Disabled siblings hidden for 40 years
August 28, 2008
A Palestinian couple locked their disabled son and daughter in two stinking, urine-stained rooms for four decades out of fear they would ruin the marriage prospects of a healthy child if discovered, police said today.
The case has highlighted the shame felt by families who have children with disabilities in Palestinian society - made worse because of poor services and the practice of first-cousin marriages in Arab communities.
"This is sad, shameful and awful," said Imad Abumohr, a disabled rights activist.
Few people in the rural town of Beit Awwa knew of 38-year-old Basam Musalmeh and his sister Nawal, 42. They were kept since they were children in two dank, crumbling concrete rooms that stank of sweat and urine behind their family's house.
Police found the siblings during a raid late last night, searching for Hamas loyalists and criminals in the village, said an official who asked not to be identified because the Palestinian Authority publicly denies it cracks down on the militant group.
Palestinian police commander Samih Saify said while police were searching the house, they heard unusual noises below and went to investigate. He said they found Basam Musalemeh naked, while Nawal wore a flimsy nightdress. Police photographed them.
Their father was arrested, although it was not immediately clear if he was detained for keeping his children locked up or because of his suspected loyalty to militant group Hamas.
Today, following media attention, the siblings appeared to have been bathed and freshly dressed, and their rooms tidied - but the smell was still overwhelming.
The siblings have not been diagnosed with any specific mental illness, said their uncle, Mohammed Musalmeh. They do not speak or recognise other people.
An Associated Press reporter walked into Nawal's room, where she sat still on her metal-frame bed wearing a dress. She did not appear to acknowledge the presence of the stranger.
The facing rooms share a small sunny square, but the area is surrounded by a high wall and cannot be seen from outside. A door links the rooms to the main house, but it was apparently opened only rarely.
Abumohr, the rights activist, said there was a shortage of institutions caring for the disabled in the West Bank.
He said the Musalmeh case was dramatic but not unheard of. He said last year they were called on to rescue a 17-year-old youth with mental disabilities who was thrown into a large garbage bin. Abumohr said the boy had scars on his stomach, neck, hands and feet where he'd apparently been tied up.
"I'm sure there are other cases of hidden people in the rural areas," Abumohr said.
The siblings' father, Ibrahim Musalmeh, married his first cousin decades ago and had eight children - five disabled children who died in childhood, Nawal and Bassam, and another son, who has since married.
Arab communities often favour marriages between first cousins as a way of keeping inheritances within the family. It is not considered incest, and there is little awareness that marriage between close relatives increases the chances of having children with disabilities.
The siblings' uncle, Mohammed, said the family kept them hidden away to avoid bringing shame on the family. Many Arabs stigmatise disabled children and refuse to marry their siblings, fearing they, too, will bear children with disabilities.
Mohammed Musalmeh said they also did not want the children to be the target of cruel village mockery - all too apparent when an AP reporter asked for directions from a bystander, who mocked the siblings, describing them as "sheep."
"If they go outside, people will laugh at them," said their 67-year-old uncle.
Mohammed said they could not find long-term care for them.
It is unclear what will happen to the siblings now.
Abumohr said it was unlikely the two would find professional long-term care in the Palestinian territories. Saify said he hoped an Israeli institution could take care of them.