If I could paint a portrait of what I saw today, my palette would consist of clouded tones of black and deep crimson. I would smear and throw the colors across the canvas with perfervid rage and torment, since the goal of this endeavor would be to capture the emotions within the scene. I would hang this painting in a hallway for viewers to observe. It would most likely seem non-sensical, maybe even off putting, and a waste of one's precious time. Many may describe it as a "monstrous atrocity." Writing this artist off as insane, maybe even diabolical, many would hurry off to the cafe for hot tea and a sweet.
What if I went back to my painting and added a colorful shape to the middle of this grim and violent landscape? I will add a toddler's chair—a whimsical green shade like the chairs my children sat in while playing a game in nursery school. I will hang it back up now. Now, what do you think of my painting? Does it make any sense yet? Stay awhile and let me explain.
I do not believe anyone in the Western world could imagine, much less comprehend, the landscape I witnessed, unless you have experienced it for yourself. The scene was so horrific, so violent and so nonsensical, that I continue to struggle to absorb its reality.
I entered the ward looking for a particular patient—a young boy no more than 5 years of age—who I had met the day prior. I had been drawn to him, lying silently in a dilapidated metal crib. His face was buried in the mattress, his legs bent toward his chest, wrapped in thick layers of gauze soaked with old blood and putrid green pus. While the other child-patients in the ward ran around making playful noises like children do, climbing over beds, running the corridors of the floors unattended by any adults, this boy remained motionless, yet I could sense his body and his mind silently screaming in pain.
As I peered through the bars of his bed, he looked into my eyes for a few seconds, then looked down, as if he was being scolded. He continued in this manner while I spoke to him. It seemed to take all the effort he could muster just to nod his head "yes" when I asked him if he understood English. As his eyes remained locked on mine for longer periods of time, I realized I was looking in to the face of a baby boy who had been traumatized. When I asked him his name, his eyes frantically darted around the room as if someone was listening, and he would be punished for talking to me. I whispered, "You seem frightened. Are you frightened?" He quickly nodded "yes." One cultural trait I am attuned to after 4 weeks of being in this environment, getting the same answer to the question "what happened," is that there is a code of silence embedded in the constitution of the people, especially women and children. Yet the abuse could not be more obvious. The usual answer to my query of "what happened" is "tea." I rarely ask anymore.
I held this frightened child's hand and asked him if I could come back the next day and visit. He nodded "yes." At this point his eyes were locked on mine, his hand gripping mine a little harder. I promised him that while he is in the hospital he would be safe, and that I would be his friend.
When I went to find him today, he was not in his bed. One of the other children knew I was looking for him, so she grabbed my hand and led me to a hallway where patients sit in a cue on a wooden bench waiting to have their dressings removed, skin scrubbed and re-bandaged. This is where the horror started.
A mirage of black and red is all my conscious could absorb at first glance. As the little girl guided me closer, I saw the outline of something bright green, immediately registering how odd, yet somehow pleasing this color was in the overall landscape. The closer I came, the more the colors became differentiated into bodies. Closer still, these bodies became those of naked women, sitting silently in a row—their bodies twisted, their faces burned beyond recognition—ears, fingers, lips and toes missing. These women had been sitting raw and exposed for hours, blood dripping on the floor, air blowing across their butchered and infected skin. How had these women sustain their brutal injuries? You got it: "tea."
In the little green chair sat my friend, the little boy I had come to see. His thickly wrapped and soaked legs curled towards the floor, he sat with a his head resting in one of his hands, eyes cast to the floor.
I squatted next to him. His eyes locked on mine with such intense fear that I wanted to carry him away. I asked him if he would like to talk, sensing he may open up since other children were not around, and no one else would be able to hear our conversation if we whispered. He nodded "yes." In a diminutive voice, saying as few words as necessary, he told me his father had burned both he and his mother. He did not know why, but his father was mad, and this was not the first time his father had hurt him. He knew his mother was somewhere in the hospital, but has not seen her in almost 2 weeks and did not know how she was. He was worried about her. He was scared of his father, and scared being in the hospital.
While he spoke, one naked and deformed body after another entered and exited the room directly in front of us. The door was left wide open. Workers in water boots and protective gowns stood spraying the floor with a garden hose, as a patient's raw skin was painfully and mercilessly being scrubbed. Although the treatment was excruciating, and the women were giving little if any pain medicine that had surely already worn off as they waited for hours, these women remained silent. Occasionally, a moan of pain would escape one's lips, but she would quickly silence herself. No one cared about their screams anyway, so silence in the harshest of conditions was a well learned trait. However, one small girl, shivering naked and bent, disfigured beyond recognition, could not keep her agony in, and screamed as her raw skin was mercilessly scrubbed, like one might do scrubbing a car, joints stretched into positions by the workers in ways her injuries forbade. Instead of offering a word of comfort, the doctor in charge proceeded to slap her until she fell silent.
As I held his tiny hand, I noticed it had been burned before. I asked him if his father did this as well. "Yes," he nodded. We sat in silence. In that beat of time, I was unable to muster the courage to ask him more. Eventually, I asked him if he wanted me to go into the treatment room with him. He held my hand tighter, nodding "yes." I asked the nurse and was denied. I told him I would sit with him until it was his time for his treatment, and would wait right there until he was finished. I sat with him for over an hour, witnessing the mangled flesh of mothers and daughters silently shivering, staring at the floor.
I found myself staring in wonder at his uninjured hand, fingers nervously playing with a string of gauze that was part of the bandage on his thigh. For a brief moment, I looked at his hand, fingers of a baby who was becoming a toddler, and captured that perfect form away from the mangled body it belonged to. I spent a few moments wrapped in the sweetness I felt looking at the hands of a child—miraculously beautiful in form and potential. Yet I chocked up when I attached that tiny form back to its reality, my gaze traveling to his perfectly shaped head with tightly woven curls of black hair, and his lucsious baby cheeks, knowing he would never play games like my children did at his age. His tiny green chair would never serve him as a place to sit and giggle, eating lunch with his friends after a morning of play.
It was taking so long. I gently rubbed his head as he rested it on my lap. I was wishing him to sleep, to escape from this place, even if only for a short reprieve. Yet, I can only imagine what his dreams are like when he drifts off.
I felt confused, unable to fully discern my thoughts. Were these women and children incredibly strong and unimaginably stoic, that in some twisted way I should feel proud of them? Or, and what resonated the most, was the agony I experienced acknowledging the real truth: that their silence most likely stemmed from a life of submission that had been beaten in to them. These women and children are the byproduct of an oppressed and impoverished society.
I felt my throat constrict as tears formed. I had been there too long, and knew I needed to leave. I leaned down and whispered in his ear, "I am sorry. I have to go to another hospital. I can no longer stay." I was both tormented and incensed. Why did he need to sit there for hours and witness such pain? Wasn't he traumatized enough? Where was someone to love him, to love the others waiting in the cue? Desperate, I remembered I had bought lollipops earlier in the morning. I opened my bag so he could peak in and see them. With his beautiful child-hand, he reached in and grabbed a cherry one. I unwrapped it for him, and he placed it in his mouth. His eyes brightened as he tasted the sweetness. I leaned toward him and said, "Remember, I am your friend." He took one of those sweet fingers of his unmarred hand, and pointed to his heart, telling me, he was my friend too.
May we never walk past this, just because we can't imagine it. It is real and calling us to take note.