Center for Victims of Torture, children, Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Gaza, Israel, Mental distress, mental health, Mental health care, Middle East, Palestinian children, psychological distress, psychological trauma, psychosocial services, psychosocial support, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF, United Nations, violence, Violent conflict, War trauma
Curt Goering is the Executive Director of CVT. In 2009 and 2010, he served as Head of the Gaza office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While previously working at Amnesty International, he also investigated the impact of rockets fired from Gaza on communities in southern Israel. Here, Curt reflects on his experience in light of the recent ongoing violence and the heavy psychological toll the conflict is inflicting on children from both sides.
The latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip brings back vivid reminders of the devastating impact of the war on the civilian population, especially among children, who are the majority of people there. I headed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Gaza following the 2008/2009 conflict which, like this one, resulted in massive human rights violations and evidence of possible war crimes.
In the aftermath of the war, the evidence of trauma was everywhere: large numbers of children wetting their beds; children afraid to leave the sides of their parents; children afraid to try to sleep alone; children with recurrent nightmares; and children paralyzed with fear when hearing a sudden, unexpected sound such as the slamming of a door.
The frequent explosions from bombing raids, the subsequent shaking of buildings, the daily shelling from naval boats at sea, and the drones in the air, all contributed further to the sense of insecurity and vulnerability. Children sensed their parents were unable to provide safety which contributed to a range of behavioral problems and erosion of parental authority.
During the current violence, it is abundantly clear that the numbers of dead and injured Palestinian children are very high, and continue to rise as virtually an entire population is unprotected and vulnerable, unable to leave Gaza because the borders are sealed and unable to even flee the bombing and shelling because there is no safe place to go.
In Israel, the lives of children and adults are at risk from rocket fire from Gaza. The attacks are indiscriminate and symptoms of trauma and psychological scars are evident among the civilian population.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “… there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated [by both sides], in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of July 27, “At least 194,000 children require direct and specialized psychosocial support (PSS) on the basis of families who have experienced death, injury or loss of home over the past eighteen days. Child protection and psychosocial support is urgently required to address issues of child abuse, exploitation and violence inside shelters and refuges.”
Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF, said it all too well in a July 13 statement on the impact of violence on children in Gaza and Israel:
“No child should have to suffer the terrifying impact of such violence. The violence is taking a shocking toll on children both physically and psychologically, with alarming consequences for future chances of peace, stability and understanding. Too often children who witness such violence, and come to view it as ‘normal’, are likely to repeat it themselves in later life. UNICEF staff on the ground have spoken with families who describe the deep emotional impact that the current violence is having on children – children who are not sleeping or who are having nightmares, children who have stopped eating, and children who are exhibiting harrowing signs of mental distress. With the possibility of a further escalation in violence, UNICEF joins the Security Council in calling on all sides to urgently exercise maximum restraint and for the protection of civilians – not only for the sake of peace, but for sake of the children who are suffering the worst of this current violence.”
CVT knows from our experience working with refugees in Minnesota, in refugee camps and in urban settings, and in post-conflict areas, that people who survive torture and war experience serious mental health problems, including deep despair, anxiety, and depression. The impact of torture and war on children can lead to unique psychological and emotional pain that can have long-term impacts on their development and well-being.
To address these children’s psychological distress, it is imperative that world governments, including the United States, increase investments in programs to assist them through counseling and psychosocial support. More must be done to better integrate mental health with other programs.
Mental health care itself can be lifesaving. We have seen, even in the aftermath of widespread violence, individuals, families, and communities do heal and do rebuild their lives. We need to do more to press global policymakers to expand support for mental health and psychosocial support programming and to ensure both are major elements in international development and foreign policy agendas.
The need for rehabilitative services in Gaza has never been more urgent. The lives lost and injuries sustained over the last two weeks cannot be undone. But the international community can and must do everything possible to assist survivors as they struggle to recover and cope in the future.
Note: At the time of writing, CVT learned that several of its staff, both in Jordan and in the United States, have had relatives and friends in Gaza killed or injured in this conflict. We extend our deepest and most heartfelt condolences to all for their losses.