Independent Appeal: Our duty to help the real victims of conflict

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The Independent Online

In a few days' time we will tell you the story of Jahad, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who was lying in bed when he felt weird vibrations deep inside his gut. Yet he did not feel sick. Perhaps it was an earthquake, he thought. He was not to know, but it was the rumble of dozens of tanks. He had not heard them. For Jahad is deaf. So when the Israeli soldiers came and shouted to him to move he could not hear them either. Thinking him disobedient they kicked him to the ground. Today bruises in the shape of boot-prints still mottle his skin.

Jahad is one of the innocents of war. The world is full of them, but we rarely see them. News is a fickle business. There is room, it seems, only for one major tragedy in the international headlines at any time. Each has its moment, then the spotlight moves on to another drama. But little moves on for the children, the disabled and the elderly who remain behind to pay the quotidian price of war. They become forgotten people, the real victims of war and political failure.

In the charity world, as everywhere, some causes are fashionable, and some resolutely are not. In our 2006 Christmas appeal, which we launch today, we have tried to steer away from "in" high-profile charities to focus on three who are working on issues that are rarely in that international spotlight. Some of the work is familiar enough to us. Take the example of one of our charities, Merlin, the British medical charity which zooms emergency relief to disaster zones in Gaza and elsewhere around the world. The television cameras may pick up the activities of its rapid response team, in which British doctors are parachuted in to patch up victims. But what is rarely seen is the NHS consultant who later takes a month's annual leave from running the orthopaedic unit in a major UK hospital to set up a proper field clinic. Or the medical worker who lives in a tent in four feet of snow to help earthquake survivors through the winter. Such things happen away from the scrutiny of the international media, for the rebuilding of a shattered normality is a non-newsworthy process.

The same may be said for the activities of our other two charities. The Welfare Association, which works in Gaza and the West Bank, also focuses on the marginalised people caught up in the Middle East's central conflict. It gives football pitches to children with nowhere to play. It replants the olive groves destroyed by the erection of the Israeli security barrier. It improves Palestinian hospitals starved of cash by the international community. It rebuilds electricity supplies in refugee camps destroyed by Israeli artillery and tanks.

There will be those who may find the work of such charities contentious in a war zone. But we are unabashed in our support for their activities, whether in Gaza or Darfur; it is all too easy to forget that the collateral damage of conflict and violence registers most harshly upon the frail, the vulnerable and the dispossessed, not upon the shoulders of the guilty.

Our third charity, Anti-Slavery International, works among people who are not just forgotten and ignored, but deliberately hidden away. These are the millions of children and bonded labourers who exist in conditions virtually indistinguishable from the abject slavery of earlier ages - and yet whose products, Indian gemstones or silk rugs from Pakistan, grace our smarter shops.

It is such innocents that we have a duty to aid and succour. Jahad and his fellow deaf students have had their life transformed by a project which embraces them with warmth, offers them speech therapy and access to the latest learning technology and even a sign language dancing group. Let us hope our appeal will mean there are many more projects like it. Such are the signs of hope in our weary world.