Despite the devastating impact armed conflict has on persons with disabilities, they remain the forgotten victims of armed conflict. Determined to bring attention to the lives of persons with disabilities living in armed conflict, we have partnered with the photographer Giles Duley to tell the stories of some of those affected by armed conflict.
The photo exhibition Disability and Armed Conflict runs until 30 May 2019 on Quai Wilson in Geneva. Discover some of the stories told in the exhibition in this photo gallery.Discover
As a baby, Odai Ali was struck by a fever that left him unable to hear and also affected his physical and intellectual development. He started at a sign-language school but they were unable to support his intellectual impairments. When he also started to have epileptic fits at the age of 10, he had to leave.
Despite being unable to speak or sign, Odai developed his own way of communicating through hand gestures that his family learned to understand. After leaving school, Odai found comfort in helping at the farm his family owned.
All that changed on 10 July 2014. While Odai was giving water to some cows, the farm came under Israeli attack. Due to his deafness he was unable to hear the warning alarms, so he didn’t run for cover. A rocket landed near him, throwing him five metres. He landed on his back and the impact left him paralysed.
Now in a wheelchair, Odai has struggled to regain his independence. Living in a second-floor apartment, he now relies on his family to get him down the stairs. He’s too scared to visit the farm and is prone to mood swings.
‘He understands about Israel and the war and that they fight and he understands what happened to him,’ says his father, Abu Addullah. ‘He has some sign language: pointing with a finger means shooting; moving his hand like he is picking something up, or a crab, means shelling. When he knows there are planes he feels afraid and he doesn’t want to come outside.’
© Giles Duley
They first discovered Yasmine’s cancer when she was four years old, after treatment it seemed she’d recovered. For the next few years she was able to live a normal life. Then in 2014 the cancer returned, but things were different now, ISIS was in control of the city.
ISIS denied the right to healthcare to most, and even when you could get to a hospital, supplies were dwindling and most specialist doctors were in hiding or had left the city.
‘My father once took me to the paramedic’ Yasmine told me, ‘but DAESH (ISIS) stopped us and said take her to the mosque instead.’
During the fight for the city many hospitals were destroyed, so even when ISIS control ended, Yasmine still couldn’t get treatment.
‘She can endure so much without complaint’ explained Yazan, her father, ‘she is so patient.’
When finally they were able to get her to a hospital, set up by an NGO after the battle for the city, they discovered the cancer had spread, meaning they had to amputate her leg at the hip. Even then she was not scared, insisting on signing the consent for the operation herself.
War is not just about the injuries from guns and shells, for children it’s also about losing homes, education and in Yasmine’s case, her right to access to healthcare.
A few weeks after this photograph was taken, Yasmine passed away. Her family still wanted us to share her story, in her memory.
© Giles Duley
Betty Knight, 38, a mother of five, lost her eyesight three years ago. Her visual impairment did not stop her living a full life in her village of Rumbek South Sudan. She had a small business selling pancakes, kept goats and cattle and had enough money to make sure all her children were in school.
All that changed when the armed conflict came to her region. Scared that the family would be attacked, they made the decision to seek safety as refugees in Uganda.
When they reached Omugo Refugee Camp Betty struggled. Unfamiliar with her surroundings she lost her self-confidence. After falling into an unfenced ditch by her hut Betty stopped going anywhere. Her mental health quickly deteriorated and she started to have suicidal thoughts because she felt useless and a burden to her children.
The NGO Humanity and Inclusion has given her psychological support, but many services, information and infrastructure in the camp remain inaccessible to residents with visual impairments, leaving people like Betty isolated and vulnerable and without access to basic humanitarian services.
Betty is worried because she cannot access sanitary pads as the walk to the distribution point to collect them is unmarked and too treacherous for a person with a visual impairment. ‘Much of the information is on paperwork or signs’ she says, ‘but nobody tells me what’s written on them.’
Ironically there is a large sign with essential humanitarian information by her hut.
‘Do you know what the sign says?’ I ask
‘I didn’t know there was a sign. Maybe that’s what I bumped into’ she laughs.
