Haunted by conflict, Syrian mother tries to heal mental scars


DAMASCUS, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Roda Aftan Shlash fled Islamic State militants in eastern Syria with her family five years ago, leaving behind the hardline militants but not the trauma of living under their brutal rule.

The 42-year-old mother of four children spent the next two years on the move before settling near the capital Damascus, hundreds of kilometres from home and still bearing the mental scars of conflict, violence and displacement.

Memories of her husband's capture and beating, of hiding from the militants, and of relatives killed in an air strike haunted her, bringing thoughts of suicide and of harming her children.

Like millions of Syrians who have endured more than a decade of civil war in the largely conservative country, she was reluctant to seek help. For those who do, health resources are stretched desperately thin and mental support is even scarcer.

But Roda, a seamstress, couldn't work or bring up their three daughters and son, leaving her husband to take care of the home, look after her and try to continue his own work.

He told her she would seek pills or knives in her sleep. When she tried to throw herself from a balcony, he said they must find help.

"At first I was ashamed of going to the psychiatrist," Roda said. "I was afraid of what people may say of me, like I was crazy".

Eventually she sought help at a support centre in the Jaramana district of eastern Damascus, where she was offered individual counselling and took part in group workshops.

"Of course Roda was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of what she lived through," said Dania al-Hourani, a psychologist at the centre where she was treated.

"The people close to her had been in great danger, so she was scared that they would be subjected to harm, quite apart from the fear for herself."


Assessing the full scale of mental trauma brought by Syria's war is difficult in a country still fractured by rival military forces, its economy broken and basic services dependent on outside aid.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed since the outbreak of conflict in 2011 and many millions have been displaced. The United Nations says that deep-rooted trauma remains unaddressed and a "mental health crisis looms large".

In a report last year, it said more than a quarter of households reported signs of psychological distress in boys and girls, almost double the 2020 figure.

Youssef Moussali, a psychiatrist in Damascus, said he is one of only 70 or 80 across the country. With resources likely to remain overstretched, he says the one positive change has been a shift in attitudes.

"Before the war, there was very little awareness of mental illness," he said. "It's become a little clearer now, that mental health is also health."

Since her treatment, Roda has bought a sewing machine and has started work again and has sold some material to clients.

"I am really proud of myself, because I had the courage to forget about what happened to me in the past."

Writing by Dominic Evans, Editing by William Maclean

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.