Older people at high risk in areas of armed conflict

Human Rights Watch says older people are often the forgotten victims in conflict zones in Africa. The rights group released a report on Wednesday examining the abuse suffered by older people in 14 countries, mostly African countries, 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.

“When these people came, they came to our house, beat us and took everything we had. While fighting, they wanted to take me away. But one of them asked: ‘Where is- What are we taking this old woman? Her here. So they left me. After a while I walked on foot to Uganda with nothing on me,” Malia said.

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

Malia’s story is all too common in conflict zones in Africa, where older people often have little defense against gunmen attacking rural villages. A new report by Human Rights Watch entitled “No one is spared” details the situation.

Bridget Sleap, senior researcher on older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch, says the plight of older people in conflict zones is often overlooked.

“We found that older people were repeatedly at risk of abuse during the armed conflict, including summary executions, arbitrary detention and rape…The reality of war is that no one is spared and the elderly remain ignored and invisible victims,” Sleap said.

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

Sleap says elder abusers often take advantage of their physical weakness and/or reluctance to leave their homes.

“Older people may be at increased 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 flee, to escape the violence or sometimes they don’t have family members to support them and help them flee,” Sleap said.

Even if older people avoid physical injury, they can find themselves isolated and impoverished as family members flee and communities under attack disintegrate.

HelpAge International, an organization that defends the rights of older people, says older people in conflict areas can suffer from severe stress, leading to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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

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

Older people sometimes encounter difficulties in accessing humanitarian aid in camps for the displaced.

Human Rights Watch calls on humanitarian agencies to include older populations and ensure their needs are met.