After the Rockets: Why Trauma Is a Wound Time Doesn't Heal

Even if the rockets have ceased to fly and the cannons have fallen silent, trauma remains after this summer's war in Gaza - and parents suffer from it too.

Gabriel Bukobza
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Children in southern Israel seek shelter during a rocket alert siren. Credit: Reuters
Gabriel Bukobza

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and brutally murdered – Gil-Ad Shaer, 16; Naftali Frenkel, 16; and Eyal Yifrah, 19. The country was on edge as news of the kidnapping broke; it raged when the boys’ bodies were discovered. No Israeli was able to grasp the contemptible murder of the children.

On July 2, the day after their funerals, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian, was kidnapped in Jerusalem and sadistically murdered. The extent of the shock and turmoil in the Jewish sector in the wake of this monstrous act was also enormous. In the Arab sector, severe riots broke out.

The killing of the children heralded the start of a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas, one in which children continued to be killed. That conflict took place almost entirely in residential areas, as a result of which children became a focal point of the danger. It is estimated that about 500 of the fatalities incurred during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip were children. In Israel, 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman was killed when a mortar round was fired at Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

How is it that this sort of killing of children occurs? Is it a rare or a common phenomenon? What was the emotional effect on parents hearing about the deaths of other children? More important, how did younger and older children experience the news about the never-ending killing of their peers.?

Yehuda Amichai wrote famously, “God has pity on kindergarten children. He pities school children – less. But adults he pities not at all.” Yet the fact is that this chilling verse is not true: When a military conflict rages, children are not protected.

A comprehensive report issued by the United Nations in 1996 notes that between 1945 and 1992, there were 149 wars around the world, in which more than 23 million people were killed. The report states that children were caught in the line of fire in nearly every one of those conflicts, and were compelled to experience untold times the terror of war as victims. The report emphasizes that in these situations, children are far more vulnerable than adults.

When a battle is raging, their ability to avoid injury is much poorer; when the area they live in is bombed, they lack the wherewithal that might help them find shelter and be saved; when there is insufficient food, they are hard hit, as they need nourishment to support their body’s natural growth; when water sources are polluted or diseases are spreading, their bodies are much more susceptible.

A more recent report, issued in July and also from the UN, states that in the past decades alone, two million children have been killed in war zones. Between four and five million children were crippled. Approximately 12 million lost their homes. Over one million were orphaned or were permanently separated from their parents.

The report asserts that at present, the most dangerous country in the world for children is our neighbor beyond the Golan Heights – Syria. It is estimated that at least 11,000 Syrian children have been killed in the blood-drenched civil war there. At least 800 were executed, some after being tortured.

It is estimated that about 10 million children around the world have experienced deep psychological trauma on the basis of war experiences in the past decade alone. This is a searing scar on the body of humankind.

Graca Machel, author of the 1996 UN report and well known for her humanitarian work (she is also the only woman in history to have been First Lady of two countries: Mozambique and South Africa), wrote that by referring to the death and injury of children during hostilities as an “emergency situation,” we risk viewing events in an overly optimistic light, as the term implies that the severe situation will end soon. In her opinion, it would be more correct to speak of “a chronic form of conflict, the violent results of which will be felt for many years.”

In places where conflicts are being waged on ethnic or religious grounds, children are frequently considered legitimate targets. In 1994, at the onset of the genocide in Rwanda, station Radio Mille Collines broadcast propaganda in which it venomously incited against members of the Tutsi minority tribe. The station called for showing no mercy on the young, and for killing them, saying: “To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats.” Over the ensuing months, some 300,000 children were slashed, hacked, gunned, or burned to death, according to the UN. The dead included many newborns.

Relating to this phenomenon, Machel wrote in her report: “When ethnic loyalties prevail, a perilous logic clicks in. Killing adults is then not enough; future generations of the enemy – their children – must also be eliminated.”

Ethnic rape

During wartime, anything that can be done to adults is also done to children, even though the sane mind refuses to accept this. In the past few years, numerous testimonies have been amassed concerning children who have undergone cruel abuse for a variety of reasons – to extract information, to teach their parents a lesson because of their affiliation to the enemy’s ethnic group, and sometimes for little more than the sadistic enjoyment of the torturers.

