Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza children increasingly traumatised according to experts

RAMALLAH (WEST BANK), 13 January 2009 (IRIN) - As the Israeli aerial and ground bombardment continues in Gaza, the number of trauma cases is growing, say specialists.

“The whole community is vulnerable to the intensity of the attacks and the loss of family members that will not only cause post-traumatic stress disorder, but other mood and anxiety disorders as well,” World Health Organization (WHO) mental health officer Ragiah Abu-Sway, based in Jerusalem, told IRIN by phone.

“The reality is that this current violence is already compounding high levels of trauma in children in Gaza,” said World Vision UK’s head of emergency affairs, Ian Gray. “There’s the initial impact on children, which we’re already seeing - frequent bed-wetting, nightmares, and a heartbreaking loss of hope - but there’s also the long-term trauma that will devastate for years to come.”

Specialists say the sound of bomb explosions could cause pregnant women to miscarry or have premature or still births. However, bombs are not the only source of trauma: “The leaflets and phone calls [from the Israeli military calling on residents to evacuate their homes] are also traumatising,” said Abu-Sway.

According to the Gaza health ministry, as of 12 January 910 Palestinians have been killed, including 85 women and 292 children. Some 4,250 people have been injured, including 1,497 children and 626 women.

“People are vulnerable, frightened and defenceless,” psychiatrist Eyad Al-Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme which operates three mental health clinics in Gaza, told IRIN by phone. “People are in a state of heightened anxiety, on constant alert due to the bombing.”


Residents have been trapped in their homes since the Israeli offensive began on 27 December 2008, without electricity and running water, while sanitation systems have collapsed.

“Children are scared, cold - particularly at night - and trapped,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson Merixie Mercato, based in Jerusalem, told IRIN. “It’s going to take time and a great deal of support for them to recover.”

Since the ground invasion began on 3 January, 85 percent of the mobile phone network is down and a huge number of fixed lines are damaged or lack electricity, reported OCHA. This further isolates the population and causes them heightened anxiety, say specialists.

As of 12 January, 28,116 residents had fled to 36 UNRWA (UN agency for Palestinian refugees) shelters, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which says tens of thousands have sought refuge in other locations.

However, there are few safe places to flee to: As Hamas runs the civil police, schools and hospitals it is difficult for civilians to find an area without a Hamas institution, say local residents.

Dwindling food, water supplies

Dwindling food and drinking water supplies are causing widespread panic, according to residents.

Hashem (who did not want to give his last name), a 24-year-old pharmacist from Gaza City, feels isolated without electricity, depending on his friends in the West Bank to relay the latest news via telephone.

“I can hear the bombing from inside my house in Tal Al-Hawa. Every window in our home has been shattered,” Hashem told IRIN by phone. “People are hysterical, suffering from terrible anxiety - there is no safe place in Gaza, even at home.”

Three of the five community mental health centres run by the health ministry are operating in Gaza for a limited duration during the mornings. One centre was damaged by the bombing and another, surrounded by Israeli forces, cannot be accessed, said WHO’s Abu-Sway. UNRWA is offering psycho-social counselling at its emergency shelters, he said.

UNICEF, in partnership with the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza, is operating a 24-hour toll-free help-line offering support to Gaza residents. “Most parents report panic and fear amongst their children,” UNICEF spokesperson Monica Awad, based in Jerusalem, told IRIN.

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