Stress relief for the bomb-shelter children

17th September 1999 at 01:00

YOUNGSTERS in northern Israel finished their first day back at school crammed into bomb shelters. Their flight was provoked by fears that the Islamic Hizbollah would retaliate over the death of two Lebanese civilians during shelling by the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army.

No rockets fell that evening. But memories are still fresh of the 12 hours of shelling in June which killed two in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona, and the constant fear of attack is taking its toll on teachers and pupils alike.

About 300,000 northern residents are sent to the shelters fairly regularly. However, Kiryat Shemona, with a population of 21,000, bears the brunt of rocket attacks from Lebanon. In 1996, during Israel's so-called "Grapes of Wrath" operation against Hizbollah, the town's inhabitants were unable to leave the shelters for 16 days.

After each scare, the Israeli media report that Kiryat Shemona has "gone back to normal". However, according to Professor Mooli Lahad, there is no such thing.

Professor Lahad, a psychologist and drama therapist, who took his PhD at Bath University, heads the town's community stress prevention centre, which works to prepare the community for disasters, with an emphasis on schools.

The centre's materials encourage children to confront fear, to test out different responses and to build strong and supportive groups of classmates. "You are in class, you hear the siren to go down into the shelter, Dina faints, what will you do?" asks one role-play exercise for primary schools.

Another exercise sets the following scene. "It's 10am and there's a school break. Some of the children are in the classrooms, some are playing in the yard, and some are in the corridors. You hear a loud explosion in one of the school wings. You don't know which classroom was hit, and who's still inside."

Children have to take on different roles: the concerned but experienced principal, the new teacher, the school secretary, the frightened pupil.

Other materials try to help teachers develop tools for discussing death and war with pupils, to deal with their own despair, to identify distress and suicidal thoughts among teenagers and to explore moral dilemmas.

"People don't want to talk about these things; it's too taxing, so they suppress it," Professor Lahad said.

"Teacher turnover is high in this town. We have to train newcomers, who know nothing and don't want to be exposed to this, and older teachers who don't want to go through refresher courses.

"People just don't have the energy to deal with the issue, and that's very dangerous. That's why you feel this fatigue, this despair, this feeling that it will never end."

Mooli Lahad and his team are seeking funds to research the long-term effects of such stress on children.

"We see avoidance - of the dark, of going to the toilet with the door closed, of leaving the house - as well as stuttering, eating problems and clinging to parents."

In severe situations, families sleep with their clothes on in case of an attack, or pack up and go to the shelter just because they have heard helicopters.

"It's a minority," says Professor Lahad, "but there's a halo effect, and more and more people have started behaving in these ways."

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