In Southern Lebanon, an orthopaedic technician is helping victims of cluster bombs recover a semblance of normalcy. One of his most successful patients was only 11 when he lost both legs.
It was at the direst point in Muhammad Hajj Moussa’s short existence that his life became closely linked to that of Bassam Singer. “I first started to visit Muhammad soon after his accident. We had to work on his morale before working on his limbs, because he was depressed and very sad,” softly recalls the orthopaedic technician. Mohammed silently sits next to him.
It is not at all easy for Muhammad to speak about “that day” when his life plunged into despair. He does so haltingly, in very short sentences, before ending in silent tears. It was on 11 August 2006, just 13 days short of the boy’s 12th birthday. “I went with my Dad to take food for some people who were stuck there in Smaiya,” he says briefly.
War was raging in Southern Lebanon. The man on his motorcycle and his son were under the impression there was some sort of a ceasefire, so they felt relatively safe. That is, until the motorcycle hit an obstacle on the road.
“My father was hurt and I fell off the motorbike into a hole, and I remember something blew up.” The detonation of the cluster bomb set Muhammad’s body on fire. “There was a dog that helped me, by pulling me by my sweater to the river. The (Red Cross) volunteers picked me from the river. I remember my legs were falling apart.” He also remembers pleading with them to pick up his father, who was lying at some distance and had been initially overlooked by the first aid team.
Muhammad’s father was not too badly hurt. But the child had lost both legs, and he still bears marks of the terrible burns he endured that day. The burns made the training with the prosthesis “very painful,” says Bassam Singer. “Whenever we touched his leg, he was in tremendous pain”.
Before Muhammad came to Bassam Singer’s orthopaedic workshop in Saida, there had been repeated surgeries and lengthy sessions of physiotherapy. But the technician was already by his side, visiting the boy in the Palestinian camp of Rashidiyyeh, near the town of Tyre, further south. The Moussas are one of many families of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Once the surgeries were over, the work at the orthopaedic centre started. Painstakingly: the child had to train four hours every week day. But he did so to the great satisfaction of his mentor. “Muhammad by nature is someone who cooperates very easily. He is very strong-willed and quickly improved. In the last stage, he was also able to climb stairs alone,” adds Singer.
A case like Muhammad’s was nothing really new for the Lebanese specialist. “In our clinic here, almost 80% of the patients have injuries resulting either from an Israeli bombing, or a landmine or cluster bomb.”
It is not what Singer, 34, was expecting when he opened his clinic, after training with the ICRC in the early 1990s, following the Lebanese Civil War. He was rather thinking he would look after people amputated following road accidents or severe diabetes.
Instead, Lebanon’s repeated outbreaks of violence keep bringing in new victims of conflict. “Many of our patients come from South Lebanon and are just like Muhammad, sometimes worse,” says Singer. People working in the mine contaminated fields – agricultural labourers, shepherds – are frequent victims.
For now, Muhammad must stay home. The school run by UNRWA – the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees – in his refugee camp has no facilities for disabled children. His parents are very poor – the father cannot work and the family survives on the cleaning jobs of Muhammad’s mother – and cannot afford a private structure. But Muhammad keeps hoping. “The most important thing for me is to be able to have an education and to work,” he asserts, an eager look on his face.