SUICIDE IS FINAL, YET THE CRISIS CONTINUES

 Until recently suicide in Gaza had been rare, partly due to Palestinian resilience and strong clan networks, but mostly because killing oneself is forbidden in traditional Muslim societies. Since 2016, suicide rates have been rising, reflecting rising levels of despair and hopelessness in the population.

Writer Mohannad Youis, 22, took his life in Gaza last year sparking outcry from friends and peer over the struggles young people who grew up under siege have endured, and mental health. (Image: Arab48)

How the death of a talented young Palestinian writer brought to light a sharp rise in suicides.

 Sarah Helm

When Mohanned Younis, a 22-year-old student, returned to his home in a relatively prosperous part of Gaza City one night last August, he was in an agitated state. He had been depressed, his mother, Asma, recalled. But she was not too worried when he locked himself in his room.

A talented writer whose short stories, many posted on his Facebook page, had won a wide audience, Mohanned was about to graduate in pharmacy, expecting excellent grades.In his writing, he gave voice to the grief and despair of his generation. Only books gave him some escape. He often shut himself away to read and write, or to work out with his punch bag.

The next morning, Mohanned didn’t stir. When Asma, helped by her brother Assad, broke into his room, they found him dead. He had asphyxiated himself.

Such was Mohanned’s social media following that news of his death reverberated across Gaza and beyond with a flood of shock, sadness and admiration. “He was a fighter who only had his sad stories to fight with,” was one of many comments posted on Facebook. But the very public mourning for the death of a talented young writer meant that Mohanned’s suicide was not just one more tragedy in a territory where thousands of young lives are cut short. Now it was impossible to deny what many had been whispering: the misery of the siege and despair for the future, especially among the most talented young Gazans, was leading to a disturbing upsurge in suicides.

Horrifying events in the Gaza buffer zone over the past week have focused world attention on the suffering and desperation of Gaza’s Palestinians, as tens of thousands have risked their lives to protest against their imprisonment behind Gaza’s fences and walls. Since the start of the Great March of Return, a series of protests that began at the end of March, more than 100 people have been killed, mostly by Israeli snipers ranged behind the perimeter fence.

Often it has looked as if these protesters were literally throwing themselves in front of Israeli bullets. In the early days of the protests, I spoke to young people on the buffer zone who said they didn’t care if they died. “We are dying in Gaza anyway. We might as well die being shot,” said a teenager, standing at the border near the city of Khan Younis. He was with friends who felt the same, including one who had already been shot in the leg, and was in a wheelchair.

If the world’s cameras were to move a little deeper into Gaza, into the streets and behind the doors of people’s homes, they would see the desperation in almost every home. After 10 years of siege, the 2 million people of Gaza, living packed on a tiny strip, find themselves without work, their economy killed off, without the bare essentials for decent life – electricity or running water – and without any hope of freedom, or any sign that their situation will change. The siege is fracturing minds, pushing the most vulnerable to suicide in numbers never seen before.

Until recently, suicide has been rare here, partly due to Palestinian resilience, acquired over 70 years of conflict, and strong clan networks, but mostly because killing oneself is forbidden in traditional Muslim societies. Only when suicide is an act of jihad are the dead considered martyrs who go to heaven; others go to hell.

In nearly three decades of reporting from Gaza, I almost never heard stories of suicide before 2016. At the start of that year, nine years into the full-blown siege, a British orthopaedic surgeon volunteering in Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital told me that she and her colleagues were seeing a number of unexplained injuries – which they believed had been caused by falling, or jumping, from tall buildings.

By the end of 2016, suicides were happening so often that the phenomenon had started to become public knowledge. Figures quoted by local journalists suggested the number of suicides in 2016 was at least three times the number in 2015. But according to Gaza’s health professionals, while figures cited in the media do indicate a substantial rise, they vastly underestimate the true rate. Suicides are “disguised” as falls or other accidents, and misreporting and censorship are common because of the stigma against suicide.

However, since 2016, there have also been a spate of self-immolations across Gaza, in which men set themselves alight for all to see.

“We didn’t have these catastrophic events 10 years ago,” said Dr Youssef Awadallah, a psychiatrist in Rafah, a city on Gaza’s border with Egypt. Mental health professionals and relatives of the deceased blame the effects of the siege, which they say is far more damaging to the wellbeing – mental and physical – of the population than successive wars have been. Doctors in Gaza are warning that the prolonged siege of the territory has caused a mental health “epidemic” of which the growing number of suicides is only one part – citing increases in schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction and depression. For the first time, UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, has started screening all primary healthcare patients for possible suicidal tendencies following what they describe as the “unprecedented increase” in deaths.

Men and women of all age groups, from all social backgrounds, are vulnerable to suicidal impulses, say doctors in Gaza. On a single day in March, a girl of 15 and a boy of 16 both hanged themselves. Among the dead are men who despair because they can’t support their families; women and children who are victims of abuse, often in situations of severe poverty and overcrowding; and even pregnant women, who say they don’t want to bring children into a life in Gaza. In April, a woman who was seven months pregnant slit her wrists.

Among the most vulnerable of all are Gaza’s brightest students, some of whom have killed themselves just before or after graduating. In March, while interviewing a bankrupt businessman in his home, I saw a photograph of a smart, bespectacled young man, prominently displayed – in such a way that I assumed he had been a “martyr”, someone killed in the conflict. But his portrait displayed none of the iconography associated with the martyr posters that are visible all over Gaza. I had a translator with me, and he recognised the picture: the businessman’s son had been one of his cleverest friends at university. “He hanged himself,” said the businessman. “He saw no future in Gaza.”

Months before the astonishing scenes of carnage accompanying the Great March of Return, the story of Mohanned Younis had drawn particular attention. This was not only because his writing, with its imaginative depictions of Gaza’s half-life, was admired – but because after his death, some began to describe him as martyr. His mother told me: “He is more than a martyr.”

Friends said he had fought the enemy with his pen, and had died a victim of the siege. On his death Mohanned also won warm praise for his courage and his writing from many of his social media fans, and even, in a eulogy, from the Palestinian minister of culture, Dr Ihab Bseiso. Bseiso, a member of the secular Palestinian Authority that holds power in the West Bank, appeared to imply he considered Mohanned a martyr, saying he had “no need to apologise for his early departure”. His stories would never be forgotten, he added: “You will remain one of the giants of our time, Mohanned”.

But this discussion of Mohanned’s “martyrdom” has spread fear in Gaza, particularly among parents who worry that their own children might do the same if they thought they could avoid hell. One father of two graduates told me: “We see our children through school and university, and they have worked hard and are eager to enter the world and get jobs and be normal – then nothing. If suicide is to be considered a ‘noble’ death, more might choose that way. It is very dangerous.”

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1 Comment

  1. July 9, 2018 at 16:56

    […] via SUICIDE IS FINAL, YET THE CRISIS CONTINUES — Desertpeace […]


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