By Stefanie Glinski
JUBA, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Benson Mubarak saw his maths teacher enter the classroom in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, when everything suddenly went black. The confused 15-year-old asked his friends, "What happened? Why is everything dark?"
But nothing had changed. Mubarak had become blind.
After numerous hospital visits that produced no answers, his parents - ashamed of the situation - saw no alternative but to take their son out of school and lock him up in their mud hut for several years.
Today Mubarak, 22, is back in the classroom and part of a small but growing initiative by aid agencies to integrate children with disabilities into mainstream education.
Life is tough for disabled people in the world's youngest country, which fell into a brutal civil war two years after its 2011 independence when troops loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with forces loyal to Riek Machar, the vice president.
Disabilities caused by conflict are on the rise as violence has spread throughout the country, killing tens of thousands.
Sitting at the back of a classroom at the Rejaf Educational Center for the Blind, Mubarak is among an estimated 20 percent of disabled people in South Sudan who attend school. No data is available on the number who graduate.
"I am now adjusting to my condition," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, wearing a light blue uniform and sunglasses.
"Being at home for those years was the hardest part. I couldn't adjust to my blindness and was depressed."
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 15 percent of the global population could be disabled, but there is a lack of data on developing countries.
Negative attitudes and stigma towards people with disabilities are widespread in South Sudan and advocating for change has been tough.
"Disabled children may be hidden away and people are often referred to by their disabilities rather than by their names," said Kelly Thayer, emergency coordinator for Humanity and Inclusion, the charity formerly known as Handicap International.
"People have the misconception that children with disabilities can't go to school."
Many schools are inaccessible and lack special needs teachers, said Thayer, whose organisation trains teachers and social workers to ensure inclusion grows.
Poverty and illiteracy add to the challenges, said social welfare minister Awut Deng Acuil, adding that polio, snakebites and accidents also cause disabilities.
In Juba, only a handful out of hundreds of schools currently support inclusive education, but the results are positive.
Mubarak, who is learning to read and write Braille at his specialised school will soon transfer to a mainstream one.
Others have already made the transition.
Faiba Gale, 18, is attending high school in Juba's Buluk district, one of the few supporting inclusive education.
"My parents wanted me to pursue an education," said Gale, who fell sick as a child, spent months in hospital and has since never been able to walk without help.
"At first it was difficult because I felt different. Now I like going to school and my classmates help me.
Dozens of students in white blouses sat with Gale on wooden benches in a simple brick classroom. She did not stand out.
"It's not difficult to integrate children with disabilities - it's just not done," said head teacher James Jada, whose Buluk A2 Primary School is in its second year of including children with disabilities.
"We teach our students to be helpful and we see many friendships form between students with and without disabilities."
Samuel Stephen, 12, has been deaf since birth but, for the last few years, had a teacher who used sign language during classes.
"I still don't understand everything that is talked about in class but my teacher explains what she can," he signed to an interpreter.
One of his best friends, Martin Arkangelo, also 12, is not deaf, but picked up sign language over the years.
"Samuel and I play football together every day," he said.
"It wasn't hard for me to pick up his language. Now we talk with our hands."
Even with new integration initiatives, life for disabled people remains especially difficult in war-torn South Sudan.
"Many disabled people sit at home or beg in markets," said Anthony Joseph, secretary general of the Jubek State Union for the Visually Impaired, an initiative by blind people living in and around Juba to advocate for their rights.
"Their families think the disability is a curse and a burden."
When fighting broke out in Juba in 2016, Joseph was not far from the area where the initial shots were fired and many died.
"We heard gunshots and fell to the ground - it was chaos. Being blind, we didn't know where to go or what to do, until a policeman helped us," he said, adding that people with disabilities often get left behind when violence erupts.
"The conflict contributes to our challenge. Being disabled in a war zone – it's tough." (Reporting by Stefanie Glinski; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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