In wars and disasters, old people get left behind

by Richard Meares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 29 September 2009 12:54 GMT

LONDON (AlertNet) - Â?When the gunfire starts, everyone has to take off suddenly in whatever direction he can, without knowing where thatÂ?s heading,Â? said Boniface Banabanga, a Congolese grandfather who hasnÂ?t seen his children since he fled when fighting reached his village last year.

He grabbed his wife and some of their grandchildren and set off for safety, ending up in a camp near the city of Goma, many daysÂ? walk from his home near Rutshuru in the turbulent northeast, he told AlertNet by telephone.

However strong family bonds are, a sudden conflict or natural disaster can break them, and the elderly are often the ones to suffer.

Â?People may have to run for their lives and they canÂ?t cope with the burden of taking the old with them,Â? said Marbey Sartie, programme manager in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the charity HelpAge International.

Â?Sometimes older people do try and move with their relatives, but often they die - or are left to die on the way.Â?

This may be one reason why many old people risk staying to face danger in a familiar place rather than setting off into the unknown.

Â?Whether it is because they are reluctant to leave what they know or because they feel a burden on their families is hard to say,Â? said Jo Wells, humanitarian policy coordinator at the charity - one of very few international NGOs that focus on older people in emergencies.

Perhaps families let the grandparents know they would weigh them down, but if so, no one involved is admitting that, she said.

Economic migration, deaths from AIDS and other upheavals mean increasing numbers of older people have no family to flee with anyway.

Sartie said many old people who stayed behind were dying in places where conflicts had become protracted as central authority breaks down.

Â?There is a lot of evidence that those who stay behind get targeted - physically abused, sexually abused and brutally robbed of their possessions,Â? he said.

A 2007 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies gave the story of Halima Ahmed Hissein, an older woman caught up in SudanÂ?s Darfur conflict when armed men came to her village.

Â?When they attacked I couldnÂ?t run. Some neighbours helped me to the fields and hid me under the trees. I stayed there for four days because I was scared,Â? she said.

Halima escaped, but some other older people who did not flee had ropes put around their necks and were dragged around by horses until they died, the report said.

When older people do move away, they are more likely to stay as near to home as possible. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, many move into farms in the bush abandoned by their relatives or by strangers to eke out a living until the conflict blows over.

Often, they end up looking after children who get abandoned too - and not always their relatives.

Â?Children sometimes get left behind or lost in the mad rush for life, and those who are left are cared for by older people regardless of whether they are related or not,Â? said Sartie.

In natural disasters, unlike in war, the elderly seem more likely to leave with their families, said Wells - maybe because of earlier warnings, or because of greater optimism that they will all be able to go home soon.


When old people do make it to a camp they are often still at a disadvantage.

HelpAge says aid organisations often succumb to the erroneous belief that the elderly will be cared for by their families and that their needs are not addressed, leaving them marginalised and overlooked.

This problem is compounded by there not being a U.N. agency dedicated to the needs of older people, whom the world body classifies as people aged 60 and over.

Â?Maybe we have an exaggerated view in the West of a romantic ideal of older people being well looked after in traditional societies,Â? Wells said.

The upheaval caused by a disaster, and life in a camp for any amount of time, can change those societies radically and erode respect for elders that may never be reestablished even when normality returns.


This kind of change is also coming about in societies in transition, said Francis Markus, a Red Cross federation spokeman involved in the aftermath of ChinaÂ?s Sichuan earthquake last year.

Â?The tradition of families looking after their elderly parents is already coming under economic and social pressure and the earthquake has further intensified this,Â? he said.

As the developing worldÂ?s population rapidly ages - one in 10 Chinese was over 60 in 2000 but this will be one in three by 2050 - the burden on families of looking after ageing parents is also rising.

Internal migration to the cities for work also leaves whole rural areas full of older people.

Experiences in rich countries have shown what can happen in disasters there.

Aid workers say the huge number of old people who died in the 2003 French heatwave was more a sign of how neglected they were by their families - many of whom were away at the coast on holiday - than about their frailty.

And in New Orleans, some older people had harsh words to say about how they were overlooked and left behind during Hurricane Katrina.

Â?It was the worst thing IÂ?ve ever witnessed in my life... Nobody ever told me anything,Â? Edith Moore, a 70-year-old survivor, told the Red Cross.

Â?This is America, but they didnÂ?t think enough of (older people here) to get them out.Â?

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