A Small Life Lost
The Intensive Therapeutic Feeding Center in Batil refugee camp’s only hospital is a series of dusty white tents, their flaps open to reveal rows of rope beds where parents hold their emaciated children and wait to see whether they will live or die.
Batil is just one in a series of refugee camps in Upper Nile state, South Sudan, where at least 114,000 have fled violence at the hands of Sudan government forces in bordering Blue Nile state. Refugees arrive daily at the camp with harrowing stories of being bombed out of their homes in the north, or having their villages burned by northern soldiers. The campaign began late last year when the government in Khartoum began a fierce counterinsurgency against former civil war foes in Blue Nile, and has continued in waves.
When I was there in late July, more than 1,000 children had been admitted to the nutritional program at this camp alone, but the feeding center is reserved for the worst cases. Many could no longer absorb food or water; several had been orphaned on their long journey to the camp.
Refugees arrive weak and exhausted after weeks, or months in some cases, of travel along what has become known as the “road of death.” The camps are on a vast flood plain, leaving tents flooded and refugees vulnerable to disease. Poor hygiene conditions and a lack of food have exacerbated the health situation.
I was taking pictures on the far side of one of the tents when I noticed a flurry of activity around one of the beds. Hassan Mahmour, a 9-month-old boy, had just died of severe acute malnutrition. Lynn Pearson, an American pediatrician who had been treating Hassan, closed his eyes. A translator quietly explained to his mother, Albeit Mohamed, that he had died.
As many as four young children die at Batil camp every day, according to Doctors Without Borders: more than double the established emergency threshold.
Within minutes, Albeit was on her way home, her son’s body wrapped in a gray hospital blanket. The mile or so it took to arrive at her family’s tent became an informal procession. A few were given the honor of carrying Hassan’s body part of the way home. The body was passed for the last time in front of the family tent, where Albeit’s father embraced the child.
Over a dozen women from the area met in the tent to mourn. Albeit sat in the corner, quietly shaking beneath her sky-blue scarf. A family member lay convulsing on the floor, while several thin, strong women struggled to hold her down. Outside, the men gathered, speaking in hushed tones. Hassan’s tiny body was measured with a stick, and Albeit’s father sat in a corner as he sewed a rough shroud for the child from a mosquito net issued by a nongovernmental organization.
In the back of the tent, a sheikh carefully washed Hassan’s body. His features appeared impossibly small against the grown man’s hand as he dressed and wrapped the body in netting.
A ring of thorn bushes surrounded the makeshift burial site. The hole that had been dug was the fourth in a series of tiny graves. Hassan’s body was placed in the direction of Mecca, and hands raised, the men prayed. Underneath the shade of a plastic awning, the body was lowered into the ground, covered with emerald foliage, and filled with dirt.
In the United States, we are used to death being behind closed doors, and to the privacy of grief. When people are living shoulder-to-shoulder, death becomes much more public, and in South Sudan, far too common.