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HRW: Elderly at High Risk in Armed Conflict Areas


FILE - An elderly Ethiopian woman sits with others next to a sack of wheat donated to conflict victims in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 8, 2021.

Human Rights Watch says older people are often the forgotten victims in Africa’s conflict zones. The rights group issued a report Wednesday looking at abuses suffered by the elderly in 14 countries, mostly African nations, caught up in conflict, ranging from Mali to Ethiopia to Mozambique.

Mary Malia, a 68-year-old South Sudanese woman and mother of five, says one evening in July 2016 a rebel group attacked her village in the eastern Equatorial state.

"The time these people came, they came to our houses, beat us up and took everything we had. While beating us, they wanted to take me. But one of them asked, 'where do we take this old woman? Let us leave her here.' So they left me. After a while, I walked on foot to Uganda without anything on me," Malia said.

The widow now lives in a refugee camp in northern Uganda.

Malia’s story is all too common in the conflict zones of Africa, where older people often have little defense against gunmen who attack rural villages. A new Human Rights Watch report titled “No One Is Spared” details the situation.

Bridget Sleap, a senior researcher on the rights of older people at Human Rights Watch, says the predicament of the elderly in conflict zones is often overlooked.

“We found that time and again older people were at risk of abuses during the armed conflict, including summary execution, arbitrary detentions and rape.… The reality of the war is that no one is spared and that older people remain ignored and invisible victims,” Sleap said.

Investigators say both armed groups and the government forces they often fight are responsible for the abuses.

Sleap says the attackers of older people often take advantage of their physical weakness and or unwillingness to leave their homes.

“Older people can be heightened or particular risk of abuse for a number of reasons. One of them is when they are unable to flee the fighting when it comes to their communities. Some choose to stay to protect their property or to protect their homes. Others are unable to run away, to escape the violence or sometimes they don’t have family members to support and help them flee,” Sleap said.

Even if the elderly avoid physical injury, they can be left isolated and poor as family members flee and communities under attack disintegrate.

HelpAge International, an organization that stands for the rights of older people, says older people in conflict zones can suffer severe stress, leading to depression and post-traumatic disorders.

The group’s Africa regional representative, Carole Agengo, says societies cannot forget their seniors when talking about how to cope with conflict.

“Older people must be included in the pre-conflict warning signs, in the pre-conflict arrangement, older people must be included in the discussion so that their interests are known to the community and also known to the warring parties… it's possible during the conflict the harm that happens to older people could be minimized,” Agengo said.

Older people sometimes face difficulty in accessing humanitarian assistance in displacement camps.

Human Rights Watch calls on humanitarian agencies to be inclusive of older populations and make sure to meet their needs.

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