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UNICEF report indicates vast majority of Gaza’s children are struggling to cope with war trauma and PTSD. This is the first of a two part series on the psychological toll the war and siege has taken on Gaza’s most vulnerable population. TRNN explores the Oum el Qurra school in the Tar el Hawa neighborhood in Gaza city where many of the students were still being pulled out of class for counseling one month after Israel’s eight day assault.
Mental health workers, psychologists and therapists are overwhelmed by lack of resources. The second part will explore what methods are being used to treat, rehabilitate and recover children and adults from war trauma.
Ahmed Deeb and Nosier Abdullah contributed to this report
JIHAN HAFIZ, TRNN: There lies a dark reality behind the smiles of Gaza’s children: most of them are severely traumatized by war. It’s been one month since Israel’s last assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, and the nightmare still lives on for a majority of Gaza’s most vulnerable population.
This is the second time Mohammed had to be hospitalized. Last month, he was playing in the farmland near his home, when shrapnel from an Israeli missile ripped into his legs. His mother took him home to recover. Days later, she was forced to bring him back to the hospital.
MOHAMMED’S MOTHER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): He felt psychologically drained. He hasn’t had time to feel comfortable and return to his normal life again. He can’t leave the house, play. He still can’t walk. The boy suffers from sleep disorders. And most boys don’t have interest in study, they have no mind to study, because they are still affected by the offensive. When we left the hospital, it was thundering and raining. He heard the sound of the thunder, and he was terrified. He thought it was an aircraft.
ESRA’S MOTHER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): She doesn’t eat anymore.
HAFIZ: Esra was at the top of her class before a bomb blasted through her house last month. She was thrown three stories down, fracturing her pelvis, causing internal bleeding and brain injury. Miraculously, she survived, but she hasn’t spoken since.
ESRA’S MOTHER: We took her out of the ICE after a week, but as you see her, she doesn’t move. She doesn’t respond to anything and she doesn’t speak. She has been as you see her. She opens her eyes, but not a word comes out of her mouth.
HAFIZ: The children are not the only ones who have been affected. Grieving parents are struggling to cope with the psychological isolation of their surviving children.
YOSRA’S MOTHER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): She was a wonderful girl, very sweet. She loved life, she loved a lot of things.
HAFIZ: Eighteen-year-old Yosra was killed by her mother’s side, leaving behind three young brothers.
YOSRA’S MOTHER: Her brothers and all the kids who live near us became disturbed when she [Yosra] was martyred. Some of them had breakdowns when she was killed, because many of them loved her.
HAFIZ: Over half of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians are under the age of 18. A study conducted by Unicef released earlier this month found that 92 percent of children in Gaza are afraid of loud sounds. Close to 70 percent reported constant nightmares. Eighty percent reported bed wetting and night trembling. Other behavioral traits include depression, social isolation, and aggression. Four years ago, Palestinian and international schools were bombed during Israel’s Cast Lead. During its recent attack, Israeli bombs partially or completely damaged over 100 schools.
HAFIZ: This is what’s left of the Ministry of Interior. And while this is a government building operated by Hamas, it’s literally surrounded by schools. On this side, you have one of UNRWA’s schools belonging to the United Nations. This is a boy’s elementary school, and you can see parts of it have been destroyed, so much so that classes there have to be counseled, and the students have to be transferred to another school. On the opposite side of the UNRWA school, you have a government-operated school, and the 1,000 students who were attending this facility have now been forced to go to the one right behind it. Counselors at that school say they’re overwhelmed with students, who are coming to school with psychological trauma as a result of Israel’s last bombardment.
HAFIZ: There, at the Umm Al-Qurra School, located 100 meters from the destroyed Interior Ministry, it seems like just another school day. But teachers and school counselors describe an environment where a majority of their pupils are constantly disturbed by their war experiences. Education seems far from their minds.
TAHANI AL-MEQDAD, COUNSELOR, UMM AL-QURRA SCHOOL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There is a girl named Razan Dogmosh in the third grade. Her father was killed when his car was bombed on the Al Sinaa street. It killed six members of the same family. How did we know her father was killed? Because the girl changed completely. She used to be an active girl, participating, top of her class, full of energy, interact with her friends. When a question was asked, she always raised her hand. But now she is silent and immobile. If we talk about martyrdom, bombing, or war, she reacts and starts crying.
So we are finding the children are still tense. When you approach them, they are startled and start to tremble immediately. Until now, they don’t have the mind for school. They haven’t been participating in the most basic studies. Even Arabic classes you find they forget easily.
HAFIZ: Even those children not directly impacted by Israeli shelling have been traumatized. Trapped in their homes during the war, children were exposed to graphic images, including other children dying. All the kids here witnessed the deaths of the four children from the [dalu] family, whose 12 members were killed when Israel bombed their home. Israel claimed it warned family to flee the areas before it bombed, through dropping leaflets and transmitting warnings over local radio and television stations.
But many in Gaza found it even more terrorizing. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Gaza City is home to nearly three-quarters of the population.
Ragda Durmndakh has moved her students to the Umm Al-Qurra after both her home and former school across the road were destroyed in bomb blasts. She explains it was also psychological warfare that had an impact.
RAGDA DURMNDAKH, PRINCIPAL, BILQIS YAMAM SCHOOL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In this neighborhood Tal Al-Hawa, there were no flyers, but people in the north began contacting us and warned, the Israeli army was demanding people to leave their homes and move toward the center of the town. But people refused to leave, because they were terrified that maybe they leave their home and die the moment they walk out. It was just as dangerous to go far as it was to step outside your house.
HAFIZ: Counselors say their students are desperate for their mothers. Some have not returned to school. The Ministry of Education estimates there are one or two clinically trained psychologists for every 1,000 students in Gaza’s public schools. In the rural areas and within the poverty-stricken refugee camps, there are only school counselors. Teachers are working overtime, both as educators and training in school therapy to handle their students. Off camera, teachers tell us they too need counseling.
According to mental health workers, recovering from the nightmare of war doesn’t always happen, and when it does, it may take years, depending on the age of impact. Doctors in Gaza say, while Palestinian childhood for generations has been marred by war and trauma, Gaza’s children are also under siege. They are now recovering from their second war in four years.
Jihan Hafiz for The Real News, Gaza.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.