The lucky ones - many never made it
14:27 21 January 2006
They are the children of Sudan who were destined to die almost before their lives had begun. Now an incredible 700 of them have a future filled with hope - and it's all thanks to YOUR generosity.
They are the children of Sudan who were destined to die almost before their lives had begun. Now an incredible 700 of them have a future filled with hope - and it's all thanks to YOUR generosity. EDP deputy editor JAMES RUDDY reports.
It was a place of true horror in which the babies were lying together, crying together and dying together. This was the pitiful scene at the disease-ridden Maygoma Institute in Khartoum where the tiny bundles on the carpeted floors were simply dying like flies.
Countless abandoned new-born babies fretted out their last hours and days there, with little medical aid and without the love and care of a parent.
With little funding and hidden from public view, the grim complex of concrete buildings was a charnel house, pictured above in 2004, in which eight out of 10 babies were dead within a month of arriving.
Those who survived the dehydration, heat-stroke and exposure in the first days had to endure poor food and hygiene.
A few managed to stay alive in cots, starved of stimulation for so long that they were unable to walk, talk or feed themselves at the age of five.
Any hope of growing up normally had been snatched away and their destiny was to be dumped in another appalling institution for disturbed older children before being thrown on to the street.
So what was the crime of these babies whose first home in the city on the two Niles was as close to hell on earth as you can imagine?
The answer is that they were born outside of wedlock in a strictly administered sharia Muslim society which - as happened in the UK in the 1950s - rejects illegitimate children and their mothers.
Eighteen months ago that all began to change when our partner charity Hope and Homes for Children asked the EDP to back its plan to bring an end to this long-hidden tragedy.
The results have been little short of a miracle - saving no fewer than 700 babies from almost certain death over the past 18 months.
At a cost of £120 per child, instead of dying from neglect and disease, each has been given a future with new foster parents scattered across the sprawling capital.
I visited many of them, who are growing up now in loving and happy homes, with other families and with thankful parents who couldn't have their own baby.
Their new parents are teachers, car mechanics, secretaries, farmers and shopkeepers ... honest working parents, both Muslim and Christian, both childless and with their own delighted children.
They live in modest homes hewn from the brown sandstone that fills the dusty air everywhere in this metropolis of more than four million grindingly poor people.
All the foster parents told of their delight and that of their neighbours and friends at the new arrivals that they were treating with obvious love and care, as if they had been their own babies.
This modern-day miracle would not have happened without the money that poured in when the EDP first revealed the Maygoma tragedy in the autumn of 2004.
Every penny of the £85,000 donated by EDP readers to our Sudan baby appeal has been used by Hope and Homes for Children to fund this life-giving project in that war-torn country.
The money has rescued the children from almost certain death in the ramshackle and inhuman institute.
Foster parents have been given standard kits of food, hygiene equipment, clothes, toys and vital medical support to ensure the babies thrive and develop.
A network of trained staff has been set up to research, monitor and review each child's progress and to widen the project.
But your donations have also been used to help achieve the ultimate strategic aim - to close the awful Maygoma centre and the associated institute for disturbed children, effectively sealing this pipeline of death forever.
Maygoma's history stems from the bizarre association between the Communist Sudan of four decades ago and the Romania of its then madcap President Ceausescu. He had forced people by law to have large families to increase production and built up scores of huge inhuman state institutions into which hundreds of thousands of 'surplus' children were dumped to live loveless and often short lives.
Sudan had a parallel problem of unwanted children and imported his horrific solution, which led to the creation of the rambling complex as a means of handling its own tearful tide of innocent misery.
With few people knowing of its presence during the ensuing decades, the institute has played a key part in the abandonment and disposal of countless babies.
Often born in secret to terrified young women who had hidden their pregnancies, they have been brought in by police officers in very poor health, sometimes at a rate of up to 100 a month.
Left by the frightened women on riverbanks, in rubbish tips and even in septic tanks, they have often spent hours after birth dying slowly from thirst, lack of food and without medical aid in blazing 40C heat, surrounded by diseased rubbish.
