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Lebanon: the orthopaedist and his boy

29-05-2009 Feature

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.


  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01099    
  Muhammad was badly injured by a cluster bomblet at the age of 12.    

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,” recalls the orthopaedic technician softly. Muhammad sits next to him in silence.

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.

 'Something blew up'  

“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”.

  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01214    
  Tyre. Muhammad at Bassam M. Singer's limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre in Saida.    

Before Muhammad came to Bassam Singer’s limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre in Saida, he had undergone several operations 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.

 Painstaking work pays off  

Once the operations were over, the work at the limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre started. Painstakingly: the child had to train four hours every weekday. 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 even able to climb stairs alone,” adds Singer.

The boy nonetheless needs careful follow-up: one new set of legs every year as long as he is growing, and monthly follow-ups in the centre, to mon itor the level of his adjustment to his artificial limbs.

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 a landmine or a cluster bomb.”

This 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 who had lost limbs as a result of road accidents or severe diabetes.

  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-lb-e-01210    
  Muhammad on his way to Bassam M. Singer's limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre in Saida.    

 New outbreaks of violence keep victims coming  

Instead, Lebanon’s repeated outbreaks of violence keep bringing in new victims of conflict. “Many of our patients come from southern Lebanon and are just like Muhammad, sometimes worse,” says Singer. People working in mine-contaminated fields – agricultural labourers, shepherds – are frequent victims.

Paradoxically, the Israeli army’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 was just one such episode. “People were so happy that they were running and jumping around, and unfortunately they encountered cluster munitions and landmines,” recalls Singer. That single day brought him 25 amputees.

While it is particularly unacceptable for children to be victims of cluster bombs – as is so often the case – their recovery is easier. A Muhammad's caregiver says, the boy " can start his life all over again, and later on even go to work like normal grown-ups. That's not the case for someone injured when they're older, who will find it difficult to adapt to a new physical condition. "

For now though, Muhammad is staying at home. The school in his refugee camp run by UNRWA (the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees) has no facilities for disabled children. His parents are very poor, as his father cannot work and the family survives on the cleaning jobs of Muhammad’s mother, and they cannot afford to send him to a private school. But Muhammad keeps hoping. “The most important thing for me is to get an education and a job,” he asserts, an eager look on his face.