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Watching a child die. Bati, Ethiopia, 1985

1985 August 9
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by Paul Vallely

I set out in a bumpy landrover for the camp at Bati which until a few years before had been the second largest market in all Ethiopia. In the past tens of thousands of farmers and nomads had gathered there, on the edge of the rift valley half way between the highlands and the lowland desert plains. They had gathered again, but this time without the cereals and livestock which previously formed the basis of their trade. Both groups, some 30,000 of them, were now destitute after a drought which had lasted almost five years.

The camp was accounted one of the successes of the region. Only around five people were dying every day. Government food supplies had been regular and the Red Cross had mounted a comprehensive medical programme. The people were in better health. Surprisingly the effect was un-nerving. In Korem people seemed to have gone beyond despair, beyond feeling even; they sat like breathing statues, drained of everything except the mechanics of being alive. At Bati the response was more devastatingly human. People smiled, cursed, begged, laughed, held out their hands or stared in silent accusation.

Between the tents a gleeful boy played with a toy made from a stick and the empty box of an anti-diarrhoea medicine. In the yard of the feeding centre the men sat on their haunches in a semi-circle; some stared pointedly at the ground, others looked with pleading expectation, others yet with forthright curiosity and others with glaring hostility.  I found it hard not to avert my gaze. It did not feel right that an outsider should witness their shame, their prostrate degradation. These people were robbed of independence, initiative and privacy; they are a proud people and they resented it.

Kubra Muhammed was in the clinic watching her two children being weighed. They were the same size, though the boy Hussein was three and his sister Wela was only one year old. Hussein held his hand over his eyes; he did not want to be weighed. Wela acquiesced placidly. I asked the interpreter a list of questions which had by now become a mawkish routine and she translated the replies.

“She says she is 40, she thinks. Her husband left her six months ago to look for work. She has not seen him since. She does not know where he has gone. They have run out of the grain they stored at the last harvest. Last year was a bad harvest but this year there has been nothing at all. She has come to live here. The boy will get supplementary feeding, the girl will not.”

Then Kubra Muhammed turned and spoke to me. “Why do you want to know all this?”

In the hospital tent the canvas walls had Christmas pictures fastened still above the beds. They had been sent by children in Scandinavia, anachronistic reminders of a time before this new reality. In one corner, under a picture of a snowman, sat Fatima Muhammed. She was a beautiful woman with the fine features of the Afar nomads. She smiled as I approached, and yet before her was the most horrifying sight I had ever seen.

On the bed was her 18-month-old child, Hadra. She lay like a grotesque puppet, her head huge, her limbs like insensible twigs flopped aimlessly about her. Her huge eyes stared with such ferocity as if they had an independent life and were straining to move back inside her head, away from the world outside which had brought her to this. Her mouth was open, and a fly ran around its pitiful circumference.

It seemed an inanity to ask, but I did: “How is the child?”

“She is dying. Soon I will be able to go back to my village to see my son. He is four years old.”

I told her I was sorry and I hoped that the boy is well. She smiled and said something else.

“What was that?” I asked the interpreter.

“She says, thank you. She says how are you? How is your family?”

I smiled and nodded, with no real answer to give. She smiled too. We smiled at each other over the dying body of the matchstick child.

from The Times 9 August 1985

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