11-17 July 2014 #715

Post-conflict stress syndrome

Psychological scars of conflict on young survivors take longer to heal
Taylor Caldwell

In 2002, Rabina (pic, right)and her family were travelling home for Tihar when Maoists firebombed the bus along the East-West Highway near Malangwa. Rabina and her younger brother, Rabin, both suffered severe burns and their mother, Anju, died in the hospital in Raxaul after two agonising weeks.

Rabina, now 17, is one of Nepal’s more well-known “post-conflict” children. There has been overwhelming support for the family since their story was first reported 12 years ago. The siblings have received free treatment at Sushma Koirala Memorial Burns Hospital in Sankhu and had fees waived at the Bright Horizons Children’s Home at Matatirtha Rabina does well in class and looks forward to joining her father in Patlaiya to start a business after graduation this year.

  Rabina and Rabin still have some plastic surgery procedures to undergo at the hospital, which they visit once a year. But there is no institutional support to help address their mental trauma, since neither the school nor the hospital offer psychological care. Both children have nightmares and are haunted by the memory of what happened 12 years ago.

For many years, Rabin refused to ride a bus, recalls his father Bhakta Bahadur Regmi, who is a forest ranger in Patlaiya. “Whatever support we got came from private individuals, charities, the hospital and school after reading our story in the media,” says Regmi. “There has been no help at all from the state.”

But Rabina looks at the positive side, and says the insurgency changed her life by allowing her the opportunity to have a good education. There are thousands of children like Rabin and Rabina across Nepal who were orphaned by the war, and carry psychological scars. 

Srijana Pakhrin was 12 when her father was taken away by soldiers. The army later told the family he was shot while trying to escape. Srijana was so traumatised she retreated into a shell and went into depression.

Both Rabina and Srijana were profiled in Kesang Tseten and Prem BK’s documentary, Frames of War, along with other widows and mothers who lived through years of brutal violence.

Throughout the insurgency, both the Nepal Army and the Maoists involved children in political violence. The Maoists systematically recruited children as young as eight as “whole timers”. Most were disqualified by UNMIN from being allowed into cantonments, and many are now adults without jobs and prospects.

The escalation of the conflict in 2004 saw an increase in the murder, torture and detention of children by both the Nepal Army and Maoist militia. Data about the fate of children affected by  the conflict varies wildly, but it had a disproportionate impact on children. Up to 700 children  have been killed or wounded by IEDs and mines since the end of the conflict in 2006. While donors have poured money into clearing landmines, not much has been done to help victims of  psychological trauma.

“The main obstacle to our work is the idea that mental health is a lesser priority,” explains Pitambar Koirala at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) which helps former child soldiers with post-traumatic stress. 

TPO’s studies have shown a high incidence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among child soldiers as they grow up. But help reaches only a tiny fraction of those who need it.

For every young person like Rabina who shows great resilience and manages to move on and leave the past behind, there is another survivor like Srijana whose mental scars have not healed.

“Issues related to children’s physical and mental well-being need to be given priority in the peace process,” says Parbati Shrestha at TPO, “The government should take full responsibility, and our role is only to support this task.” 

Read also:

A burning desire to help, Kunda Dixit’s blog

Why the children?, Naresh Newar

Rabina and Rabin in the hospital

Rabin and Rabina

New life, Rameshwor Bohara

Long way home, Naresh Newar

Time doesn’t heal

Srijana Pakhrin was 12 when her father was taken away by soldiers in Makwanpur. The army later told the family he was shot while trying to escape. Srijana was so traumatised she retreated into a shell and went into depression.

She started doing well at school after few years, until the Maoists took her in their cultural troupe. “She came back depressed again and started falling back in her studies,” recalls her mother, Nani Maya Pakhrin.

Srijana, now 24, had an inter-ethnic marriage and is nursing a year old son in a village in Makwanpur. “There are times when I still get anxious and depressed thinking about my father and my lost childhood,” says Srijana who is still on medication.

Srijana’s elder brother dropped out of college and went to Bahrain to work as a security guard. He returned to Kathmandu few months ago to get married.  Although the family has picked itself up financially after losing their father, Srijana’s brother is still angry at everything that they had to go through.

“We begged for the state’s support after my father’s death, but there no one came forward with help,” he said with bitterness.

After we spoke to Srijana in Kathmandu recently, her brother told us to delete all her photos. “We don’t want the world to feel sorry for us,” he said, “thousands of people saw my family’s grief in film and photos, pitied on our sad lives which only made me more angry and humiliated.”

Bhrikuti Rai