Middle East conflicts and crises take a hidden but heavy psychological toll

The father of one of the victims cries at the site of a factory explosion in the Burj Al-Barajneh area in Beirut's southern suburbs on August 30, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
The father of one of the victims cries at the site of a factory explosion in the Burj Al-Barajneh area in Beirut's southern suburbs on August 30, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 10 October 2021

Middle East conflicts and crises take a hidden but heavy psychological toll

Middle East conflicts and crises take a hidden but heavy psychological toll
  • The Middle East and North Africa’s fragile or failed states are home to millions of people living without hope
  • One in five people is estimated to suffer from mental-health problems after a conflict has ended

DUBAI: In May, the world’s television screens were filled with images from the Gaza Strip of tower blocks collapsing, rocket fire erupting from densely populated areas, and ambulances, sirens blaring, ferrying the dead and the wounded to hospitals as Israeli fighter jets roared overhead.

More than 250 Palestinians died in the 10 days of fighting, which also left 13 dead in Israel. Four months on, the violence has subsided but its effects linger.

One of the little-noticed consequences of the May 2021 escalation is the impact on the mental health and well-being of Gaza’s 2 million people, as 47.5 percent of them are under 18 years of age. According to UNICEF, nine out of 10 children in the territory now suffer from mental trauma as a result of the conflict.

Despite a tenuous ceasefire, the specter of renewed violence persists. Most recently, on Sept. 12, Israeli jets again struck Gaza after two rocket attacks on southern Israel in less than 24 hours.

“Our teams on the ground observed an increase in cases of acute anxiety among children,” Imene Trabelsi, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Arab News from Beirut.

“We believe that supporting people’s mental health, what we call ‘less visible scars’ during times of crisis, can be as lifesaving as stitching together wounds and providing food and water.”

Trabelsi said that generally one in five people is estimated to suffer from mental-health problems after a conflict has ended.

The Arab Youth Survey of 2020 found that nearly a third of all young people living in 15 countries in the Middle East know at least one person suffering from some form of mental illness.

Until recently, mental health was not a priority in the Middle East. Psychiatric issues were often taboo and largely dealt with in the family. “It is a relatively new area for international aid groups but now we are realizing how important it is for the wellbeing of a population to recover after a period of conflict,” Trabelsi said.




Women react on August 18, 2021, during the funeral of four members of the Shteiteh family in the village of Al-Daouseh in Lebaon's Akkar region, killed in a fuel tank explosion. (AFP/File Photo)

It is not just in Gaza. Almost every day images and stories of violence, poverty, loss, and bereavement dominate the region’s news. In Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Houthi-held Yemen, and Lebanon, millions of people have been suffering through long periods of economic privation.

For instance, in Iraq, a 2018 Save the Children survey found that 43 percent of children in Mosul, the erstwhile capital of the self-declared caliphate of Daesh, reported feeling grief “always or a lot of the time.”

“The tragedy is that persecution, oppression, conflict, and aggression are almost now the norm in these countries,” Dr. Summer Fakhro, a psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, a clinic in Dubai, told Arab News.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common, she said.

“There is a functionality and adaptation that has developed to be able to live with unbearable circumstances,” Fakhro said. “However, these populations bear the burden of complex trauma, which means the trauma is not limited to symptoms of PTSD and endures over several phases of life.”

The effects can be long-lasting on all aspects of life, leading to mood disturbance and, in extreme cases, personality change, she said.




Abderrazaq Khatoun, reacts as he shows on a mobile telephone a video taken on the day when rescuers searched for survivors after an air raid that killed seven of his sons, inside a tent in an encampment in the village of Harbanoush, in the northern countryside of Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 11, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

The situation in Lebanon is a case in point. A perfect storm of crises — the deadly Beirut Port explosion in August 2020 was followed by an economic collapse along with national fuel and medicine shortages — have affected the wellbeing of its people. The effects are even felt by the many Lebanese who have left the country.

“It does not get any easier,” 25-year-old Marwa Darazi, who left Lebanon to move to the UAE in January this year, told Arab News.

Currently a PR professional in Dubai, she said: “The explosion finds its way out of the back of your mind and into your conversation or thoughts at least once a day. It is part of who I am. Sometimes I recall it to feel grateful. Sometimes I recall it to support the idea that everything happens for a reason.”

Several psychologists Arab News spoke with after the Beirut explosions said they themselves also suffered from PTSD and struggled to deal with the multiple calls from survivors they received.

“There can be a general sense of helplessness in these populations,” Fakhro said. Aside from her work in Dubai, she is a co-founder of Elaa Beirut, a Lebanese charity that provides mental health and other kinds of support to populations in times of struggle and conflict.

Fakhro pointed to the prevalence of “learned helplessness,” a condition whereby people feel like they have no control over what happens, and therefore, tend to simply give up and accept their fate.




