Monitor On Psychology, Volume 33, No. 1 January 2002

Snakes, scorpions and trauma: the refugees' plight

An armed guard patrols a schoolhouse at one of the many Afghan refugee camps in the Mars-like deserts of Pakistan. Inside, little girls learn to read alongside their male peers, an activity forbidden by Taliban devotees attending a nearby madrassa, or religious school.

This is one of the scenes that community psychologist Anne Brodsky, PhD, witnessed when she toured Pakistan's rural and urban Afghan refugee camps last summer. The girls were being educated in secret as part of a project engineered by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a human rights group that provides sociopolitical support to Afghan women. But, now that the Sept. 11 attacks have spurred an ongoing war, the fate of RAWA, and those it seeks to help, is uncertain.

Even before the attacks, when Brodsky visited, the group operated underground to avoid interference from Taliban and other fundamentalist factions. As RAWA members whisked her from camp to camp, Brodsky, a professor at the University of Maryland­Baltimore County, was sometimes asked not to reveal to students that RAWA ran certain schools in their camps.

Keeping quiet was especially crucial in religiously fundamentalist camps, where RAWA operates in secret. Brodsky recalls one such camp: "There were no women anywhere," she says. "It was a camp built on a trash heap in Islamabad, and the women had to stay inside in plastic tents in 110-degree weather."

Conditions were equally as squalid, she says, in some of the rural camps, where rain, snakes and scorpions reigned, and tarps, firewood and water were scarce. On top of this, Brodsky was shocked at the trauma she saw in women. Many had been raped or beaten, or had lost their men to fundamentalist Afghan groups, and many suffered severe depression, seizures and fainting spells.

She found that most of the Afghan women she met respected her professional training and were eager to talk with her. In addition to their pain, however, they revealed remarkable hope and resiliency, says Brodsky. She was especially struck by a recently widowed woman, who had been cast out of her Afghan village. The woman had arrived at a camp dejected and illiterate, but she now was teaching others to read.

"When her husband died, she was told she had no reason to live anymore, but now she was able to help others," says Brodsky. "RAWA gives these women a way of hoping and being engaged." But she notes that RAWA is only able to offer its support in the camps that are free of armed fundamentalist control. And she wonders how the war will affect its ability to do that, as well as her ability to possibly conduct research on RAWA, as she had hoped to do.

"Who knows what will happen to the refugees?" she says. "Who knows what will happen to RAWA?"



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