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About vulnerability

Wars, such as the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia, drag those most vulnerable to misery and loneliness

Orphan Mehalet, five years old, accompanied by her octogenarian neighbor Ameta, paraplegic and blind. © Albert González Farran
Orphan Mehalet, five years old, accompanied by her octogenarian neighbor Ameta, paraplegic and blind. © Albert González Farran

“Women and children, first!” This sentence, so cinematically used, reveals the great contradiction to our reality. It seems to be an unwritten rule for women and children to have preference during a catastrophe so they can be rescued. But in reality, in current and past conflicts, this group is precisely the most punished. Yes, they are the first, but the first to suffer the cruel consequences of military violence. This violence is in fact a very powerful weapon that the opposing sides use illegally to do more damage to the enemy.

Wars usually last more or less, but their later effects even more. They last for decades. Women and children, due to their vulnerable condition, are the first to suffer a severe and unfair punishment. Sexual attacks, labor exploitation, forced displacement, malnutrition … After each military attack, there is a bitter one on civilians.

In 2008 I was in Wukro, a small village in northern Ethiopia, close to the border with Eritrea. It was eight years after a fratricidal that war broke out between the two countries and killed tens of thousands of people. Eritrea had achieved its independence in the 1990s, but the two governments did not agree where to set a border that for many was practically nonexistent. Finally, in December 2000, peace was signed and a demilitarized area was declared. But the conflict left a lot of young orphans, abandoned elders and single mothers, many ill and infected with AIDS because of the sexual incursions of the soldiers. In Wukro I saw many examples of everything.

Children I met brought me on day at the house of Mehalet Mefazu, a five-year-old girl who became infected with HIV during pregnancy. She became orphan at a very small age and at the mercy of friends and relatives. One of her neighbors was Ameta Gebru, an octogenarian who was left alone after the war. All her relatives had disappeared and she had remained blind, deaf and invalid. Ironies of the postwar period, the orphan and seropositive Mehalet became one of the people who took care of the old woman. She used to to visit her every day, while adults were responsible for the toughest jobs, such as helping her dress, eat and even go to the latrines.

The portrait of the little Mehalet and Mrs. Ameta had to be in a single click. I wanted to capture the live representation of the postwar vulnerabilities in a one image, which also had to have low light. In the privacy of their house, in a well-contrasted black and white and with the girl in the foreground to give, in a way, the optimism of a desirable future better. Who knows? Perhaps now, eleven years later, she is still attending the school, preparing herself to access the university and become the doctor who will attend the most vulnerable of the next wars.

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