E N D P I E C E
Elaine Eliah finds, and loses, a small human face among the refugees in Zaire.
It takes one special moment, one particular case, one individual person to put a face on a population. Not from scanning the masses, but from that special someone catching an eye, does an entire situation suddenly snap into focus.
For me it was that one-week-old baby I met in Biaro refugee reception center. Lying some 41 kilometers to the south of Zaire’s river-port city of Kisingani, in some of Africa’s densest, least hospitable forest, Biaro was the latest in a series of refugee camps that a group of Hutus had occupied since fleeing Rwanda in 1994.
Baby Jane – I don’t know if she was ever really given a name – was born in the forest after her mother fled a brutal attack on nearby Kasese camp. Kasese had welcomed Baby Jane’s mother after she and her twin three-year-olds fled the fighting that erupted in eastern Zaire’s metropolis-sized refugee camps. The trio had walked over 700 kilometers through dense forest to reach Kasese camp. Mother was pregnant throughout the walk.
No-one will ever know how many died in the attack on Kasese. Refugees tell of being surrounded, fired upon with guns. And grenades thrown into the group. And machetes. By the time international relief organizations were permitted into the area there were no bodies to tell their story. Survivors spoke with their gunshot and machete wounds already festering after just a few days in the tropical heat.
Baby Jane was born into this world. Probably on some muddy patch of forest floor. In a way she was lucky. Her mother had, after all, managed to escape the latest round of ruthless killing. That placed her a lifetime ahead of thousands of children in the UNICEF Kasese center for parentless children. They were caught by surprise, in the middle of the night, like deer in headlights. After more than two weeks only about half of the four thousand had found their way back to apparent safety.
So I guess Baby Jane had more of a chance than many. She had the love of a mother. Not long after her birth, her malnourished mother discovered her breasts were entirely dry. Protection. Nurturing. Children have to have both to survive. This baby didn’t. I’m sure of that.
I asked Baby Jane’s mother if I could take her photograph. I took the tiny baby’s portrait with her family – her twin brothers she’ll never know. Mother held her as if she were some fragile, transient wisp of spirit. Something borrowed, on loan.
I write this as the shortwave radio announces it’s Mothers’ Day in the West. Mothers’ Day. And I think about the one little boy from that camp who made it onto CNN, his emaciated form shaking up the television audience, breaking hearts. Apparently the switchboard lit up with those ready to adopt one particular child. If truth be told, that little boy’s condition was far too grave to respond to anything UNICEF field workers might have done for him.
Baby Jane wasn’t among them. Having a parent excluded her from the center. One couldn’t blame UNICEF. They could scarcely provide for those able to chew, let alone those requiring intravenous feeding. They didn’t have the infant formula that might have sustained Baby Jane’s young life. Without the natural immunity given by her mother’s milk the child would surely have succumbed to some infectious disease long before she got out of Biaro. A mother can produce milk again if she receives a month of nutritious feeding. Baby Jane couldn’t wait that long.
I wasn’t there to see her tiny form wrapped in a cloth and left beside the road. She would have looked exactly like those anonymous others, waiting for removal by Red Cross volunteers. Men in masks and heavy rubber gloves made the rounds daily through the camp, disposing of the dead that Biaro’s refugees were too weak to bury themselves.
Decomposition happens quick-ly in tropical forests. Within a month of these people being spirited away once more, it will hardly be evident that they were ever in Biaro at all. Nature reclaims what we have only on loan. As Baby Jane’s mother already knows. Yet that mother won’t forget her little girl. She’ll carry the memory with her for the rest of her life. So will I.
I never chose to have children of my own. But Baby Jane? I wanted to take her into my arms and just run. Run. Faster than the world turns. Faster than reality could overtake me. Faster than the little girl’s life could run out.
She was the fourth daughter my hopeful sister never quite managed to bear. She was the long-awaited infant my dear, dear friends have never been able to conceive or adopt. She was the one who put a face on this business of war and hatred and fear.
At least for me. I’ve been told that in West Africa there are people who believe that a child who doesn’t live out its first year is recycled by God – simply put back on earth to start life again. I think this way about Baby Jane. I’ll sing her a lullaby tonight. I’ll pray her next landing is gentler.
Elaine Eliah (e-mail: [email protected]) is a freelance journalist working out of Kampala, Uganda.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.