News / Middle East

Doctors Tackle Damaged Minds Amid Gaza's Post-War Destruction

Mohammed Wahdan, wounded in Israeli shelling, receives psychological care at Shifa hospital in Gaza City ,August 14, 2014.
Mohammed Wahdan, wounded in Israeli shelling, receives psychological care at Shifa hospital in Gaza City ,August 14, 2014.
Reuters

In a ward at Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital, child therapist Rabeea Hamouda is trying to elicit a response from two small brothers, Omar and Mohammed, aged three and 18 months, hoping for some words or perhaps a smile.

For seven straight minutes the children, peppered with burns and shrapnel wounds sustained in Israeli shelling that hit their home in north Gaza, stare at him blankly, emotionless.

Eventually, as Hamouda gently teases them, pretending to mix up their names and holding out a present while another counselor sings quietly, a smile creeps across Mohammed's face and the older one, Omar, cries out his name.

“At the beginning, Omar was not responding to us at all, he was not even willing to say his name,” explains Hamouda, who heads a team of 150 psychotherapists working for the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza.

“Big progress has been made with these children,” he says with a sense of relief and quiet accomplishment. “At the beginning they did not talk, they refused to communicate. But now, with the sixth session, we are witnessing good progress.”

Omar and Mohammed are just two of the 400,000 Gazan children the United Nations estimates are in need of psychological care as a result of not just the latest war in the territory but the three previous conflicts fought with Israel since 2006.

The most recent conflagration has been the deadliest, with 1,945 Palestinians killed, many of them civilians and including an estimated 457 children. On the other side of the border, some 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

Whether the result of Israeli air strikes, having parents or relatives killed before their eyes, hearing militants firing rockets from their own towns or themselves being wounded, the psychological trauma for Gaza's young is profound.

The symptoms range from nightmares, bed-wetting and behavioral regression to more debilitating mental anxiety, including an inability to process or verbalize experiences.

There is also deep trauma on the other side of the border, with tens of thousands of Israeli children mentally disturbed by the regular rocket fire from militants during the month-long war and over the seven years since Hamas seized control of Gaza.

While the conflict's destruction of buildings and livelihoods is clear to see and documented daily in television footage, the damage to minds is mostly invisible, yet can have far more damaging and longer-lasting consequences.

“The first time a child goes through a traumatic event like a war it's just deeply terrifying,” said Chris Gunness, the spokesman of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has 200 psychotherapists working in up to 90 clinics in Gaza.

“The second time is terrifying-plus-one because the child remembers the worst parts of the last war as well as the impact of the current one. Then the third time is plus-plus as the compounded memories of conflict build up.

“This time, for an eight- or nine-year-old child in Gaza, it's very, very intense indeed because there is this cumulative toll of trauma from repeated conflicts since 2006.”

Small steps

Hamouda and his team, like other psychotherapy units working across the small territory — home to an estimated 1.8 million people, more than half of whom are aged under 18 — can barely cope with the number of patients requiring help.

The treatment is by necessity basic — an effort to draw children out, to have them paint pictures of their experiences or emotions, to get them to verbalize their circumstances.

While a lot can be achieved with such simple techniques, many more require longer-term, personalized psychological care because of the enormity of the mental damage suffered.

“First we provide wounded and traumatized children with immediate pyscho-social support and we give parents some guidance on how to deal with them,” says Hamouda. Then there is home care and follow up for the more severe cases.

“Houses can be rebuilt and some physical wounds can be healed, but the people's psychological condition needs more than money and time,” he says. “It needs a big effort and persuasion, and overall it needs calm and stability.”

One of Gaza's most successful trauma assistance projects is the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, launched in 1990.

Hassan Zyada, a psychologist with the project, describes the latest conflict as easily the worst since 2006, with scores of Palestinians having lost multiple family members.

“Our expectation is that more than 30 percent of the people here in Gaza will develop a psychiatric disorder,” he said.

Even health professionals are not immune. Six members of Zyada's own family were killed during the war: his mother, three brothers, a sister-in-law and a nephew. He is now receiving counseling from the clinic's chief therapist.

“It is a really traumatic loss and it is not easy for me to deal with,” he said, adding that several others on the team had suffered similar experiences.

So widespread has the psychological damage become that UNRWA, which runs schools throughout the Gaza Strip, has now made psychotherapy a regular part of the curriculum.

“We are rolling out a pretty massive program of parental and child therapy,” said Gunness. “We're having to integrate this kind of therapy into our schools.”

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: mother
August 18, 2014 2:16 PM
This is heart breaking..... This is very painful.. When we think of the same for our own children.... It really is suffocating and frustrating to hear about little innocent children face these thoughts.... What did they do????????

by: meanbill from: USA
August 15, 2014 2:29 PM
Tell the children, always remember and never forget, that this was just one of many battles they will face in life, and especially remember who your friends are, and who your enemies are, and never forget.... And god willing, you will prevail..

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs