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Under the Radar: Surviving Wars With a Disability

photo of Maout Louis
Maout Louis survived South Sudan’s war for independence from Sudan in the early 1990s, despite being being a “double-burden” to his mother when his family fled repeatedly into the bush. Besides being very young, he was blind. Every conflict in the world leads to stories like this, the writer says, as people with disabilities face extra hurdles in wars and related displacement.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Mauot Louis and his family ran out of their home in Sudan one day in the early 1990s, leaving their puppy behind. They were forced out by Nuer fighters, rebels from the second-largest ethnic group in South Sudan, who were angry with the control of John Garang, the leader of the rebellion that eventually won South Sudan its independence. As they fled into the bush, 4-year old Mauot wondered who would shelter their little puppy from the danger he was escaping with his family. Unknown to him, his mom would later consider abandoning Maout himself partway into the family’s search for refuge.

“I remember when we used to go for hiding, I would start crying,” he told PassBlue in an interview from South Sudan. “I was like a double-burden to my mom. The pressure was so much that one day, she decided to get rid of me.” She threw him into a shallow body of water and was ready to move on. But Mauot’s sisters refused to leave him behind. They picked him up as he cried, until their mother relented.

Mauot was not only a toddler but also blind.

The family spent weeks in the bush, on a circuitous trip to Terekeka County in Central Equatoria State, before finding refuge in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

“One thing I remember as we moved from one place to another, is the smell of dead bodies,” Mauot recalled recently. “Sometimes, when the shooting stops, I can hear an unprecedented silence, as if one is in a green desert with trees and water.” Finding ways to hide was challenging. There were attacks in the early 1990s on villages occupied by the Dinkas, the largest ethnic group in South Sudan. A faction called the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army-United Alliance) burnt them down.

“It was hard to know who you were running from; the attackers were not too different from us,” Mauot said.

The attackers he speaks of, the ethnic Nuer, allied with the Dinka in 1983 to form the SPLA, under the control of a former lieutenant-colonel in the Sudanese army, the infamous John Garang. After the ouster of their main backer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s president in 1991, the Nuer decided to split over Garang’s reported overbearing leadership. That year, they launched the first of several attacks by former SPLA units on Bor County in Jonglei State, where Garang and Mauot’s family were living.

Mauot Louis is one of four million people who were displaced — some more than once — by the 22-year-long civil war between South Sudan and the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The world will never know how many of them were disabled before the war started.

Every conflict in the world leads to stories like his, and he is one of the fortunate ones. Many are unable to escape or get aid, and their stories never make it to the front page of newspapers or prime slots on screens.

In Ukraine, Disability Rights International, a Washington human-rights group, found thousands of disabled persons abandoned in care homes in the east of Ukraine by caregivers who fled once the recent invasion by Russia began on Feb. 24. The BBC gained access to some of these homes on May 9, more than two months into the war, which hit the disabled population hard in the first few weeks.

In Southern Cameroon, where the Cameroonian government is fighting separatists, living with family is what saved Ndifu Vera, a 28-year-old woman who depends on a crutch to move around, from death or injury. She was preparing to write her final secondary-school exams when education in Southern Cameroon came to a halt. Her reality could not have been stickier; with no father or mother to lean on, she relied on her brothers to carry her to safety when soldiers rained bullets on their village in 2017.

The conflict started in 2016, when demonstrations by lawyers, teachers and trade unions to stop the government in Yaoundé, the capital, from imposing French civil law on the British-styled common law system in Anglophone Cameroon and French-speaking teachers in schools where students speak no French morphed into a call for independence the next year. The French-majority state reacted to these calls by deploying the army across the two English-speaking regions in the country.

Vera said she could have easily become one of the corpses counted in Bafut, in the northwest, English-speaking area of Cameroon, after the soldiers arrived.

“I was in the village at that moment. So the shooting started in the quarter where I was. Everybody was just running,” she recalled in an interview from Bamenda, in the northwest region of Cameroon. “I was not able to run, but my brother helped me. He carried me, we ran to the bush.” Another brother grabbed what little they could carry. They built a tent and slept on a mat for a week.

