Dhaka, Bangladesh – The lanky hands, shaking, clasped the doctor as he was passing by his bed. “They want to kill all of us. That’s why they’re throwing the bombs,” ten-year-old Shimul screamed at the top of his voice.
In an instant, all eyes at the Burn Unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital turned to the young boy, still trembling in fear. They had been witnessing similar scenes since November 10, the day Shimul was burnt inside his vehicle and was brought to the hospital.
Mindful of the injuries to the boy’s back, the doctor hugged Shimul to his bosom, “Calm down. No-one is gonna hurt you. I’m here, we’re here beside you.”
Soon everyone sank into despair, reminded that the vandalism and arson spreading across Bangladesh had already caused at least 14 deaths at the facility since October 26 when the opposition started to enforce frequent shutdowns.
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Scores of others, especially children, suffer from trauma from seeing images of blood and arson day after day as reports of violence fill newspaper columns and TV slots.
Take the case of Aariyan Fahmi, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy from Khilgaon neighbourhood in the capital, Dhaka.
Impatient that his mother was late to phone him after reaching the airport before catching a flight to Delhi, he continuously asked his father why she was not calling.
“Suddenly, he started howling, saying blockaders must have bombed the auto-rickshaw his mother was in and killed her,” his father, a journalist, told Al Jazeera.
Asked what made him think so the child replied, “She would have called me by now had nothing like this happened to her.”
According to psychiatrists, several children like Fahmi are showing clinical symptoms of anxiety and panic after seeing gory images of violence.
“Such political instability gets easily transmitted into children’s psychology, disrupting mental development and behaviour of the children, especially those with inadequate stress coping ability,” Farida Akhtar, a psychologist, told Al Jazeera.
Street violence flared up in the impoverished South Asian country this year in the run-up to the 10th general election set for January over who would be administering the polls.
An 18-party opposition alliance spearheaded by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has boycotted the elections – now slated for January 5 – as their demand for a neutral poll has not been met.
While pressing ahead with its demand, the BNP got its key ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, on the streets since the latter found itself pushed to the wall following the arrest and conviction of its top leaders for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 War of Independence. Earlier, a court declared the party’s registration illegal, thereby disqualifying it from contesting the general election.
A photograph of a 14-year-old boy sent a chill across the country on November 5. The image showed the boy sitting dazed on a road as his father wailed. More than 95 percent of the boy’s body was burnt and blacked beyond recognition.
Monir, the child in question, was returning to his home in Gazipur district after visiting the capital for the first time when pro-shutdown demonstrators torched his father’s covered van with him inside.
With the skin all over his body erupting in blisters and his windpipe burnt, the boy died on November 7.
Many Bangladeshis blamed supporters of the opposition for the attack, as they have been allegedly hurling bombs at vehicles to spread panic. Many bombs remained unexploded.
Many kids have lost their limbs while picking up the bombs mistaking them for tennis balls.
“We never saw people hurling bombs or setting fire to buses and trains on such a large scale and not allowing passengers to leave the vehicles,” noted Akhtar, chief executive of Inner Force, an organisation which offers counselling for children, teenagers, adults, parents and couples.
According to data provided by police, 97 people died and a total 678 people, including 293 law enforcement officials, have been killed since November 25, the day before the opposition enforced countrywide road, rail and waterway blockades.
Talking to Al Jazeera, Nazrul Islam Khan, a spokesperson for BNP, denied that any of their party members were involved in destructive programmes.
Schools have had to suspend classes and reschedule exams several times in recent weeks as officials feared that students might be caught in street violence.
“Forced to stay indoors, the children could neither enjoy the time at home with all the pressures of pending exams nor travel to somewhere,” Manjuara Begum, principal of Viqarunnesa Noon School and College, a school for girls, told Al Jazeera.
At home, kids are excessively exposed to televisions and newspapers after the adults leave for their offices and businesses.
With violence shooting up in mid-November, photographs of kids hurt in bomb blasts and charred and disfigured bodies of drivers burnt by petrol bombs popped up in TV screens and occupied large spaces in newspapers.
The Daily Star, a leading English daily newspaper which does not usually publish gory images, published a pixelated bloody photo and said it did so “to stress how people fall prey to mindless political violence in our streets”.
This will take a toll in the children's professional life and relationship building.
Zayadul Ahsan Pintu, chief news editor of private TV channel Desh Television, doesn’t buy this logic.
“In no situation should charred or deformed bodies be shown in newspaper and TV channels because these have very strong and negative impacts on kids as well as grown-ups,” he said, adding that written descriptions could take the place of graphic images or video footage.
Referring to the publication of images of the killing of a youth in broad daylight, allegedly by ruling party student activists in Dhaka last December, Shabnam Azim, a journalism teacher at the University of Dhaka, told Al Jazeera, “It seems there is a sick competition in the mass media about publishing graphic details of incidents of violence.”
Such incidents have more impact on children under five as every time they see the same story of violence they regard it as a new one, said one parent.
“A decrease in appetite, insomnia, interrupted sleep, nausea, vomiting and frequent nightmares are some mostly noticed symptoms for children exposed to violent imagery,” Mekhala Sarkar, an assistant professor of National Institute of Mental Health, told Al Jazeera.
If the political violence lingers, she cautioned, children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“After a month of developing PTSD, the subjects will start to become frightened suddenly,” she said. “This will take a toll in the children’s professional life and relationship building.”
With no end to political violence in sight, the news editor Ahsan urged parents to control what their children watch.
He also pointed out that some reporters get tip-off from vandals and arsonists and publish images of their activities, thus helping them spread their message of fear.
“These reporters are playing roles as vandals’ and arsonists’ accomplices and need to be stopped immediately,” he said.