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Sunday, 9 February, 2003, 13:30 GMT
Sri Lanka's rivals tackle child trauma
Tamil girl Madialan Rosa smiles after meeting Singhalese members of a peace delegation for the  first time
For Sri Lanka's children calm may be some time off

The Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tiger rebels have formed a special committee to look at the problems of women and children.

It will pay particular attention to, psychological trauma caused by the civil war.

I saw people without legs and there was blood and dead bodies everywhere

Traumatised girl
The country's peace process so far has concentrated on rebuilding houses and returning refugees home but it is becoming apparent that peoples' emotional lives need rebuilding too.

After two decades of conflict, trauma is widespread, especially among children, many of whom have experienced the violence first hand.

Imaginary shells

During a session of play therapy, traumatised children recreate the sound of war.

Interestingly many of the girls immediately put their hands over their ears so they can not hear the imaginary sound of shells exploding.

Tamil boy bathing and girls collecting water at the well in a refugee camp
Life has been hard for many families
They wail and fall on the ground and then finally dissolve in giggles.

But the teacher quickly brings them back to reality with a song about the sorrows of displacement - something every child here knows.

In an art therapy class, seven year-old Subash explains his painting. It is a house which has been bombed, the army shooting, planes and a mother with a child missing a foot and a hand.

Subash says he painted this because in real life he saw his sister and his cousin playing on a swing when a shell blew them to pieces.

Interpretation

Intriguingly, in his picture he has the children injured rather than dead.

Father Damien is a priest and a psychiatrist trained to interpret the underlying message of the paintings.

He says they are exhibiting what is hidden in their subconscious.

He adds: "That is quite natural for children. Residual symptoms are invisibly hidden in their psyche - through this art therapy I would say."

But some children need individual treatment like one 14 year-old who is severely traumatised and does not want her name used in case people ridicule her as mad.

She explains how she was coming back home from school when a shell landed.

"I saw people without legs and there was blood and dead bodies everywhere. Only after that I became like this," she says.

Long process

This girl is unable to go to school or take part in normal life because of sever depression and she fears of what she witnessed three years ago.

Young Tamil Tiger fighters
Many children have been forced to fight
Professor Daya Somasunderam, a psychiatrist at Jaffna Hospital, is trying to help her but he says it will be a long process.

"These are events that are extraordinary," he says.

So widespread is the problem of war trauma that these teachers are now being taught how to identify it among their pupils.

But even the teachers have grown accustomed to a culture of violence after 20 years of war.

They too have to learn patience and tolerance again, so that children have a space in which to express their fears.

And that is where drama comes in - as part of the healing process in schools.

Play-acting

Although it begins with a lot of noise and fun, improvisation leads to serious subjects that could not be tackled full on.

In one role-play exercise, an actor, dressed up as a monkey, climbs a tree and starts crying because his home in the forest has been destroyed in the war.

It strikes a chord with children who have also been displaced and they are encouraged to find the monkey sheltering with a nearby house-owner who is not overly keen to take in refugees - even a cuddly monkey.

Dr Sima, from Jaffna University explains how drama can draw out the childrens' feelings.

"In theatre the different type of communication emerges with people," he says.

But drama, art therapy, play and individual counselling can only go so far; especially if war resumes again.

What children in Jaffna need more than anything is to live a normal life - something they have never known.

Only then will the mental scars begin to fade.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

07 Feb 03 | South Asia
01 Feb 03 | From Our Own Correspondent
06 Jan 03 | South Asia
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