BAGHDAD, Iraq — Yasir lifted his sniper rifle and looked down the sight. His eye followed a man walking down the street. He took a deep breath. He slowly curled his finger. A bang rang out. His target was hit in the middle of the chest and fell down.
Yasir looked up and lifted his arms in triumph. He jumped out of his chair and started to dance around the room. Then his attention returned to the computer screen and he focused his sight on the next target.
Yasir, a cute brown-haired 8-year-old, should be in a classroom, but for the last five months he has refused to go to school.
From the first day of the new school year, Yasir fought with his mother every morning.
At the beginning his mother tried to cajole him into getting ready for class.
Yasir would put up a fuss by protesting that he was tired. Some days she would spend a few hours in the classroom with him. Invariably a school official would call to have her pick him up because Yasir would not stop crying. Then the crying started first thing the morning as soon as Yasir awoke.
In exasperation Yasir’s mother kept him at home for a few days. As time came close to take him back to school, Yasir would start crying all over again. Now she does not even try anymore.
School officials called and said if Yasir doesn’t sit for end of term exams he will be left behind. Fearing that something bad was befalling Yasir at school, his mother sought out some professional help.
Post - traumatic disorder in Iraqi children
Among those examining the psychological problems facing children such as Yasir is Dr. Haithi Al Sady, Dean of Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University, who has begun research into the effects of Post Trauma Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) on the Iraqi population as result of the war and the on-going conflict.
His initial reports show that 28 percent of Iraqi children suffer some degree of PTSD and the numbers are rising.
The years of sanctions and the harsh repressive former regime affected the younger generations the hardest. Al Sady said the sanctions forced some two million children to leave school and hit the streets working to supplement their family’s incomes.
He pointed out that in most cases, the psychological ailments of the parents need to be attended to before treatment for the children can start. Al Sady realizes that’s a tall order in front of him. He has to compete for finances and resources in a medical system already depleted by the daily violence. Most parents are struggling with day-to-day existence in a region of the world where stigma of psychosis is hard to avoid.
Computer games, but no school
Yasir’s mother pleaded with him to get dressed. Yasir replied, “I am tired. I do not want to go to school.” His mother lost patience and yelled, “You are acting like a little girl. If you continue in this way your friends will make fun of you and call you lazy.” Yasir ran away bawling.
His father was a senior Baath party member and a military pharmacist. At the end of the war and fearful of revenge killings, he fled to Amman where he is trying to establish a new life and earn enough money to send for his family.
Yasir and the rest of his family were forced to move from house to house, town to town, to avoid the whirling destruction around them. They ended up in a distant family’s home just east of Baghdad, when their trustworthy driver stole their only means of transportation, stranding them in a place they didn’t know, with people they didn’t know. Finally Yasir’s grandfather sent for them. Now they are living in a single room in his house.
According to Al Sady, even children who managed to survive unscathed during the war are being bombarded with sights and sounds of the continuing turmoil. The daily explosions, kidnappings, coalition military patrols, helicopters flying overhead, and siren-wailing police cars have left an imprint on the children. Forty-four percent of the 26 million Iraqis are under the age of fifteen.
Yasir only hangs around friends who play computer war games with him. He talks about the different types of weapons. He constantly discusses his latest computer game “Kill.”
His father has called Yasir repeatedly from Amman to convince him to return to school. With an encouraging voice, Yasir’s father has told him that in order to become a great doctor, an engineer, or even a military man like his father; Yasir needs to continue his studies. Yasir agrees with his father and has promised to go back, but to date has not.
His sisters try to teach him in an effort to get him interested in school, but to no avail. He spends his days at the computer or watching cartoons.
Treatment needed for a whole generation
Yasir is one of the lucky few getting treatment.
“Since the major humanitarian organizations have left Iraq due to security situation,” said Al Sady, “we have only a handful of qualified doctors to deal with all psychiatric cases much less those specialized in children. We need to deal with these problems when we still have a handle on them. Otherwise they will compound and affect entire generations.”
Al Sady hopes to provide courses for teachers who are on the frontlines in order to stem the coming tide.
An overhaul of the mental-health system will be the only way to fill the huge gaps present today. Al Sady said for now these are all just ideas until the proper funding is available.
Meantime, Yasir stood at the back yard of his house, overlooking the main road.
A U.S. military foot patrol walked past. Some of the children in the neighbourhood run toward the soldiers waving their hands. Yasir started to run toward the wall of the yard, but suddenly stopped. He turned and walked back towards the house. “Maybe my father will not like me waving to the Americans,” he said.
Babak Behnam is an NBC News producer. Some names were withheld for security reasons. Additional reporting by Sukab Abdul Salam.