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Afghan children experience severe trauma

Growing up Alone (in PDF format)

Tuesday, 7 October 1997: The majority of children in the Afghan capital of Kabul are experiencing serious traumatic stress according to a study issued today by UNICEF.

The study, the first of its kind to be carried out in Afghanistan, was conducted by a UNICEF mental health specialist and is based on interviews with more than 300 children aged between 8 and 18 years in Kabul.

The results indicate that 72 per cent of children experienced the death of a family member between 1992 and 1996. In 40 per cent of these cases the child lost a parent. Almost all of the children have been witnesses to acts of violence during the fighting, while two-thirds of them saw dead bodies or parts of bodies and nearly half saw many people killed at a time in rocket and artillary attacks. Ninety per cent of the children interviewed believed that they would die during the conflict.

"We are reminded daily of the physical scars of war on children, but the results of this study confront us with the fact that the mental wounds are as deep," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

The war in Afghanistan, now in its nineteenth year, has affected almost every family in the country. Kabul has experienced the brunt of the fighting over the past five years, being the centre of the power struggle between various warring factions, most recently between the ex-government and the Taliban forces which have now taken control. The children of Kabul have seen their family members killed or injured by rockets and land mines, and their homes destroyed by bombs and shelling.

Nearly three-quarters of the children said that they do not expect to live to adulthood and the majority of them suffer from nightmares, anxiety and concentration problems which also affect their appetite and their ability to play.

"One of the most significant findings of the study is the chronic nature of the trauma being experienced," explained Dr. Leila Gupta, author of the study. "The psychological impact is not short-lived," she said. "Violence has been a hugely influential factor in the emotional development of these children and has dramatically affected their views of themselves and of their future."

Nearly all the children interviewed said that they worry about what will happen to them and their families in the future. Seventy-six per cent of the children trust adults less now than before the fighting. Sixty-six per cent of the children surveyed continue to be afraid and almost half of the children cited fear as their strongest emotion.

"While the UNICEF study focuses on children, it is clear that adults in Kabul have also experienced loss in their families as a result of the horrific events that they witnessed during the fighting," said Dr. Gupta. "In order to help the children, we must also address the needs of their families, care givers and communities to help them cope with these losses and traumas."

UNICEF has begun to train a core group of 15 mental health workers in ways to help children deal with their trauma and grief. The group consists of Afghan staff from various non-governmental organizations, the Kabul Mental Health Institute, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF.

The mental health workers will, in turn, train other care givers who will work with children to help them express their painful experiences through artwork, writing, role playing and other activities. In addition to training local staff, UNICEF is writing a children's book using their drawings, and is preparing radio messages for a BBC educational drama which will be broadcast in local languages to Afghanistan.

"Creating a safe environment for children to express themselves with a trusted adult is the most important intervention to alleviate the long term psychosocial effects of war related violence on children," said Dr. Gupta.

Interviews with children were conducted by UNICEF in cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, Save the Children - USA, Terre des Hommes and Avicen. The study was funded by the Government of the Netherlands.

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1997/43.

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