The UN’s outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, accused Syrian authorities in 2012 of doing intentional and systematic harm to children. She charged that large numbers of children were being detained and tortured, “shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries, either held as hostages or as sources of information.”

In such extreme conditions, girls suffer an additional degree of abuse, including sexual exploitation and rape; here, as well, the ethnic variable can only make the situation more severe.

In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, an intentional policy of rape of girls was implemented, with the aim of their enemies being to impregnate them. Over 20,000 Muslim girls from Bosnia were raped by members of the Christian militias from Serbia in this manner. During the genocide in Rwanda, there were certain places where any Tutsi girl who was not murdered was raped, in an organized manner. This was intended to demolish the communal ties among them, with social repercussions that included shunning of the family of the rape victim, murder of newborns and widespread suicides of the victims.

Parental trauma

This summer, many parents could not relax. Constant news about terror tunnels and missiles, injured children and dead soldiers worked their way deep below the skin. The direct threat to the lives of children in Israel and the reports about the many dead children in the Gaza Strip could not leave them unmoved. The violence that was raging, alongside concern over the vulnerability of their own children, penetrated their dreams, thoughts, fears, moods.

There is no research data yet on the breadth of that phenomenon among parents, but it is possible to learn about it from a few clinical examples, all of them regarding Jewish Israelis.

One mother from Jerusalem of a teenage boy and teenage girl told me that she wakes up several times a night – something that never happened to her before – with her eyes open wide, and she imagines awful things. In her mind’s eye, she sees her young daughter walking down the street with the family dog. She is approached by a person who attacks her, hurts her and rapes her. The mother says, “These are awful thoughts that are taking over. I am in constant anxiety over the children, they should only be safe and happy. Why should we be raising children like this?”

A father of four, in his 40s, from Ashkelon, dreamed that his infant son was taken away and that his head was being placed close to a fire, over and over again. Since having that dream, the man said he could not relax, and he made himself feel even worse because he is convinced that if he anyone who is having such dreams must be himself a disturbed individual.

I asked the mother of a sixth-grade daughter, from a kibbutz in the south, to write about what she was going through. “Diving into depths, imagining rape, screaming, a beheading. Evil, lots of evil. The thoughts are racing, I try to forcibly banish them, to move myself to another place, to a sunflower field or the beach – but it doesn’t work,” she wrote.

“I don’t believe I am imagining these things. It’s as if I am harming my daughter with these thoughts, because there is no good reason to insert her into these imaginings. But I have no control, because the fear is so great and dreadful. This evil projects on that which is most precious to me, and gives me no repose. I feel awful. I only want to sleep, to shut my eyes and not to think about anything.”

Like this mother, many other parents felt this summer that their functioning was impaired, that actions that once seemed critical to them had lost their interest and meaning. One can clearly see the results in therapeutic discourse, but to the same extent also in economic data regarding consumption, productivity and the like.

Many parents I spoke with experienced real trauma, as the term is understood in a clinical sense. Based on accepted diagnostic criteria, trauma may be caused due to the threat of harm, or as a result of exposure to harm done to someone else. This does not mean that the individual has collapsed and that his life will not be return to what it was, rather that he is undergoing a harsh shake-up that has affected him in a profound way.

This summer’s torrent of harrowing extreme incidents, together with the warfare that has become a chronic condition, has left many people, and parents in particular, in a state of panic and shock. The fact that their children were potential targets left many parents feeling threatened and defenseless. Direct danger to your loved ones has been established as a major risk factor for trauma.

The parents suffered, and it is important to acknowledge the suffering, to hear its voice and to contain it psychologically. In cases like this, maintaining silence creates aggravation of the situation, while speaking about it and accepting it enables its release.

