ALERT – Handicap International at States meeting to discuss political declaration addressing civilian harm caused by explosive weapons | October 5, 2016

Today in New York, states met to discuss how the international community should respond to the harm to civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. On this occasion, Handicap International was the only individual NGO invited to deliver a speech. Alma Taslidzan Al Osta, Arms Advocacy Manager at Handicap International, delivered an […]

Today in New York, states met to discuss how the international community should respond to the harm to civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. On this occasion, Handicap International was the only individual NGO invited to deliver a speech.

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Alma TASLIDZAN AL-OSTA, Arms Advocacy Manager.

Alma Taslidzan Al Osta, Arms Advocacy Manager at Handicap International, delivered an inspiring and compelling speech on the impact of explosive weapons on civilians.

Read the intervention here and below:

Handicap International’s speech at the meeting “Preventing civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas”

4 October 2016 – New York City

Distinguished ambassadors and delegates,

Dear colleagues,

Today, we have heard excellent speeches on the impact of explosive weapons and one conclusion is definite. When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas, we are seeing the horrifying and predictable pattern of unacceptable harm. They kill, they injure, they destroy, they contaminate with unexploded remnants and they displace millions of people living in a conflict. There are too many places in the world where we can witness the horrific impact of explosive weapons, but today I will focus on the impact of these weapons on the Syrian population.

Speaking on behalf of Handicap International, mine action operator working in post conflict and conflict areas, assisting direct and indirect victims of explosive weapons, today I would like to address the impact of these weapons on human body and mind.

We, in Handicap International, have analyzed the nature and cause of injuries of 25,000 Syrian refugees in refugee camps and communities in Jordan and Lebanon, and displaced persons in Syria.  According to our analysis, 60% of the interviewees with new injuries resulting from the crisis had been injured by explosive weapons. Among them:

  • 89% of injuries have caused physical impairments,
  • 80% of those injured by explosive weapons have signs of high psychological distress.

People can be impacted by explosive weapons in two ways – the explosion can cause deadly skin burn injuries, causing burst of lungs or brain. The second impact of explosive weapon, the fragmentation, scatters bodies with shrapnel shells different sizes, shapes and weight. The metal case of a weapon can create several thousands of shrapnel. Depending on the distance of the human body from the point of detonation, only one shrapnel shell, weighting only 1gr could cause a death. It can also cause severe injuries. Penetrating trough skin, it can rupture muscle fibers, cause multiple and complex open bone fractures leading to amputations.

In June, when we in Handicap International started collecting testimonies of Syrian refugees to proves that there is a strong correlation between explosive weapons and displacement, I had a privilege to spend three hours with each Syrian family and talk about their life before the war, during the war and the present. On the first interview, I learned one Arabic word which was echoing in my head days after I finished talking to this people. Qasef is the word and it means bombing, this is all what this people talk about. Talking to these people, I have recognised a completely new dimension of suffering.

I met Ahmad, 23 years old former student. He was sitting in front of his house, with his friends when a mortar exploded approximately 30 meter away from him and 2-gram shrapnel shell hit his back and 1gram shrapnel shelled penetrated through his skull and got stuck in his brain. Through very vague memory, he remembers being admitted to one medical check point, without being able to be treated. Then he was transferred to another improvised hospital where he got his first assistance. After that he woke up in a hospital in Jordan, not being able to feel the lower part of his body, but feeling a tremendous headache which made him want to scream. Ahmad, 23 years old former student, was paralyzed from his waist below with one tiny 2gram piece of metal. Now he has frequent memory losses and a speaking disorder, he thinks he is never going to finish his last year of high school and be a graduate. On top of that, he lives in the rehabilitation center all alone, while his family is still in Syria.

Injuries that are visible are easier to treat. But people not physically impaired should also be a focus of attention. 80% of Syrians questioned in our survey show signs of high psychological distress. It is presented in different symptoms including physical reactions (like fatigue, tightening in throat, long lasting headache), or emotional and cognitive reactions (like confusion, frequent nightmares, difficulties concentrating or making decisions), and other difficulties (like usual sleeping problems, crying easily, hyperactivity, social withdrawal, violent behavior). These reactions can be temporary, but can also be the symptoms of longer-term mental health issues, such as depression, severe anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It takes years for people to heal and recover. In the immediate aftermath of an accident, persons physically injured need to be prepared and coached to start mobilizing their residual limb and strengthen their muscles. Following an amputation, it is crucial for the person to consult with specialists and gain the support of their peers and family so they can learn to accept the consequences of the loss of a limb. Moreover, the person will need lifelong follow-up and periodic maintenance of their prosthetic limb(s), as such items need to be replaced or repaired every three to five years for adults, and up to twice a year for children. People traumatized by continuous bombing and shelling will have to go through long serious of physiological consultations to gain their will to live and fight for their family again. Zaina, a mother of three children who had gone through difficult above knee amputation, told me: “Emotional pain is even worse”.

The civilians who decide to stay in the conflict, like many now in Syria, are facing very dangerous conditions, with random access to essential services. Last week we launched a study on linking displacement with the impact of explosive weapons, taking an intimate look at the worst humanitarian crises since the World War II, with a support of the government of Luxembourg. Even though we already knew about this logical link, we wanted to hear it from the refuges themselves. They confirmed to us that bombing in populated areas in Syria, is indiscriminate and continuous. They said that they spent days and days in shelters, sharing last drops of water and last bites of food, praying that the next bomb will not hit their house and kill them all.

They also said that the use of explosive weapons with wide areas effects in populated areas is one of the main causes of displacement; it is the reason why they left their homes which they loved! What we found interesting is that the use of these weapons creates a multiple patter of internal displacement. Ahmed’s family moved four times before he was injured. It was very emotional to hear his story about a fridge and stove on the back of the family car. He said that every time he saw this fridge and the stove, it was time to move. And every time he saw it plugged in, he knew it was his new home.

We had families saying that they moved from 7, 10, 19 times in Syria. Jamal’s family moved 25 times when times before losing a leg in a bombing, and deciding it was time to go. It was difficult to believe that one can move 25 time in 4 year and when I asked how they would found a new home: he told me that Syrians are never locking their homes. When they are leaving their places, they leave the doors open, so anybody who looks for a shelter, easily finds one.

Going back to the impact on human body, direct and indirect victims of explosive weapons are in desperate need of immediate access to adequate health services in order to deal with their injuries, and avoid complications or death. In addition, the psychological consequences of long and brutal conflicts, such the one in Syria, have marked an entire generation. Aisha’s baby, who was born under the shelling, will feel the consequences of war for her whole life.

We have asked survivors of explosive weapons, experts on victim assistance and civil society organizations, with the support of the government of Ireland, what are the needs of victims and what are possible provisions for the future political decalaration. Based on their recommendations, all states should ensure that survivors of explosive weapons, the families of those killed and injured, and affected communities from all impacted areas have:

  1. Their basic needs met in a timely manner, including safety, protection, shelter, food, water, hygiene and sanitation;
  2. Safe and timely access to mainstream, personal support and disability-specific services;
  3. Assistance to compensate for the loss of their homes and livelihoods due to explosive weapons.

At the end, I would just like to remind you on the situation in Aleppo. Seven day after continuous attacks, the biggest hospital in Aleppo is completely destroyed and not able to operate. Thousands of people injured will be not be able to receive proper health care. Millions of them are living under the pressure that they would not be able to receive the healthcare, in case they would need one. That is why this political declaration should be strong, to end the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, to avoid all these horrific consequences and to prevent this pattern of harm on civilian population. In Syria and everywhere else.


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