The boys’ deaths — scattered in the United States, in Yemen, in Turkey and elsewhere in seemingly isolated horror — had one thing in common: They hanged themselves after watching televised images of Saddam Hussein’s execution.
Officials and relatives say the children appeared to be mimicking the former dictator’s Dec. 30 hanging, shown both on a sanitized Iraqi government tape and explicit clandestine videos that popped up on Web sites and some TV channels.
The leaked videos, apparently taken by cell phone cameras, set off international outrage over the raucous scene at Saddam’s execution, but some experts are more concerned about the images of the deposed Iraqi leader dropping through the gallows floor and his body swinging at the end of a rope.
The experts say such graphic images can severely affect youngsters who do not yet understand the consequences of death and violence — especially because Saddam’s death received intense international attention.
“They see how it’s done, but they don’t think it’s horrific, and they’re more likely to imitate it,” said Hisham Ramy, an associate professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
From Texas to Turkey
A day after Saddam’s execution, a 10-year-old boy in Texas hanged himself from a bunk bed after watching a news report on the execution. Police in the Houston suburb of Webster said the boy, Sergio Pelico, tied a slipknot around his neck while on the bed but had not mean to kill himself.
“I don’t think he thought it was real,” Julio Gustavo, Sergio’s uncle, said afterward. “They showed them putting the noose around his neck and everything. Why show that on TV?”
Something similar occurred in Turkey, where 12-year-old Alisen Akti hanged himself Wednesday from a bunk bed after watching TV footage. His father, Esat Akti, told a newspaper in the southeastern province of Mus that his son had been affected by the televised images.
“After watching Saddam’s execution he was constantly asking ’How was Saddam killed?’ and ’Did he suffer?”’ Akti was quoted as saying. “These television images are responsible for my son’s death.”
Nine-year-old Mubassahr Ali, from the eastern Pakistan town of Rahim Yar Khan, died hours after Saddam when he also mimicked the ousted leader’s execution, local police official Sultan Ahmed Chaudhry said.
“The ill-fated boy used a long piece of cloth, tied it with a ceiling fan and wrapped its other end around his neck. Then he stood on a chair and fell down,” Chaudhry said.
In Yemen and Saudi Arabia
In Yemen, at least two young boys died and another was injured in apparent imitations of Saddam’s hanging.
One of the cases involved a 13-year-old junior high school student who hanged himself after watching Saddam’s execution on television, a Yemeni security official said.
When the boy’s family returned to their home outside the capital, San’a, on Wednesday, they found him hanging from a tree wearing a traditional Arab headdress, said the boy’s cousin, Yahya al-Hammadi.
In Saudi Arabia, a 12-year-old boy was found by his brother hanging from an iron door with a rope around his neck, the newspaper Okaz reported. The boy, Sultan Abdullah al-Shemmeri, lived with his family in the province of Hafr al-Baten, near the Iraqi border.
“The child was just 12 years old and didn’t really know whether the execution of Saddam was something good or bad,” a Saudi Interior Ministry official said Saturday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Local media in Algeria and India also have reported other mimicking deaths, but these could not immediately be confirmed.
Ramy, the professor in Egypt, said children are prone to imitating violence they encounter on television, the Internet and movies, but usually they act out against another person. Mimicking a hanging or suicide is unusual, but perhaps in this case it is unsurprising, he said.
Because “some people have said Saddam is a hero and martyr and have glorified his death, this has affected children,” Ramy said.
But Jasem Hajia, a child psychologist in Kuwait City, cautioned against placing all the blame on video images. “This is extreme, and I think there were physiological disorders as well with the children,” Hajia said.