The journey to a Belfast school that ended in nightmares, sleeplessness and tranquillisers

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The Independent Online

When Dr Michael Tan gets to the Flax Street health centre tomorrow morning, he expects to see four or five more children waiting, as he did on every day last week.

Primary school pupils caught up in the north Belfast school dispute are asking for help with nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of stress. And because no other treatment is available, he says, the children have been given potentially addictive drugs.

Dozens of Catholic girls aged between four and 11 experienced frightening ordeals last week as loyalists attempted to prevent them reaching the front gate of Holy Cross school, which is in a Protestant area on the edge of Ardoyne.

On Wednesday a blast bomb thrown towards the children exploded and injured four RUC officers. On other days protesters shouted abuse and insults as police shepherded children and their parents to school. Many of the children were terrified and reduced to tears.

"We've had parents coming in with children as young as four and five, severely stressed out and distressed," said Dr Tan, a GP at the health centre. "I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg."

Dr Tan said that children aged four or five attending his clinic were given mild sedatives, but older children required stronger tranquillisers.

He added: "We have been giving them small doses of benzodiazapines, one or two milligrams to be taken a night, with the usual warning regarding the addiction potential. That brings up a whole other problem with long-term dependency on these medicines."

Offers to help the children overcome the trauma they have suffered have come from voluntary organisations and from the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Dr Aiveen Higgins, clinical psychologist at the RBHSC, said: "A lot of kids are very resilient and can cope remarkably well, but we know that if you're repeatedly exposed to trauma and traumatic circumstances, this increases the likelihood of suffering both short-term and long-term psychiatric consequences.

"School refusal is something that may happen further down the road, or they get to school and they're less able to focus. Long term, you could see academic difficulties."

Dr Higgins said the children needed to be reassured that things were not their fault. There are two local centres where traumatised children might be treated, but both are in the loyalist Shankill Road district where Ardoyne Catholics are unlikely to venture.

Dr Tan, who works at Ardoyne's only health centre, added: "The most common problem is bed-wetting. Some children have been having nightmares and are afraid to leave their parents' side. Some refuse to go back to school.

"I'm getting requests from parents to do something now, to respond immediately to the distress of their children. They want me to relieve their anxiety, to help them sleep, to calm them down when they come in crying and tearful. Some children have vivid recollections of the incidents. There really is no other option but to give them some sort of medicine.

"I would probably do the same thing with my own children to help them sleep and stop the bedwetting."

* Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said yesterday that it would need "nothing less than a miracle" to save the Good Friday Agreement. As all sides contemplated a two-week deadline to save the devolved political system in Northern Ireland, he said the onus was on Tony Blair and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble be more flexible on the decommissioning of arms.

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