An under-reported facet of the country’s deadly siege by arsonists is the psychological toll it has taken on victims who struggle, sometimes for years afterwards, with post-traumatic stress.
“Flame injuries are terribly destructive to victims’ psychological states. For one thing, post-traumatic stress disorder causes survivors to relive their trauma as flash backs leaving them exhausted and deeply battered,” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Clinical Psychologist Md Zahir Uddin said.
Geeta Sen, 45, a housewife living in the capital’s Tantibazar area, is still haunted by memories of the petrol bomb attack in Shahbagh on November 23, 2013, that left her and her daughter severely injured.
Although Geeta, who received 11% burns including inhalation injuries, has enjoyed a degree of physical recovery, she still cannot forget the trauma of that day.
“She barely goes out. She feels safer when she stays at home. She says she feels threatened outside, and does not even allow us to leave the house. She is afraid of travelling by bus or CNG,” her elder daughter Kona Sen said.
“She abruptly forgets what she has just said. She gets frightened for silly reasons. She gets nervous lighting a candle or the oven. All of a sudden, she becomes agitated without reason,” Kona added.
Kona, a university student, tries to be strong. Her younger sister Shushmita Sen, 15, also suffers from psychological stress.
“Shusmita also does not want to go outside and gets frightened on buses and CNGs. When we take an autorickshaw, she only feels safe if she takes the middle seat,” Kona said.
Geeta is one of nearly 300 people who were burned in petrol bomb attacks in 2013. The attacks left 31 dead.
This month, some 87 people have sustained burn injuries arising from arson. Six have died so far.
Zahir, the clinical psychologist, said: “Such incidents are not accidents. They are intentional attacks.
“People who suffer such injuries are always chased by fear and depression. They lose their faith in people. They suffer from uncertainty. They lose their self-confidence.”
Rahajul, 23, received 25% burns including inhalation burns in 2013.
The Pabna Sadar man who lives in the capital’s Wari neighbourhood said a few months ago he finally returned to his job as a computer operator at Kashmir Fans in the city’s Gulistan Nawabpur area.
“I feel terrible fear whenever I go outside; I am always tense. Whenever I am out walking, I fear that a bomb might at any time be thrown at me,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
His parents and two younger brothers live in Pabna. Rahajul is the primary income earner in his family.
“I am tense about my family’s financial condition. At the same time, I know I need better medical treatment. I understand that I am fearful of everything but I cannot escape this overwhelming fear,” he said.
Zahir, explaining how social reactions to visible burn injuries add another dimension to patients’ distress, said: “People who receive visible flame burns start feeling that other people are afraid of them. Patients can start thinking that the people around them will abandon them. Thus they gradually become detached from family and friends.”
Al-Amin, a 27-year-old assistant electronic engineer at a garment factory, who received 18% burn injuries on Saturday, described how he felt increasingly detached from his nearest and dearest ones.
“My elder sister fainted when she first saw me.
“I still have not seen my face in the mirror. But when people look at me their reactions are a mirror for me,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Dr Samanta Lal Sen, founder, coordinator and adviser to the Burn Institute at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), said: “Most arson victims are poor. They do not receive proper psychological treatment.
“The Burn Institute is not equipped to deal with this issue. It does refer patients to DMCH for physiotherapy but many patients need psychotherapy as well.”