Monday, April 9, 2012

Acceptable Losses?

A US Soldier has been charged with the mindless slaughter of 17 Afghan villagers. His lawyers claim that he is not responsible for his actions, as he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The lawyer is confident that his client will not be charged, as he cannot be held responsible for his actions. Instead of the death penalty or even a lifetime of incarceration, there is a possibility that this soldier will spend his life in therapy.

PTSD is a debilitating condition which affects people who witness, or are a part of, situations where they are in danger of great injury or death. It is often assumed that this is a condition prevalent only in soldiers, but nothing can be further from the truth. Civilians living in violence are just as prone to be affected by this condition as soldiers. A survey of refugees in a Bosnian camp revealed that approximately 33% were suffering with depression, 25% were diagnosed with PTSD while 20% exhibited symptoms of both depression and PTSD. Also, these civilians are also prone to ill health later in life at a greater than others.  

The Afghan people have been living in a war-torn country for generations. They have been exposed to all of the civilian markers of this debilitating condition. They have been bombed, they have been shot at and they have been displaced from their homes. They have lost loved ones, suffered from financial and physical hardships and been restricted from food, water and other necessities. They have suffered, witnessed and have perpetrated violence and are now suffering the consequences.

To cope with the symptoms, most turn to hardcore drugs and prefer to drown out the memories. Few try their hand at making light of the situation. A group of Afghans interviewed about their experiences couldn't stop laughing while recalling their stories. One of them, between bouts of laughter,  talked about how he had been tortured by three different regimes as he had tried to overthrow all three of them. But humour is not enough to cure this dangerous and relentless condition. Not only did this man appear to be ten years older than his peers, he also died of bad health a few years after his interview.

Most of these civilians either don't realize that there is anything wrong with them, or don't admit it. To add insult to injury, the few Afghans who, either themselves realize that they have a problem or have relatives who are concerned, have nowhere to go for help. The closest hospital, where these psychological problems can be dealt with, is in Peshawar, Pakistan. Getting there is a perilous and stress inducing journey in itself. Regardless, they come to Peshawar with hopes of putting the demons of war to sleep. Some making the trip from as far away as Kabul.

The doctors in Peshawar are already dealing with a dramatic rise in mental health problems among Pakistanis living in the tribal areas along the border. Some claim that these numbers have increased threefold.  In the border areas, people are constantly exposed to conflicts between the Pakistani army and the militants. They also live in constant fear of death from American drone attacks. This constant exposure to mindless violence leads to all sorts of psychological disorders.  

These doctors are overwhelmed by the volume of tragedies that they are facing. One psychologist who runs a private hospital often ends up diagnosing and treating up to 70 patients per day. Some nights, he is treating patients until midnight and ends up spending the night in his hospital.  Almost all patients are sent away with a prescription for antidepressants and tranquilizers. There is not much else he can do with the sheer number of patients and the limited resources at hand. These patients need psychotherapy, family therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy as well as coping skills for dealing with their life.  

PTSD is not the exclusive domain of the American soldier. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity life-destroyer and, in some sort of a weird karmic payback loop, it targets the oppressors and the oppressed alike. But, most of all,  those affected, whether warriors or innocent bystanders, need the eyes of the world on them.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done article with the touch of medical terminologies and a blend of political angling. Good job Ms. Ansari.