Who Cares? Hussein Cares!
AFTER the First World War it was called "shell shock", though it took time before it was recognised. As the charity Combat Stress, which was formed in May 1919 as the Ex-Servicemen's Welfare Society, reminds us:
"Those who suffered from mental breakdown during their Service life received little or no sympathy. Indeed, during the First World War, if it led to failure to obey orders, death by firing squad was always a possibility.
At the end of the War there were thousands of men returning from the front and from sea suffering from shell-shock. Many were confined in Mental War Hospitals under Martial Law – with the risk of being sent on, without appeal, to asylums."
Shot, shunned, or shoved in asylums. We can look back in anger, as well as horror, at the way society sent thousands to their deaths in that war, and the way it treated those returning wounded, whether physically or mentally. Today there is recognition, and provision...things have improved (though not for the civilians at the other end, who become statistics). Or have they?
In the tabloid press headlines, everyone in uniform is a "hero".On TV we see the returning regiment proudly march through town, or the respectful crowd in Wootton Bassett watching the flag draped coffins coming home. We are not shown so much of those who return with bodies or minds shattered. It makes me think of an episode in "Only Fools and Horses" when grand-dad is recalling how returning First World War wounded were taken out through a back exit of Waterloo Station so the public should not be too upset by the sight. "Homes Fit for Heroes, we was promised. What we got was heroes fit for homes".
My Dad thought that line was good. As a boy scout he'd run errands for some of those wounded, in his home town Nottingham. He went on to serve as a Regular himself, and in later life, he used to visit one of his old pals, in one of those homes.
Old granddad Trotter was talking about those with terrible physical injuries, of course, victims of shells and mustard gas. But as Hussein al-Alak told a meeting in Manchester University Students Union earlier this year, there are also those "whose wounds do not show", the victims of shell shock and what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Hussein is an Iraqi, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars and chairman of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign, and he is concerned, as you might expect, for the many Iraqis whose suffering might go unrecognised, and certainly under-reported, here. He also works to draw attention to the plight of refugees, including many Palstinians, who have had to flee Iraq, and he is in touch with the Gaza Mental Health Project, working for those, particularly children, suffering effects of war and privation in Gaza under siege.
It was also Hussein al-Alak who asked me recently to go and see Iranians on hunger strike in Grosvenor Square over what was happening to Ashraf refugee camp in Iraq, and to give him a report for al Thawra , online journal of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign.
With all these calls on his concern, as well as worries about what is happening to his family and friends back in Iraq, it strikes me as all the more impressive that this Manchester-based Iraqi has found time and energy to work for a society that is mainly, if not exclusively, helping British ex-services personnel
In February he was talking to students, and in May, as reported by Combat Stress (a charity whose patron is the Prince of Wales, and whose trustees include military top brass,) he was arranging an event called "Tea by the Tigris": "Hussein Al-Alak of the Iraqi Solidarity Campaign held a coffee morning in his local hall in Manchester. The morning raised £100 and went a long way to help increase awareness and understanding of Combat Stress in the community. Many thanks to Hussein and everyone who was involved".
We had a great day at the Withington Hospital, when we did a stall for victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and over the space of a few hours, we handed out hundreds of leaflets for Combat Stress: The Veterans Mental Health Society.
During the day, we got to speak to doctors, nurses, patients and their families, with some people having little or no knowledge on the issue but on the most part, people drew on either theirs or a relatives experiences of living with PTSD.
Speaking to one woman, she described how as a child in London, the middle aged men who used to "roam the streets" and how some people would describe them as being "odd". She also described how some children used to call them names because their behaviour was eratic and that parents would encourage children to leave them alone.
"It was only when I got older that I began to appreciate that those who we thought were "odd", were actually Veterans still suffering from Shell Shock from the First World War and that their behaviour was not strange as a result of choice but a reaction to what had been experienced in the trenches of France."
Another woman also recalled a similar experience but growing up in the North of England, described the impact of the First World War and how she knew some men with missing limbs but also recounted the amount of women in the communities who remained "spinsters" and often wore clothing associated with mourning, as a consequence of husbands, fiance's, sons and brothers who had also been killed, with many of their bodies often remaining strewn in some battlefield.
One woman approached us and enquired about what we were doing and after explaining about the campaign for people with PTSD, stopped and looked at us. Tears welling up in her eyes, she said "I could have done with you a year ago!" She then went on to explain that her father had been a prisoner in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and that he'd been severely tortured whilst he had been detained.
She briefly explained the impact this had on her family growing up but as her father had got older, how he'd developed dementia and that in the last year of his life, had ceased to recognise either his sons or daughters but had reverted back to being a prisoner of war in a Japanese Prison Camp and as a family in the twenty first century, how they had to contend with watching him relive the horrors experienced in the Second World War.
Such scenes were once described by Pat Barker in the book Another World, where in the last few months of his life, 101 year old Geordie began to recall his experiences of the fighting and losing his only brother in the Great War.
Barker also describes the flash backs, the struggle of Geordies family trying to contend with a truama which they have never experienced themselves and a trauma which many in the mental health services still state "we are not prepared" to deal with in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, that when you look at the contradiction between our actions and reactions when dealing with War Trauma, it is safe to assume that until we take responsibility for the families and victims of PTSD, that Britain will indeed become another world.
Sadly, the latest news I have from Hussein is that someone has fraudulently accessed the charity bank account in Manchester in order to siphon off funds that were raised for unfortunate war casualties. Hopefully the bank will make good the losses, but it shows the kind of sick, callous bastards people like Hussein are up against.
I don't think Hussein al-Alak will get the kind of publicity accorded someone who commits crimes or creates provocations in the name of Islam. I don't think he is after personal publicity or making a career out of what he is doing. He is just a human being trying to do what he thinks is right by fellow-human beings. I don't expect those newspapers and columnists who lose no opportunity to calumnify any and every Muslim will find space to give Hussein al-Alak a mention. But I think he will be grateful if at least his friends understand. He is entitled to that. And that's why I thought I'd write something.