NEW YORK // The tanks, soldiers and bombers found in the drawings of Gaza schoolchildren are in stark contrast to those hanging on classroom walls of more peaceful countries. After her visit to bombed-out schools in the coastal Palestinian strip, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's expert on children and war, said violent imagery in youth art highlights the hidden damage of Israel's 22-day onslaught.
While aid chiefs struggle to deliver emergency food and repair shelled buildings, parents, teachers and counsellors are counting the psychological cost that violence has wrought upon Gaza's impressionable young minds. On Monday, Ms Coomaraswamy described the "terrible trauma" endured by pupils from Omar Ben Al Kathab School, in Beit Lahiya, who "witnessed violence against their family members". One picture by an eight-year-old schoolgirl featured, typically, a mother and daughter beside a family home - but with the worrisome addition of an "aeroplane dropping bombs, a tank and a soldier shooting at the house", the UN envoy said.
A telephone survey of 1,815 households across Gaza late last month revealed that psychological and emotional aid ranks as the "top priority" of respondents, with 28 per cent asking for counselling. Psychological concerns topped fears over joblessness, which 16 per cent of those polled cited, even though the territory's employment rate has now dropped below its record low to 45 per cent. Half of those surveyed said children needed psychological support. Worried parents describe increases in "bedwetting, nightmares, aggressive behaviour and anxiety", according to the study by the UN Development Programme.
Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, the UNDP's special representative to the Palestinian people, highlighted the importance of "rebuilding the lives of Gaza's 1.4 million residents". At the March 2 donor conference in Cairo, he will seek funds to pay for counselling programmes. A World Vision study in June showed that 16 per cent of children between five and 15 suffered from nightmares. Anecdotal evidence since then indicates "the numbers of children showing symptoms of trauma increased dramatically during the incursion".
"It is perfectly clear to everybody that [the Israeli attack] has had a devastating impact on all the people here - the most vulnerable being the children," said John Ging, Gaza's operations chief for the UN Relief and Works Agency. The UN reopened schools on Jan 24, six days after Israel halted a 22-day offensive that left about 1,300 Palestinians dead - hundreds of them women and children. Mr Ging said UNRWA "rushed quickly" to get 200,000 schoolchildren back into the Strip's 221 schools so they could receive counselling to counter the horrors many had witnessed during the conflict.
"We spent days at the outset dealing with psycho-social issues," Mr Ging said via video link from his headquarters in Gaza City. "We trained our teachers how to identify and deal with children who were showing ill-effects from the conflict." The aid agency is hiring 50 extra counsellors to support the 200 who already work in Gaza schools, identifying children needing clinical treatment and those who can be helped in the classroom.
The United Kingdom department for international development announced this week that £1.8 million (Dh9.9m) of its aid package to Gaza would fund Islamic Relief and other agencies to provide psychological aid and other support. World Vision has likewise unveiled a scheme to "help some 2,200 children begin recovering from the emotional trauma resulting from their exposure to violence, death and loss", a spokesman said.
The project includes having puppet shows to entertain youngsters while their mothers attend workshops to learn to protect and reassure troubled offspring. But Ms Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary general's special representative for children and armed conflict, is concerned about the full psychological effect of Israel's offensive extending beyond anxiety, fear and tension. Children and teenagers in Gaza and the West Bank have been so emotionally affected by the conflict that their political views are shifting towards the hardline stance epitomised by Hamas, she said.
"Extremism had been strengthened," Ms Coomaraswamy said. "It could be the immediate aftermath of this when emotions are very raw. But there was no doubt in my mind that children who might have formerly been slightly apolitical ? expressed very strong opinions that seemed much more extremist." firstname.lastname@example.org