Psychology

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    Lifetime Trauma?
    The World of War Children in Syria

    The Syrian revolution was not just one of the surprises of the Arab spring. When it broke out three and a half years ago, one of its most striking features was that it began with ordinary children and adolescents in a town called Deraa that wasn’t usually in the headlines. Since then life has changed for Syrian children, and for many of them the changes have been tragic, especially for those who have had the misfortune to witness the most destructive and frightening phases of the conflict.


    It may be true that civil war and political violence are devastating to all sectors of society, but there is strong evidence that children and adolescents suffer the lion’s share of the damage, because it will probably affect all aspects of their health and physical well-being. The greatest effect is in fact on psychological and social aspects, in ways that can persist for long periods of time.

    Arab and Muslim societies count themselves lucky that they can boast of their youthfulness, with a high proportion of children and adolescents (more than 65 per cent of Syrians are younger than nineteen); but this characteristic can become an appalling nightmare in times of war and overt violence, and in the crises that follow. The experiences that large numbers of children in Syria have gone through over the last three years have been terrifying and devastating.

    A shock too big to absorb

    On a hot Ramadan day in 2012 Syrian government warplanes bombed the northern town of Aazaz several times. Just before sunset and the end of the Ramadan fast one of the planes dropped a bomb, said to be a ‘vacuum bomb’, that reduced a whole residential area to a vast pile of rubble. Within seconds the site was littered with parts of dead women and children, and the walls of the houses crumbled like dust from the extraordinary air pressure created by the bomb. Shortly before the raid, a seven-year-old girl had left home in the area to go to her grandmother’s house, a few minutes’ walk away, unaware of what awaited her family and her home. When she came back with her uncle after the attack, she found no trace of the house. ‘They’ve stolen our house, Uncle,’ she shouted between sobs. Since that time this innocent young girl has been unable to speak a single word. The shock was several levels too great for her to absorb.

    At the end of 2011 four-year-old Mohammed and his family were forced to leave their home in the countryside near the northwestern town of Idlib to escape shelling and fighting. On their way to a refugee camp in Turkey, the frightening sound of gunfire was clearly audible, and at night the sound of animals and nearby shelling echoed in the ears of all the members of his family. Mohammed is now one of the thousands of children from Syrian families who have settled in refugee camps to avoid daily raids on houses and campaigns of mass detention. Although he had been a fairly normal child in his general psychological development, he has since begun to show symptoms that were not previously evident. He has been wetting his bed and there has been a severe regression in his linguistic ability. For some time Mohammed has been unable to speak. He tries to communicate as much as possible through gestures and temper tantrums.

    Too frightened to sleep: children plagued by horrific nightmares

    In the south Jordanian city of Maan, a Syrian family of ten – father, mother and eight children – live in a modest house, in one small room that receives no sunlight. Maryam, 13, is the eldest girl. Like other families in southern Syria they were forced to leave home some months after the revolution broke out, and they took refuge in Jordan after a gruelling journey that lasted several days. Maryam had witnessed violent detention campaigns in the neighbourhood where they were living, her father said. Although they now feel relatively safe in their cramped quarters, Maryam has not been able to sleep properly, either by day or by night, since the family moved to Jordan. During the day she sleeps only one or two hours; she hates the dark, and feels extremely frightened as soon as night falls. She says few words, in a voice that is quiet, warm and sad. On being questioned, Maryam and her mother explain that horrible nightmares have been plaguing her for months. As soon as she nods off, a terrifying giant with blue eyes appears and tries to strangle her. The thing she now fears most is going to sleep.

    Khaled, 9, is a handsome boy from the Khaldiye district near Homs. Apart from being handsome and quiet, Khaled has another distinctive feature that is evident on his innocent face: Down’s syndrome. He is one of millions of children across the world who, because of a random genetic mutation, are different from other children. Khaled liked nothing better than the exciting time he spent watching demonstrations day and night in Khaldiye, one of the most active districts in Homs at the beginning of the revolution. He memorised all the songs and chants and hummed them at home with great glee. A while later everything completely changed: the neighbourhood came under daily attack and bombardment by militias and the Syrian security forces. His mother had to find a quick way out without Khaled’s father, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It was an arduous journey with several frightening incidents at night, with gunfire audible in the distance. A few months ago the family settled in a village near Tripoli in Lebanon, and Khaled now lives in a small, dark house with five other Syrian families and a large number of children. Although the area is relatively quiet, Khaled shows signs of severe unhappiness. Not only that: he is also no longer able to talk, he has trouble with bladder control and he is always looking for his missing father.

    The children of government opponents: victims of a special kind

    An announcement on one of the government’s television channels in early August last year said that the channel would soon broadcast an interview with a ‘princess’ of the opposition Nusra Front who had been detained while engaged in the much publicised activity known as ‘marriage jihadism’. When the interview was broadcast it turned out that this ‘princess’ was in fact a thirteen-year-old girl who looked very frightened and apprehensive. She started talking, nervously and with long pauses, about the sexual services she had provided to the mujahideen opposed to the Syrian government. She looked exhausted and robotic as she forced the words out of her mouth. This unfortunate girl was in fact, according to reports by activists, the daughter of a man accused of commanding a battalion of the opposition Free Syrian Army in the east of the country. Her fate, and even whether she remains alive, is still unknown.

    These are various vignettes of the suffering inflicted on children in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. I have not only read about them in reports by activists in the field, by the Syrian human rights organisations that have sprung up, or by well-known international organisations. I have seen most of them at close quarters on the trips I have made from time to time over the past three years, either to parts of Syria that are outside government control or to areas in neighbouring countries where there are large concentrations of Syrian refugees. Although we need the reports for the sake of better coverage and greater awareness about the psychological and social conditions of millions of Syrian children, they serve only to put numbers to the suffering of these young people and their families. They overlook the differences between them, and ignore the experiences that are particular to each individual case and distinguish that case from other cases. Direct contact with the children in their traumatic surroundings provides us with a better opportunity to understand their circumstances more profoundly and in a way that goes beyond the mere recitation of statistics and the vague generalities of the official reports.

