: "My son lives in constant fear that his family will die"
Baraa’ Abd al Rahman Badawi
Baraa’ Abd al Rahman Badawi is an 11 year old Palestinian boy who lives in Gaza City with his mother, Dima Badawi. On 7 January 2009, at approximately , during the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, codenamed ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Baraa’s father, Abd al Rahman Badawi, and Baraa’s maternal uncle were targeted and killed by tank shelling in the Al Zaitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City. Baraa’, who was six years old at the time, was woken from a nap by the explosion that killed his father and uncle. Despite his young age, living in the context of occupation and the constant threat of attack, Baraa’ had a premonition that his father had been killed. Dima explains, “When I went to his room, he sat up in his bed and shouted, “My father is dead”. He became hysterical, screaming and crying, and could not be consoled. It was only after an hour that we found out his premonition had been correct.”
Baraa’ has experienced great psychological trauma since his father’s death. Dima explains: “Baraa’ changed from being a happy and playful child, to a nervous, aggressive, and lonely boy. He cried a lot and would spend long periods of time staring blankly into space.” The impact of his father’s death has been far-reaching. “Baraa’ became very absentminded and extremely clingy, constantly weeping and holding onto me. When anyone mentions anything related to the war, he leaves the room and cries by himself.”
His personality has seen a stark change since 2009. “He was six years old when it happened and has changed a lot since the incident. He’s not sociable in school. He has only one friend and refuses to play with anyone other than this one boy. Baraa’ is terrified of losing another person close to him. This is why he does not make an effort to make friends. He only wants to play with orphans and has made a concerted effort not to befriend children who have fathers and mothers. He has also become aggressive and stubborn.”
Dima further describes the effects that the violent death of his father has had on Baraa’s psyche: “When he hears the sound of warplanes, he locks himself in his room, yelling “Open the windows!” [This is a precautionary measure taken by people living in the Gaza Strip to prevent the glass windows from shattering during bomb blasts.] He demands to go to my father’s house where he feels safer.”
Jasser Salleh is a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, where Baraa’ receives treatment. He describes the long-term impact of the war on Baraa’s mental state: “He was further traumatised when the family returned home to their house in Al Zaitoun and he saw his father’s clothes and belongings. Not only did Baraa’ have to deal with the memories of his father in their home; the neighbourhood was also the area in which his father was killed. There was lasting psychological damage, as everything reminded him of his father. In the initial aftermath of a killing, there is support from family members and friends. However, after the initial condolences and support subside, and when the family is left alone, that’s when the trauma sets in and they are left to deal with the memories of Baraa’s father and life without him.”
As a result of the trauma, Baraa’ has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He suffers from bouts of anxiety and being “on edge”, periods of hyperactivity, and lives in constant fear that war will return to the Gaza Strip and that his family members will die. He has frequent angry and aggressive outbursts towards other children, especially girls and orphans.
Mr Salleh explains the wider context: “A large number of children in the Gaza Strip suffer from psychological problems as a result of the wars. Like many others, Baraa’s trauma will remain. The people of Gaza have suffered two wars within 4 years, with each war resulting in a high number of deaths and injuries. Such traumatic events negatively affect the wellbeing of people in Gaza, especially vulnerable children. War affects children in many different ways. In addition to witnessing fighting and bloodshed, children are faced with a host of other challenges including the loss of basic resources, disrupted family relationships, a pessimistic outlook, and normalisation of violence.”
“The psychological impact of war on children in Gaza is massive. After approximately 60 years at war, this psychological state is now engrained in the psyche and nature of the people in Gaza. The older generations were subject to worse in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the War of 1967 and have now grown to adulthood. As a result of these wars, they have become quite aggressive. When a child is born to the same aggression, it becomes the norm. The older generations were not treated. Maybe enduring wars makes people in Gaza tough. However, it also has negative effects when they figure that the only way to solve problems is with violence.”
Mr Salleh highlights the importance of a positive environment for the mental health of children: “Good mental health stems from a comfortable environment and a feeling of security. There is no solution other than peace.”
As the occupying power of the Gaza Strip, Israel is obliged to ensure the right of every to attain a which is adequate for the 's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social (Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child). However, Israel frequently conducts military operations in the Gaza Strip which impede this the fulfilment of this right; children in the Gaza Strip are denied an adequate and secure environment which would enable them to flourish in their mental and social development. This infliction of violence and great suffering on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is a potential violation of international law, for which the Israeli political and military leadership bears individual criminal responsibility.