I share the outrage and disgust and sadness that many people feel after seeing the photographs of the Pazaric Children's Home presented by Sabina Cudic today in the Federation parliament. To be honest, I am a bit shocked that we are so shocked. The harshness and cruelty the government and its institutions have shown its citizens over the past 25 years has perhaps numbed me, but in no way I am shocked by the photos Sabina presented to our elected officials.
The stories we regularly hear of nightmare visits to the emergency room, newborns getting Mrsa in our hospitals, pensioners rummaging through rubbish bins for food, the filthy air we breath…none of it is shocking to me anymore. It is and has been our norm for a very long time. For that I don’t blame the government. I blame us. We have tolerated a level of moral bankruptcy that few countries in modern Europe ever have. One other country does come to mind, however. Romania. That’s the point of what comes next.
Just after the war in Bosnia I went back ‘home’ to rest in the states. My rest made me restless. So I volunteered to go to Romania to work in a ‘camin spital’ which is basically an institution for physically and mentally handicapped children. In short, the equivalent of our Pazaric children’s home. It was located in a small, shitty village called Ionoseni in Romania’s far northeast, not far from the Ukranian border. Botosani was the nearest town. Botosani was a shithole too.
Three of us drove from Vienna. An Austrian therapist who was leading the mission for the Serious Road Trip invited us to set up sensory stations for children – to stimulate them with different games, textures, smells, and to provide their keepers with healing tools to ease the discomfort of child and caregiver alike.
The conditions there were hellish. It made Pazaric seem like Disneyland. There were many common threads just from seeing these photos on Klix, though. Although I was a seasoned war volunteer veteran by then…I was a virgin to witnessing these kinds of conditions for children. There were babies with AIDS who had never been touched by a human hand. There were children who had ‘joker’ faces because the caregivers had rammed food down their throats with spoons that were larger than their little mouths, cutting the sides of their mouths every time they were fed. There were children with slight behavioral issues who were overwhelmed by the ones with much more serious conditions. Children will all types of issues and ailments were just thrown into one basket and, as I would quickly discover, the trend was generally that the easier cases (including ourselves) became progressively worse being in this environment. I found many children with severe physical disabilities tied to metal beds with no mattresses. They just lay there, on cold metal box springs, with their hands and legs tied with gauze to the legs of the bed. On one occasion, when I untied one boy and carried his contorted body outside into the sun, he started to convulse. To be honest I sort of shit myself for about 5 seconds until I realized his convulsions were more of a system shock to having sunlight on his face. In about a minute his body calmed and a smile came to his face that will remain with me until my dying day. The healing rays of the sun.
Then there was Anishwara . She was two, maybe almost three. I fell in love instantly. She was a self- abuser and had the scars to prove it. Anishwara was a beautiful girl with shaved blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Her face and head always had cuts and scrapes from her hurting herself. In my presence she was calm. Clingy but calm. I had a lot of work to do but she was almost always in my arms or hanging on my leg. I didn’t mind a bit. After about a week and half I was with her at one of the sensory stations we had designed and set up. I sat on the floor and Anishwara sat between my legs. For a moment I gave my attention to another small child next to us. Anishwara wasn’t having any of that. Before I could react she bucked her head backwards and then violently slammed her face forward into the floor. Blood dripped from her forehead. She didn’t like the attention I was giving the other child one bit. That attention was supposed to be for her…and her only. And she let me know that in no unconditional terms. I understood, the hard way, how much I had to learn. I felt a stomach-churning guilt overwhelm me. I wanted to hold her, give her the love she so desperately wanted and needed. But I would be leaving in 3-4 weeks time. So the well-intentioned love and attention I was giving her – with that level of intensity - wasn’t actually what was good for her at all. It was good for me, perhaps. It felt good at the time. Then she taught me a lesson in consequences.
A few weeks later I had giardia and would drink a cup of water and shit what seemed to be a whole canister of it. I was tired. I was frustrated at the conditions these children lived in day in and day out. The caregivers worked for a monthly wage that could buy their own children a pair of shoes. There was little professional assistance. They worked hard and most of them did their very best which was, of course, not even close to being enough. But it was the system that was to blame. Not the caregivers. They had little or no resources. Almost no training whatsoever. I was burned out after less than a month. I can’t even fathom what it was like for them to live and breathe this reality on a daily basis. I wanted to go back to my Mostar frontline where I could navigate through sniper fire, lack of food and no electricity. I missed the good life of war. I wish I was kidding. I assure you I'm not.
Just before we left we had a day with the teenagers outside. One mute boy, who was a large and strong teenager, appeared in light blue sweat pants. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had white cowboy boots on that were way too big for him. We all chuckled at his appearance. (Jebi ga, it was funny.) He squatted on the ground just beside a large tree. Now as much as one tries it’s not always easy to treat all of the children equally. You develop ‘favorites’ and there are inevitably a few that you are less fond of. One of those was a quite good looking boy with no physical disabilities whatsoever. He was one of the naughty ones. He thought he was cute. In retrospect he was probably hormonal and showing off for me. He looked at me with this devious look on his face. He turned towards the shirtless mute, walked towards him and without warning reared his foot back and kicked the squatting teenager in the tailbone. The impact sent chills down my spine. The boy just collapsed in pain, unable to walk. The culprit turned to me and laughed. I lost the plot. I rushed towards him, pushing him up against the tree. I grabbed him by the neck and squeezed. I kept on squeezing until the color in his face started to go blue. He sank to the base of the tree but I kept my hand secure on his neck. It probably only lasted about 20 seconds but when I finally released him from my grip I think I had a mini-breakdown. I knew the gravity of my sin. I felt ashamed. I told our team leader I needed to leave this place. We loaded up and headed back to Vienna a few days later.
The conditions that both children and caregivers live in many of these institutions are unforgivable. The level of cruelty is beyond comprehension. I am not here to make excuses for the board of directors that are supposed to oversee the care given to these needy children or the caregivers that tied them up in that manner. But if we’re honest with ourselves, Eastern Europe is still wrought with societies that take offense to defects that make these children castaways in the first place. We’d rather hide them away somewhere than give them a chance to integrate or be among us, even if it’s a damn hard challenge to do so. We often deal with problems with the mindset of ‘out of sight out of mind.’ Just like when we dump our rubbish into the river and the current takes it away. We pretend as if it no longer exists. We are as much part of the problem as are the assholes responsible for this shitshow in Pazaric.
To be clear – aside from hailing facebook stones at the government establishment that has treated us all like animals for decades we also need to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror at what we’ve become and how and why we can justify this level of apathy that has paralyzed, humiliated and belittled us all.
Chile. Lebanon. Bolivia. Hong Kong. Ecuador. Algeria. Sudan.