For young Gazans, the trauma may never end
BEIT HANOUN, GAZA STRIP // The grisly reality of eight days of war has seared itself in Nader Basioni's mind. Since an Israeli air strike slammed into a nearby field on November 15, his nightmares replay in graphic detail how a fleck of metal from that explosion tore through the family home and decapitated his nine-year-old brother, Fares, who was sleeping in the same room.
"His head was gone except for a piece of skin of his face," Nader, 14, recalled on Friday at his home in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip.
"I'm afraid to sleep because I see him in my dreams. It's the same thing over and over - Fares is gone. He's dead."
Now, a shaky ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, has halted the bloodletting. But Nader and other young people will bear for years the residual physical and emotional trauma of the violence, psychologists, teachers and parents in this besieged Palestinian territory say.
Experts in the Gaza Strip say this trauma takes an especially pronounced toll on children because of the interminable conflict with Israel.
"Gaza is unique because of the prolonged conflict here," said Jamil Abdel Atti, a psychologist who treats students and their teachers affected by war. "It's a vicious cycle that impacts children in every aspect of their lives because it affects the lives of broader society - their teachers are traumatised by it and of course their parents are too. It's not like it's a one-time event where there's time to recover. The violence just keeps happening, over and over."
During its three-week war in Gaza that started in December 2008, Israel's attacks killed 352 children and injured scores more. The most recent fighting that began this month with Israel's assassination of a Hamas military commander killed between 29 and 33 Palestinians under the age of 18, according to Defence For Children International (DCI), a Geneva-based non-governmental organisation. More than 270 sustained wounds.
Mohammed Abu Rukba, DCI's field researcher in Gaza, said evidence collected from this month's war in some ways suggested a more severe impact on children than previous ones. Israel's reliance on air strikes resulted in more injuries per attack, primarily in the form of wounds sustained from flying debris or homes buckling on entire families.
This mode of attack can be less discriminating than others and in the most recent fighting, it affected a wider range in terms where families live across this Palestinian territory, he said. This mode of attack can be less discriminating than others and in the most recent fighting, it affected a wider range of families across this area, he said.
"These air strikes come by complete surprise and they cause a lot of lethal debris that is flung into homes, such as broken windows, walls, metal," Mr Rukba said.
The flying debris that killed his brother sliced though Nader's right leg, forcing him to use crutches. Doctors said Nader would be back on the football pitch after several weeks of healing.
However, his father, Ahmed Basioni, 35, was more concerned about the long-term psychological damage of seeing Fares's gruesome final moments on his son. "Will he be right in his mind? Will he be a different person because of this? I don't know, but it worries me," Mr Basioni, who has five surviving children.
Lingering trauma was not of primary importance for Ashraf Hijazi, 17. All he talked about Friday was getting revenge for the Israeli air raid on November 19 that collapsed his family's home in the Jabalia refugee camp, killing his father and two brothers, breaking his 19-year-old sister's spine and lightly wounding other siblings.
His mother, Aamna, 40, is in critical condition from a wound to her head suffered in the attack, and at hospital in Egypt.
"It would be an honour to die as a martyr in the resistance," said Ashraf, referring to Hamas's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. "I will fight Israel to avenge my family."
The desire for revenge is one of many possible responses to the emotional distress of war, said Mr Abdel Atti, the psychologist. Others include general withdrawal from social situations or even physical ailments that manifest because of acute cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Few children can receive respite from this, Mr Abdel Atti said.
To numb the emotional pain, teenage Gazans have increasingly turned for comfort to drugs such as Tramadol, a highly addictive painkiller, he added.
"The situation has created a recipe for rising levels of domestic abuse because ... the parents suffer from all this violence," Mr Abdel Atti said.
Because of the Israeli blockade's harsh restrictions on travel, he added, people "have few outlets to escape their situations".
The war-related stress has extended into Amel Shaldan's classroom. The 26-year-old Arabic teacher at Gaza City's Jafer bin Abi Taleb primary school deals with it by spending hours of classtime reading fantasy stories to her students.
"It helps them escape their reality," she said. Her favourite - the Magic Chicken - is about the owner of a hen that lays golden eggs. When the owner kills it to collect the rest of the eggs, he finds nothing.
"It's about greed. But I like to read it because it also takes my mind away from things and soothes my nerves too," she said.
She acknowledged the limited impact of such efforts, however, recalling a nine-year-old girl whose high marks plummeted after Israel's 2008-2009 war on Gaza. When Mrs Shaldan approached the father about the problem, she learnt that several of the girl's cousins has been killed in the fighting.
"Her marks improved, but she never fully recovered," Mrs Shaldan added.
For the remaining members of the Hijazi family, the question of recovery - again - is paramount. In 2008, 17-year-old Mohammed was killed by an Israeli air raid.
His parents conceived another child, whom they named Mohammed in his memory. Last week's attacks killed four-year-old Mohammed along with his father and a two-year-old brother, Suhaib.
"We were watching television when the rocket hit us," said Sondoss Hijazi, nine. "Then we were buried."
Asked about what she missed most about her late father, Fouad, 46, a security guard at school, Sondoss went silent.
Her eyes welled up with tears.
Updated: November 25, 2012 04:00 AM