Life and death. Today we saw both in all their wonder and horror the numbing tragedy of a tiny newborn baby’s life slipping quietly away, the overflowing joy of children, playing and laughing in the safety and love of our street children’s centre. Surrounding both, we saw the care and determination of World Vision’s Afghan staff and partners to bring life to children from their first cry through every day of their precious childhoods.
The scene that we witnessed unfolding inside the little neonatal unit at the provincial hospital this morning runs in freeze frame through my head. We step inside. Two empty incubators across the room. On the right a bright pink miniature bundle in a crib screaming lamb-like tiny cries.
The attention of Dr Sabbor and the nurse is focused elsewhere. On the dark haunting eyes and pale grey body of a premature baby rushed here just minutes ago straight from delivery. The nurse presses the small ventilator again and again passing air down the tube into his poorly formed lungs.
His heart is still beating but it’s clear all is not well, and as the minutes pass I hear her tell the doctor “no more vital signs”. Slowly, gently she stops and after a moment of stillness she pulls the blanket over him. It feels wrong that a life can pass so quickly and quietly. It feels wrong to be here, when his mother lies nearby unaware, recovering from labour.
I feel helpless to say or do anything, but pray for them both, recalling the rage and raw grief of a Cambodian mother holding her dying.
on in her arms twenty years ago. Noory, the midwife who delivered the little boy arrives and is visibly shaken – she’s only 21 herself and still completing her training. After 29 deliveries this is the first baby she’s lost and she departs to see and tell his mother.
Thriving amid fragility
Dr Saboor turns his attention back to the living, to the still so vulnerable baby across the room. A young woman arrives. It’s Rubia the young mother of little Hasim and we hear their story and see a new mother’s joy and exhaustion across her face.
The statistics and language of child and maternal mortality in Afghanistan came to life in a whole new way in that unforgettable 30 minutes. Nearly one in five children here die before their fifth birthday. Every 30 minutes a mother dies in childbirth. There are 30 million people in Afghanistan and it’s impossible to imagine what we witnessed this morning writ large across the country.
But there is hope. Hope in Hasim’s lung-bursting cries of life. Hope in the care that’s enabled Hasim and so many others to thrive from the most fragile of starts in life. Hope in the young midwives that we met this morning that World Vision is helping to train – 200 of them already in hospitals across western Afghanistan and 30 community level midwives who will soon extend this to many unreached health centres.
A life-saving difference
Young women like Shafiqa, just 18 and Noorya, 21, who talked with pride and excitement about their work. They reminded me of the community midwives of 1950s London’s east end brought to life so vividly in BBC TV’s recent ‘Call the Midwife’. Midwives are just one way in which World Vision and others are making a life-saving difference for the women and children of Afghanistan – in the last 10 years maternal death in childbirth has almost halved and infant death rates are falling steadily.
Full of confidence
We ended the day with children bursting with life and hope at World Vision’s street children centre here. So full of confidence, so proud of graduating from their informal class here and getting places in formal local schools that were far beyond them just a year ago when they worked each day in hard and hazardous conditions in the city streets. Best of all was playing with them – table football with the boys, while the girls built homes for toy animals.
They love the staff here, especially the counsellor Mariam who has helped so many of them recover from damaging childhood experiences. My wife Mischka would have loved it here, although it’s a far cry from her work counselling university students in England.
Cherishing children and childhoods
As we ended, several boys and girls grabbed their home made kites and waved them high above their heads – their faces will be in my mind as I turn the pages of ‘The Kite Runner’ before I sleep tonight. My prayers will linger not only on them but on the baby boy and his mother, father, brother and sisters who are mourning his death tonight.
For any of you reading this pray for the children of Afghanistan, and cherish your own children and childhoods so much safer from the hardship and heartache that many here face.