Civilians Caught in Conflict
Chad 2005 © Roger Turesson
Every day, eight-year-old Sittina* carried her little brother Ibrahim to the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) feeding center in the Touloum refugee camp in eastern Chad near the Sudanese border. She took him through registration and helped feed him some therapeutic milk. Then, she would carry him back to their mother’s shelter, which served as their home in the sun scorched desert. It was 2004, and Sittina was one of more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees who had fled widespread attacks on their home villages in Darfur. In 2003, the Sudanese government—unable to defeat rebel movements in Sudan’s Darfur region—launched widespread attacks against the civilian population, which it accused of supporting the rebellion. The army and paramilitary forces carried out assaults on the local populations. Widespread killing, rape, torture, burning of villages, and looting forced hundreds of thousands of people to seek safety across the border. By early 2008, more than 2.4 million people—one-third of Darfur’s population—had been displaced, according to the United Nations. The conflict in Darfur had escalated, as rebel groups and paramilitary forces in Darfur splintered into factions, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, fighting intensified between the government of Chad and opposition forces, displacing many Chadians, some of whom fled to camps in Darfur. Meanwhile, children like Sittina and her brother continue to grow up in fear and uncertainty, with little hope of returning safely to their villages.
Thailand 2007 © Greg Constantine
HY*, 22 years old, spent her entire life hiding in the forests of Xieng Khouang province in Laos. She lost two sisters and five cousins during attacks on her family and fled to Thailand in 2005. She now lives with her husband and daughter in a camp ensnared with barbed wire fencing in Thailand’s Petchabun province where they—and thousands of others— live in constant fear of being sent back to Laos. HY is an ethnic Hmong—a group that has experienced persecution by the Communist government in Laos ever since it came to power in 1975. Some of the Hmong in Laos fought alongside US armed forces against the North Vietnamese and Communist Pathet Lao forces during the US-Vietnam War from 1960-1975—before HY was even born. HY recalls her daily life in Laos. “I lived all my life in the forest in Laos. We were chased by the Lao and Vietnamese soldiers all the time. Sometimes the planes attacking us would drop bombs that produced a poisonous, yellow-colored gas. We would have to run and hide among the trees. During one attack, one of my younger sisters breathed in poisonous gas and she passed out. My mother had to carry her. Eventually, all her teeth fell out. After I married my husband, I went to live with his family close to my parents. But during one attack, I was separated from my parents and have neither seen nor heard from them ever since that day. I don’t know if they are alive or dead. We had to live in a house made out of tree branches and leaves. We had hardly any food when my daughter was born. It was really difficult to survive. I was very skinny and got sick a lot. I often came down with fevers and my body always felt like it hurt. “My husband decided we could no longer stay in the forest. He thought we should try to come to Thailand. We were still constantly being chased by the Lao. When we finally made it to the Mekong River my husband paid a fisherman to take us across the river. Then we paid some more silver to a driver and my husband told him to take us where the Hmong were living. Ever since we fled Laos our life has gotten better because we have had food to eat and we don’t have to hide from attacks. But I am so afraid that we will be sent back. If I think about it too much I faint. I don’t want to be sent back to Laos to be killed. Everyone is saying we are going to be sent back.”
Colombia 2007 © Juan-Carlos Tomasi
Graciela* is 55 years old. She and her family left their village and fled to Soacha, a sprawling urban slum near the capital Bogotá, where more than a third of the people who have fled their homes in the Cundinamarca department have sought refuge. After one of her sons was nearly raped by an armed group, his brother raced home to get their parents’ help, and for that his life was threatened. “We came here on August 20, last year. My husband had put up with everything they said to him, everything they did to him. Everything. I called him a coward a lot. But then, one of my sons, who is 15, went to the river and found my other son tied up by four men who were trying to rape him. He came running to the house, crying. I grabbed him, hugged him and asked, ‘Sweetheart, what happened?’ And he said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, they are going to eat my brother.’ “My husband jumped, a terrible jump, and in three jumps he was on the bank of the river. And I said, ‘My God, this is too much.’ I asked God to help me leave because my husband had put up with enough. They told my son to watch out because they were going to kill him for being a snitch. After maybe eight days, they came and threatened him. And that’s when we left. “We got here and everyone started looking for work and we all found work. But after 20 days, my husband got really sick. He died four and a half months after we arrived here. I’m too alone. There are whole nights that I spend sitting, thinking about what will happen to me in the morning.” As Colombia enters its fifth decade of violent conflict, Graciela’s story is tragically common. She and her family are among the approximately 4 million people displaced inside Colombia as a result of violence brought on by government troops, paramilitary, and rebel forces battling for territorial control. Killings, intimidation, and fear have become inescapable parts of everyday life for civilians living in conflict-affected rural areas.
Jordan 2007 © Michael Goldfarb
The car bomb sheered off nearly half of eight-year-old Ahmed’s* face, stealing his left eye and amputating his left foot. Ahmed was so disfigured by the bombing in October, 2006 that his father and uncle spent half an hour in the same hospital room without recognizing him. The boy, in shock from the blast, was left speechless. “He was there alone,” says Ahmed’s father through an interpreter. “He had an amputation without company from anyone in his family. No one knew him. He was just a child inside a hospital.” It would be three days before the father and son would be reunited. After enduring several failed procedures to reconstruct his face, including multiple skin grafts, Ahmed and his father arrived in December 2006 at the Red Crescent Hospital in Amman, Jordan, where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has run a reconstructivesurgery program for war-wounded Iraqis since August 2006. By April 2007, the young victim had already undergone two extensive microsurgeries and was scheduled for at least three more procedures aimed at reconstructing his face. The Iraqi health system is among the gravest casualties of Iraq’s violence. Civilians, like Ahmed, who are injured in one of the almost daily multiple-casualty attacks, turn to medical facilities that are overwhelmed with wounded, and do not have enough medicines, surgical supplies, or even electricity. The few medical staff left who have not fled the country or been killed can do little more than patch them up and send them home.