Daily acts of violence may be leaving Gaza's youngsters too emotionally scarred to adjust to a life of peace, reports Sandra Jordan
'Sawerney! Sawerney!' the children shout as they swarm around ('Take my picture! Take my picture!'). This is Yibna, in Rafah, one of the most desolate sites of destruction in the Gaza strip, where Palestinian children play in the ruins of their demolished homes. Despite the ceasefire - and the danger - they still chase Israeli tanks. This is their playground.
'Money!' they demand. When you tell them you have none, their mood changes. 'Shalom,' they say sullenly - Hebrew for peace.
Some of these youngsters are not responding well to peace. Their latest grievance is with the Palestinian police, newly dispatched to co-ordinate with the Israeli army guarding the border with Egypt. 'We hate the police,' says 11-year-old Ahmed. 'They try to stop us throwing stones. They pull us by the ears. Sometimes, to make an example of you, they'll cut your hair really short.'
He scowls. 'We hate Abu Mazen [Yasser Arafat's successor as President of the Palestinian Authority]. We are not afraid to die for Palestine.'
For all their bravado, these are children who laugh one minute and burst into tears the next. Three-quarters suffer from anxiety and nightmares. Many suffer flashbacks of violent events. According to research by the Gaza Community Centre for Mental Health, 55 per cent of kids in 'hot' areas such as Rafah have acute post-traumatic stress disorder.
'These children become indifferent to death,' says Dr Fadel Abu Hein, associate professor of mental health and psychology at Al-Aqsa University. 'On the one hand, the Israeli soldiers make them feel insecure; on the other, they embrace death because in this society the martyr is celebrated.'
Worst affected are those who have seen relatives or friends killed in front of them, but children are also traumatised by shooting, night raids, demolitions and other people's stress. 'In the long term, the trauma will grow with the child and becomes part of the personality,' says Abu Hein. 'The disease matures with them.'
The result could be that some children never adjust to peace, growing instead into aggressive adults who vent their rage against their own families and society. 'Some may project their anger on to their own children, to observe their own suffering in their kids. Like a mirror,' says Abu Hein. Around a third of Gaza's children need deep treatment, cautions the psychologist, to guard against 'the creation of a soldier against Israel in the future'.
Lubna's house was demolished in the last incursion. Her family are squeezed into an aunt's house, within sight of the Israeli military. Lubna, 11, says: 'I feel afraid of the bulldozers and tanks, but throw stones at them because the Israelis are bad. They kicked us out of our home and beat my dad.'
Lubna has nightmares about her father's beating. 'When I grow up,' she says, 'I want to be a doctor so I can heal injuries caused by the Israelis.'
After school, Lubna goes to the Lifemakers' Centre for two-hour sessions at which 40 children learn English, listen to stories and talk. Few parents can afford the 50p monthly fee so the centre, a rare space for safe play, has a precarious existence. It is supposed to be open three days a week, but most of the children turn up every day.
'How can I tell them not to come?' asks Fida Qishta, 22, a volunteer who says her job is 'to fix broken hearts'. She tells jokes and sings songs to cheer up the most depressed children. 'But I can't fix them in one day. They think of bulldozers and tanks and being martyrs.'
This is clear from the plays the children write and perform themselves. Lubna takes part in one. Four girls walk slowly across the room. Lubna falls to the ground - she has been shot at a checkpoint by the Israeli army. Her friends weep. They walk again. Another girl falls. When the two survivors go home, their mothers meet them: 'Where's Lubna? Where's Abir? Why are you carrying their bags?' The girls reply: 'They have become shahids [martyrs].' They all hug and cry.
'I was shocked when they started this,' says Qishta, whose own plays about picnics were scorned. 'It makes me cry because it's not like they're acting; it's like it's real. It is their reality.'
Anees, 19, lives nearby. Most of his neighbourhood has been crushed to rubble by Israeli bulldozers. In one army raid he witnessed the death of seven neighbours. 'I looked for them in the street,' he recalls, 'and I saw the head of one in the middle of the road. Pieces of them were in the trees. I was looking at meat. These were my friends.'
Many people in the area think Anees is insane. 'They call me Anees the Israeli because I am sick of blood. I voted for Abu Mazen because the intifada has done nothing. If an Israeli officer comes to my house, I'd like to invite him for tea. I would like to have a Jewish friend in Tel Aviv.'
These are not popular ideas to express out loud in Rafah, even though most Palestinians are sick of the fighting. What Anees wants more than anything is to study abroad. His suitcase has been packed for the past year. What's stopping him is lack of qualifications - he keeps failing two subjects in his final exams. 'I have tried. But look at this place. It's all destruction. I can't study here.'
Anees is not alone. Some of Abu Hein's students complain that they are losing their brainpower. 'They say, "Doctor, four years ago we felt like intelligent people and acquired knowledge quickly. But we've lost our concentration and energy. Now we feel stupid." '
Research shows that exposure to long-term trauma could have detrimental physical effects on the brain. After adrenalin kicks in, the chemical cortisol is released into the bloodstream. In the short term, this 'fight or flight' mechanism is good for survival, says David Trickey, chartered clinical psychologist at the traumatic stress clinic at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. But over longer periods 'cortisol becomes toxic and affects the brain, especially in children whose brains are still developing and therefore more malleable'.
Emotion and learning become affected. 'The brain is now organised around threats and doesn't want to pay attention to what's happening in the classroom, but to what's happening outside,' says Trickey.
During the intifada more than 630 Palestinian minors under 17 have been killed. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, another 3,700 have been wounded. Reeham is one. She is a beautiful seven-year-old with glossy hair. She takes out one of her eyes.
Reeham was shot in the eye and lost a finger during an Israeli raid. The other children call her 'one-eye'. She has lost her self-esteem and all interest in learning. She spends hours in front of a mirror, talking to herself and studying photos of herself before and after the incident.
'She feels inferior and this has become part of her personality,' says Abu Hein. 'Even if she goes to university and her peers swear "We are not observing your eye", she won't believe them.'
Reeham's father, Hani, has other concerns. 'I'm a bit worried because she's a girl. If it happened to a boy he could adapt but as a girl her future is to be married.' Reeham holds her artificial eye to the camera. 'Sawerney,' she whispers.
· An American Martyr, a feature documentary by Rodrigo Vazquez and Sandra Jordan, co-produced by Azmi Keshawi, will be released next year.
Sunday April 3, 2005 The Observer
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