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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Help for children psychologically affected by war in Chechnya

© UNICEF/2007/Zaytseva
UNICEF-supported psychosocial centre in Shali, Chechnya, where children have an opportunity to socialize with each other in comfortable conditions.

By Bela Tsugaeva

SHALI, Chechen Republic, Russian Federation, 3 March 2008 – Zarema, 10, lives with her parents in the war-torn Chechnya region of Russia. Her story highlights the ways in which children are affected by war, and the need for mental health and psychosocial support in emergency situations.

Zarema’s parents both work long hours in construction, and during the week she stays with an aunt. But on Sundays both of her parents are at home, spending time with her. She considers this the best time of the week.

Signs of post-traumatic stress

A few months ago, on a Sunday at home, Zarema went outside the house after having made a drawing for her mother. Next to the house is a highway, and as she came out, a military convoy appeared on the road. Zarema was horrified as tanks, armoured troop carriers and military trucks passed by. She ran inside and hid under a table.

After the incident, Zarema started showing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Her teachers complained that she was lagging behind in each subject, especially in art class. Her excellent grades fell.

“From that moment, Zarema has changed completely, she has become reserved. I don’t recognize my daughter,” Zarema’s mother told Amina Kaimova, a psychologist from the UNICEF-supported psychosocial centre here in Shali.

School programmes and rehab centres

UNICEF has initiated a network of psychosocial school programmes and rehabilitation centres in Chechnya. The schools and centres complement each other, since children are referred from school-based psychosocial programmes to the rehabilitation facilities located in the same district.

A total of 19 UNICEF-supported centres are operating in Chechnya today, and more are set to open in the near future.

© UNICEF/2007/Zaytseva
Zarema studies in one of the schools in Chechnya where UNICEF has opened psychosocial centres.

Zarema’s mother brought her daughter to the Shali centre in hopes of finding support for her. “What is frightening me most of all is that she stopped to draw at all,” said the mother.

Getting to the heart of a child’s fear

To help the girl return to her normal life, Ms. Kaimova tried relaxation, tale therapy, group therapy and games for the development of self-reliance and trust.

At the beginning of the treatment, Zarema did not want to socialize with anyone else. When other children were drawing she would not join them. After four months of intensive work, Ms. Kaimova realized that there was not much progress. She decided to find other ways to help.

“One day, I asked Zarema and the other children in the group to shape from plasticine what they like and dislike most of all,” recalled Ms. Kaimova. “Zarema shaped a flower and a tank.” When asked why she did not like tanks, the girl started to share what she had been keeping in her heart for so long.

“It reminds me of tanks which I saw many days ago,” Zarema said. “You know why I don’t want to draw again, because it seems to me that as soon as I start drawing, a terrible tank with a terrible noise will rush into the room where I am drawing. I don’t want to see and hear those tanks again.”

‘Critically important’ assistance

Ms. Kaimova told her to do whatever she wanted with the tank made of plasticine. Zarema threw it on the floor and squashed it, which seemed to give her a great deal of satisfaction and relief. She promised to start drawing during the next lesson – and she did, sketching a vase with flowers.

“I think it’s a great success,” Ms. Kaimova said. Gradually, Zarema started doing better in school and returned to her artwork.

“Under the circumstances, when every third child in Chechnya has pronounced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychosocial assistance becomes critically important,” said UNICEF Psychosocial Recovery Officer Aida Ailarova.

With the methods that helped Zarema recover, other children in similar situations can be helped as well.



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