Photographing Mohammed, a cluster bomb survivor

August 1, 2017

Mohammed was an eleven year old boy riding as a passenger on his father’s motorbike when the bike ran over a cluster bomb. Mohammed lost both legs. His father fared better, suffering from burns to his back. A few months later, Mohammed was going through painful physiotherapy to recover from his 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.

This is when Mohammed met Laura Boushnak. Laura is a Palestinian photographer who was born and brought up in Kuwait, but later moved to Lebanon. When the Israel-Hizbollah war started in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Laura was sent on assignment to cover the war by Agence France-Presse. She witnessed many people, including her own family, fleeing their homes in southern Lebanon. When the war ended, she saw people returning to the homes they had abandoned when they fled the war. Many were killed or maimed by cluster munitions that had been dropped on Lebanon during the thirty-four day conflict. According to the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Centre South Lebanon, some four million submunitions were dropped in just over a month´s time.

10 years of photos
Mohammed was one such victim. Laura decided to use her photography to record his life after losing his legs. The fact that Mohammed lives a five-minute drive from Laura’s parents’ home made it easier to follow him through the years. She saw the young boy who had to endure physical and emotional trauma, the teenager who loves to swim but needs help with everyday tasks, and the young, unemployed man who spends hours surfing the Internet trying to find a girlfriend. His daily reality continues to be shaped by the loss of his legs, as it always will. For the past 10 years, Laura has documented how Mohammed lives with the repercussions of that one cluster munition in the path of his father´s motorbike.

How cluster bombs kill and maim
A cluster munition, also known as a cluster bomb, is a weapon containing multiple smaller bombs called submunitions. Cluster munitions are dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground, opening up in mid-air to release tens or hundreds of submunitions, which can cover an area up to the size of several football fields. Anybody within the strike area of the cluster munition, be they military or civilian, is likely to be killed or seriously injured. Moreover, many of the submunitions do not explode as intended, which leaves them to function as landmines. Those unexploded submunitions can remain a fatal threat to anyone in the area long after a conflict ends. The wide area over which the submunitions are spread, and the fact that unexploded submunitions remain active long after the conflict itself has ended, means that most victims of cluster munitions are civilians. In fact, 90% of people killed or wounded by cluster munitions are civilians.

Cluster munitions not only kill and maim people directly. They also have widespread consequences for victim´s families and communities, especially if they are poor. Large areas of land have become inaccessible because of contamination from unexploded submunitions, robbing communities of their agricultural lands. The high cost of a victim´s medical treatment is a burden to their family. People end up relying on humanitarian agencies, but this is usually insufficient and unsustainable, especially when injuries require life-long support.

Can´t get the help he needs
This has been the case with Mohammed and his family. Appropriate medical care and psychosocial support was not available for Mohammed. In one of his 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. The ones he has are difficult to walk in. He is cautious when he walks, having fallen a few times in front of his friends, to his great embarrassment.

In 2017, Laura started a crowdfunding campaign to help Mohammed get new prosthetic legs. Within a month the campaign reached its goal of $25,000. The funds will cover his new prosthetics, treatment, specialist care and travel expenses to continue Mohammed’s journey to full recovery.

This generosity is helping Mohammed get his life back, but unfortunately, Mohammed is not alone. Over the years, cluster munitions have been used in over 35 countries. Laos and Vietnam are the countries with the most extensive contamination, a remnant from bombing by the United States during the Vietnam war. In total, around the world over 55,000 people are estimated to have fallen victim to cluster munitions since the 1960s, when they were first used. In 2015, 417 victims of cluster munitions were recorded, but because of difficulties with data collection the real number is assumed to be much higher.

Banned since 2008
Because of their inhumane effects and the incredible number of civilian casualties they cause, cluster munitions were banned in 2008 by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Today, 1 August, marks the 7th anniversary of the entry into force of the treaty. So far 119 countries have joined the treaty, but some countries remain outside of the treaty and continue to produce and use cluster munitions. Recently, cluster bombs have been used by Syrian-Russian joint operations in Syria and by the Saudi-led coalition Yemen, where they have caused hundreds of victims.

The millions of unexploded submunitions waiting around the world will continue to make victims, like Mohammed, as will the cluster munitions that are used now in countries like Syria and Yemen. All states should stop the use and production of cluster munitions no matter when or where, join the Convention on Cluster Munitions immediately, and help communities and survivors like Mohammed.

This blog was written together with Laura and is based on her story published on Al-Jaddaliyah. Laura’s decade-long photo-documentary Survivor shows Mohammed’s story. You can see some of her photo’s here. She presented her story in a Ted-talk in June 2016.

Read more about PAX’s work on cluster munitions.

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