War makes girl, 10, mom of the family
By: James McCarten
Updated: April 4, 2008 at 06:23 AM CDT
KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — From down a dusty path reputed to be the second-most dangerous road in the world, a heart-wrenching sight emerged to greet Canadian soldiers Thursday — a group of orphaned children led by a girl of no more than 10 came in search of medical care.
The girl, an emerald-green scarf around her head, carried a toddler in her arms as they made their way tentatively toward a police substation manned by Canadian soldiers and Afghan police officers, in the heart of the treacherous Panjwaii district, birthplace of the Taliban.
Details of their background were sketchy at best, but interpreters said they walked nearly two hours over perilous terrain in search of help, said Sgt. Mike McKay, from Bravo Company, 2 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton.
Both of their parents are dead and the kids live with a “deranged” uncle who doesn’t provide much care, said McKay, 37, from Winnipeg.
“For me, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “There’s a 10-year-old girl who’s living what’s probably the hardest lesson in life: you’re the oldest one, you’re now in charge.”
The children sat down at the edge of a stretch of razor wire as police and soldiers gathered to inspect the patient: a boy of about five, his almost hairless scalp red with patches of infected skin.
Cpl. Robert Gould, a medic with A Company, 3 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, also based in Edmonton, happened to be travelling in one of the many patrols that grind up and down the road, popular with insurgents seeking to plant improvised explosive devices.
“Tell him this is going to burn a little,” Gould told an interpreter as he cleaned the festering sores with alcohol before applying antiseptic ointment and gauze bandages.
Gould, 23, from Peterborough, Ont., said the children had been to the sub-station before, hoping for some form of treatment and whatever charity they could scrounge.
The entire procedure took only a few minutes but could well end up preventing the infection from becoming even more serious or even life-threatening, he added.
Plus, such gestures might one day bear fruit, Gould said.
“If all they’ve been taught is to hate, then that’s what they’re going to do, they’re going to hate,” he said.
“If we just keep shooing them away and shooing them away, if people get tired of seeing them here, if you’re going to play that game, that has relevant factors down the road, not just for us, but for everyone else.”
Afghanistan, a country ravaged by decades of war and centuries of poverty, had an estimated 1.6 million orphaned children out of a population of about 26 million in 2005, according to UNICEF statistics.
It also ranks third in the world in countries where a child is most likely to die before the age of five; there were 257,000 such deaths in 2006. The average life span in Afghanistan is just 43 years.
One interpreter tried to convince the soldiers to take the children into Kandahar city, where they would have access to local orphanage facilities and aid agencies.
But the military can’t be seen to be ferrying orphans across Afghanistan, McKay said.
“The children are the victims in this whole mess,” McKay said.
“At 10, she’s not a mom. In Canada, 10-year-olds are playing with Barbies and on a swing and stuff like that, and she’s already taking responsibility for being a mother.”
About an hour later, McKay returned to the substation gate to find the children still sitting in the same spot, clearly unsure of whether to begin their long, dangerous trek home.
“I think we should set up an orphanage ourselves,” he said, straight-faced and gesturing to one of the many deserted mud-walled compounds that line the road throughout Panjwaii.
— The Canadian Press