by John Ost

What War Does to Kids' Minds

During the past two years, Dr. Arshad Husain has interviewed more than 1,000 children in Bosnia. Most of the children, he says, suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder--depression, flashbacks, nightmares. Ninety-two percent of the children talked about committing suicide. He recalls one boy who shares a bedroom with his grandfather and who many nights runs screaming to the basement, because the old man's whistling snore sounds like incoming shells.

"When the children suffer nightmares, they need to know they aren't going crazy," says Husain, chief of psychiatry at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "They need to hear that many other children and adults are suffering the same pain, experiencing the same torment at night. In particular, the children must understand that they did not cause the bad things that have happened to their families."

Husain and his colleagues have trained several hundred teachers, parents, and relief workers in Bosnia to help children with their fears. As with the Oklahoma City bombing--where Husain also ran training sessions--adults often try to shield children by not talking about a horrible event, instead of sharing their grief and fears.

He tells the story of Tarik, a young Serbian boy, who, after losing both his parents, talked little at school. His teacher tried but failed to draw him out. Then the teacher's own father died in a concentration camp. At first, she stopped coming to her classes, but eventually she returned and talked to her class about losing her father.

"The teacher cried as she told her story to the children," says Husain. "Eventually, Tarik came to her, sat on her lap, and said, 'I know how you feel. I lost my parents too.' From that moment on, Tarik has opened up to her. She is considering adopting the little boy."

The key to the recovery of Bosnia's children, says Husain, is that they find ways to share their grief with other children and adults who have been through the same chaos and pain. Along with drawing, storytelling, and writing, he thinks online conversations among Bosnian kids scattered around the world could help immensely children who may feel forgotten and alone. Bringing the kids together, he says, offers them hope because it's an affirmation, maybe even a celebration, that they have survived.

To see how the trauma of war is expressed in the artwork of Bosnian children, click here.

Copyright © 1995 Discovery Communications, Inc Photos: Courtesy of Dr. Arshad Husain