An aerial picture shows mourners carrying coffins wrapped in the Iraqi flag in a procession during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of Daesh in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district, on February 6, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

“As humans who face suffering, we will initially protest and fight back and use every resource to resist,” Fakhro said.

“We want to preserve our original state and way of being. However, if every effort you make fails because of the relentlessness of the conflict and issues, we eventually wear out and develop learned helplessness, a state where we feel nothing that we do can change our state or fate.

“We lose our ‘self-efficacy,’ which is our belief that we can confidently cope with demands and struggles. We lose agency to act and cope.”

Fakhro said “dissociation” is a major mental-health concern in unstable parts of the Middle East.

This is when most people who experience severe trauma during conflict and unrest learn unconsciously to dissociate — “fragmenting their consciousness to numb the pain in their psyche and body. They can be in the worst of situations and be very detached and almost impervious because they have built these walls to protect themselves.”

According to the ICRC, people living in conflict-affected areas are three times more likely than the general population to suffer from conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.




Palestinian protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces during a demonstration against the establishment of Israeli outposts on their lands, in Beit Dajan, east of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on April 16, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

For the past several years, organizations such as ICRC have put increased importance on treating mental wellbeing in conflict zones in addition to their regular assistance during times of crisis.

From 2018 to 2019, the ICRC helped build the capacity of mental health professionals working for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent by providing training and technical supervision. Currently, the ICRC operates a psychological and mental services program for patients with physical disabilities at a rehabilitation center in Aleppo.

In November 2020, the ICRC set up a mental health support unit in a field hospital in northeast Syria’s Al-Hol Camp, which has a growing population of displaced people.

The service offers individual sessions and family sessions, depending on need. Workers provide psycho-educational activities for children and adapt activities to strengthen the self-esteem and self-confidence of children.

“The massive mental health needs of people affected by humanitarian emergencies In the Middle East are far from being fully addressed,” Trabelsi told Arab News.




Iraqis inspect the site of the explosion in a popular market in the Shiite-majority Sadr City neighbourhood, east of the capital Baghdad on July 20, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

“This lack of treatment also increases stigma, exclusion, and discrimination. It is doubly important for people living and affected by violence to receive the right help, to be able to recover from these less visible scars generated by the conflict. This will also have an impact on rebuilding communities and the social fabric.”

In Lebanon, the ICRC set up a dedicated hotline to address mental trauma in the wake of the Beirut explosions. A total of 188 patients continue to receive mental health support and physiotherapy sessions.

“Sometimes it is a conversation starter. Sometimes I tear up looking through pictures and videos and remembering my family and the event,” Darazi, the Lebanese expatriate in Dubai, told Arab News, referring to the blast.

“In fact, it feels like yesterday. There is no way it has been over a year since the blast happened. My scars have not healed.”

Decoder

World Mental Health Day

October 10 is designated as an international day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. World Mental Health Day was first celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health, a global mental health organization with members and contacts in more than 150 countries.


Britain warns Iran it’s the “last chance” to sign up to nuclear deal

Updated 7 sec ago

Britain warns Iran it’s the “last chance” to sign up to nuclear deal

Britain warns Iran it’s the “last chance” to sign up to nuclear deal
LONDON: British foreign minister Liz Truss urged Iran on Wednesday to sign up to the 2015 nuclear deal, saying it was “the last chance” to do, just a day before talks were expected to resume.
“This is really the last chance for Iran to sign up and I strongly urge them to do that because we are determined to work with our allies to prevent Iran securing nuclear weapons,” she told the Chatham House think tank.
“So they do need to sign up to the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreement, it’s in their interests to do so.”

Libyan political body calls for election delay as disputes grow

Libyan political body calls for election delay as disputes grow
Updated 53 min 30 sec ago

Libyan political body calls for election delay as disputes grow

Libyan political body calls for election delay as disputes grow
  • The High State Council’s statement comes less than three weeks before the vote
  • The electoral commission has not yet announced a final list of candidates for the presidential race

