Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kyrgyzstan: Memories of Osh Violence Continue to Haunt Children

Kyrgyzstan: Memories of Osh Violence Continue to Haunt Children

Originally published by

The physical damage done to Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan that was engulfed in interethnic violence almost two years ago, is steadily being repaired. The psychological scars, on the other hand, may take generations to heal.

Children are the ones having the toughest time. Many of those who were caught up in the violence are experiencing acute psychological trauma, according to experts. And there are limited resources to treat them.

Ibrokhim, a 13-year-old boy from Osh, is among the children who were traumatized by the events of June 2010. Ibrokhim (not his real name) is enrolled at the Toichu Altybaev School (former Leo Tolstoy School) in the suburbs of Osh, but when school started again last September, he was scared to attend. “I didn’t feel good. I wanted to stay at home. I was scared to go out,” Ibrokhim says, adding that his safety concerns were rooted in memories of his father being shot during the ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

“When my father was wounded, I thought he would recover. When they said he was dead, I couldn’t believe it until he was buried,” Ibrokhim recalled. “I preferred staying in. I didn’t want to see anybody. It was difficult for me to talk to people.”

Teachers say the boy missed three months of school.

“He was psychologically traumatized after his father was wounded during the riots,” Tanzilya Raimjanova, Ibrokhim’s teacher, told “He grew more depressed after his father, who failed to recover despite repeated surgeries [to extract bullets from his body], passed away. The boy stopped talking, and retreated into himself.”

In a certain sense, Ibrokhim was fortunate because he was able to obtain treatment for his psychological injury. After intensive therapy funded by an international humanitarian organization, he was able to return to school in early 2012, Raimjanova explained.

A psychologist helped the boy communicate his fears through games, art, and metaphors. “To rehabilitate affected children we use art and game therapies,” said Larisa Katsura, a psychotherapist and the head of Master Radosti, an NGO in Osh. “During our sessions, kids play various games, play with modeling clay [to make shapes with which they can tell their stories], listen to and retell fairy tales. We help them speak up so that they can get rid of their fears.”

But, Katsura added, psychologists have a limited window to treat trauma. After a time, there is much less they can do to help. About 450 people died amid four days of violence in 2010. Approximately 110,000 people sought temporary sanctuary in Uzbekistan and another 300,000 were internally displaced in Kyrgyzstan.

The symptoms of stress disorders are not always obvious. Psychologists say that some affected children begin spontaneously laughing uncontrollably for several minutes; some cry frequently; and others stutter or freeze upon coming in contact with other people.

“On June 11, in the morning, my nine-year-old daughter went out to buy bread and did not come back,” said Kayrinisa, a 42-year-old lady from Osh, recalling the day the fighting began. “Usually it took her 10 minutes to return, but it had been more than half an hour, so I called the police. Then shooting started; everyone was panicking. I could not do anything but stand there waiting for my daughter. Then [after about 40 minutes] suddenly a car stopped, and my daughter came out of it and ran to me in tears.”

Kayrinisa said her daughter could not answer any questions as she kept crying and stammering. Though physically the girl was unharmed, three months later she was terrified to return to school. Psychologists diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Lira Sherieva, the head of the Osh municipal agency responsible for child welfare, says the city is doing what it can to help the thousands of children suffering from stress-related disorders. But, she adds, the local government lacks the resources to hire enough psychologists.

“We turned some playgrounds at public schools and kindergartens into rehabilitation centers where psychologically affected children are still rendered qualified assistance,” Sherieva said. “Support was provided by local NGOs, as well as international agencies, including UNICEF and Save the Children. In total, over 10,000 children have received psychological treatment. Some of them were sent to recreation camps and sanatoria on Lake Issyk-Kul.”

Even so, the shortage of psychological assistance in and around Osh remains “catastrophic,” says Gulbara Kulueva, a senior lecturer in psychology at Osh State University. Few people are interested in studying to become a psychologist because the pay is so low, she adds. Last year no new students matriculated in her department.

“We were not prepared for such a situation,” said Kulueva, who also works at the Osh Regional Psychiatric Health Center. Most of the psychologists who have graduated from her program over the years have left to look elsewhere for more lucrative work (school psychologists earn $150-$160 per month). “The available ones are not professionally trained. The situation at schools is catastrophic; they lack professionals.”

Others agree that the shortages mean many children are not getting the help they need.

“Many children have such disorders as enuresis [involuntary urination], fright and fear of representatives of other ethnic group,” said Nadejda Olifirenko, a psychologist with Family for Every Child, a non-profit in Osh. “We are short of certified psychologists who can provide proper qualified assistance.”

“We don’t have a psychologist at our school. We requested a specialist but are still waiting for one,” said Raimjanova, Ibrokhim’s teacher at the Toichu Altybaev School, which about 750 children attend. “Our children need psychologists. We don’t even know which schoolchildren need help.”