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Iraqi Youth Face Lasting Scars of War

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    Conflict s Psychological Impact on Children Is Immense, Experts Say Iraqi Youth Face Lasting Scars of War By Sudarsan Raghavan Washington Post Foreign Service
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 6, 2007
      Conflict's Psychological Impact on Children Is Immense, Experts Say

      Iraqi Youth Face Lasting Scars of War
      By Sudarsan Raghavan
      Washington Post Foreign Service

      BAGHDAD -- Marwa Hussein watched as gunmen stormed into her home and
      executed her parents. Afterward, her uncle brought her to the Alwiya
      Orphanage, a high-walled compound nestled in central
      a concrete yard for a playground. That was more than two years ago,
      and for 13-year-old Marwa, shy and thin with walnut-colored eyes and
      long brown hair, the memory of her parents' last moments is always
      with her.

      "They were killed," she said, her voice trailing away as she sat on
      her narrow bed with pink sheets. Tears started to slide down her face.
      As social worker Maysoon Tahsin comforted her, other orphans in the
      room, where 12 girls sleep, watched solemnly.

      conflict is exacting an immense and largely unnoticed psychological
      toll on children and youth that will have long-term consequences, said
      social workers, psychiatrists, teachers and aid workers in interviews
      across Baghdad and in neighboring Jordan.

      "With our limited resources, the societal impact is going to be very
      bad," said Haider Abdul Muhsin, one of the country's few child

      "This generation will become a very violent generation, much worse
      than during Saddam Hussein's regime."

      Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, 4 million Iraqis have fled their
      homes, half of them children, according to the United Nations
      Children's Fund
      Many are being killed inside their sanctuaries -- at playgrounds, on
      soccer fields and in schools. Criminals are routinely kidnapping
      children for ransom as lawlessness goes unchecked. Violence has
      orphaned tens of thousands.

      Marwa copes by taking care of her sisters Aliyah, 9, and Sura, 7,
      Tahsin said. Marwa helps them with their homework and bathes them. On
      the playground, she keeps careful watch.

      "She's trying to substitute for the role of their mother," said
      Tahsin, who has been a social worker for 15 years. "But even as she
      tries to fill this gap, she is in deep need for emotional support as

      *Witnesses to War*

      Short and lean with a square jaw, Abdul Muhsin started to focus on
      children only last year. Like many of the estimated 60 psychiatrists
      who remain in Iraq, he treated only adults before the invasion. Back
      then, he said, children with psychological problems were a rarity.

      Inside his bare office at Ibn Rushed Psychiatric Hospital, where armed
      guards frisk patients at the entrance, he flipped through a thick
      ledger of patients. In the past six months, he has treated 280
      children and teenagers for psychological problems, most ranging in age
      from 6 to 16. In his private clinic, he has seen more than 650
      patients in the past year.

      In a World Health Organization survey
      of 600 children ages 3 to 10 in Baghdad last year, 47 percent said
      they had been exposed to a major traumatic event over the past two
      years. Of this group, 14 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic
      stress disorder. In a second study of 1,090 adolescents in the
      northern city of Mosul 30 percent showed symptoms of the disorder.

      Today, toy weapons are among the best-selling items in local markets,
      and kids play among armored vehicles on streets where pickup trucks
      filled with masked gunmen are a common sight. On a recent day, a group
      of children was playing near a camouflage-colored Iraqi Humvee
      in Baghdad's upscale Karrada neighborhood. One boy clutched a thick
      stick and placed it on his right shoulder, as if he were handling a
      rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He aimed it at cars passing by,
      pretending to blow them up. Two soldiers pointed at the children and

      Many of the children Abdul Muhsin treats have witnessed killings. They
      have anxiety problems and suffer from depression. Some have recurring
      nightmares and wet their beds. Others have problems learning in
      school. Iraqi children, he said, show symptoms not unlike children in
      other war zones such as Lebanon
      the Palestinian territories.

      On this morning, 4-year-old Muhammad Amar had a blank look on his
      soft, round face framed with curls of black hair. When mortar shells
      pummeled his street seven months ago, he was too terrified to cry. "He
      remained still, in shock. He froze," said his father, Amar Jabur,
      standing in the sunlit courtyard of Ibn Rushed. Muhammad is showing
      signs of epilepsy and had a mild seizure the night before.

      Abdul Muhsin said he believes there could be a link between the
      explosions and the seizure, and recommended a brain scan to rule out
      other causes. At the very least, he said, the violence worsened the
      child's condition.

      After the visit, Jabur cast a glance at his silent son. "It is quite
      possibly because of the fear," he said. "We adults are afraid of
      what's happening in Iraq. How do you think it will affect the children?"

      Three months ago, Abdul Muhsin treated his most horrific case. A
      13-year-old girl had been kidnapped in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood
      and held for a week in a house with 15 other girls. Some were raped in
      front of her, another was fatally shot. The girl was released after
      her parents paid a $6,000 ransom. But she is still imprisoned by her

      "She was in a terrifying condition," recalled Abdul Muhsin. "She was
      shouting. She abused her parents verbally and physically."

      He and other child specialists say as many as 80 percent of
      traumatized children are never treated because of the stigma attached
      to such ailments.

