The Disease Leaves Orphans With Little Hope
It’s Sunday, and little Chea has four days of reckoning: a new name, a new home, life without his mother and an HIV test that will determine his fate.
If it comes back positive, twice, he’ll die without parents.
If it comes back negative, someday, a kind couple might whisk him away to another land.
Such is the burden for Cambodian orphans, destiny sealed by a drop of blood. A heavy toll at 35 days old.
“Everyone waits for the HIV test,” says Chan Si Vun, who works at the Nutrition Center orphanage, near Calmette Hospital. She sleeps each night with 14-month-old Nearadey, HIV-positive, because the girl’s father asked her to when he left his baby in her care. “If the test comes back negative, the babies go away. If it comes back positive….” her voice trails off.
The mother arrived via moto-taxi from Prey Veng province. She held little Chea on her lap the whole way. She walked through the Nutrition Center’s gate, handed the baby to a caretaker, said she can’t keep him. She’s divorced. She can’t make a living. The baby must go.
The staff took her name and pertinent information. She signed, with her thumbprint, blank pages to be filled in later. She accepted $10 from a French woman who cuddled her own adopted baby near her breast. She took a wad of riel from an American man. She clasped her hands in gratitude. And then she was on her way.
Sunday, Chea gets a bath and new clothes.
Monday, Chea gets his test and the name Sachon.
Wednesday, they’ll learn Sachon’s fate at 38 days old.
In between and thereafter, regardless of HIV status, Sachon gets love, compassion, lots of food and soft arms to cradle him.
He blends in with the 100 or so other kids scattered throughout the center, kept afloat with money from the government, the National Center of Disabled Persons, French and Dutch NGOs.
Bedrooms stem from an octagonal central play area. Murals in primary colors shroud the walls. There are white boys and girls flying kites on the beach, sailboats and bunny rabbits, kids frolicking, butterflies flitting, and other assorted happy scenes that some kids here will someday see. Most will not.
“Some families want to adopt HIV-positive babies, but the embassies don’t allow it,” explains Youn Sovanna, the center’s director. She and partner Heng Sarin rattle off a list of further afflictions that plague 95 percent of their children: tuberculosis, malnutrition, encephalitis, the list goes on. “The kids who come here are not in good health,” Youn Sovanna says.
Heng Sarin adds: “It is sad to work here. Every day.”
A steady flow of foreign faces breathes new hope into a somber reality. But for the HIV babies, hope dies young and fast.
Youn Sovanna pulls out a ledger displaying the math. At the end of 1996, the center had eight HIV-positive children. “In 1997,” she says, “we had 23 new HIV positive babies, for a total of 31. Ten later tested negative. Five died, leaving 16.” Last year, 36 new arrivals, 12 new negatives and 18 deaths left 22. This year, two new comers make 24.
The problem only grows. Cambodia has the highest-rate of infection in Asia.
“When they get sick,” Youn Sovanna says, “they go to Kantha Bopha. And there they die.” Slaap (dead). It’s a word often spoken here, as common as baay (rice) or tuk (water).
On Monday, Dany, barely 3 months old and brought here at 13 days, goes to the hospital.
Roth Sandara shuffles from room to room, paging through yellow and blue notebooks, pointing to this child, that child and that one over there. “This one is HIV positive. And her. And him.” The notebooks tell their stories: age, entry date, medical history and, prominently for some, “HIV+” circled beside the name.
Seila. Noupheap. Samedi. Sophea. And 2-year-old Angkea, who came in December. He’s Vietnamese, she points out. There’s Samrath and Sros in the other building, both boys, both abandoned to loving strangers’ care on their second birthdays.
Mothers who can’t afford them drop them off as Chea’s did. Fathers and uncles who don’t want them desert them here. A French man, who adopted a boy a few years ago and has come back for a daughter, says his girl was found in a garden near the river.
Seila with the “+” brand in his book, a year old but looking much younger, makes a puddle of diarrhea that seeps through his cloth diaper, onto his legs, under his buttocks and atop the vinyl floor mat.
A caretaker maneuvers him, disrobes him, announces “uggh,” shimmies to the sink and gags on the stench. She lifts his tiny body to the basin and bathes him with her bare hands. She caresses his skin; it sags like an elephant’s. She wipes the mess and swaddles him in clean clothes. His limbs jiggle in the air. He lies, almost indistinguishable, in a bevy of babies. One other among them also carries that fateful brand in the book.
Another worker passes through, coddling Noupheap, urging a bottle through her frail, underdeveloped lips. Born Nov 19, 1998. Entered Dec 28, 1998. She falls asleep, wearing a faded blue shirt, the color of her body.
As the day wanes, several French adoptive parents sit in rattan chairs on the center’s porch. They rock their babies in pastel-colored bassinets, pamper them in their arms and coo over the preciousness of infancy.
Inside, snapshots deck the hallway walls. Some kids have new homes. A proud white couple holds a baby. The photo says, “Viruth (Louis) June 98.” A toddler, dressed in bright pink and yellow, lies on her belly. The photo says, “Alexandria Kalliyan (formerly, Veacha).”
These babies’ books must have lacked a “+” mark.
Other photos show kids across Cambodia, at orphanages linked to this one, eating, playing and smiling for the camera. They look happy, well-fed, well-loved. You cannot tell who passed the test and who did not.
On Wednesday, Sachon’s test comes back: Negative. And smiles abound.