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Survivor: Life After Cluster Bomb

[Mohammed's prosthetic legs lie on a sofa at his home in the Rashidiyeh camp for Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon. Photo by Laura Boushnak.] [Mohammed's prosthetic legs lie on a sofa at his home in the Rashidiyeh camp for Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon. Photo by Laura Boushnak.]

Survivor is a decade-long documentary photography project following the story of Mohammed, a young cluster bomb survivor. During the summer 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war in Lebanon he was riding as a passenger on his father's motorbike when it struck a cluster bomb. Over the past 10 years I have documented how Mohammed, like so many other survivors around the world, lives with the horrifying repercussions of cluster munitions.

Mohammed was eleven years old when he lost both legs during the last week of the conflict. The fact that he lives a five-minute drive from my parents' home made it easier to follow him through the years. I saw the young boy who had to endure physical and emotional trauma. I saw the teenager who loves to swim but needs help with everyday tasks. And I know the young, jobless man who spends hours surfing the Internet trying to meet a girl who might become his girlfriend. His daily reality continues to be shaped by the sudden loss of his legs, as it always will.

A cluster bomb is a large canister dropped from the sky. It opens up in midair to release hundreds of bomblets. They scatter widely and on impact many fail to explode. Those submunitions act like landmines, laying on the ground, waiting for someone or something to set them off. If someone steps on them by accident, or picks them up, they can explode. These weapons are extremely unpredictable, which makes the threat they pose even greater. One day, a farmer might be able to work his land without any problems. The next day he might be burning some branches and submunitions close by could be set off by the heat. Another problem is that children mistake these bomblets for toys, because they can look like bouncy balls or soda cans.

When the conflict started in Lebanon in 2006 I was sent on assignment to cover the war by Agence France-Presse. I witnessed many people, including my own family, fleeing their homes in southern Lebanon. The day the war ended I saw the roads jammed again, but this time with people rushing back to their abandoned homes, unsure of what they would find there. Many encountered some of the estimated four million submunitions that were dropped on Lebanon during the thirty-four day conflict, according to the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Center South Lebanon.

As a documentary photographer I decided to go back to Lebanon a few months after the end of the conflict to meet cluster bomb survivors. That’s when I met Mohammed, in January 2007, exactly four months after the accident. When I first saw him, he was going through painful physiotherapy to recover from his fresh wounds. Still in shock, Mohammed was struggling to get used to his new body. He would sometimes wake up at night wanting to scratch his lost feet. 

Cluster bombs affect the poorest of the poor. The high cost of medical treatment is a burden to the families. They end up relying on humanitarian agencies, but this is usually insufficient and unsustainable, especially when injuries require life-long support for the injured. In Mohammed’s case, the appropriate medical care and psychosocial support was not available. One of the worst, yet invisible, impacts of the weapon is the psychological scars it leaves. In one of Mohammed's early medical reports he was diagnosed with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He suffered from anxiety, poor appetite, sleep disturbance, and showed signs of anger. The reality is that Mohammed never received proper help to fully recover. Ten years after his injury, he is still unable to afford good prosthetic legs. He is very cautious with his steps since a couple of falls over the years brought him embarrassment among his friends.

Even before his disability, Mohammed’s life was not going to be easy. He was born in the Rashidiyeh Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre, Lebanon, where he still lives. Around 450,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon and suffer from discriminatory laws. They are not allowed to work in the public sector, or practice certain professions, and are denied the right to own property.

A few months following his injury, Mohammed dropped out of school. He said, what’s the point of a university degree when he can’t find a job to begin with. Because of this, he is illiterate and spends most of his time at home. In addition to the continuous physical pain and the experiences of feeling isolated, cluster bomb injuries create a vicious cycle of impacts on communities and not only on the lives of their victims. Like Mohammed, many drop out of school, cannot find jobs or lose their jobs. Without prospects for good work, he cannot support his family and his sisters, as would be expected. Swimming in the sea has been his favorite activity. It is the only time when he can move his body effortlessly and enjoy racing his friends without worrying about being left behind.

Cluster bombs have been used by over twenty states during armed conflict in over thirty five countries, and continues to kill on a regular basis, without distinguishing between military or civilian targets. So far, 119 states have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty banning cluster bombs. But some of the biggest producers, namely the United States, Russia, and China, have not. They continue to produce cluster bombs and reserve the right to make and use them in the future. The deep damage to communities lasts for generations.

[Watch Boushnak's TED talk about Survivor and cluster bombs here.]

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