Death we have seen, and by the numbing long ton. But imagine this other ordeal: being left alone in the world with nothing.
Sick, naked, wet in a pool of your own uncontrollable excrement, too weak to do anything except tremble. Not a possession, no family or friends, no country, perhaps not even a name you can remember.
“And these are the lucky ones. There are thousands out here we haven’t got to yet,” says Christian Clark, a 33-year-old UNICEF worker who rolls another Rwandan child from the plastic sheeting of the Munigi camp cholera aid station onto a prickly blanket. He carries her to a rescue truck.
It is 9 a.m. and this is stop No. 1 in the daily round of the orphan express, the white U.N. Children’s Emergency Fund truck that rumbles over the sad, teeming landscape of eastern Zaire, scooping up the children that Rwanda’s war has abandoned.
The frail girl, who might be 8 years old, is placed on the dirty steel floor of the truck. Medical attendants load three more babies in a single blanket. Perhaps 3 to 6 months old, they too are naked. But one has a thin gold chain around her waist--the only thing she has to carry from this life into the great uncertainty of the next. That is, if someone doesn’t steal it from her, which is likely in this cruel land.
There are only four orphans today at this stop, fewer than usual.
Suddenly, a man emerges from the mass of refugees--everywhere here people are compressed into epic throngs. He hands up a 25-pound girl in a soiled and shapeless blue smock. The last of her known family died and she has been sitting alone for two days, the man explains.
She comes into the truck without protest, standing perfectly still on her hard-bottom feet, eyes as wide with wonder as a child at the gate of Disneyland. She has been watching trucks rumble by on this road; finally she will see where one goes.
Clark hands her a biscuit, which she takes with her good hand. She holds the other as if it’s hurt. Or maybe it’s just rigid with tension.
The girl stares at you with questions you can never know. She is trembling. She is covered with lice and crusty with filth. A reporter puts an arm around her. “That’s it,” Clark says. “She’ll warm up, you’ll see. These kids are starved for affection.”
Good God, you think, it’s only 9 a.m. and the rounds are just starting. Wouldn’t you be pathetic if you couldn’t hold back these burning tears in front of this girl?
Next, the airport and the French army post.
Word has already spread among the refugees. Each day, lost and orphaned children who no longer can endure the camps on their own learn of the truck stops. Some parents also hear of the UNICEF rescue. They drop off a child to lighten their own load. Perhaps they say to themselves: Nothing could be worse than keeping children in the camps, even if that means sending them down the road alone.
So far 7,400 unaccompanied children have been collected here by relief workers. UNICEF estimates an additional 10,000 to 70,000 roam alone. Each day, the orphanages exceed their capacity and are expanded farther onto the lava rocks.
“We’ve never, never seen anything like this before. Maybe it’s happened (before), but we haven’t seen it,” Clark says.
At these stops, the truck collects some older children. One, two and then another. They seem to appear from nowhere. You turn your back, and two have climbed up and taken a seat on the little school benches that ride unfettered under the canvas top of the truck. The children are quiet as they accept biscuits and water. Suddenly, two more have moved in.
We drive on, and Clark scrambles back and forth in the bouncing truck bed, smiling widely and trying to joke with the older children. There are no smiles back just yet, but a faint spark can be seen in their eyes--perhaps gratitude. A truck ride, a cookie and a hug are more than these children have had in a long time.
Wearing a dirty jacket and shorts, Joseph Bavurnda says he is 13--although he is only half the size of a Western teen-ager, with bony feet and big, curious eyes.
“My father died before in Kigali. My mother died with cholera after a one-week walk. I have two little brothers, but I don’t know where they are. We became apart at the border.”
On the roads, children, some of them very tiny, sit unattended in the dirt. In the teeming centers of the camps, who can know which of the thousands are attended to and which are not? Difficult as it is, the truck passes them all by. Surviving refugees are asked to help identify the lost, orphaned and abandoned and bring them to designated pickup sites. No one wants to accidentally take a child whose mother is off looking for food or water.
The next stop is the public hospital in Goma, Zaire, which is considered adequate by African standards. There are two and three patients in each bed, with others lying in tents and on the ground. Flies and the sharp smells of urine and infection fill the wards. But there seems to be a large medical staff.
A scene erupts.
A girl who is perhaps 3 has lost her mother to dysentery and adopted another female patient as a surrogate. But the woman explains that she has two children of her own and cannot support this child. The girl screams and will not let go. The surrogate mother’s agony shows on her face. A crowd gathers, noisily. Someone yanks the wailing child away.
Just this morning, reporters here learned via shortwave broadcast that some Western pundits were criticizing coverage of the refugees as exploitative. The critics should have seen this: the wailing, half-naked child clawing the air furiously for something to hold.
And there was the shoulder of Gloria Galloway, a reporter for the Canadian Press news service, herself a mother of three.
Her notebook in her pocket, Galloway carried the child back to the orphan express. Two other reporters lifted other children into the now-crowded vehicle and began the feeding chores. Somehow, counting the morning’s total of orphans was forgotten. Was it 20, or 30?
“The last time people fled like this was when Moses parted the Red Sea,” says Clark, a former scriptwriter for “Sesame Street.”
Today’s children are first taken to UNICEF headquarters in Goma, the town where relief efforts are coordinated. The children who are old enough to talk are registered here. Workers hope that if and when the outlying camps can be stabilized with food and medicine, at least some parents will come searching for missing children.
Then the truck drives to the final stop, the Carea Orphanage outside Goma. This is a tent city of tiny people, where the sick are separated by disease: cholera here, dysentery there, unknown over yonder.
The healthy move on to canvas tents with floors of plastic sheeting. Here, children care for other children.
And someone has done a good job of it already. A group of 6- or 7-year-old boys charges out of a tent to greet a visitor. With their arms folded, they bow in unison, smile and recite:
None of them looks when a tiny body is carried through the orphanage in a blanket. It is placed along the shoulder of the road for a different collection truck.
Three days ago at this orphanage, a 5-year-old girl showed up at the gate with an infant she found along the roadside in the arms of a dead mother. Today, the 5-year-old returned and inquired about the health of “her baby.” The infant died, but an orphanage worker lied and said everything was fine.
There are happier stories too, like the listless infant who would not eat or stop crying. A nurse held the dying toddler and happened to feel a bump. A surgeon extracted a bullet that had killed the mother and lodged in the child. The youngster grew plump in three days.
But what of these children a month from now when the rainy season turns the ground to mud? And a year from now when the eyes and hearts of the world have moved elsewhere? And 20 years after that, when they reach adulthood on this crowded and turbulent continent?
“I don’t know how these kids will survive emotionally,” says Pat Sheppard, a New Jersey nurse with the relief group AmeriCares. “I can hardly think about that yet. I only know it’s not going to get better for a long while.”