The Man of the House – Vita Crux
I’ve been out at the train station for a few hours now. For the past couple weeks, I have gotten up, met with the other members of the team for breakfast, gathered supplies and headed to our northern most clinic, at the train station. I arrive early, to set the clinic up, meet with the army unit that is providing protection and get an update on the number of refugees that are expected for that day. It doesn’t really take that long, but I have also started my own “side clinic” for the local community that lives around the train station. A group of boys have latched on to me, and come to the station every morning to help. In return, I have been spending a couple hours going out to their homes in the area and providing what care I can to their families. Today has been no different.
The lieutenant from the army unit comes by to let me know that the convoy is a few minutes out. Everything is ready as the trucks pull into the station. They back up to the loading ramps and open the gates. There is no way to describe the destitution, the pain, or the sorrow that emanates from these people. They are sick, tired, hungry and broken. We are likely the first glimpse of hope for them in weeks. As they unload from the trucks, soldiers and volunteers alike help them into the station. They are guided through a food and supply area where they are given bottled water, meager food rations, blankets and clothing. From there they are separated into two groups bound toward the two camps in the south. They camps are all but identical, however, we need to divide them up so neither camp is overwhelmed. They can rest and eat in these waiting areas where we’ve set up benches for them, almost like a real train station. From there we make our rounds through the groups looking for those who may need medical attention.
I spot him over against the wall. He’s a good looking kid, in any other circumstances I would imagine he could be in some teen magazine. But something was wrong. He didn’t look right and he wasn’t eating like the majority of the kids his age. Over the years I have come to rely on my “somethings wrong, spidey senses”, so I went over to talk with him. Now, I had managed to pick up some Albanian while I was there, but for the more in depth conversations I relied on a translator. We set in with the common greetings, introductions, and basic questions. He was 13, his sister was 7, and his grandmother (who I guessed to be mid 50’s, asking a woman’s age isn’t polite anywhere) were the only members of the family that arrived. He was pleasant enough, just distant, and seemed to be fixated on the idea that ALL of them had to go to the same camp. I reassured him that we sent families together, that there wasn’t anything to be concerned about. I asked if there was anything we could do for them. If they felt sick, had been injured, needed medication. They assured me that they were fine, that it had just been a long trip. Though not really satisfied with the answers, I decided that there was a few hours before the train came, so I could let it rest for now. We moved on to another family, and another, asking the same questions, offering the same assistance. Some had issues that we could help with and I directed them to the clinic we had set up in the station. Others were beyond what we could offer, either medications we didn’t have, or long term problems we couldn’t address. I wrote out clinical notes for those people to present to the intake officers at the camps where they were headed. That would at least get them into the clinics there, where they could have follow up care. We had a good relationship with the camps and they always addressed the concerns that we sent them.
As I was kneeling down, scribbling out one of these notes, I felt a tapping at my shoulder. The little girl, the young mans sister, was standing there. She held out a rag, a torn up shirt really, that was soaked in blood. I looked up at my translator, and he went to work investigating the source of the rag. It was her brother, he had been wounded, and didn’t want to say anything for fear of being separated. He had made the little girl and grand mother promise not to say anything until they reached their destination. She just couldn’t keep quiet anymore because he looked so sick.
We immediately headed back to where they were. As we approached, he saw the look on my face, and saw his sister and knew the story was out. He immediately started in that he was fine, that he could wait, that they had to stay together.
Now over the years, I have developed a, shall we say, knack for persuasion. I assured him that they had all been assigned to the same camp, they were already on the list, and that it was more trouble to change it than to just leave it alone. All I wanted was for him to come with me to the clinic so I could get him a better bandage for the trip. Apparently, this seemed reasonable, because he agreed. We helped him up and guided him over to the clinic. As we moved across the station and into better light I could see how pale he really was. Supporting his arm I could feel the heat radiating off of him, the heat of a fever. There were cots set up in the clinic, and I chose one by the wall, with a little more privacy. As he removed his jacket, I could see the blood soaked shirt underneath. He lifted his shirt, and pealed away the makeshift bandage. The wound wasn’t large, only about an inch and a half, but it was deep in his abdomen. It was surgical, and I am not a surgeon, nor was I equipped to fake it here. He needed a hospital, and he needed one now. I pressed a fresh bandage over the wound, and he winced in pain. His abdomen was already starting to tighten up, an automatic response to the spreading infection. I told him he needed to go to the hospital. I told him there was a military hospital a few miles away that could take care of him, they would fly him over there and he could go to the camp a few days later. He protested, reminding me that I had said his family would stay together. I told him that the military won’t fly family, just the injured. He could meet them at the camp later. He insisted that they stay together. I could see that this was going to be a circular argument. He looked at me, and motioned me to sit down, looking around I could see that he wanted to tell me something, but quietly. I sat at the edge of the bed, and motioned for my translator to sit in a chair close by.
There the three of us huddled together as this young man relayed his story of the past few days. The story of his family running to escape, of their murder in front of him, of his destitution as he crawled free from their bodies, of the glimmer of joy having found his sister and grandmother alive, and of the awesome responsibility he now felt as the man of the house. As his story came to an end, the events of the past few days broke through in waves of emotion. He grasped my arm, and began sobbing. I put my arm around him and whispered është mirë, “it’s ok”, the only words that would come to me at the moment.
Several minutes passed, before I could leave his side. I asked my translator to bring his family over, and to reassure this young man that I would do everything I could. I went to the lieutenant and asked to contact the hospital. Briefly relaying the young mans story to the captain on the other end of the phone, was enough to circumvent the “no families” rule. The helicopter would be enroute within a few minutes, for all of them.
I returned to the young man and explained the new plan. He and his family would be flown to the hospital, they would treat him, and when he was well enough, the whole family would go together to the camp. The glimmer of a smile that passed over his face, as he finally relaxed, was one of the best sights I had seen in this makeshift clinic. As we awaited the helicopter, I set about getting him ready for the trip. I started an IV to replace the fluid he had lost, started some antibiotics to treat his infection and cleaned and bandaged the wound. Having done all that I could to treat him, we sat together and talked. Not about the atrocities that he had just endured, but about the hopes and dreams that any 13 year old boy should have. About cars, holidays, football, where he wanted to go with his family, the future that lay before him.
As the helicopter lifted off that afternoon, I hoped that my actions could temper the actions of those who brought this tragedy of war. The politics surrounding the war in Kosovo have presented many facets. Those who have supported and those who have condemned the imputes for war. There are those who have said that the atrocities reported are government propaganda, that they have been blown out of proportion and weren’t that bad. I challenge them. I have heard the stories first hand. I have seen the results first hand. I have stood over the mass graves of hundreds of slaughtered men, women and children. I challenge them to have one ounce of the fortitude of this young man. I challenge them to admit the heinous behavior that takes place in war, and to embrace the change necessary for it to never happen again. No one should have their childhood ripped away from them, no one should be thrust into the roll of “man of the house” before their time.