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Brutal ISIS Tactics Create New Levels Of Trauma Among Iraqis

An Iraqi child who fled fighting between the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish peshmerga is among the some 3,000 people living at the Baharka camp, near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, on Jan. 16.

At a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq, you pass rows of tents to reach the clinic run by the International Medical Corps. They have medicines to treat all kinds of problems: diabetes shots, vaccines, heart pills.

But it's harder to cure what's afflicting this woman.

"The pain inside of me is so deep," she says. "I just cry every day."

Militants from the group that calls itself the Islamic State kidnapped the woman's adult son in June, and she doesn't know his fate.

Her husband expresses the loss in more destructive ways.

"I've become mentally ill," he says. "When my wife tries to talk to me, I just lash out. I hit her."

People in Iraq have lived with war for more than a decade. But aid workers say the ISIS practice of public beheading and other brutal forms of mass violence is creating new levels of psychological trauma among the Iraqi people.

During one afternoon in Baharka camp clinic, a parade of people came sharing their stories of trauma. We're not using the names of these patients, because they still have family in areas controlled by ISIS, and they fear for their relatives' safety.

One man says ISIS extremists forced him to dig his own grave with a shovel. Another describes watching militants cover his friend in kerosene and set him on fire.

"I've totally changed," says the 29-year-old man. "I'm not like normal people any more. I don't expect to be fixed."

Overcoming Stigma, Overwhelming Numbers

It's the job of Stacy Lamon to try to fix him. Lamon is director of mental health for Iraq with the International Medical Corps.

"I wish I had a vaccination, that I could give people a quick shot and they'd be better," Lamon says. "It doesn't work that way."

The mental health staff members at this camp give their patients counseling, and sometimes pills.

Dr. Omed Khadir Taha, one of the psychiatrists here, says he also has to tackle the stigma that goes along with mental health problems in Iraq.

"They cannot express, you know," Taha says. "Sometimes they perceive that as just a kind of weakness."

This is slow, arduous work, and only a tiny fraction of those who need help are getting it, says Lamon.

"There [are] 3,000 people in this camp, and this is one of the smaller camps," he says. "And of the 3,000 there's only a very small portion that are being treated."

He says Iraq could be looking at a traumatized generation. But some patients give the staff reason to hope.

Imagining A Day With Less Pain

One man at the camp watched his 7-year-old son killed in front of him.

The man scrolls through images on his phone — his son, as a newborn, as a toddler. The boy is adorable, all smiles.

The man says he looks at these more times each day than he can count.

Before, he says, he was more than 90 percent in pain. Now, he says, it's decreased to 50 percent. He is only beginning to recover.

But when asked, he says he can imagine a day when his pain diminishes even more — Inshallah, or God willing, he says.

At the end of the day, we leave the camp, and pass by this man again.

He doesn't notice us. He's sitting by himself, staring at the pictures on his phone.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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