ensure practical changes can be implemented,” says Marixie Mercado from the UN International Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Well over half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are under 18 years of age.

More than 70 percent of children in Gaza are likely to present with PTSD, and 34 percent have anxiety symptoms of likely clinical significance, according to a report from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP). A further 43 percent are considered by their parents to have significant mental health morbidity.

Ahmed Abu Jabara, 15, was forced to help drag the bodies of his father, his two siblings and his badly injured mother from underneath the rubble of their home during the war.

“Our home was hit by seven missiles fired by an Israeli drone on 5 January at about five in the morning,” said Jabara, who lives in the al-Bureij refugee camp just south of Gaza city.

“I was fast asleep. When the thunderous explosions first woke me I thought it was the neighbors who had been bombed. After a little while I realized that it was our home,” Jabara told IPS.

Ahmed’s father and his brothers Osama, 21, and Basil, 29, were killed, while his mother lay under the rubble with serious leg injuries.

But Jabara was one of the luckier children. He was among a group of 73 children flown to Poland as part of a three-week recreational and psychological support tour in June. The children, accompanied by mental health professionals, were taken there by the GCMHP, with the support of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

“There was a remarkable improvement in the behavior of the children while they were in Poland,” Raghda al-Jadeely from the GCMHP told IPS. “They became more relaxed and cheerful. But when they arrived back, the sense of despair and tension was there again.”

“I still have nightmares where I wake up in the middle of the night sweating, and thinking we are being bombed again,” says Jabara. “But when we were in Poland I experienced no fear, and I saw another kind of life.”

Unicef has counseled over 11,000 children and 5,500 primary caregivers in an individual and group capacity. Together with 30 partner organizations the number of children reached is far higher. “Children’s fears since the war have diminished,” Mercado told IPS. “They are clinging less to their parents, and there are fewer cases of bed-wetting. But at the same time the long-term effects of war such as chronic depression, a sense of hopelessness, a lack of joy, and worry for the future have set in.”

Eyad Abu Hejair from the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), one of Unicef’s partners, speaks of three strategies in the counseling programs his organization runs.

“We tell the children not to deny or forget their experiences, and to understand the context in which they happened,” Abu Hejair told IPS. “Secondly, we encourage them to talk openly about what they saw and heard; and finally we teach them coping mechanisms while explaining to them that they have the power to recover and that life isn’t over.”

In one of the projects children played at reading out a news bulletin from a radio station. They told the world what was happening to them, their feelings, and asked for international help.

A group of German psychologists have helped arrange a number of activities for children at Gaza’s Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children. “The children were involved in dance, music, entertainment, comedy workshops and other forms of creative expression,” says director Muhammad al-Sharif.

“The kids were laughing and having fun as they were able to forget their problems and enjoy the innocence of childhood for a few brief hours each afternoon. The Germans commented that being deaf had ironically protected the children from being exposed to the full trauma of the war, as they were able to interact more quickly than hearing children,” al-Sharif told IPS.

Mercado says education is vital for the rehabilitation of children. “Last week a Unicef team surveyed the schools damaged and destroyed during the war. There has been no progress in rebuilding them as Israel is preventing most building material for reconstruction from entering Gaza.

“Even if the schools are rebuilt and massive aid pours in, without political will on an international level to improve the dire situation in the Gaza Strip the children will remain at risk.”

Jabara does now dream of a future. “I want to finish school and go to university to study to be a doctor, so I can help other people who are wounded and sick.”

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