Views of a hurt generation
By RUTH MATHEWSON
VIETNAMESE children in a Hong Kong detention camp are living a private nightmare of shipwrecks, sharks, grisly murders and barbed wire walls, a graphic new study has revealed.
International aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has flown a French psychiatric expert to Hong Kong to examine poignant artwork by children from the Whitehead Detention Centre.
The innovative study asked 65 children aged three to 16 for a depiction of where they lived, the outside world, a dream, a nightmare, and a drawing of their own choice.
Dr Jean-Luc Nahel interviewed some of the young artists whose secret fears and dreams emerged as blood-splattered murder scenes and lonely children in tears.
''They show post-traumatic stress disorder,'' Dr Nahel said.
''You can feel angst, you can feel anxiety. Only by the drawings can you see the depth of their anxiety.'' The strong and disturbing series in crayon, coloured pencils and paint feature coils of barbed wire, cubicle-like shelters, bloodied bodies, peaceful flying birds, shark-infested seas and lone children.
None of the 325 drawings includes a family.
''I've no answer for this,'' Dr Nahel said.
''Maybe it's because, in this experience, they are alone. They may have a mother or father but this experience is completely within them.'' MSF health education co-ordinator Harriet Sewell said every child interviewed had shown emotional trauma from their flight from Vietnam, the harrowing sea journey, and detention in Hong Kong camps.
''They are a generation of hurt children, and we don't know the ramifications of that yet. They have been frightened, very frightened,'' Ms Sewell said.
''Even the younger children - the three to six-year-olds - would draw a house then, on top, they draw barbed wire.'' Dr Nahel said many appeared confused. Vietnamese children wanted to respect their parents, but silently questioned the parental judgment which had landed them behind barbed wire.
''These are children; they had no choice. They had to follow their parents,'' he said.
''They have food, they have medicine. But you can imagine that, as a child, if you think you can be raped at night or have nightmares, all is not right.
''If a child is very afraid of somebody, he cannot say. But in the drawings, he can say. You don't need to be a psychiatrist to understand black clouds and barbed wire.'' One painting by a 15-year-old boy shows young Vietnamese scattering in terror as black-robed grim reapers scythe heads from bodies.
Another shows a Vietnamese couple within the barbed-wire domain of a detention centre offering their baby to a giant, unsmiling Statue of Liberty.
Many drawings portray the tantalising proximity of Hong Kong, where the glittering tops of skyscrapers peep through strands of barbed wire.
Birds, kites, glowing peace candles and distant, blood-red sunsets figure strongly.
''The bird means freedom and peace . . . they don't identify with adults, they identify with birds. The birds can come and go,'' Ms Sewell said.