© Giles Duley
In 2014 Khawla witnessed the death of her classmates when their school in Idlib [Syria] was bombed. She was eleven years old.
A few weeks later, after her father disappeared, her mother took the family to Lebanon to seek refuge. They lived in an informal refugee camp near Tripoli. A few weeks later the tent the family lived in was destroyed in a fire and what little they had was lost.
Suffering from the psychological trauma of everything she had experienced, and without diagnosis or rehabilitative and psychological support, Khawla tried to kill herself with rat poison. She spent 13 days in intensive care and was out of school for five years.
With the support of an NGO, Khawla, now sixteen, is back in school and hopes to become doctor
© Giles Duley
Having fled the fighting in Syria to Lebanon, Amina and her mother lived in an informal settlement for refugees in the border town of Arsal. ISIS attacked the town in 2014 and
Amina witnessed the families living in neighbouring tents being killed.
Suffering from the trauma of being forced to flee twice and witnessing friends and family being killed, Amina stopped eating.
It was over a year later before Amina was finally able to see a doctor and was diagnosed as having anorexia caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Maria Assi from the Beyond Foundation explains that many Syrian children have similar disorders that are often undiagnosed. Without health care and support many are unable to access their education and remain isolated from their peers.
© Giles Duley
Fayez Ahmad Aallouch, 51, and his family fled the fighting in Syria to find refuge in Lebanon. Soon after they arrived Fayez’s health deteriorated and his leg had to be amputated due to lack of medical support for his diabetes.
Without access to work (Fayez had been a builder), the family struggled to survive and lived under a canvas between two tents for three years before a local NGO found them accessible accommodation.
Now Fayez and his children want to return home to Syria but they are too scared to. There are rumors that militias are arresting any men crossing the border who have amputations, accusing them of being fighters. For now he feels he has no choice but to stay in Lebanon.
© Giles Duley
Protestors march on Bolívar Square in Bogotá demanding realization of the rights of persons with disabilities, either caused or exacerbated by the conflict.
Across Colombia people like Walter Castro Morales, who lost his left foot after stepping on a landmine while herding cattle, feel left behind by the peace process.
Persons with disabilities were excluded from participating in the FARC-EP peace process negotiations. This was put down to an oversight by the organisers rather than lack of political will. Nevertheless, it appears that persons with disabilities were the only minority group not to be consulted in the peace talks.
In the aftermath of conflict, persons with disabilities are routinely denied access to justice, including access to effective remedies and reparation. Across conflict and post-conflict settings, persons with disabilities are widely seen as passive victims and are yet to be recognized and empowered to act as agents of change. They are not granted equal participation and full involvement in peace processes; and their role and potential contribution to conflict prevention and resolution is yet to be realized.
© Giles Duley
In 2013 Kholoud, 35, was working in her garden in Mo’damiyat al sham, Syria, with her children when a sniper shot her through the spine. She collapsed, paralysed from the neck down. ‘I tried to plant a small area of land near our house as it wasn’t possible to get vegetables like before’ she said. ‘I was taking care of the plants with my four children and suddenly a bullet hit my neck and I fell down and lost sensation. I could not move anymore.’
After her initial treatment, Kholoud’s family managed to get her out of Syria. Eventually they found themselves living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, one of thousands of unofficial camps dotted across the country.
The UNHCR provided food coupons but the family struggled. Her husband, Jamal, was Kholoud’s carer. At the time I asked her: ‘What’s your hope for the future?’ ‘To be a mother again’ she replied. ‘I wish I could move my fingers because sometimes my son is injured outside and he comes in next to me. He moves my hand and he puts my fingers on to the wound. I wish I could move my fingers to touch him and make him feel like I am feeling the wound with him.’
For two and a half years she remained in bed, trapped in the same windowless room. She did receive an air mattress but had no regular physiotherapy and without a suitable wheelchair was unable to leave the tent.
In 2018 the family was finally relocated to Holland. Now, with support including physiotherapy, the privacy of her own room and a mouth operated wheelchair; Kholoud has, in her own words, regained her ‘dignity and independence.’
© Giles Duley