Orphaned by Extremism
(Editor’s note: Special thanks to Elias Vallejo and Megan Noskoviak for the original artwork.)
On November 2, 2009, a suicide bomber struck a bank. One of the victims was working in a nearby office as a peon (a low-ranking employee) and had gone to the bank to collect his and a co-worker’s salaries. When he did not return to the office after the attack, a search by the office and the family was brought to an end at the local hospital morgue, where they were shown a torso with half a face burnt beyond recognition, without arms or legs. The only identification was the man’s identity card; the plastic coating had been fused to the body by the heat. His 9 year old sister was promised bangles by him, and she was waiting for her brother to bring these.
It took her almost three months to finally cry and come out of the trance-like state that she went into when her brother’s dead body was brought home in a large plastic shopping bag—three months of just sitting and staring into space, usually at the door through which he would have come home.
The 7 year old asks why he is not dead; the grandfather told him because Allah saved his life. The kid replied, “no chachu (uncle) saved me,” and cried. “I’ll never go to the mosque to pray ever again,” says the 7 year old.
I met the family of Bilal Riaz (the uncle), one of the victims of the Parade Lane residential compound mosque attack in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a few days after the incident and spoke to his father, who is now deceased. This was the most compelling part of the talk we had about the incident.
(Editor’s note: for more information, including firsthand accounts of terrorism’s effect on children and adults, see Tahir’s blog, here)
Such stories are common today. As more acts of violence, terrorism and extremism take place, more and more children are exposed to the trauma of losing a person who, for them, was the embodiment of life. Fear, trauma, loss of understanding, conflicting explanations, and often, outright and open pity, adds to their trauma and confusion, in many cases creating doubts in their very beliefs.
No child is immune to the traumatic effects of terrorism, whether they are in New York, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, London, Lebanon, Rwanda, Kashmir, Darfur, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or elsewhere. And while many children are resilient after traumatic experiences, many develop a variety of emotional and behavioral symptoms that can be severe and long-lasting.
How are children exposed to this trauma? Millions of children learn about terrorist acts by watching television, and thousands of Muslim children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir and Pakistan watch the terror almost daily and have firsthand experience of traumatic incidents. This direct exposure leads to severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the effects of which on children, are just beginning to be taken seriously.
These effects lead to undermining a child’s sense of security in a reasonable and safe world, which causes a child to lose belief in his/her parents’ ability to protect them from harm. Younger children can become upset if their parents are not close by, may have trouble sleeping, develop issues with toilet training and/or using the bathroom. Children between the ages of six and nine years of age have the potential to begin acting out the trauma they have endured through play, stories, or through drawings. They may complain of physical problems, become more aggressive or irritable, and develop anxiety or fears which do not appear to be caused by the traumatic event they have endured.
The premature destruction of these beliefs and onset of disturbing symptoms can have profound negative consequences on a child’s development.
We can all see this in the children around us. We may say this is part of the “growing pains,” or “exposure” to more TV news than is ‘good,’ but whatever we consign this to, the fact is that children are suffering due to this direct or indirect exposure to terrorism.
What can we as parents, seniors, and responsible citizens of society do to help children overcome this trauma, and in the case of many South Asian countries, help youth and grownups to not only overcome the trauma of terrorism, but also overcome the stigma associated with being traumatized?
For me, this boils down to a two-point agenda: understanding and training.
We need to create a movement of understanding—the understanding that PTSD in children is an issue that needs to be addressed. We also need to provide training to people who are in any way associated with the upbringing of children—parents, teachers, siblings—in how to help the children overcome their trauma, stop having nightmares, doubts and fears, and return to a healthy and meaningful life sooner rather than later.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Talk Therapy), drawing, and in extreme cases, medication, may be some of the remedies that could be included in the training sessions. We must also understand that depending on exposure, relationships, and age, the treatment may take different times and give different results. Children need positive reinforcement for their actions; this should be the underlying factor in the making of PTSD-related curricula.
Tahir Wadood Malik
Tahir lost his wife when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the UN World Food Program office in Islamabad, Pakistan in October 2009. As he sought to cope with the shock of his wife's death, Tahir - a retired Major from the Pakistani Army - began to connect and empathize with survivors of terrorist attacks at a more personal level. In 2009 he co-founded the Global Survivors Network in Amman Jordan, which seeks to connect those who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks globally. Tahir has become a critic of the "culture of silence" surrounding terrorism and grieving for loved ones in Pakistan; he seeks to reveal how the scourge has affected Pakistan and its people, and help survivors recover from the trauma of the loss. He is in the process of setting up the Pakistan Terrorism Survivors Network to bring together victims and survivors of violent extremism and terrorists attacks. He also participates in the Peace and Collaborative Development Network.