Police: Disabled siblings hidden away

August 27, 2008 5:46:36 PM PDT
A Palestinian couple locked their disabled son and daughter away for decades out of fear they would ruin the marriage prospects of a healthy child if discovered, police said Wednesday. The case highlights the shame felt by families who have children with disabilities in Palestinian society -- made worse because of poor services and the practice of marriages between first cousins.

"This is sad, shameful and awful," rights activist Imad Abumohr said.

Few people in the rural town of Beit Awwa knew of Basam Musalmeh, 38, and his sister Nawal, 42. They were kept since childhood in two concrete rooms that stank of sweat and urine adjoining the family's house.

Police found them Tuesday night while searching for Hamas loyalists and criminals, 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 officers heard noises while searching the house and found the brother naked and the sister wearing a flimsy nightdress.

Their father was detained. Their mother died a few years ago, the family said. Police returned the siblings to the home because there was no other place for them. The family said their stepmother would care for them.

On Wednesday, the siblings appeared to have been bathed and freshly dressed. Their rooms were tidied, though the smell was overwhelming.

The brother and sister have not been diagnosed with a specific mental illness, said their uncle, Mohammed Musalmeh. They do not speak or recognize other people.

An Associated Press reporter walked into the sister's room, where she sat on a metal-frame bed wearing a dress. She did not appear to acknowledge the stranger's presence.

Abumohr said there was a shortage of institutions for the disabled in the West Bank. Saify said he hoped an Israeli institution could take the siblings.

Abumohr said the Musalmeh case was not unheard of.

He said last year they were called on to rescue a 17-year-old youth with mental disabilities who had been thrown into a 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," he said.

The siblings' father, Ibrahim Musalmeh, married his first cousin and had eight children -- five with disabilities who died in childhood; Nawal and Bassam; and another son, who has since married, the family said.

Arab communities often favor marriages between first cousins as a way of keeping inheritances within the family. It is not considered incest, and there is little awareness that such marriages increase the chance that children will have disabilities.

The siblings' uncle, Mohammed, said the family could not find long-term care for them and hid them to avoid bringing shame on the family.

Many Arabs stigmatize disabled children and refuse to marry their siblings, fearing they will bear children with disabilities.

Mohammed Musalmeh said the family did not want the brother and sister to be mocked.

"If they go outside, people will laugh at them," their 67-year-old uncle said.

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