Facing septicaemia, dehydration, heat stroke and low birth weight due to lack of pre-natal care, more than half of these tiny children have been found dead in the open. Of those taken in, many have succumbed within hours after arrival.
Their lifeless, emaciated bodies have then been placed in a van and taken on a short drive to an unmarked burial ground. There, holes have been dug for many thousands of babies to be buried without a tear to be shed or a friend to mourn their passing.
Yet, outside official police and government circles, few people have known what was happening behind the institute's grim walls.
Hope and Homes for Children, which has been helping war orphans in Sudan since 1998, decided to act urgently when its expert, Georgette Mulheir, learned its full horrors after being asked to join a task force with the Sudanese government and Unicef to look at alternatives to institutionalised care for abandoned babies.
She devised HHC's closure policy, creating a top-to-bottom delivery model including funding (£85,000 from EDP readers), re-educating the population and creating the vital network of emergency and permanent foster parents together with social workers to support them.
Co-operating with politicians, police, imams, judges, lawyers and health professionals, she has seen dramatic changes in attitudes to illegitimate children and their mothers.
Instead of punishing the women, sometimes with official lashing, the aim now is to help them to keep their babies. Religious leaders have helped with the publicity campaign of adverts, posters and lectures that have made that happen. They have argued that it was never the intention of the Prophet Mohammed for innocent babies or their mothers to be punished for illegitimacy.
Such deep-seated tradition is bound up in State as well as religious thinking and can be difficult to reverse. In the UK, it took fundamental 1960s social developments including the contraceptive pill and the liberalisation of women before illegitimate children and their mothers came to be viewed as 'acceptable.'
In Khartoum, where many Muslim and Christian families live happily in mixed neighbourhoods, the change in attitudes has been remarkable, with foster parents lining in their hundreds to take in the babies and with many families no longer rejecting the young mothers and their illegitimate babies.
Even so, old habits die hard and babies are still being abandoned in the city. For them, a key difference is that they are receiving far better care from police officers called to take them to Maygoma. On arrival, conditions have been vastly improved by the French arm of the medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontiers, to enable the children to survive.
The staggering death rates of three years ago have dramatically reduced. Official records show that in the five years between 1998 and 2003, of the 2500 babies admitted, no fewer that 2100 died. The mortality rate now has dropped from 80pc monthly to less than 10pc.
HHC founder president Caroline Cook, on a recent research mission to Maygoma, discovered exactly what a difference had been made by the programme paid for by EDP readers.
She said: “Like everyone else, I was deeply shocked when I first heard about the plight of the babies in Maygoma.
“But, in less than two years, thanks to the support of the Eastern Daily Press, the situation has been completely transformed.
“The team's most significant achievement is that they have been able to place more than 650 babies in loving family homes, as well as reunite almost 50 with their birth mothers.
“This is an amazing accomplishment and during my visit I was lucky enough to meet some families who have adopted children from Maygoma.”
Among them was Rogina, described by Caroline as “one of the most inspirational and amazing women I have met.”
Rogina recently volunteered to look after a nine-month-old baby from Maygoma as an emergency foster mother.
Not only that, but she has also taken in a vulnerable mother with a newborn baby.
“Without Rogina's help, the desperate young mother would almost certainly have resorted to abandoning her baby,” said Caroline.
“The child was in real danger of becoming another Maygoma statistic.
“However, with Rogina's help that is now unlikely to happen. Although from a humble background herself, Rogina offers whatever assistance she can. As well as providing shelter, food and other essentials, she is working with the mother and the girl's parents to try to help strengthen the relationship between them.
“She is also helping the mother to work out her relationship with the baby's father as they eventually plan to marry.”
The success of the HHC/EDP Maygoma project has meant that there are currently more children than ever in the institution as many more are surviving their first few months of life.
The sight of so many dumped children in one place remains tragic.
As Caroline pointed out: “Whilst it is heartbreaking to walk along the corridors of the orphanage and see row upon row of babies who are crying out for love and affection, I know that our team will not rest until each and every child is placed within the care of a family.
“Thanks to the generous support of readers of the Eastern Daily Press our dream of closing the Maygoma orphanage is changing into a reality.”