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RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: Tamils Traumatised by War, Tsunami – Study

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 16 2007 (IPS) - Residents of war-wracked Jaffna city in northern Sri Lanka are a community on the run; every family has a bag packed with essentials, ready to flee at a moment&#39s notice, a new research study reports.

Building shelters for the displaced is a major activity in Sri Lanka Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council

Building shelters for the displaced is a major activity in Sri Lanka Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council

"When displaced to a refugee camp, they are very systematic in getting themselves organised. They immediately find a corner, hang up screens with saris, and start arranging their belongings for an indefinite stay," says Prof. Daya Somasunderam, a well-known Sri Lankan psychiatrist, in a new, path-breaking study on collective trauma.

The author, who fled Sri Lanka fearing for his own family&#39s safety and now residing in Adelaide, Australia, says the long-running civil war is causing far more mental health problems and social breakdown than the catastrophic 2004 tsunami.

"People have learned to survive under extraordinarily stressful conditions. A UNHCR official observed that in Jaffna people have become professional in dealing with complex emergencies from previous experiences," noted Somasunderam, a clinical associate professor in psychiatry and Australia&#39s first &#39refugee scholar&#39 at the University of Adelaide under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

Somasunderam&#39s study on ‘Collective trauma in northern Sri Lanka: a qualitative psychosocial-ecological Study,’ recently published in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, came in for praise by other researchers, some of whom are his students or colleagues.

Ananda Galappatti, a medical anthropologist and an editor of ‘Intervention’ (the International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work and Counselling in Areas of Armed Conflict), said Somasunderam&#39s study is a valuable contribution to the discussion of mental health and social suffering in Sri Lanka as it argues that chronic situations of conflict can result in &#39collective trauma&#39, serious psycho-social consequences that extend beyond individuals and impact on families and key social relations within affected communities.

"He argues for an understanding of suffering that is considerably broader than that allowed by conventional psychiatry, which tends to limit its perspective to psychological disorder or dysfunction in individuals," Galaptti said, adding that Somasunderam built on insights gained through his work in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Jaffna – dominated by minority Tamils – has been the seat of Tamil militancy as well as calls for self-rule by non-violent Tamil political parties.

Since the Sri Lankan military wrested the eastern province of Batticaloa from the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in July, fighting has shifted to Jaffna. Last week the LTTE announced that it was preparing for a major offensive by government troops in the north leading to uncertainty amongst the northern population.

The LTTE has led the militant campaign against the Sinhala-majority dominated government since the mid-1980s, vowing to establish a separate homeland for the minority Tamils in the north and east. Estimates say that at least 65,000 people have died in a long-festering ethnic war that the government now plans to resolve miliarily.

Apart from death and destruction, the psychosocial impact of the war has been severe in the conflict-affected areas in the north and east of the country with the Tamil community being the worst affected. The tsunami that affected more than 200,000 people across the coastline of Sri Lanka in December 2004 added to the woes of conflict-ridden societies.

The tsunami was a one-off catastrophic event that left a trail of destruction and loss, says Somasunderam. "But it did not continue to exert a prolonged effect (unlike the war). As a result the severity of the collective trauma was much less. In fact, having lived through a prolonged war situation has meant that Tamil communities have learned skills and strategies that make them better able to cope with disasters."

Several surveys of individual level trauma and its effects in the context of war have shown widespread trauma, but this is the first study done of collective trauma.

The situation is not easing either going by the daily reports of killings, abductions and robberies in Jaffna. "We are seeing a lot of patients with psychological problems arising out of a situation of helplessness and uncertainty. No one knows what is going on and what would happen," said Dr. S. Sivayokan, a psychiatrist at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital.

Sivayokan, a student of Somasunderam who took over the author&#39s position in this hospital, said a large number of robberies by unknown groups during the nights have resulted in residents being fearful and having sleep problems.

"A new (psychosocial) situation is developing. We see more patients, unlike before, who have hallucinations and imaginary situations related to the current context (uncertainty)," he told IPS by telephone from Jaffna, a city where there is night curfew since last year.

He said this situation could be the added effect of suffering trauma over and over during more than 20 years of conflict. In the high security zone in Jaffna residents have been displaced over 17 times, while in the city itself, the average family would have been displaced at least twice.

Sivayokan said if there was continuous war, things would have been different. "But in this case, there was a period (during the recent ceasefire) where there was peace, cultural exchanges and hope. Now there is uncertainty and worry about families, children," he added.

Somasunderam says the phenomena of collective trauma first became very obvious to him when working in the post-war recovery and rehabilitation context in Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge regime, all social structures, institutions, family, educational and religious orders were razed to &#39ground zero&#39 deliberately (so as to rebuild a just society anew), he said.

Somasunderam&#39s study deals extensively with the war and tsunami impact on the family unit and traditional cultures which has triggered much of the psychosocial conditions now prevalent.

From the loss of one or both parents, separations and traumatisation in one member, pathological family dynamics adversely affected individual family members, particularly the children, he says.

The cohesiveness and traditional relationships are no longer the same. Compared to before the war, children no longer respect or listen to their elders, including teachers.

"A strong influence has been the contemptuous way elders and community leaders have been treated by the authorities and the submissive way they have responded. Elders are perceived as being powerless and incompetent in dealing with war and its consequences, a point often made by the young militants. Elders have also been traumatised by the war, affecting their functioning, relationships and parenting skills," the report said.

Somasunderam said the high incidence of mental health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, physical and sexual violence, child abuse and family disharmony found among indigenous populations around the world can be the result of the break-up of traditional culture, way of life and belief systems.

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