      "Our society refuses to go to psychiatrists," said Abdul Sattar Sahib,
      a pediatrician at Sadr General Hospital in Sadr City.

      Many children live in remote or dangerous areas, sliced off from
      Baghdad by insurgents, bombings, and checkpoints. "Some parents just
      call me by telephone, and I try to advise them," Abdul Muhsin said.

      At Sadr General, as many as 250 children arrive for treatment every
      day, nearly double from last year. "We only treat the first 20
      children who arrive and then we run out of drugs," Sahib said. There
      is no child psychiatrist on staff.

      *Parents Lost*

      At the orphanage, Dina Shadi sleeps a few feet away from Marwa
      Hussein. Twelve-year-old Dina had recently received two telephone
      calls from relatives. She learned that her 17-year-old brother had
      been killed and that her aunt had been kidnapped and executed.

      "She totally collapsed," Tahsin recalled.

      "I was not able to control myself that day. I cried," Tahsin said, her
      voice cracking. "There is a great amount of sadness here. No matter
      what we do for the children, it will never replace the kindness of
      their mother and father."

      "Now Dina expects another call with more bad news. She has a very dark
      image of the future. More and more, she's afraid of the future."

      UNICEF officials estimate that tens of thousands children lost one or
      both parents to the conflict in the past year. If trends continue,
      they expect the numbers to rise this year, said Claire Hajaj, a UNICEF
      spokesperson in Amman, Jordan.

      While many children at the orphanage have lost one or both parents,
      others have been abandoned or sent here because their parents can no
      longer afford to care for them.

      "The tragedy is that there's an upswing in number of children who are
      losing parents, but you see a decrease in the ability of the
      government, the community and even the family to care for separated
      and orphaned children because of violence, insecurity, displacement,
      stress and economic hardship," Hajaj said. "These kids are definitely
      the most vulnerable around."

      Bombs have exploded near Alwiya, and the sound of gunfire is frequent.
      There is always the possibility of an attack. In January, mortar
      shells landed in a Baghdad school, killing five girls.

      Tahsin still had one more task this day. She had to inform two
      motherless sisters that their father, a Sunni truck driver, would not
      be coming to see them. He had been kidnapped by Shiite gunmen at a
      fake checkpoint and executed.

      *Learning Sectarian Hate*

      At a primary school in the Zayuna neighborhood of Baghdad, three
      teachers sat in the head office lamenting how Iraq's sectarian strife
      had affected their classrooms. A quarter of their students had left
      for safer areas. Some parents were too scared to send their children
      to school, fearing attacks.

      "Now, the young students when they enter the school, they ask their
      classmates whether they are Sunni or Shia," said Nagher Ziad Salih,
      37, the school's principal.

      "Yesterday, I was taking my 6-year-old grandson for a walk. He asked
      me 'Is this a Shia street or a Sunni street?' " said Um Amil, who
      asked that her full name not be used because she was afraid she could
      become a target. "I said: We are all Muslims. But he was still
      determined to know if this was street was Sunni or Shia."

      "Such a child, when he grows up, what will he become?" she asked.

      Salih said children quarreling on the playground now invoke the names
      of armed groups. "The child would say: I'll get the Mahdi Army
      take revenge," she said. "The other kid would say back: My uncle is
      from the [Sunni] resistance and he'll take revenge against you."

      The third teacher, Um Hanim, spoke up.

      "Now the kid whose parent is killed by a Sunni or a Shia, what will be
      his future?" she said, also insisting that her full name not be used.
      "He will have a grudge inside him."

      Child psychiatrists are noticing the sectarian divide affecting their
      young patients. Mohammed Quraeshi, a doctor at Ibn Rushed, recalled
      the day he treated two boys -- one 6, the other 9 -- who were
      suffering from anxiety.

      "They faced harassment from children at their school. They demanded to
      know if they were Sunni or Shia." Quraeshi said. "This is too terrible
      to think that this can happen at this age."

      *'Desire to Seek Revenge'*

      Twenty-year-old Yasser Laith, short with a thin goatee and a cold
      stare, cannot sleep at night. When a rocket crashed into his family's
      house in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in November, he
      crawled into the kitchen and curled up in fear.

      "Whenever I hear an explosion, I start trembling," mumbled Laith, as
      he waited at Ibn Rushed hospital for a 10-day supply of anti-psychotic

      Another day, intense clashes erupted on his street, and U.S. combat
      helicopters hovered over the area. Laith grabbed an AK-47 assault
      rushed to his roof and began firing into the sky.

      "My father is ashamed of me. I wanted to show that I was a good as the
      others," Laith said with a half-crazed smile. "After that I felt

      Today, he takes pills to help control his violence and stop him from
      hitting his two younger sisters or abusing his parents. Several of his
      friends, he said, had joined the Sunni insurgency. He, too, was
      tempted, especially after learning that one of his friends had been
      killed by the Mahdi Army.

      "I had the desire to seek revenge," Laith said, smiling again.

      When Laith left the room to go to the bathroom, his 57-year-old
      mother, Sahira Asadallah, said she was scared that her son would
      commit a crime or join an insurgent group. She wondered how long Laith
      would have to take the drugs, then answered herself: "This will only
      end with the end of the war."



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