#KashmirUnrest: the biggest casualties are the children on both sides

The most profound damage is the invisible one: the impact of violence on people’s minds, particularly the young

ByMadhu Trehan
#KashmirUnrest: the biggest casualties are the children on both sides
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 “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” 
Laurell K. HamiltonMistral’s Kiss

This is from an episode of Newstrack (a video cassette news programme), made in 1990. The reporter is Manoj Raghuvanshi.
When I went to Kargil in May 1999 to report on the war between India and Pakistan, a friend advised me that it was not safe for me to roam around Srinagar without an escort. He delegated a friend’s son to accompany everywhere — a young man, sincere and earnest but in obvious, suppressed deep anguish. He stammered and stuttered. His hands trembled as we shared meals together. I tried to draw him out, but most of the time he mumbled and didn’t, as we say, “want to go there”.

I had to kill my journalistic curiosity out of respect to him. But there was no running away from the fact that when I walked the narrow streets and stopped to talk with people, his nervousness would get the better of him. He would try to rush me through, always saying, “Better not to ask these questions.” I tried explaining to him that I couldn’t do my job without asking questions of ordinary people on the streets. He looked at me, puzzled as to why I would want a job like this. He kept telling me I had chosen a dangerous job. He could not fathom why I had chosen to cover the Kargil war voluntarily. He asked me where I was staying in Kargil and when I told him, he informed me that it was the worst place to stay since it was right next to the army helipad, which was a hot target for the Pakistanis. All the journalists were staying there and there was no other place, I told him. He could not understand why I would do this. He explained to me that every day of his life, every moment was spent ensuring he’d keep himself safe. And, in Kashmir there is no place that is entirely safe.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders have reported that 45 per cent of the population of Kashmir are suffering from mental illnesses. That is not a surprise when everyday activities like going to school, college, work or to the market involves first assessing the danger to your life. Is there any moment a person would not be nervous?

According to the survey conducted by MSF, released on May 18, 41 per cent show symptoms of probable depression, 26 per cent show symptoms of probable anxiety and 19 per cent show symptoms of probable Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this survey, women are suffering in greater numbers. Fifty per cent of women and 37 per cent of men have probable depression while 36 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men have a probable anxiety disorder. This survey translates to 1.8 million adults are suffering from mental disorders.

MSF has been working in Kashmir in mental health and basic healthcare since 2001, sometimes counselling over the phone during curfews or fearing violence, when Kashmiris are unable to leave their homes. “In this context, MSF is forced to try and reach out to patients in new ways,” said Sasha Matthews, project coordinator for MSF in Srinagar. “We started telephone counselling so that we can follow up with our clients who are trapped at home and cannot access our services. Inspired by the success of the popular, long-running MSF radio show Alaw Baya Alaw about mental health, we are currently working on a TV soap opera as a form of psychosocial education for Kashmiris.”

“We’re dealing with a population already heavily traumatised by more than two decades of violence, and today people are continuing to suffer psychologically,” says Maria Veerart, MSF’s mental health officer in Kashmir. “MSF is extremely concerned that the recent violence will only further increase mental health needs in the Kashmir Valley.”

But, in my experience, the ones who are the most traumatised are the children, often not able to even express their fears and pain.
This is from a paper titled Psychological Effects of War and Terrorism on Children:

“They are exposed to violence daily during times of open conflict and always have the fear of a new attack. The effect of this environment on everyone, especially young children can be psychologically devastating. They need someone to take them in and take care of them. If a terrorist organization, like a gang, takes advantage of that vulnerability, they have recruited new, loyal members for their group. … Outlet in speech is often delayed and after months had elapsed since the occurrence of some gruesome devastating incident that has been witnessed by the child. Such incidents include death of parents as well. The children who lost their fathers in air raids never mentioned anything of their experience for many months. Their mothers were convinced that they had forgotten all about it. Then after a year, two of them at least told the complete story with no details left out. The child begins to talk about the incident when the feelings which were aroused by it have been dealt with in some other manner

“Children often imitate whatever they see in their play, with toy houses being bombed by marbles. There was a lot of excitement among the children while involved in such games. In case of a boy who for long refused to accept his father’s death, it got reflected in his games. In his war games, the inhabitants of the bombed houses were always saved in time. Since the denial was never completely successful, the play had to be repeated incessantly – it became compulsive.

“Strange behaviour, sometimes destructive often related to regression (returning to infantile modes of behaviour) is seen in slightly older children. Early education involves socializing by gaining control over the selfish instincts. It had its own rewards which lost their value on separation at this stage. They find no reason to be good, unselfish or clean. There were many other associated effects such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, greed and aggression.

In some children, abnormal withdrawal from the world has been noted. Some become emotionless like an automaton. Some emotional outbreaks of hysterical type have also been reported.”

We have to consider that when children see their parents being lined up outside their homes at all odd hours of the night and routinely hauled off for questioning, the inevitable revenge emotion must be triggered. When militants come and take over villages and children watch their parents being forced at gunpoint to feed and hide the militants, observing their supposedly strong patriarch behave in a helpless, servile manner begging for his and his family’s lives, children will feel humiliated and traumatised.

We cannot exclude the psychological impact suffered by our security forces’ families. Women bring up their children alone with the subterranean subconscious always there: Will there come a moment when I will become a single parent forever? The children of army officers also grow up with the terrible anxiety that their father may not come home. Killed by a terorist’s bullet. Again, the inevitable revenge reaction will be triggered. Army officers’ (in combat) children get accustomed to a missing father at all the landmark events in their lives, whether it is an important match, Diwali, debate, sports day, or receiving a coveted prize. Going through all these events, the children rarely cross the hairline thread that keeps that tear away. They are stoic. Do we do anything to help these families through all this? But, when an officer’s family receives a tri-colour covered coffin instead of running into his arms with joy, the fear that the children have ingrained in their lives culminates into the worst trauma. Do we do anything to help other than that heart breaking ritual on Republic Day that the widow is subjected to?

The elite no longer sign up for the armed forces. Would those who decide on sending young officers and jawans to dangerous areas take those decisions quite so easily if one of their own was in the forefront? Why, in fact, are there no surveys conducted on armed services personnel and their families about how they are coping with mental stress?

“War is strongly related to group identity,” writes Steve Taylor in Psychology of War. “Human beings in general have a strong need for belonging and identity which can easily manifest itself in ethnicism, nationalism, or religious dogmatism.” That sums up many conflicts around the world, particularly the dogma-driven, abstract violence of ISIS. By abstract I mean there is no immediate demand for dialogue, release of prisoners etc. Just this: if you are not (a good) Muslim you will die. Okay, but it is not exactly turning non-Muslims into Muslims so one cannot fathom their strategy.

In Kashmir, there is the fact that India has roundly messed up the situation, since 1947 starting with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and has continued to do so. But that is another article. Today, we hate the violence in Kashmir. There is the obvious argument that we cannot let Kashmir go since it would lead to every state demanding independence and there are enough on the brink. Yet, we cannot continue being an armed presence amidst a hostile population.

In the current situation, we cannot ignore the psychological trauma to which the people of Kashmir, particularly the children are subjected. And, most importantly, we cannot ignore the psychological trauma to which families, particularly the children again, of army officers in combat are subjected.

The conflict is between the Indian state and Kashmiri militants, supported by Pakistan. But on the ground, the conflict ends up being between human beings destroying each other. Pawns in a larger game. Stones against pellets. The eyes have it.

We must figure out how to enlarge the human element and corner the political puppeteers, particularly in Pakistan, so they realise that human beings matter more than turf wars. The human cost of not doing so is just too high.

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