Steve Matthews, an aid worker with World Vision Canada, has been to
some of the world's most violent and troubled regions, including
Darfur, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
But even after years in the field, Matthews still has difficulty
comprehending the devastating affects of war on children. In February,
he returned from Gaza, where he had spent a month listening to
Palestinian children describe in graphic detail what they saw, heard
and felt during this winter's Israeli airstrikes.
The 22-day ground and air operation, which Israel launched in late
December, killed 1,300 people and injured thousands, about half of them
civilians, including children. But a true accounting of the injuries
suffered by the children of Gaza may never be known, says Matthews,
noting that the horror of the bombings has left countless numbers of
kids psychologically scarred.
"They've seen horrible things, like bodies that have been blown to
bits," Matthews told CTV.ca from London, Ont., recalling the stories
Palestinian kids told him during his month-long trip to the area.
"They have endured violence. They've witnessed violence. And in many cases they've lost a brother, sister, father."
In an effort to help the kids salvage their childhoods -- and cope
with psychological and emotional impact of the bombings -- World Vision
is now conducting what it calls "psychosocial interventions" in Gaza.
The projects aim to help about 2,200 kids by giving them safe places to
play and recover with the help of counsellors and educators.
Counselling is essential if the children are to overcome the trauma they continue to endure, Matthews says.
"A part of understanding what you've been through is to express it
... so there is a sense of a shared experience -- so you know you're
not alone," he says.
Matthews says the stories he heard from the children in Gaza are
heart-wrenching. He recounts the story of one nine-year-old boy, Ameer,
who had been hiding out with his family during one of the Israeli
Ameer's uncle wasn't able to duck for cover in time, and his legs
were sliced by incoming ammunition. He survived after Ameer's father
and another uncle ran out to a courtyard to save him -- but they ended
up being killed themselves during the rescue.
Ameer didn't see their deaths, says Matthews, but he knew something
terrible had happened because his father didn't return. The family was
too saddened to tell Ameer the truth, but after five days they let him
know that his father was buried beneath a nearby tree.
They saw Ameer later, "at the tree trying to dig up his father's body with his hands," Matthews says.
Stories like Ameer's are unfortunately all too common at the Gaza
Community Mental Health Programme, says Husam el Nounou, the
organization's communications director.
"This war has the characteristic of being so harsh in creating post
traumatic stress disorders. So many of the children are experiencing
nightmares, bedwetting, fear of darkness. They're clinging to their
parents (and have) feelings of anxiety. These are the major issues
after the war," el Nounou told CTV.ca from Gaza.
The problems may not be just short term, he says. El Nounou points
out that the Israeli bombings have created strong, negative and
long-lasting emotions among many Palestinian youth. That, he says,
could end up perpetuating the region's cycle of violence through acts
of vengeance against Israelis in the future.
"They will have for sure psychological problems that have to do with
frustration and violence. And the violence will be one of the major
consequences on these children," he says.
"I am concerned because of the deep feeling of being traumatized --
and because of a feeling of a continued threat, they feel like they
want the revenge."
El Nounou says the counsellors and educators at his organization try
to reach kids before their psychological trauma turns into rage.
"We try to reconstruct the thinking of children -- to think about
constructive activities and behaviour ... but we have a whole
generation affected, one way or another."
Matthews says each child's reaction to the violence they witnesses
and experienced will be different. He's hoping that Canadians -- no
matter what they may believe about the origins of the conflict -- will
support World Vision and other organizations that are trying to help
children deal with their trauma.
"Clearly there are going to be a lot of outcomes. Some (of the kids)
are going to be angry. Some are going to be empathetic. Some are going
to be destroyed by it," he says.
"It's unthinkable that children should have to experience this type of horrible situation."