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The ghosts of the war are still haunting us

21 August 2023 04:28 am – 4      – 349

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If soldiers from other countries are susceptible to PTSD, we have no reason to believe that ours are the exceptions.

 

Seemingly isolated incidents are related to larger events which concluded years ago.  
They concluded, but with loose ends. That’s why these isolated incidents which take place years later are so significant.

A young elephant (12 years old) is killed by a land mine. Interestingly, the Sinhala daily which reported this along with a photo of the badly burnt carcass, didn’t say where this happened. One can assume it’s somewhere in the eastern province.

The civil war concluded in May 2009, fourteen years ago. Between 80,000-100,000 people died during the war and an estimated 21,000 were killed or injured by landmines and other explosives (according to Landmine Monitor and government data). That ratio is almost one in four.

The number of cattle, elephants and other species which lost their lives or limbs has not been estimated. Cattle are vital to rural households and losing them can do as much harm as losing a family’s breadwinner.
One lucky elephant calf which survived with one leg gone in the early 1990s was brought to the elephant orphanage at Pinnawela. Many others were not so lucky.

A comprehensive campaign to clear battlegrounds of landmines was undertaken after the war. HALO, a Lankan organization funded by the UK, Canada and the US, played a leading role in the mine clearing effort. It says in its website that even ten years after the war, areas in the Jaffna peninsula, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi were not safe for people to return home.

Apparently, it isn’t safe even in 2023.
According to landmine monitor data, in 2016 an average of 23 people around the world lost their life or limb to a landmine or another explosive remnant of war, every day. That means over 8,605 people were hurt or killed in 2016.

Though a majority of states renounced landmines when they signed the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997, 33 states remain outside of the treaty. But many of them are abiding by the treaty’s key provisions.
In 2017, Sri Lanka became a party to the Ottawa Convention of 1997, which bans anti-personnel mines.
The anti-mine treaty outlaws the production, use or transfer of land mines, except for training military and police personnel in mine detection, clearance, deactivation and destruction. Violators can be penalized by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of approximately $2,500.

 

Dr. Prabath Gunatillaka, lecturer in psychology at the universities of Colombo and Canberra, was quoted as saying the standard of counseling offered to Sri Lanka’s military personnel has fallen short of what should be expected for a country emerging from a 30-year war

 

But the countries remaining outside the treaty keep stockpiles that collectively total around 50 million landmines. The biggest stockpiles of antipersonnel landmines are held by Russia, Pakistan, India, China, and the United States. Russia was accused in 2022 of using landmines in Ukraine.
There is also a small group of countries that still continue to produce antipersonnel landmines, including India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and South Korea, with a few others reserving the right to produce them.

Though combat usage of antipersonnel landmines is now rare, it still happens. Myanmar is the only government that has persistently continued laying antipersonnel mines over the years. In addition, Libya (under Gaddafi) and Syria used antipersonnel mines in the post-treaty era. There is also a number of armed groups in a handful of countries that have continued using antipersonnel mines.
The other seemingly isolated incident (there’s two of them) concern two former soldiers. In one case, an ex-soldier is now in custody for the murder of a young mother and her daughter.

The other story was reported from the deep south, when the police went to arrest an ex-soldier engaged in marijuana (ganja) cultivation with his family.
In both cases, the accused turned violent and attacked the policemen, with a pair of scissors in the first case and with an axe and other weapons in the second.
These cases should not be dismissed as isolated incidents, as these two ex-soldiers may be suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Not all PTSD victims necessarily turn violent, but they are withdrawn, highly suspicious of those around them, and may break into violence unexpectedly.
All over the world, soldiers from armies engaged in wars have been known to suffer from PTSD. Studies of US war veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that as many as 30 percent have developed PTSD. For veterans who saw combat, the risk of developing PTSD is even higher.

But the Sri Lankan military denied high levels of PTSD in its ranks after the war ended. According to a report by Dinouk Colambage carried by Al Jazeera on June 06, 2014, the then military spokesperson said that only around 200 soldiers were currently admitted to psychiatric wards in military hospitals. As he put it: “We have such a low number of patients because the culture in our country ensures soldiers do not suffer from PTSD. They have close support from the other soldiers and their families.”

But, according to the police and other sources, crime and desertion in Sri Lanka’s armed forces rose during the first five years since the war ended and psychiatrists said this was due to the lack of adequate counseling and experts began advising against the continued wartime practice by which senior officers counsel soldiers showing signs of combat stress.

Dr. Prabath Gunatillaka, lecturer in psychology at the universities of Colombo and Canberra, was quoted as saying the standard of counseling offered to Sri Lanka’s military personnel has fallen short of what should be expected for a country emerging from a 30-year war.
But the then military spokesperson denied suggestions that, where soldiers had committed crimes, these were the result of psychological scarring.

“None of our soldiers have suffered from PTSD – the counseling offered by the military has been very effective in ensuring there are no problems with its soldiers,” he was quoted as saying.
But Dr. Gunatillaka disputed this claim, arguing that while Sri Lankan culture does encourage close-knit bonds between soldiers and their families, it also frowns upon psychological problems.
“Many soldiers who have seen combat suffer from PTSD – having a close family network would not avert the problem,” he explained. “In fact a soldier will feel it is necessary to hide such issues from his or her family in our culture, and this will only exacerbate the problem.”

I highlighted this Al Jazeera report because it quotes two conflicting views – psychiatric assessment of the post-war situation and the military’s denial any such problem exists. It will take a psychiatric evaluation to determine if the two ex-soldiers now under arrest are indeed suffering from PTSD. Clearly, their reactions when the police tried to arrest them are far from normal.

They are lucky to be alive because the police, if they had been dealing with hardened criminals, may have shot them after being attacked. Like the landmine incident, this could be a grim reminder that the war is not over for some people. As British musician Paul Hardcastle says in his 1985 anti-war song “19,” “Almost eight hundred thousand GI’s are still fighting the Vietnam War.”
If soldiers from other countries are susceptible to PTSD, we have no reason to believe that ours are the exceptions.


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