War is devastating – but for the disabled and their families, it is a unique horror

My family’s experience in the Iran-Iraq conflict gave me an insight into what many disabled Palestinians experience today

A street in the centre of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on August 10, 1983, the month before the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

No matter how much some people try to glorify wars, they are one of the ugliest and most horrifying aspects of life. I have always wondered whether people who celebrate and condone war have ever actually experienced one.

When conflicts anywhere in the world begin, my thoughts turn to the people living under bombing; the children, the disabled, the families that are torn apart, and to my own experience of war that to this day I can never forget. When the war in Gaza began in October, so many of my memories of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war came flooding back. Yet, the war I lived through was kinder to me than the past weeks have been to the Palestinian people and what they continue to endure.

The idea of war is unsurprising and even somewhat natural for me, as a British Iraqi – whether living through it or watching it from afar. From the day that I opened my eyes to the world, Iraq has seemed to me to be involved in some war or other. I was only a toddler when the Iran-Iraq war began. My family was in Mosul, in the country's north, which contributed to the fact that we saw less destruction than, for example, the cities and towns that were nearer to Iran.

I did not understand the war’s reason or the background. All I knew, from my viewpoint as a child, was that Iran wanted to hurt me and my family.

But there is a big difference between a war 40 years ago and the Israel-Gaza war today. In the 1980s, Iraq was one of the strongest countries in the region, with one of the most advanced armies. And despite the fear we felt, we knew we were protected by the army. We had power cuts but not a complete blackout that the people of Palestine are experiencing. We did not run out of food. We had access to everything. In fact, in many ways, we lived an almost ordinary life for eight years as nothing stopped. People went to work and got on with their daily lives.

Most importantly, our war was on the battlefield. Iran didn’t advance enough to bomb our neighbourhoods, schools and hospitals. Their war planes flew overhead, but loud sirens warned us of their approach and allowed everyone to run to the safest spot in the house – well, everyone except me. I waited for my parents or siblings to run and pick me up, as my disability prevented me from walking.

Unlike many homes in Iraq, we did not have a basement to run to when the sirens rang. And we never went to a nearby shelter as many people did. My family always opted to stay home. I never understood this, but as an adult I now realise that carrying a disabled child to an outside shelter is difficult. Despite this, and in hindsight, being a disabled child in a war seems much easier to me than being a disabled adult, especially as at the time my condition – muscular dystrophy – had not progressed as it now has, and I did not use a wheelchair or a ventilator to help me breathe. So, electricity was not vital to my existence nor did the lack of my mobility hinder my chance of survival. Plus, the fact my parents were young and could easily carry me made everything much easier.

I remember clearly when the sirens sounded my mother would gather us all in one room, away from the windows. Electricity would be cut and then we would huddle together and wait for the planes or rockets to be shot or driven away. My siblings and I did not fully understand the gravity of the situation – another beautiful aspect of being a child – we enjoyed the adventure and excitement without the fear that adults carried.

The real fear came when updates from the battlefield were aired on the news bulletins. I had three maternal uncles in the army and the constant look of worry we watched on my mother and grandmother’s faces scared us most, more than the sounds of rockets, sirens and warplanes. The fact that my uncles were in danger terrified us more than anything else.

At that age, I remember going to bed at night only after I had collected all my toys around me, fearing for their safety. In case anything happened, rather than choose a few I wanted them all to be protected. I also had a daily ritual before I slept: I would pray for each member of my immediate and extended family. The thought of losing anyone terrified me. I was also scared of sleeping in the dark, due to associating power cuts with a rocket attack. This fear stayed with me and to this day, even as an adult, I sleep with the lights on.

When you have lived and experienced war, you never really get over it. Those memories become a lifetime companion, even if it was a “mild” version of war that I suppose I was lucky to experience.

Sadly, it is an entirely different reality for disabled people in Palestine. The aggression they have been subjected to is rare in modern history. Palestinian homes, hospitals and schools are the battlefields. Through my work in the disability field, I had met a few disabled people from Palestine. When Israel's attacks began, I thought of them. As the world rightfully focused on the children, women and the elderly, it seemed to me that the disabled people of Gaza were forgotten.

I was scared to contact those I knew, fearing the worst, yet I sent messages via WhatsApp to three people. One of them was Abeer Al Hirakli, a wheelchair user, a university graduate, and a Dabke dancer, who was a member of a band consisting of nine other disabled people. It took about five days before I saw the double tick on the message, meaning it had been delivered. I felt so excited, yet fearful of what and if I get a response. A day later, Abeer replied and her message was heartbreaking. It was a short plead, asking me to do something, that death is near, begging for help to stop this attack. She told me she had left her house and was seeking refuge in a school in Gaza. The tone of her message was one of fear, like someone with a terminal illness and with limited time left. As much as I was relieved to know she was alive, I was heartbroken at her situation and my inability to do anything.

The second person was Mohamed Dalo, whose 29th birthday was a few weeks ago. Like me, he has congenital muscular dystrophy. He lives in Gaza and is an anime artist. Thankfully, he is alive but had to leave his house and everything behind, including his wheelchair. He told me his father carried him and ran out of the house. He has respiratory issues and although they managed to take the nebuliser that would assist his lungs, there is no electricity, so his life is under threat, not just from Israeli bombing but from the electricity blackout in Gaza. In his messages to me he was thankful, content and full of dignity. He was sad at the loss of all his artwork and sketches.

The third person, Latifa, also has a physical disability. I have yet to hear from her. I don't know when and if I will.

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

Published: November 24, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: December 07, 2023, 1:52 PM