All posts by jamesreinl

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and world affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 35 countries and won awards for stories from Sri Lanka, Congo, Somalia, Haiti and Iran. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Policy, PRI's The World, Fox News, France 24, CBC, The Times, CBS News, dpa, RTÉ and APTN. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Sussex University and a postgraduate diploma in journalism.

War is hell. Try doing it in a wheelchair.

Disabled people struggle particularly hard when conflicts erupt. Getting the issue on the international agenda is about as tough as navigating through war-ravaged streets on crutches.

NEW YORK // When military helicopters were buzzing in the skies above her apartment in Aleppo, Syria, Nujeen Mustafa, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, felt like a burden on her family.

Exiting the home involved carrying her down five flights of stairs. Better, they thought, to hide out in the bathroom and hope that barrel bombs dropped by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not come crashing through the ceiling.

“I knew that I was a dramatic disadvantage for them when it came to the need to escape,” Mustafa, now 20, said.

“It would have helped for me to know there was a way to get out without endangering my family and slowing them down.”

Mustafa’s story is one of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. In January 2014, the family fled from Aleppo to southern Turkey. In August 2015, she said goodbye to her parents and began a month-long, 3,500-mile odyssey to Germany, with her sister pushing at the rear.

They crossed eight borders, including miles of wheelchair-pushing along gravelly tracks, nights spent in the wilderness and a risky sea crossing on a dinghy alongside dozens of other Syrians who were escaping the conflict.

Now a student in Wesseling, near Cologne, with an infectious smile and an unbridled sense of optimism, Mustafa is campaigning so that people with disabilities get more help when bullets start flying in the world’s hotspots.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted, Mustafa said. A deaf evacuee might not hear dangers just around the corner.

The problem goes beyond Syria, said Shantha Rau Barriga, an expert on disabilities with the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

From Rohingya villages in Myanmar to the battlefields of South Sudan and eastern Ukraine, people with disabilities have an extra set of problems to deal with when towns and cities come under attack.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities — 15% of the world’s population. An estimated 10 million people with disabilities have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.

Conflict is the cause of 16% of all disabilities. As wars drag on, the number of people with missing limbs or other permanent injuries adds up. In Syria, after eight years of carnage, almost one in four people have a disability.

In Cameroon this year, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by a separatist conflict in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions that has forced half a million people from their homes.

Families have been forced to make heart-wrenching choices between leaving behind relatives with disabilities or exposing them to week-long journeys through bushland, said HRW’s central Africa researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi.

Those abandoned face abuse when government forces reach their towns. In Cameroon, one woman was mocked by government troops and told to remove her prosthetic leg and crawl around on the floor, forcing her to collect money from nearby rooms that they demanded as a payoff, said Allegrozzi.

Such cruelty is not uncommon, said Vladimir Cuk, executive director of the International Disability Alliance, a campaign group. People with disabilities are at greater risk of rape, abuse and starvation once family members have fled, he said.

Emina Cerimovic, one of HRW’s researchers on disability, saw harsh conditions peak in Greece during the global refugee crisis, when people with disabilities were among the masses from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere seeking new lives in Europe.

There, refugees with disabilities crawled on muddy floors to enter toilets that were not wheelchair-friendly, she said. In one camp, bathroom access was so bad that the parents of an 8-year-old Afghan boy with mental and physical disabilities had to put their son in diapers.

At a camp in Thessaloniki in Greece, Amin, a Syrian refugee who was deaf, languished in his tent alone for nine months. His hearing aid had gotten soaked while he crossed the Aegean Sea. Unable to converse, Amin was cut off from the world, Cerimovic said.

European Sea crossings are notoriously risky for refugees. For those in wheelchairs, the voyage likely involves leaving one’s chair at the shore, as human traffickers free up space to accommodate more paying passengers.

This happened to Ali, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee with disabilities, whom Cerimovic met in the squalid Moria camp in Lesbos. During his first two months there, without a wheelchair, Ali could not use the showers or toilets.

“How would you feel if someone took your feet away? My wheelchair is my feet.”

There is no quick and easy fix to this problem.

Aid workers are usually overstretched when refugees start fleeing war zones in large numbers. There is seldom enough of the basic necessities — water, food and medicine — to go around, let alone find time to track down hearing aids and crutches.

Still, securing more prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices for refugee hubs could help ease the lives of people with disabilities. When camp staff hand out food parcels, a line that folks with disabilities can access makes life easier, Barriga said.

Campaigners are lobbying donors, humanitarians and the systems through which they operate, such as the European Union. The UN Security Council should make more legally binding references to disabilities, they say.

Upcoming UN resolutions on South Sudan, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic could add language around disabilities that nudge aid chiefs to think harder about the services they provide, monitor the results and report back afterward, Barriga said.

“It’s not just words on paper,” Barriga said. “It’s a binding commitment made by the UN Security Council which has a ripple effect on UN agencies and the way that humanitarians operate on the ground and at many other levels.”

So far, it has been a case of three steps forward, two steps back.

The annual UN resolution on CAR for 2015 obliged UN officials to “monitor, help investigate and report on violations and abuses” against people with disabilities. But that reference was scrapped in subsequent documents.

In April, Mustafa made a landmark speech to the UN’s top body in New York. She told diplomats that people with disabilities were “invisible” and said more of them should be hired to help run camps and aid programs.

She called for a “world that protects, respects and values” people with disabilities.

To that end, campaigners also want to change how people talk about the issue.

Rather than describe individuals as “disabled,” “handicapped” or “wheelchair-bound,” referring to them as a “person with disabilities” stresses their dignity and humanity, said Barriga.

