An uphill struggle: One year on, doctors help APS survivors smile again

ISLAMABAD: Children are the most vulnerable victims of an atrocity, and restoring their sense of safety requires much more careful intervention than that of an adult.

“It was not easy for us to bring smiles back on the sad faces of the survivors of the Army Public School (APS) massacre,” declared Dr Ayesha Mian at the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) in Karachi.

The horrendous attack in Peshawar carried out on December 16, 2014 had left more than 150 people – most of them children – dead.

“[The children] had witnessed the [most] tragic and horrific incident [to occur] in the history of Pakistan, but we tried our best [to restore their smiles],” added Dr Ayesha, who heads the psychiatry department at the hospital.

A group of 25 APS students, mostly teenagers, who had suffered major injuries in the carnage, were brought to the AKUH this March for treatment of their deeper wounds.

After the tragedy

“Most of them were highly traumatised and required psychological counselling to overcome it,” observed the doctor as she talked about her two-week experience with the child survivors during an interview with The Express Tribune in connection with the first anniversary of the heart-rending incident.

“We were at a complete loss at how to bring the smiles back on the children’s innocent faces when our team of psychiatrists met the children admitted to the paediatric department and heard their painful stories,” she said. “We initially felt completely helpless. But later their courage, self-determination and smiles gave us hope that we can help them recover.”

Even the children’s mothers were so traumatised that they felt insecure about leaving their children on their own or to let them leave the house alone for even a second, recalled Dr Ayesha. “We had seen these mothers spend sleepless nights with their children at the hospital, shedding endless tears and consoling one other as they recalled moments spent with the victims.”

The team of psychiatrists also tried to comfort the parents. “We told them that if they [continued to suffer], it could eventually affect their other children.”

Talking about how the massacre could impact the future of the affected families, especially the children, the doctor said: “No doubt the painful incident has had a deep impact on the young minds, which is clearly reflected in how some of them have changed their plans.”

According to Dr Ayesha, many of the parents told the psychiatrists that before the attack their children wanted to become doctors, engineers or teachers, but “now they want to join the Pakistan Army to take revenge on the terrorists who brutally killed their loved ones in front of them”.

The AKUH doctor recalled the children telling “our team members that they want to join the army when they grow up, to convey a strong message to the enemy of the country that nothing could [break] them and they are still brave enough to fight for their country and the ones they love”.

“[The children] got together and helped one another cope with and overcome the trauma through playing games, talking, cracking jokes, making plans; and we finally realised that we had achieved our goal in bringing these innocent souls back to life,” observed Dr Ayesha.

“We should consider these children as role models, who even after living through such horror have the courage to stand on their feet again with determination. I salute their bravery!”

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