    Major psychological changes

    Many of the families I met spoke about major psychological changes in their children as a consequence of the accumulation of all the bad experiences they had been through. Although the cases observed differed from child to child there was a consensus that a number of symptoms had appeared, though these too differed in their nature and severity depending on the age and gender of the child. It is possible to say that the ways in which the children suffer psychologically can be divided into three main types. The first relates to symptoms connected to states of extreme fear and general anxiety. The children are constantly afraid of people, things, animals and places and are always on the lookout for danger. The signs of fear find fertile ground at night and during sleep, which often brings frightening and alarming thoughts that clearly prevent regular sleep. The second aspect relates to extreme mood swings and emotional instability, with obvious periods of sadness and mourning.

    Most of the children I have met showed signs of general psychological breakdown and loss of vitality, while others, whether they are in areas outside government control or in refugee camps, had symptoms such as violent changes in behaviour that took the form of various kinds of angry and emotional outbursts. The third aspect is more related to major and obvious retardation in a wide range of cognitive skills and behaviour that the child learns over time. Many of the children, especially the young ones, show obvious retardation in their ability to express themselves linguistically. They also have big problems with bladder and bowel control, commonly reflected in bed-wetting.

    The absence of fathers and of schooling

    Especially in the Arab and Islamic cultural environment, children do not live as isolated individuals but as a basic component in an overall communal context that starts with the family, then the extended family, then school and society as a whole. Systematic displacement and military operations have forced millions of Syrians to leave their homes, leading to family disintegration, aggravated by very poor economic conditions. The most striking feature of this is the phenomenon of ‘fatherless children’, brought about by the fact that hundreds of thousands of heads of households have gone missing involuntarily, either because they have been killed or detained, or because they have disappeared or joined the ranks of the groups that are fighting. The absence of fathers has a number of negative consequences – children lose the sense that they have a secure provider, who not only provides real and theoretical protection but also acts as a social role model, which is very important for the sound development of children and adolescents.

    The absence of fathers threatens to produce not only social and family crises but also severe psychological traumas among children. The phenomenon is aggravated by the absence of school, a social regulator that organises the child’s daily life and encourages the child’s intellectual, emotional and behavioural development. War, shelling, fighting, and the fact that government forces have targeted schools in areas outside their control have forced thousands of children to miss school. Many of the people I have met have said that what hurts them most is the total or partial absence of regular schooling, because their children face a void and don’t know what to do with their time when, for multiple reasons, there are no opportunities for purposeful activity. Conditions in the refugee camps are no better, though there are signs of a slight improvement recently because in some places where there are Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan some children have been allowed to go to school or have some form of education, depending on circumstances, but the proportion of lucky children is still very small compared with the number of those who remain without education.

    Children who have grown up before their time

    The violence and the war have had a devastating effect on the daily lives of a large number of children, as well as on their intellectual and emotional lives. The families generally say their children have grown up before their time and have started to routinely use words that reflect the detailed reality of war. Their drawings are full of tanks, planes, soldiers, shooting, wounded people, blood and all kinds of weapons. Their daily games are re-enactments of the horrors they have been through and the destruction and killing they have seen. All this points to major retardation in their attention and memory functions, as well as conscious and unconscious focussing on specific aspects of unpleasant psychological experiences. Even worse are reports that some Syrian children and adolescents have actually had to take part in the ‘adult war’, either by being forcibly conscripted or by being forced to provide various services to the warring parties. This applies equally to some of the measures the government has taken in the schools that are under its control, and to some of the jihadist organisations such as IS and the Nusra Front.

    It’s impossible to predict the likely consequences of the harrowing experiences that this generation of young people in Syria has gone through. The conditions of war, violence, displacement, exile, sieges and shortages of food and healthcare still continue. Harmful social phenomena such as poverty, child employment and early marriage have started to seep into the broken and fragmented communities in which these children live. By analogy with other societies, for example in Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Palestine, we can anticipate the consequences of this violence with some anxiety and trepidation. The psychological and medico-psychological record related to psychological trauma after wars and armed conflicts, as well as the great increase in our knowledge about the workings of the brain and the nervous system under conditions of hardship and psychological pressure and the effects these have on various aspects of growth, show without any room for doubt that the psychological health of a whole generation of children is clearly endangered.

    If we take a closer look, we have good reason to be worried that after experiencing so much violence this generation might, to some unknown extent, carry the seeds for a repetition of the violence in a vicious and possibly endless cycle, if matters continue as they are today without any signs of hope appearing on the horizon, and in the absence of any basic services that might help these children and their families through these difficult times, as well as rehabilitating this generation and the local communities around them, both physically and psychologically.

    In this globalised world, where information is equally accessible to anyone anywhere, there is a new need for decisive international intervention: both to stop the situation deteriorating in Syria, a country with a long history of civilisation, by forcing the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad – which is the source of the disaster – to give up power; and to help Syrians and their genuine representatives to decide their own future and the future of their children, in isolation from a culture of terrorism, authoritarianism and despotism. This is more an international responsibility than a Syrian responsibility, if we want to create a world in which children do not die as a result of hunger, violence or deprivation, while politicians look on apathetically. Let’s do something to save the children of Syria – today rather than tomorrow.
    Jamil Khalil Sobeh works in Aachen, Germany, as a psychologist for children.

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014
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