Symptoms of trauma are defense mechanisms against unbearable circumstances and events. They are also signs that the mind is healthy. The problems start after the circumstances are over and the defense mechanisms remain, keeping victims stuck in the trauma – sometimes for generations.
What psychiatrists call reenactment or “post traumatic play” is endemic in Gaza. You need repetition to master trauma. This is why torture victims often identify with their torturers, and also why victims become perpetrators.
Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, (1944-2013) Founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, put it this way:
Imagine watching your father stripped naked and beaten. From the child’s point of view, how can the father look after them when he can’t look after himself. For some children, the soldiers have become symbols of power, father figures. A confusing paradox. They resist and hate them, but on the other hand they are the only role models of authority these children know. In Gaza children have missed their childhood. Twelve-year-olds play with toys that they should have been playing with when they were four or five. Most play with toy guns. This is a indicative of the models of authority they have grown up with in their occupied land. Everybody in Gaza in traumatized.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I ask seven-year-old Abdul. “I want to get a gun and kill the neighbours”, he says. His father stares, eyes glazed, at the floor. He and the other eight members of his family all suffer from what is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a kind of mental hell. Life for this family stopped 18 months ago, when the father found his 17-year-old son Nedal on a garbage pile with a bullet hole through his brain. He was executed by the son-in-law of the family who lives next door. The neighbors say Nadal collaborated with the Israeli Defense Force. His family, friends and everyone else in the neighborhood maintain that he was just another Palestinian child who threw stones and resisted the Israeli soldiers.
“Violence has to end with the victim,” says Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator. “The Jews went through the horror of the Holocaust and it affected everyone. They wanted us to take responsibility for their pain. The Palestinian pain needed to be legitimized. It has to do with the way we deal with authority. When we reclaim our basis of authority, then we can deal with trauma in objective conditions. We have to have playgrounds and institutions that support creativity and self-expression, and establish social systems that do this. That is the only way we are going to deal with hundreds of thousands of traumatized children.”
- Gaza, 1996