TRIPOLI: A Libyan political body on Wednesday called for a Dec. 24 presidential election to be delayed to February amid growing jostling over the rules and legal basis of a vote aimed at ending a decade of instability.
The statement by the High State Council (HSC), an advisory body installed through a 2015 peace agreement but not recognized by all other Libyan political entities, comes less than three weeks before the vote.
In Libya’s complex, fractured political environment the extent of the HSC’s powers is debated, but its statement adds to the doubts surrounding the election.
The electoral commission has not yet announced a final list of candidates for the presidential race following a fractious process of court appeals over the eligibility of the 98 who registered to run.
The arguments over some highly divisive candidates, including major figures from Libya’s conflict, have already threatened to torpedo the contest.
Those disputes revealed deeper disagreements over the basis for a voting process that has already diverged from both the UN-backed roadmap that set the vote and a controversial election law issued in September by the parliament speaker.
The roadmap envisaged the election as a way to end disputes over the legitimacy of Libya’s rival political bodies, which were formed during earlier transitional periods following the 2011 revolution that ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
The HSC was drawn from members of a national assembly elected in 2012 who rejected the results of a 2014 election that created the current parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR).
Despite the 2015 political agreement that enshrined a legislative role for the HoR and an advisory role for the HSC, they do not formally recognize each other, though they have held sporadic peace negotiations in Morocco.
Some Libyans fear the disputes over the current election process could trigger a similar crisis to that surrounding the 2014 vote, when Libya split between warring eastern and western factions with parallel administrations in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The HSC statement on Wednesday said the presidential and parliamentary elections should both take place on the same day, as was originally demanded by the UN roadmap.
Laws issued in September and October by HoR speaker Aguila Saleh, a presidential candidate, set a first round presidential vote for Dec. 24 but delayed the parliamentary vote.
Saleh’s critics accuse him of issuing the laws without a quorum or a proper vote in parliament and after intimidation against some members. Saleh and his allies deny wrongdoing and say the laws were passed properly.


French top diplomat visits Algeria to mend relations

French top diplomat visits Algeria to mend relations
Updated 08 December 2021

French top diplomat visits Algeria to mend relations

French top diplomat visits Algeria to mend relations
  • Le Drian's trip, kept secret until the last minute, is a "working visit, to evaluate and relaunch the relationship"

ALGIERS: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks in Algeria Wednesday in a bid to heal the latest rift between the North African country and its former colonial ruler.
Le Drian’s trip, kept secret until the last minute, is a “working visit, to evaluate and relaunch the relationship” and he is set to meet President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a French foreign ministry source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Algeria’s APS state news outlet confirmed that the French diplomat had met his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra during “a working visit and evaluation of bilateral relations.”
Relations between Algiers and Paris have been strained for much of the six decades since the former French colony won its independence after a 130-year occupation.
President Emmanuel Macron has gone further than his predecessors in owning up to French abuses during the colonial era.
But ties collapsed in October after Macron accused Algeria’s “political-military system” of rewriting history and fomenting “hatred toward France.”
In remarks to descendants of independence fighters, reported by Le Monde, Macron also questioned whether Algeria had existed as a nation before the French invasion in the 1800s.
Coming a month after Paris decided to sharply reduce visa quotas for citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, those comments sparked a fierce reaction from Algeria.
The country withdrew its ambassador and banned French military planes from its airspace, which they regularly use to carry out operations against jihadist groups in West Africa and the Sahel region.
The comments also prompted Tebboune to boycott a major November summit in Paris on Algeria’s war-torn neighbor Libya, vowing that Algeria would “not take the first step” to repair ties.
The dispute prompted a rare expression of contrition from the French presidency, which said it “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by the remarks.
An aide from Macron’s office said the French leader “has the greatest respect for the Algerian nation and its history and for Algeria’s sovereignty.”
Algerian Foreign Minister Lamamra welcomed that statement and, in the end, represented Algeria at the Libya conference.
Le Drian’s visit comes as Algeria prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence in March.
Macron, France’s first leader born after the colonial era, has made a priority of historical reconciliation and forging a modern relationship with former colonies.
Earlier this year, he recognized that French officers tortured and killed Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel in 1957.
Macron also in October condemned “inexcusable crimes” during a 1961 crackdown against Algerian pro-independence protesters in Paris, during which French police led by a former Nazi collaborator killed dozens of demonstrators and threw their bodies into the river Seine.
A report commissioned by the president from historian Benjamin Stora earlier this year urged a truth commission over the Algerian war but Macron ruled out issuing any official apology.
And as he seeks re-election next year, he is wary of providing ammunition to far-right nationalist opponents Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.


Egypt sends medical aid to South Sudan

Egypt sends medical aid to South Sudan
Updated 08 December 2021

Egypt sends medical aid to South Sudan

Egypt sends medical aid to South Sudan

Cairo: Egypt’s military announced that under the directives of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, tons of medical and pharmaceutical aid have been sent to South Sudan.

The aid, transported by a military plane, was provided by the Ministry of Health and Population.

Officials in South Sudan expressed their appreciation for Egypt’s support, which they said strengthens bilateral relations.

During floods that swept South Sudan earlier this year, Egypt sent aid such as food and medical supplies.


Cairo selected as culture capital of Islamic world for 2022

Cairo selected as culture capital of Islamic world for 2022
Updated 08 December 2021

Cairo selected as culture capital of Islamic world for 2022

Cairo selected as culture capital of Islamic world for 2022

CAIRO: The Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has announced the selection of Cairo as next year’s culture capital of the Muslim world.

Egypt’s Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem told a press conference that this choice reflects Cairo’s position as a meeting place for different cultures, a creative hub and a center for thought and art.

She praised ISESCO’s efforts to celebrate the capitals of Islamic countries and promote relationships between them.