Healing Central African Republic's traumatised children

At classes for youngsters suffering from PTSD, girls draw pictures of men with guns, missing limbs and lost children.

Bangui, Central African Republic - They look like ordinary schoolchildren, sprawled on mats, drawing pictures of their homes and families with felt pens, but the girls' disturbing images depict scenes of violence - men with guns, missing limbs and lost children. 

This class of eight at Gobongo school in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), is no ordinary lesson, but a group therapy session for children showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as aggression, bed-wetting, night terrors, lack of concentration and developmental disorders.

It's a reality for many in CAR, a country in which every community has been traumatised by a cocktail of brutal conflict, displacement, hunger and poverty.

CAR's sectarian strife peaked in 2013/14 after a mostly Muslim coalition of fighters, called Seleka, seized power. A coalition of Christian fighters, called anti-balaka, was formed and a cycle of religious and ethnic violence followed, including gun and machete attacks, kidnappings and the burning and looting of homes.

Twelve-year old Anouk concentrates on her drawing. In their last session, the girls were asked to depict happy times -this time they are sketching out their bad memories and to reflect their feelings on paper. 

The children are not asked directly what they have experienced. Anouk stands up to describe her drawing to the group. she says: “During the war the guy in the picture had his arm cut off. Someone else has their house destroyed and they are weeping for it one person also has a gun and would like to kill someone - he is angry.”

The group discusses what is happening in a pre-pared picture story, another tool used by the teams’s psychosocial workers to help the girls express their feelings. Supervisor Edgar says in the last session, the central character - a hippo is angry and throwing rocks at another animal who has stolen his ball.”

Lucie, 13, adds a gun to the hand of the man she has drawn. Gobongo school teaches pupils from areas of Bangui that are seeing a gradual return of displaced people, who fled violence or had their homes burned down. with 4,000 pupils, class sizes can be as large as 150. 

A teenager receives an individual concealing session from a psychologist working for Action Against Hunger. Some children are identified as needing more intensive work because they have more severe symptoms than others.

Children often display anger or aggression when they are afraid or sad, says psychologist Coralie, “we talk to them about being in their “safe place”. we ask them “what can you see, what colorise in your mind?” Sometimes they cry or do strange things with their bodies, like a kind of trance.”

Emilie, 15, tells how she can become “ver Very angry, very easily.” Describing her picture she has drawn: “the Guy is at home the Seleka what to shoot him. there’s a little girl who is separated from her parents. She’s at the table with her tutors and she feels very frightened.”  

The group draws quietly together, occasionally glancing over at each other’s work or reaching for a different coloured pen. Mats have been laid out in the courtyard so that the girls can enjoy some air out side their stiffing heat of the class rooms. 

Following the drawing the children do sining and breathing exercises, the girls learn to relax with some deep breathing. they hold it for three counts, then breathe out and smile. 

The reminder of the morning’s work lie on the floor as the session comes to an end. Despite tentative hopes of peace and reconciliation following the election of a new president in 2016. CAR’s situation remains very fragile and violence continuous to flare. Psychologist Coralie says: “people feel scared. There is insecurity. Some of it is real, and some is a feeling of a thread. We are working on the feelings.”

The NGO Action Against Hunger has begun running trauma sessions in an effort to start the healing process, in which children use pictures and role play to describe their symptoms.

Programme coordinator and clinical psychologist Coraline Galliot said many of the children had lost parents and relatives, and had witnessed violence. 

"They can be aggressive and don't know why. They might be bed-wetting and don't understand it. They cannot imagine their friends might have the same symptoms, and think they are alone. They often don't want to share their feelings because of the shame and loss of trust - totally, in everyone."

The charity has already trained local medical students and teachers, and plans to train 20 additional teachers to help them to identify children with PTSD.

"To defend a feeling of sadness, children often suffer from hyperactivity, which impairs their concentration and can be confused with disobedience," Galliot explained. "The kid with PTSD might be the most annoying one in the whole class."

* The names of the children have been changed.

Text: Paula Dear

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