Skip to main content

Mentally ill sisters freed from chains in West Bank

By Kevin Flower, CNN
Click to play
Family: Chaining our daughters necessary
  • Nedaa Dawabsha was chained up for 10 years; sister Mohedeye for the past two
  • The Palestinian Authority: more help should be offered to the mentally illl
  • Doctor who treated girls calls their treatment "immoral" and "unacceptable"

(CNN) -- We first met Mohedeye and Nedaa Dawabsha sitting quietly on the floor of a small room in their family's modest house in the dusty West Bank village of Duma. Neither of the sisters were able to leave the room.

Connected to harnesses around their waists was a meter-and-a-half of chain links, binding them to a heavy metal locker in the corner of the room.

According to their family Nedaa, 21, had been confined like this for the past 10 years and her sister Mohedeye, 25, for the past two.

Mohedeye and Nedaa suffer from severe mental disability, their older sister Intesar Dawabsha told us, and are incapable of functioning without constant care. Mental illness ran in the family, Intesar explained, but her sister's condition was particularly severe.

"They need someone to take care of them 24 hours, to give them food because they cannot eat properly, they cannot do their basic needs, they cannot change their clothing, they cannot clean themselves, they need someone 24 hours," Intesar told CNN.

The sister's parents, Uthamn and Houda Dawabsha, are both battling illness and are not up to the task of caring for Nedaa and Mohedeye, according to Intesar.

Houda is laid up in bed most of the time and Uthman, who works as an itinerant farmer, says jobs are few and far between and that he's lucky if he makes over fifteen dollars a day.

The Dawabsha family members say the lack of resources mean they were not able to provide the girls with the necessary care -- and it was when the two girls began leaving the home in the middle of the night and entering neighbors' houses that the family resorted to tying them up.

"I'm very worried for my sisters, especially because sometimes they leave at night and they cannot make any difference if anyone will attack them," Intesar explained. "I am very afraid that one day they will be sexually attacked, I'm very afraid they will be raped."

And in this conservative Palestinian village of just over 2,000 people, there were also concerns about tradition and family honor.

"I prefer that they will stay in the chains," said Majeda Dawabsha, the girls' cousin told CNN.

"Because the other option is that someone could rape them and you know that the question of honor in this society is very important and the fact that she is disabled doesn't ease the penalty," Majeda said. "All that we have in this place is honor ... to be bound is better than to be killed."

Mohammad Dawabsha, a local council member and distant family relation, said the residents of Duma had great sympathy for the plight of the sisters -- but beyond the occasional donation of money, there was little they could do to help. He said the family was faced with an impossible situation.

"If something bad will happen the family will be accused with not being responsible, so the only solution for the family is to tie them," he said. "And yes it is not human and yes it is bad, but with no solution from the government to put them in institution, to tie them up is the only solution."

Intesar said she sought help for her sisters on several occasions from the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, even going as far to visit the office of the Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but that her pleas went unanswered.

"I want that Mr. Fayyad will come and visit us in order to see the condition -- he cannot understand the situation until he sees it," she explained in frustration.

"I don't think there is another house in the West Bank where the mother and the father, the brothers and the sisters are all mentally ill and I am the only one who is taking care of them, and I cannot do this anymore."

Dauod al-Deek, an assistant deputy minister in the Palestinian Authority ministry of social affairs, acknowledged to CNN that the government should have done more to help the Dawabsha family.

He said that the sisters' years-long confinement might have been avoided had the ministry done a better job of making Palestinians aware of some of the social services available to them.

"Frankly we have this cultural problem, we still feel that the disabled in general are stigmatized," he explained. "We need to work a lot in the social marketing to change such a perception in the people."

Al-Deek said the ministry is in the process of adopting a rights-based approach to the treatment of mental illness rather than a needs-based approach -- and that the ministry is increasingly buying services from third-party care providers to make up for the lack of government-run treatment facilities.

Just days after we visited Nedaa and Mohedeye at their home and made official inquiries about their case, the Palestinian Authority managed to find spaces for the sisters in the Bethlehem-based Four Homes of Mercy, one of only two West Bank facilities offering 24-hour care for the mentally impaired.

The center's medical director, Dr. Arafat Eidi, said it was clear when the girls arrived that they were in desperate need of proper care.

"They had no social interaction, something that made our first few days with them so difficult," Eidi said.

The severity of their condition was no excuse for the family's treatment of the sisters, which Eidi called "immoral."

"It is unacceptable, absolutely, behavior from family or anyone who deals with such people in such a way," he told us.

The Dawabsha sisters are now unchained and receiving round-the-clock specialized care, but it's not clear how long the arrangement will last. The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority depends on donors to fund government services, and facilities like the Four Homes of Mercy are deeply in the red.

The facility's general director, Osama Khalayle, said they have only received one payment from the Palestinian Authority this year for $15,000 which amounts to less than 25% of their monthly budget. The annual cost of care for the Dawabsha sisters alone is expected to amount to over $20,000.

Khalayle said they are able to keep the 75-patient center operating based on the generosity of the community, but worries about the future.

"Our debts are around 400,000 shekels ($115,000) -- people can wait, but they cannot wait forever," he said.

So while Nedaa and Mohedeye are currently being looked after, their future is uncertain -- as is that of other Palestinians requiring treatment for mental disabilities.