It goes doubly for Mustafa. While her campaign highlights the plight of people with disabilities in wartime, Mustafa recalls how life with cerebral palsy in Syria was a slog even before fighting broke out in 2011.

Leaving her apartment involved being carried downstairs before the war, too — something only attempted for the annual Persian New Year party. The other 364 days were “like house arrest,” she said.

In Syria, her prospects were dim, even in peacetime. In Germany, where schools and movie theaters often have wheelchair ramps, Mustafa eyes a world of possibility and plans to study psychology at university.

“It’s not just being able to get elevators up and down buildings,” Mustafa said. “The mentality is different here. There’s no underestimation. No pity. No undervaluing a person just because he’s disabled. They push you to reach your full potential.”

This article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.


Radio station of slain Syrian activist faces shutdown

The radio station founded by slain Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares faces closure amid death threats to staff members and financial crisis as western donors scale back funding.

NEW YORK // Only weeks after the murder of Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares, the radio station that he founded faces closure amid ongoing death threats to staff members and a cash-flow crisis as western donors scale back funding.

Colleagues of Fares told TRT World they would work to keep Radio Fresh broadcasting a message of democracy and human rights across the northwest province of Idlib, but were struggling to plug a funding gap of an estimated $10,000 per month.

Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes, but the Trump administration scrapped funding earlier this year to northwest Syria, saying it’ll rather sharpen its focus on the northeastern territory.

“We’re looking to get funding from the European Union, because the US has withdrawn from northwest Syria,” Lilia Wassef, one of the activists representing Radio Fresh and other civic schemes in Idlib, told TRT World, after meeting officials in Brussels.

“We have now hit rock bottom after Raed’s death. But we must move forward. We must continue Raed’s message and his work. Syria’s democratic movement is an idea, and it will not die with Raed or any of the movement’s icons.”

Raed Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes.

Fares, together with his colleague Hammoud Jnaid, was gunned down in his home town of Kafranbel on November 23. The attackers have not been identified, but Fares was previously threatened by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron and former US envoy Samantha Power mourned his death on social media, as did his 30 radio station colleagues and 520 others working on connected community projects, as part of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

Fares had planned to travel to Brussels last week to try and plug the US funding gap with meetings at the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, the European External Action Services and other parts of the EU foreign policy machinery.

Wassef, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, attended instead, and detailed the value of the radio station and women’s empowerment projects. Her colleagues have made similar requests to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ).

An EU official confirmed talks with Wassef’s delegation and said they supported radio station staff, who are widely viewed as a moderate voice amid Syria’s turbulence, but that they were not ready to replace US funding just yet.

The radio station, and other URB projects, were “presented as a successful example of the critical role that civil society plays in Idlib in countering radicalisation and in supporting the population,” the EU official told TRT World, under condition that his name was not used.

“No specific project proposal was discussed or figures presented but their demands were about the need to step up support to civil society and the work of civil actors on the ground. The EU has always been at the forefront of recognising the critical role that civil society plays.”

Importantly, the official noted that Fares was “tragically killed by HTS”. While it was widely assumed that the al-Qaeda-linked group was behind the assassination, it had not previously been confirmed by officials.

A US State Department official declined to comment on Fares. In May, the department said it had cut all funding to Syria’s extremist-run northwest. In August, Washington confirmed that $230 million for Syrian “stabilization projects” would be spent elsewhere.

Abdy Yeganeh, from the non-profit group Independent Diplomat, advises URB in Brussels and at other international confabs. He said the radio station, like other pro-democracy projects in Syria, was operating at a limited capacity and faced an uncertain future.

“Raed was such an energetic character on the ground and his death was no doubt a major loss at a difficult time for Radio Fresh, which, like other civil society groups in Idlib and beyond, has struggled as the US and Western donors have scaled back their stabilisation funding,” Yeganeh told TRT World.

According to Yeganeh, European donors had followed Washington’s lead, by cutting cash for groups that embodied the spirit of the 2011 uprising by rejecting both Assad and the religious hardliners that had gained prominence as the war dragged on.

Other civil society groups – such as The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Center for Freedom of Media and Expression and Baytna Syria – were also struggling to pay the bills as donors turned their backs on moderates, Yeganeh said.

“While donors may be adapting to the new realities in Syria and the greater likelihood of Assad’s survival for now, this is still a short-sighted policy step. Civil society actors on the ground, like Radio Fresh, remain the best illustration of Syria’s only credible alternative to tyranny and extremism,” Yeganeh said.

Fares, 46, became a prominent voice of dissent in the early days of the revolution, using videos, skits and protest placards referencing American culture that often went viral on social media to criticise the Syrian military, religious extremists and Western leaders.

In 2013, he produced a satirical video called the Syrian revolution in three minutes, in which Syrians dressed up as cavemen ridiculed the global community’s failure to protect civilians from bombings by government forces and chemical attacks.

In 2014, Fares survived being shot in the chest by armed militants. In June this year, he criticised the US government’s decision to freeze funding to humanitarian groups, saying it undermined efforts to combat extremism.

“Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions,” Fares wrote in the Washington Post, a daily US newspaper.

The plight of Radio Fresh comes as the war in Syria is winding down. Assad has retaken most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, although US-backed armed rebels and militias such as the YPG still hold significant territory.

Russia and Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels, agreed in September to create a demilitarised zone around the insurgent-held Idlib, but exchanges of shelling have been common since then and the first airstrikes since the deal hit the area on November 25.

This article originally appeared on TRT World.