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Drawing helps children cope with trauma in Central African Republic

It is terrifying to see the images locked inside children’s heads in Central African Republic: A pregnant woman with a gun held to her temple; a house set on fire with a toddler inside; a man with a machete standing over a body lying in a pool of blood. 

These scenes have all been drawn by children who attended UNICEF’s Child Friendly Space in the city of Bossangoa.

They show, in vivid colour and detail, the horrors that children have witnessed since the crisis in Central African Republic started in December 2012.

At the peak of the crisis, as many as 500,000 children in CAR were displaced and many were targeted because they lived in a particular neighbourhood, or followed a certain faith. For these children, drawing is a therapy of sorts – helping children to express feelings and chronicle events which can be both happy and horrific.

To help with their therapy, children in Child Friendly Spaces are asked to draw memories of their life before the conflict. It’s important to focus their energy on happy times, lived in stability.  The love these children received prior to the crisis is what they will draw on to get the strength to recover.

Some children also draw the horrific incidents that they have seen. (But that is only voluntary.)

“Many displaced children have witnessed violent incidents, and it’s still in their heads. If not addressed immediately, the long-term impact of their exposure to distressing events can be huge,” says Jean Lokenga, UNICEF’s Chief of Protection in the Central African Republic.

Drawing to find your family

Drawing can also help children to find their families if they have been separated while running from danger.

Often the youngest children cannot answer the questions asked by the adults in charge of family tracing. Things like: What’s the name of your village? Where did you live in your village? How many people are in your family? What is your mother’s name?

In these cases, drawing can help trigger memories and elicit crucial information – particularly names.

UNICEF Child Protection specialist Marie de la Soudiere describes how the process works.

“We can sit with a child and ask them to draw the room where they sleep. And then we ask: ‘Who usually sleeps next to you? Can you draw them?’ And who else is in the room?’” she said. “By asking questions like this, and encouraging the child to draw images from their past, we can help trigger memories. In this way, we can slowly build up a profile of the family which we will use to start tracing.”

Drawing a lost way of life

Other drawings from Central African Republic are full of nostalgia. Home is never far away from the mind of 10-year-old Emily. She repeatedly draws pictures of her house at the Child Friendly Space set up in the displacement site where she lives.

When I met Emily, her family has been displaced for two months, since violence escalated in the capital of Central African Republic. There were 7,000 people living her displacement camp in Bangui – a new, intimidating environment for her – where basics like food, safe water and toilets were shared between thousands.  

Schools had been closed down since December, and the Child Friendly Space was the only place where children like Emily could play, be safe, and receive emotional support to help them to cope and recover from the distress of displacement and witnessing violence in their city.

Children could join in sporting, theatre and dancing activities – as well as draw.

With a coloured pencil in hand, Emily found the support she needed, until she could return to the house in her pictures.

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Emily shows off one of her drawings.

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