“It was a bad experience, there was no food, there was no water,” Vera continued. The bush was a long way from home. They settled into a routine in those seven days. One brother stayed with Vera, the other went home on relay trips to salvage whatever he could for the siblings to survive on. Before the week ran out, he left to seek supplies and never returned.

“I’m still hoping that he will show,” Vera said. “Maybe something happened and he’ll come back.”

photo of Ndifu Vera
Ndifu Vera, a 28-year-old with a disability living in the Anglophone region of Cameroon, survived fighting there with the help of her brothers. But she has had to reluctantly delay her schooling for now.

Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disability guarantees the protection of such people vulnerable to conflicts and climate disasters. Sixteen years after the convention was ratified, in 2006, refugees with disabilities appear to still be largely invisible. In June, at the 15th session of the ratification of the convention, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the failure of warring parties to recognize the presence of people with disabilities. “In armed conflicts, persons with disabilities are often unable to flee the violence and do not receive adequate humanitarian support,” he said, adding that in Ukraine, the war has “accelerated a food, energy, and finance crisis in relation to which persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.”

Even today, the UN and its 193 member states have been unable to map the number of disabled persons fleeing or living in conflict-ridden areas.

UN Enable, the arm of the UN that deals with disability issues, said in 2016 that “there is a lack of data regarding the situation and numbers of migrants with disabilities.”

More recently, the UN’s Migration Data Portal said, “No official international statistics exist on the global prevalence of disability within the persons on the move population; at best, there are estimates.” Its own estimate of the number of disabled people who were displaced in 2020 was 12 million.

Louisa Yasukawa, a researcher with the Internal Monitoring Displacement Center, a Geneva-based arm of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said a few governments are beginning to take note of displaced persons with disabilities but quantifying the scale of the situation remains a challenge.

In a rare instance where a national survey was conducted, Yasukawa told PassBlue, a UN study in Syria found that 36 percent of displaced people above 12 years old had a disability. In Ukraine, the International Organization for Migration found that 26 percent of displaced households have a disabled person.

Some countries and nongovernmental organizations that distribute aid are now gathering and compiling data from conflict zones using methods developed by an organization called the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, Yasukawa said. The group, which was established by the UN Statistics Commission and is managed by a secretariat representing 135 national statistical offices, uses a set of short questions to separate out disability data in population surveys.

Five years after Vera reached Bamenda, she was housed at the Magdalen Home Care and Training Center, where she has since been trained as a seamstress. She has still not sat for her advanced-level exams. “Schooling in Bamenda is risky,” she said. “One day I went to school, and they started shouting that ‘the boys are coming.’ Everybody was just running, I was alone on the school campus.” Vera has decided not to resume her education until there is peace in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.

Nongovernmental organization workers there say that not all schools have reopened after the strikes and protests of 2016 and people with disabilities are hesitant — assuming they are able — to trek long distances to restart school.

Vera hopes to write about her experience when she has gained a degree in literature. “I love writing books,” she said. “I have many stories of my life to tell that will encourage persons with disability.”

Mauot Louis, now living in Juba, the South Sudan capital, has earned a law degree despite being blind. He is working with other advocates to amend the country’s law on intellectual disability, to recognize people with mental illness.

In the displacement camps in Juba, he said guide canes, wheelchairs and hearing aids are nonexistent.

“We need to tell the stories of disabled persons in areas of conflict,” Mauot said. “Many of them lack access to assistive aid and there are many who become disabled as a result of this violence.”


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Kelechukwu Ogu is a freelance reporter based in Lagos, Nigeria. He has reported for Sahara Reporters and Al Jazeera’s AJ Contrast. In 2021, he was a fellow reporting for the natural resource extractive program at Premium Times’ (Lagos) Center for Investigative Journalism. Ogu has a bachelor’s degree in communications from University of Lagos.

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