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Brazzaville’s Mental Scars Run Deep

June 28, 1998

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ Behind the broken brick wall that once sheltered the School of the Martyrs, children play in a sandy courtyard haunted by the ghosts of last year’s civil war.

There’s Mrs. Tsongo, the fourth grade teacher killed by a gunman’s stray bullet. Her old classroom sits empty and quiet.

Another teacher met the same fate.

And they remember the soldier’s mangled corpse that pupils found just days before the school was abandoned, then converted into a base by the rebel Cobra army, which put President Denis Sassou-Nguesso into power.

``None of us can be the same anymore,″ says Martyrs’ principal, Jeanne Bitsoua. ``We had teachers killed here; we had fighting right here. You can’t erase those things.″

The students are like youngsters throughout Brazzaville. They remain deeply troubled by the bloodshed in this central African nation, which is adjacent to the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo, the scene of its own civil war last year.

Preliminary studies by the United Nations Children’s Fund indicate nearly all Brazzaville’s 450,000 children witnessed killings, brutality and rape during the four-month civil war. It was a war of torture, severed limbs, piles of abandoned bodies, random killing.

Officials mounting a UNICEF project aimed at psychological healing say that of 2,000 children interviewed in the capital so far, about 90 percent display symptoms of post-traumatic disorder related to the war.

And while many children suffered through the war as victims, many others were recruited as fighters by both sides of the conflict.

``You’re just 14 and you’re goaded into killing people, or told to help hold somebody down while they are raped or maimed or killed,″ says Dominique Serrano-Fitamant, a psychologist who consults for UNICEF. ``How do you then go on to lead a normal life?″

Caught at the center of fighting in the dying days of the war, the School of the Martyrs was exposed to some of the worst bloodshed and the mental scars run deep.

``When I came back to school I asked about Mrs. Tsongo,″ 12-year-old Etou Loubaki says, staring down at his feet. ``They told me she was dead.″

Etou and his family made a gruesome trek out of Brazzaville to get away from the fighting.

``There were bodies all along the road,″ he says in little more than a whisper.

Images seared into memory still evoke nightmares of how the dead seemed to stare up from the ditches, he adds.

The fighting wrecked Brazzaville. From street to street, buildings lie in heaps of rubble. The city’s only skyscraper, owned by the state-run oil corporation, is a shell-torn shambles.

In the School of the Martyrs _ named for Congolese nationalist heroes of generations past _ classrooms are void of chairs, desks and even chalk for the blackboards. Bullet holes and profane wartime graffiti mar cement and brick walls.

Even though the guns fell silent months ago, Etou still barely eats and can’t focus on his lessons, says teacher Suzanne Kolindzami, who replaced Mrs. Tsongo.

He isn’t alone.

Eating disorders, sleeplessness, aggressiveness, emotional withdrawal and incoherent speech patterns are some of the more common symptoms identified in most of the children surveyed so far by UNICEF, Serrano-Fitamant says.

``We aren’t just talking about some few cases here,″ she says. ``This is an entire generation, and the long-term consequences could be devastating for the country.″

UNICEF and the Red Cross are setting up a treatment center for children whose wounds from the war are psychological and not physical.

Staffed by therapists, teachers and psychologists, the center will use discussion groups, individual counseling and a nurturing environment to help the children cope with their troubling memories.

``It’s not magic,″ says Antoine Makonda, UNICEF’s local educational director. ``The scars will still be there, but we want to teach the children to live with what they’ve gone through.″

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