What’s the future of Iraq with so many traumatised but untreated victims?

The barbarism of the Islamic group ISIS has made many victims. Directly and indirectly it has damaged entire communities and even a whole nation. August is the time to remember that two years ago ISIS took Yezidi and Christian areas in Iraq, killing, kidnapping, looting and forcing people from their homes. 

Since then, many thousands of members of these communities have been living in tents and caravans all over the Kurdistan Region. Only the lucky ones were able to find more proper housing. Many of them did not only lose their homes and land, but their family members too, as the group killed probably thousands during its rampage in the Shingal region. 

Some of them witnessed the killing of their family members. We focus on the victims when we report on these tragedies. The women and girls who returned from their ordeal, the kids being able to escape a future as ISIS fighters, the men killed. Or, the other scenario: the women still with ISIS and suffering every day, and their kids being indoctrinated to kill their own. 

But we hardly talk about the family members; those still waiting for relatives that are most probably dead, or who might never be able to escape from ISIS territories. Some of them survive by working hard to get back those family members lost to ISIS. Some are successful, others get frustrated because they do not have the money needed for the rescue. 

Most families we never hear about, nor about their struggle to accept what ISIS inflicted on their lives. Because the stories of the victims are so much stronger and more gripping for our audiences. Yet in the bigger sense, they are the ones that influence the future, simply because of their numbers. 

Try to imagine living your life in a refugee camp, without your loved ones and with thousands around you whose world is just as grey and uncompromising as yours. Under the bright Iraqi sun, there are thousands and probably even millions, who are too depressed or traumatized to acknowledge its very light. 

Not just the Yezidis and the Christians, but also amongst the Arab villagers who fled ISIS more recently, and those who lived in Ramadi and Tikrit under the dark rule of ISIS, had to flee the fighting that liberated their cities, but are mostly still in some emergency shelter, often separated from their men who have not been cleared from affiliation with ISIS. 

These men, who either gave in to ISIS because they needed the income, or tried to hide to keep out of the radicals’ way – and then ended up in the hands of even more radicals interrogating them. The risk of new conflicts brewing because of feelings, emotions and frustrations has been discussed and accepted, but there is another reason why the fall-out of the ISIS rule is landing Iraq with an enormous problem: a major part of its inhabitants is traumatized or badly depressed, and no help is available. 

Even if therapists were plenty and well educated, how would they be able to treat so many people in an adequate way, more so because of the untreated traumas of the wars of the past? It’s a major problem that hardly anyone mentions, apart from the specialists who worry because they know how whole families can be effected if only one member is badly traumatized. 

Because they know trauma will not heal just like that, and can cause enormous behavior problems, domestic violence being one of them, if not treated. And even if it fades over the years, the chances are that it will flare up again much later because something triggered it. 

Those who are not convinced only need to look at the veterans of the American wars, who often refuse treatment and are time and again in the news for violence or suicide. A few Iraqi clinics to treat a couple of thousands at the most are simply not enough, as experience has shown that children of the traumatized carry that same trauma inside and need treatment. 

First, we need an awareness of the problem, and about the fact that it cannot be cleared away like the mines ISIS left, but is just as explosive as it will burn the society from the inside. We need vision and policies to effectively treat this national disease that has badly hit Iraq. Policy makers need to look at Europe, where treatment was set up after the Second World War. 

It is just as important as trying to find a way for people to live together again after ISIS has been defeated. For what is the future of a country that is full of people with untreated trauma, who might become violent or, the other extreme, too paralyzed by their psychological problems to even look after their families? 

By Judit Neurink

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