Demons haunt the scarred children of Omagh

The worst atrocity of the Troubles has left terrible psychological wounds. Kim Sengupta reports
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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100 traumatised children of Omagh, including a two- year-old girl, are having psychological treatment at a recovery centre set up after the bombing that devastated the Co Armagh market town four months ago.

Twenty-nine people and two unborn babies were killed in the worst single atrocity of the Troubles. There were also 370 people injured, a significant proportion of them children. The bombing left Omagh, until then a relatively peaceful town of mixed denomination, with a terrible legacy of psychological and physical injury.

Yesterday the teen heart-throb band Boyzone met many of these victims of the Omagh bombing and were due to play two special tribute concerts in the town.

Many of those hurt were young, attracted into the town the day the bomb exploded by a carnival and a last opportunity to buy school uniforms and supplies before the start of term.

Young men and women can now be seen picking their way through the town on crutches, and there are teenagers who have lost limbs, a young girl who is blind, and others facing yet more surgery.

But the psychological scars may run even deeper. More than 100 children attend the Bridge trauma and recovery centre, set up in the aftermath of the bomb. The youngest is a girl aged two-and-a-half, who was in the town centre with her parents. Now she cannot bear to be left alone, has difficulty sleeping and is fearful of unexpected noises. She takes part in play therapy and reassurance sessions. But for many of the older children, there is an additional burden of guilt at having survived while others, sometimes relatives or friends, died or received worse injuries.

Polly Finn, a children's counsellor at the Bridge centre, said: "There are young people here who will now have to face repeated and painful surgery when in the past the only thing they feared was going to the dentist. There are also young people who have to live with very visible disfigurements at an age when one spends so much time and effort trying to look good."

She added: "We have seen a regression in their development. Just when they would normally become more assertive and independent, they have become unsure and withdrawn. They get nervous; there is also a sense of guilt, even among those who were injured. They blame themselves for not doing enough."

Emma Kate Murphy was just 20 feet away from the blast. She received shrapnel and glass wounds to her head and legs. Two friends died near her and her close friend, Stephanie Colton, was severely injured. Emma Kate, an articulate 16-year-old, said: "I am quite small for my age; some people said I was shielded by the bigger ones around me. That must mean they took the glass and shrapnel meant for me. I think about that and I do feel guilty. I can't help it."

She recalled: "After the bomb went off, I tried to find Stephanie but I couldn't. When I got back home I was covered in blood, but it was mainly other people's blood. There was one woman lying there who I thought I knew but I couldn't be sure. I know I have been lucky and maybe I don't deserve it. That day just keeps going round in my mind. I find it difficult to sleep and I find loud noises frightening. I think counselling helps."

Stephanie, also 16, underwent operations to her knees and leg and to remove metal from her right eye. "Emma Kate told me she felt guilty about what happened. I just told her not to be silly," she reflected.

"After the explosion, it was pitch dark. I remember trying to find Emma Kate and then collapsing. I know a few people who were injured. There is a cousin who was very badly hurt, she had just got married and she's only 24. It's terrible. I've been discharged from hospital and the injuries will heal. But I need to take tablets to sleep and I can't keep what happened out of my mind. We are starting group therapy very soon."

Michael Gallagher is the chairman of Omagh's bereaved families group: his son Adrian, 21, died in the blast. He said: "I lost not just a son but a friend; he had so much life in him, so much to look forward to. I also know that all the injured young people will be a reminder of what happened to this town. We shall have to help them make the adjustment but it will not be easy. A lot of them will simply want to hide away.

"This is a town where we have never had problems between the religions. I am a Catholic and my fellow chairman in this group is Stanley McCombe, who is Protestant. He lost his wife, Ann. We lived next door to each other for seven years in the past and my son grew up with his boys. Isn't it strange that we should be reunited in this way?"

The crater left by the bomb has been filled in, and the adjoining walls are piled with flowers, cards and messages of hope. Someone has left a Bible open on Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?". A little girl in a bright red dress comes to place a bunch of wild flowers. "It's for her cousin," says her mother. "She was very fond of him. She can't understand why he has gone."