BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: South Asia
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Jaffna's traumatised inhabitants
Actors provide a collective outlet for emotion
By Frances Harrison in Jaffna

Two decades of civil war in northern Sri Lanka have caused widespread psychological trauma to Tamil civilians living in the conflict areas.

My grandson is very frightened and always asks me if we are going to run...

One psychiatrist estimates 40% of the population of Jaffna have been psychologically affected by years of bombardment, displacement, disappearances and terror at the hands of both Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan army.

Some have been displaced 10 times in the course of this conflict - every family keeps a bag packed ready to go again when the bombers screech overhead.

One aid worker called them the most professional refugees he had ever seen.

Mental toll

But years of wandering have taken a toll - especially on children, as one woman, Yogama, explained.

"Whenever my grandchild hears any shouting or bombing, he will say to me I think my father would also have been scared like me and would have come running and that's how he got shot.

In a conservative society where people traditionally don't show their emotions, drama can be a trigger for pent-up rage.

A clown plays the part of the politician who promises the moon - but never delivers.

He quickly invokes the anger of one woman in the audience. And it's not long before the actor playing the politician is mobbed by the angry crowd.

Other actors have to step in to calm the audience down and save their colleague from injury.

The line between fiction and reality has been crossed for the audience.

Grim prospects

The people of Jaffna are suffering from cumulative trauma, according to Professor of Psychiatry at Jaffna University, Daya Somasonderam.

He says that if the war doesn't end the outlook is very grim for society

Woman crying
The emotion is too much - even for counsellors
"Apart from the effects on individuals now we are realising that it [the conflict] has also... very long-term devastating effect [on society]."

Young professionals are being trained to use role-playing as a tool for therapy.

They stand in a large circle imitating the sounds of a tropical rainstorm by clapping their hands and stamping their feet in a sort of group therapy.

For one exercise, two people are asked to strike poses - like human sculptures - and the rest interpret the scene.

Reawakening the past

But one young university student breaks down in tears - something reminded her of the past, she explains.

The impact on children can be especially traumatic
"For the last 10 years I was displaced and something someone said in this game reminded me of what happened to my parents," she says.

It seems even the counsellors of the future need emotional help.

A whole generation has grown up in a culture of violence and the result is insomnia, learning difficulties and sometimes trauma manifesting itself as physical symptoms - like the case of an eight-year-old displaced girl who fainted at 11 o'clock every morning.

Social values have become distorted - children are taught to survive by keeping silent and passive.

Peace of mind is as elusive as peace on the battlefield now.

See also:

21 Aug 01 | South Asia
Jaffna hospital: A casualty of war
29 Jul 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Sri Lanka renews hopeless war
24 Jul 01 | UK
'All hell broke loose'
24 Jul 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Sri Lanka attack
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more South Asia stories