Explosive cocktail

Along with the anguish of the parents, Israeli children suffered emotional harm that must be recognized. The security situation during the Gaza operation presented a real threat to the life of children and those dear to them; these are considered clear attributes of trauma. Similarly, in their surroundings children experienced an inability to cope effectively with threats in any instrumental way. This included having to contend with missile warnings that gave them only 15 or 20 seconds to take cover, witnessing the pressure and fear felt by parents during the siren, and in general, the confusion and anxiety of the family.

Among residents of the south, there were children who experienced being uprooted from their homes and radical changes of lifestyle. They also directly or indirectly absorbed the fact that other children were real victims; at a young age these innocents do not distinguish between one religion or nation and another. The younger children did not understand the meaning of the harsh news reports, perhaps, but most certainly sensed the pressure and anxiety experienced by their parents. The familiar routine of their lives was brutally violated.

One four-year-old boy, the youngest of four children, turned to her one day during the operation, in the car, and asked: “Mom, if a missile hits us in the car, will we buy a new one?” The mother cringed that this is what her child was thinking, but she answered him in the affirmative; her response actually calmed him down.

How, then, does the juvenile psyche react to such a difficult situation? People in general, and children in particular, usually try to live with the feeling that the world is logical, fair and predictable – and indeed even assume that it is. Even if rational and skeptical thinking doesn’t accept it, in our day-to-day lives, we base most of our actions on this latent assumption. In childhood, we truly and naively believe that “if someone does good, good will come to him.” And, “He who is cautious, remains protected.” And also, “Only those who take too many risks are hurt.”

Most of us maintain these assumptions into adulthood, to some degree. This is positive thinking/faith, since it makes us think that our actions in the world are not random, and that no trouble will befall us without reason.

Conversely, when a traumatic event occurs, it completely disrupts this belief system. The trauma comes suddenly, cuts off the continuity of life, steals the sense of control, and generates pain, lack of confidence and uncertainty. As a result it initiates – among adults but especially among children – a fracturing of the sense of self and of basic experiences that are critical to ordinary behavior.

The traumatic event undermines the feeling of control, the sense there is a “trusted social order,” or at least the non-harmful organization of the world, and with it a child’s confidence and existential continuity. The belief that the goodness that was experienced in the past can be anticipated in the future sustains a harsh blow. Therefore, it is vital to bear in mind that all types of responses that children feel in a traumatic situation are “normal” – rather, it is the situation itself that is not normal.

It is interesting to note that for a long period of time, psychologists believed that children do not understand when that they are in danger, and certainly cannot remember it, and are therefore impervious to trauma. And yet, studies conducted by the American pediatric psychiatrist Lenore Terr in the 1980s changed that picture. She studied hundreds of children who had undergone difficult experiences due to natural disasters or accidents, and showed that at any age, including very young ones, a harsh experience is inscribed in memory. Children were most certainly able to describe trauma, or it was possible to discern other evidence of pain, left by the event by means of drawings, games, etc.

Military conflicts in the modern era are having an increasingly greater effect on the lives of children, forcing intolerable experiences on them. This fact should be grasped by every adult. The fact that children in Israel and Gaza experienced the recent war in such a direct manner, and absorbed their parents’ anxiety and the flood of media reports, shook up the already explosive emotional cocktail of life in this era.

Even if the rockets have ceased to fly, the cannons have fallen silent and the tunnels have been sealed, the fear remains. Time will not heal it, cannot cancel traumatic pain once it has been undergone. The way to cope with it is to recognize the fact that the suffering is real and legitimate, and that bad memories need to be processed. It would not be harmful, then, to ask one’s children how they are doing, to speak openly with them about the summer’s events, and simply to listen to them.

Many Israeli adults have poured out so much, in an endless and purposeless torrent of words, over the past few months. Hasn’t the time come to reduce the talking and the responses, and in their place to listen to what the children have to say? That would have a calming and restorative effect on the child. Aside from that, it could also benefit the adult, since the child constitutes a timeless connection to the depths of his own soul. In moments of grace of listening to the emotions of their children, more adults will find the path there.

Gabriel Bukobza is a child psychologist, and a lecturer at both the Peres Academic Center and Tel Aviv University.

A mother and child in Gaza. Trauma cuts off continuity.Credit: Reuters