Pakistan: The Psychological Trauma of Sudden Displacement


Image by Deena Guzder. Pakistan, 2010.

Image by Deena Guzder. Pakistan, 2010.

The Cambridge-educated Pakistani political activist, Omar Asghar Khan, was known throughout his homeland for his lifelong struggle on behalf of the most underprivileged members of his society, especially laborers and farmers. Promoting progressive political ideals, Khan confronted hostile maulvis who opposed educating girls and the timber mafia responsible for deforesting the Hazara Division, a former administrative district in the North-West Frontier Province.

On June 25, 2002, a week shy of his 49th birthday, Khan was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his in-laws' residence in Karachi. The authorities labeled Khan's death a suicide, but his family insisted he had been murdered for political reasons. Khan's funeral in Abbottabad was attended not only by his many friends and family members but also by many thousands of grateful men and women from destitute villages scattered throughout the North-West Frontier Province. Shortly afterward, Omar's younger brother, Ali, recruited a group of activists to establish an NGO in memory of Khan. Today the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF) works with citizens, particularly the poor and vulnerable, to promote political and socioeconomic justice for Pakistanis across class strata. Through town hall meetings, OAKDF encourages citizens to engage with the state to reform institutions and revamp policies.

After this summer's floods, OAKDF realized many Pakistanis in rural villages were severely traumatized and had no access to of mental health professionals. To help children cope with anxiety and stress, the foundation organized art therapy classes.

"We ask them to draw what they fear most," said Rashida Dohad of OAKDF. "Many of the drawings are full of blue, full of water," she said. "The children tell us they fear the sound of rain."

Inside a modest schoolroom in Charsadda, I watch a female teacher instruct a dozen students sitting cross-legged against the wall to draw what makes them happy. Many of the children hold up drawings of houses and food. One little girl shows me a drawing of her pet goat that she says was lost during the flood. Since the government requisitioned public schools as relief camps for internally displaced people, the school year ended prematurely for many children.

The children not only lost their homes and friends, but also their belief that the world was a predictable place immune to catastrophic changes. Professor Iqbal Afridi, Head of psychiatry department at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, told Dawn newspaper that flood survivors, both children and adults, are in urgent need of counseling and treatment after seeing their entire world swept away in a matter of hours. He has suggested that psychiatrists be posted in every relief camp, yet I did not meet a single mental health expert at any of the camps I visited across Pakistan. Afridi said the number of reported cases of mental illness in the camps was rising constantly, but the real trauma would hit full-force when people returned home and saw their villages, businesses, and lands reduced to rubble.

I drive with OAKDF staff past smashed schools and collapsed homes. We stop at a union council in Utmanzai, Charsadda that OAKDF set up so that local people could voice their hopes and frustrations in the wake of the flood. In a dimly lit room with a mud floor, we meet with a group of seventeen women who range from young adults to grandmothers.

"The people we voted for did not come until five days after the flooding," complains an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl. "The water came up to our neckline," she says, using her hand to gesture to her throat. "We went arm-in-arm to the boat."

Many of the women say they need money to rebuild their homes since their husbands cannot work in the inundated wheat and sugarcane fields this crop season. They seem to appreciate having a forum in which to air their grievances, but many of them are noticeably traumatized and might benefit from speaking with mental health workers.

A young lady sits cross-legged on an upturned wicker bed. "I am so unhappy because the water came into our small store and destroyed everything," she said. "I am worried, there is so much uncertainty, and I don't even feel like eating."