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Gaza war anniversary: How one group helps victims overcome trauma

The Healing the Wounds of War (HWW) program trains Gazans to use alternative nonmedical techniques to cope with stress from last year's Gaza war.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / December 28, 2009

Activists of 'Gaza Freedom Marchers', from 43 countries, wave a huge Palestinian flag in front of the the United Nations building at Cairo's World Trade Center, Monday.

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Jerusalem

Rawya Hamam was watching her son deteriorate. Hisham wouldn't sleep, clung to her incessantly, and said he wanted to go back into her belly so he'd be safe. "Grandma is lucky she died so she doesn't have to live here now," the boy told his mother.

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It's not a normal statement to expect from a five-year-old child, but neither were these normal times. A year ago, at the outbreak of war between the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Israel, anything resembling a normal life disappeared into a violent maelstrom that wreaked unprecedented destruction on the Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 Gazans were killed, according to a Palestinian count, in a campaign the Israeli army named "Operation Cast Lead," with the aim of getting Hamas to stop the daily launch of occasionally fatal rockets onto Israeli communities. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the three-week war.

The sad aftermath of the war is still being calculated; the possibility of war crimes having been committed by either side is still being debated. Thousands of homes destroyed in the war have not been rebuilt, and many public buildings lie in ruins for lack of steel and cement to fix them.

But what remains more immediate for many Gazans is dealing with the unspoken internal damage – the effect on the population's mental health. Estimates from several organizations hold that between 30 and 40 percent of the Gaza population is suffering from signs of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A study by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme in June found that two-thirds of Gaza's children have exhibited abnormal levels of anxiety, and 61.5 percent of Gaza's parents reported the emergence of unusual behaviors among their children.
 
Ms. Hamam considers herself one of the fortunate ones, in that she's recently been trained in the use of new tools to help others she works with professionally – as well as her own children. Last week, she completed a second, advanced training program in Gaza that is part of the Healing the Wounds of War (HWW) program, launched by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, based in Washington.

Using alternative, nonmedical techniques to discharge pent-up stress and trauma, the center has, for more than a decade, been bringing its work to global war zones and disaster areas. Its postwar program began in Kosovo, where its work helped reduce children's diagnosed levels of PTSD symptoms from 88 percent to 38 percent, founder Jim Gordon says.

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