PATTANI, Thailand - Haunted by war fears over the past eight years, a new generation of orphaned Thai Muslim children are exhibiting high levels of stress and trauma after losing their dear ones in a years-long conflict in the restive south.
"When I do go out I stay near my home... I never go far away," Ahmad, 12, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Monday, December 3.
Chewing timidly on the collar of his football shirt, young Ahmad is one of thousands of children orphaned by a war largely forgotten by the rest of the world.
His 15-year-old sister Sunnah said their father's murder by unknown gunmen six years ago marked the end of her childhood and left the siblings, whose names AFP has changed to protect their identity, without parents following the death of their mother in an accident.
"I don't feel safe, especially with strangers," she said.
"I suspect people when they look at me. The soldiers are the worst."
Living for years with the menace of bombs, shootings and curfews, many youngsters in Thailand's volatile south are exhibiting high levels of stress and trauma.
Thailand has a Muslim population of about 9.5 million, many of whom live in rural areas.
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of discrimination under the heavy-handed practices by the military.
They have also called for Malay to become an official language and to replace the Buddhist-centric school curriculum with one less hostile to Muslim sensitivities.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost eight years ago.
Nearly 60 of the dead have been aged 15 or younger, while hundreds more youngsters have been injured, according to conflict monitor Deep South Watch.
A study by local non-governmental organization the Pattani Juvenile Observation and Protection Center showed the number of orphans in the region as a growing concern, putting it at more than 5,000.
Other child welfare groups estimate the figure is two or even three times higher.
With little comprehensive research on the mental health effects of the conflict, the available statistics were alarming and experts say they are getting worse.
"Fear is the number one issue," government mental health expert Pechdau Tohmeena said.
Some kids have seen their parents shot in front of them, their family shops burned, relatives beaten or tortured.
Anger, introversion and fear are common symptoms of depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed that children were bearing the brunt of the eight-year conflict.
They hear rumors about the violence. They see helicopters flying overhead with their guns pointing down on them, she added.
It's hard to live as a target every day."
Nearly 22 percent of 11 to 18-year-olds had PTSD symptoms, which is believed to be more than double the national average, according to a 2010 study of 3,000 children across Thailand's three southernmost provinces.
Just under 40 percent showed signs of emotional or behavioral problems including anxiety, loss of confidence, poor attention spans, fear and aggression.
"Some of these kids have grown up only with violence," said Panpimol Wipulakorn of the Rajanukul Institute, a government mental health agency, who led the survey.
"Some primary school kids even told us what they most need to improve their lives is a gun -- that is not the normal response of a school child."
Previous Thai governments have tried "hearts and minds" campaigns to tackle the unrest, but nothing has worked.
The International Crisis Group had urged the military-installed government to start preparing the Buddhist majority to accept a negotiated autonomy for the Muslim-majority south.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.
Several campaigns have been launched to seek a solution to the south conflict.
Yet, as violence rages, there are mounting fears that an angry and emotionally damaged new generation will enter war.
"Both sides want them... and if these kids continue to grow up in conflict, the threat is that in 10 or 20 years there still won't be peace here," said Pechdau.