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Speak Out on Older Indigenous Caught in Armed Conflict

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


Global Action on Aging, May 17, 2004


Monday, May 17, 2004, Global Action on Aging organized during the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues a side event panel on "Older Indigenous People caught in Armed Conflict." Older Indigenous people, especially women, are very vulnerable in armed conflict situations. It is very hard for them to access humanitarian aid even when it is available. They don't have the strength to fight for food. Some relief workers also believe that old people are about to die, so there is no need to help them. Here is a summary of the speeches from the different speakers present. 

Diane Paul, Consultant Expert, Humanitarian Assistance: 

Ms. Paul spoke about primary problems that older persons face when they are caught in armed conflict situations. As a relief employee of the International Federation of Red Cross-Red Crescent in former Yugoslavia , she noticed that relief workers tend to isolate older persons into one single group. But she asked, "Are they really all in the same situation?"

The International Federation sent her on a mission to a Bosnian camp. She found old people housed in a small room with beds where they had to stay all day. They had no exercise and were very depressed. Her goal was to "get them out of bed." To do so, she used her allowance to buy an accordion. Several elderly men volunteered to play it and soon people jumped out of bed to hear the music and sing. A few days later, an older woman came to Ms. Paul complaining: "I'm angry with you, I have no shoes-how can I dance?" 

Later this program brought in young people to take care of the elderly. They formed a theater group and eventually gave performances for the community to keep the elderly active and healthy.

Abandonment of older persons is a second major issue. Old Croats were left in their houses all alone. Serbs came to the village and burned the houses, with the old people - most bedridden - in it. This was a war crime. Many people who could pass on the culture were destroyed.

A third problem is that old people come last in times of war. Relief workers do not consider them as a priority. Humanitarian Aid workers focus mostly on children and women but not on older persons.

Also, it is very hard for elderly people to get food because they cannot get to the front of the line. Young and strong people get the food and health care first because they can physically demand it. 

Often, older adults are the caregivers of the younger generation. They are therefore a great resource to families and the community. Relief workers, Ms. Paul asserted, should also take them into consideration. 

Many older people caught in armed conflict have no medicine for chronic conditions affecting them like heart disease, diabetes. There is a general belief that because older people are about to die, they don't need rehabilitation. For example, many relief and other camp officials don't see the point of removing cataracts. However, this operation would allow older people to see and function better and protect themselves in armed conflict situation.

A fourth problem-the most important one-is that Humanitarian Aid workers do not see older persons as leaders. In an armed conflict situation, a community is divided by age, condition, race, etc. Traditional community leaders are not consulted although they may well have more tolerance for difference, more ways to forgive and more inventive approaches due to their past experience and history. Older persons are also not seen as potential candidates for micro-credit or tracing. They are said not to have the capacity. 

A fifth problem is how to manage the refugee camps and how to include older people. Older persons are not seen as candidates for registering refugees although, in reality, they know the community and families well and could give considerable expertise to the registration process. However, this is very important since all relief, including food, health care and other services, flows through this "registration." Older persons are the "invisible-vulnerable" population in armed conflict situations. They are considered as useless and therefore no special attention or protection is given to them. 

Also some older people "opt out" of refugee camps in order to stay on their land to preserve it for younger tribe and family members. In a way, they sacrifice themselves for the preservation of their community. 

Finally, it is even harder to survive in an armed conflict situation if you are an older indigenous women. 

Zaum Anoush Tertaulian, Armenian:

Ms. Tertulian lived six years in Artzak, a village in Mahora, where she tried to gather materials about the Armenian genocide. She was personally involved in this mission since her grandmother had been raped at 12 years old during the Armenian genocide. 

Ms Tertulian videotaped some reports regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. She interviewed survivors and children of Artzak. 

She recommends that women band together to overturn patriarchy and get their land and culture back. Women should be spiritually involved in their community. 

She also believes that humanitarian aid relief workers should monitor who gets what in armed conflict situation. She thinks that older women in Armenia did not receive a fare share of international help.

Today, conservative traditions still bind Armenia . In order to improve women's situation, a network of people that are interested in the issue and that are willing to advocate should be created. 

Tiokasin Ghosthorse, WBAI program: 

According to Mr.Ghosthorse, the heart of the indigenous problem lies in the United States . Native American Indians are endangered species.

He gave the example of his own mother. She lives in FEMA housing on the Lakota reservation. This area is in greater poverty than Bangladesh . Water is polluted because big corporations do not hesitate to dump their pollutants on Indian land. The Lakota language is disappearing, erasing a great amount of heritage and culture. 

Most First World cultures throw away their elderly into nursing homes or abandon them. However, among the Lakota, older persons are seen as the future. They are the ones to pass on culture, language, and history. Lakota people do not have a concept of death, their theme is "we will survive." That is why language is key in understanding a culture.

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