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A testimony by Trauma expert Sonja Wentz
“Systematic dehumanization in Gaza is unique”

Trauma is a way of life in Gaza,” says Sonja Wentz, an American mental health professional who was in the besieged strip recently to support Palestinian professionals who are trying to help Gazans cope with daily and continuous trauma.

9 May 2010

Sonja Wentz
I felt abused by their border system,” states Wentz, who is a faculty member at the International Trauma Treatment Program in Olympia, Washington. She works with a non-political NGO that primarily works in areas where there is civil unrest.

As someone who has also worked with trauma treatment in Croatia and Uganda, she thinks that the systematic dehumanization in Gaza is unique.

In Israel there was an elaborate structure of buildings and a system to show power and control over their border, but no one talked about it with me. In Uganda things felt more chaotic to me, and people talked about it. Gazans said that the only predictable thing in their lives was suffering and trauma, but despite this the resilience of the Gazan people is very great. Daily routines, religion and family relationships keep them going,” she says.

According to Wentz, a unique quality of trauma in Gaza is the disassociation of the Israelis themselves from what is occurring in Gaza:

“I did not experience it even in the Balkans and Uganda. But anyone in Israel who learned that I was going to Gaza immediately backed off. I did not have the chance to encounter many Israelis, and I am sure there are Israelis who would act differently, but I did not meet any of them. Anyone who I told that I was on my way to Gaza distanced themselves. To hear the word Gaza put people off.”

She entered Gaza from the Erez checkpoint, which is mostly used by foreigners. According to Wentz, not only the conditions in Gaza but passage through Erez, the entry and especially the exit from Gaza, were inhumane.

When I got to the crossing, I gave my passport and started to wait. It was hot so I stood in the shade. Maybe I was too close to their facilities, but they repeatedly told me to move so I crossed the street. There was a gentleman from the French Embassy there, and he told me that they wanted to make me stand in the sun,” she remembers.

Wentz adds that after the passport check, she was directed to a massive border facility that she had to pass through. The facility resembled a fun house filled with buzzers, mirrors and steel designed to make the people inside feel disoriented.

“I was alone with two pieces of luggage and had to walk two kilometers. At one point I realized that people were looking at me from above.”

Wentz was the only one of three members of her nongovernmental organization to apply who was issued a permit to enter Gaza. Once inside, she immediately began to offer training to people. She met with women’s empowerment groups, university students and medical and psychological professionals.

“I was wondering about the meaning of the word ‘intifada,’ and I found out that in Arabic it means ‘shaking off.’ It really makes sense. When I toured the area, I could see how it had been shaken up, and one wanted to shake off the feeling of oppression.”

She points out that the infrastructure of Gaza has been severely damaged and cement was not allowed to be brought in. Goods are scarce and symptoms of trauma are visible everywhere.

But Gazans deal a lot with depression. People have flashbacks, are not able to sleep and experience anxiety. It is too dangerous for them to feel because feelings can be so overwhelming. So they suppress the feelings, which results in psychosomatic problems. “There must be a lot of rage. But I saw it productively channeled into working to maintain a normal life. However, there is domestic violence and abuse as a reaction to trauma,” she explains.

Wentz was basically working to support professionals who help other people. But when professionals work with victims of trauma, they often are vulnerable to the trauma themselves.

So, self care, resilience and how you support each other are very important for them. We were talking about it one day, and one of them asked: ‘How many times can a person build a culture back up again. How many more times can we do it before we cannot do it any more?’ This is a very practical question. But it was answered by one of them, ‘Hey we have been doing it for years, we can do it again.’ It was amazing to see their resilience,” she says.

According to her, not only mental health professionals but other Gazans as well have developed ways to build resilience.

I met with a woman who was in her late 40s but looked like she was 65. Everything around her was demolished. She was trying to survive by raising rabbits — they eat them there, so she tries to sell them. Despite all this trauma, they continue to find creative ways to move forward. They told me that ‘this is our life and the most predictable part of it is trauma and suffering. So what we have to do is find ways to deal with that.’ This woman was incredible, her pride and joy is the flowers that she grows,” Wentz explains.

She adds that most of the Gazans she encountered just want a normal life for their children, that they are ready to share whatever they have and contrary to what many people might think, they are not full of hate.Wentz added that many might think that all Gazans are Hamas supporters, but this is not the case.

According to her observations, the people of Gaza need many things, but one important thing for them is being able to have personal contact with people from outside. “It is a wonderful experience for them to meet foreigners. When I asked them what I should bring next time as a resource and if they wanted books and so on, they told me that I am the resource. This is true everywhere I have traveled, but for Gaza it is most important because in other places, people can get out, but not in Gaza. The worst traumas are the ones caused by other human beings, and it is important to have relations with other people.”

Wentz says that the most difficult part was coming out and that it was traumatic for her. She felt that the procedure that she was subject to was a symbolic experience of what the Gazan people are living every day.

“I had to pass alone through the same border structure again, full of glass and metal and directed by orders coming from invisible people through an intercom. At the entrance my picture was taken with my open suitcases. When I was directed to move forward inside I felt so helpless and vulnerable. They were telling me via the intercom that I could walk ahead, but doors and passageways were not visible. They wanted to me go into a tube, but I didn’t have any idea what it was. There was lots of buzzing and turning. At one point, they commanded me to raise my arms; I think they were scanning my body. This felt completely inhumane. I thought to myself that I really needed to have some human connection. I went into the passport control area. There was a woman guard. I thought this was my chance to say something, I said to her, ‘Hi, how are you?’ she looked right at me and her answer was, “I need your passport.’”

Wentz says that she felt very helpless and asked herself, “If this is what I am feeling when I am just a visitor, what would it be like for the people who live here all the time?”

“Trauma results in the severing of relationships. I departed Israel with a deeper understanding of the historical wound that remains. The International Trauma Treatment Program hopes to return to work with colleagues in Gaza soon, but in order to support healing in the region we understand the importance of building relationships on all sides of the conflict.”

All the versions of this article:
- Sistemática deshumanización en Gaza