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Bangladesh - The Fight for Life

Hot, heavy smelling air, swarms of mosquitoes all around you, a seemingly constant, chaotic hustle and bustle, a sea of rickshaws and as many dramatic stories as pairs of never-tiring legs pulling the load. Plus the eyes of the children - hundreds of pairs of eyes, with a piercing and wise look as if they were hundreds of years old. This is the image of Bangladesh that has stayed with me. I went there with my mind full of statistics and information gathered from online sources. Estimated population: 154 million. Over 40 per cent live on less than a dollar a day; 84 per cent survive on less than two dollars a day. Two hundred children under five die every day of severe dehydration as a result of diarrhoeal diseases.

UNICEF Romania
Alessandra Stoicescu in the vilage of Matlab

With all this well imprinted on my mind, I thought nothing could take me by surprise. I started to search out all this information the minute UNICEF suggested that I went on a humanitarian mission to the country, to make a documentary and raise money for the children of Bangladesh. So many people told me that I didn't have to go so far to see pain, and that Romanian children still needed a lot of help and a voice to ask for money on their behalf. I replied that in Romania the drama is the exception, not the rule. And I told them that, whether we like it or not, we have to admit that as we are, with all our imperfections and sicknesses, perfectly capable of helping ourselves on our own. All we need is to really want to.

Honestly, I didn't think twice, as I felt the need to understand and see other worlds and - why not?- help other Romanians take a look at their country from the perspective of a far more deprived place.

That's how I came to be in a land where the Ferentari neighbourhood could be considered a well-off, even luxurious area of which one could only dream. Bangladesh is one of the world's most overpopulated countries and its inhabitants are as poor as they are numerous. For millions of them, rickshaw-pulling is the job they start at around 5am and go home from long after sunset. Slim, with tight leg muscles, apparently slow and resigned, these men drive their rickshaws at the pace they live their lives. Watching them, you realise they're not just supporting the ephemeral load, but families of five or six children too. That many unseen lives rely on them. That an accident means hunger, death....

UNICEF Romania
Children in Dhaka slum

I found their children in hospitals, lying there, barely breathing. They no longer have the strength to cry. They moan and look you in the eye, asking you to do something to help them... Pneumonia and diarrhoea are diseases that almost none of them can escape. Death was standing at their feet, I could feel it and wasn't ready for it. As tough as I wanted to be, at one point I started to panic, to doubt that I could do enough to help them, although it was so easy, so cheap. With just one euro, I could pay for the treatment of a child suffering from diarrhoea. But for which one? Whom was I to choose? I felt reassured only at the thought that the documentary I was shooting could touch Romanians' hearts and save many lives.

I arrived in Bangladesh in the middle of an unexpected Rotavirus epidemic - a virus that causes diarrhoea, nausea, fever and, too often, death. It affects mostly the under fives, but also Western adults with ill-prepared immune systems. I was afraid for myself and I have to confess that, in those first few hours, I touched the children gingerly. Then, I completely let myself go. It happened the second a child came crawling along the bed towards me and climbed into my arms. The boy's mother and grandmother told me they hadn't seen him so cheerful in a long time. I could hardly detach him from me or, rather, I could hardly detach myself from him. I put him in his mother's arms and we started chatting. I found out she had lost two children already and she was ready to do anything to keep her son alive. On another hospital bed, another mother was feeding her child and watching us with a lot of interest. I went to her to ask her story. The boy was two and a quarter years old and he had been admitted to hospital with a form of hemorrhagic diarrhoea. He was a bit better and the doctors had told her he would be fine. I asked her why she had that indescribable sadness about her, despite her smile. She told me that the boy was her fifth child. All the other four were gone! One had died at birth and the other three before they turned two and a half. Of what? Diarrhoea or because it was written in the sky...  of grey, where, because of all the pollution, you can rarely see the sun, but you sure can feel it as it is hot, way too hot. Looking at this sky, we headed towards the slums - whose stories won an Oscar and which house over 50 million people.

UNICEF Romania
Child fighting to survive at the ICDDRB Hospital in Dhaka

They are hidden in between small streets and, although the entrance is as big as an apartment door, they open up like wounds. Passages, 70 centimetres wide, wind between tin shacks and bamboo poles. Inside dwellings of 15 square metres, tops, live 10 people. In one of these places, I see a man wiping the floor. I get closer and realise that his one-year-old son has just defecated there. The heavy smell is quite smothering but you get used to it eventually. I try to protect the cameraman, walking backwards as he is shooting. A woman gets ahead of me and she carefully touches his ankle to guide his step away from a hole. Everyone is watching us with hope and they invite us in, to shoot and tell their story to the world. Maybe they will get some help... Still, they don't beg. In none of these places did anyone ask anything from me. Begging is quite an industry here too, but it has a dedicated venue,  the crossroads. Stuck in a traffic jam, you will most definitely see at your window either an old lady with a burned face, or a woman carrying a child in her arms... but this could never shock anyone from Bucharest, right?

UNICEF Romania
Alessandra Stoicescu holdig a sick boy at Matlab Hospital

Leaving the capital Dhaka behind, we drove to a village 100 kilometres away to visit a nomad community - 600 people living in boats. A boatman holding a child of no more than two took us from the river bank and led us to the people's “homes”. On the way there, he told us they were living one day at a time and that, every year, two or three of their children die. Pneumonia and diarrhoea are diseases they can't beat. His son had also been one step from dying, while they were 200 kilometres away from the closest hospital. He rowed for his child's life and saved him. It was a race against death that he won. But 200 other Bangladeshi children lose that race every day.

“2 for Life”

In April 2009, UNICEF and Antena 2 TV launched the “2 for Life” campaign to raise funds for zinc treatment for under-five Bangladeshi children suffering from severe dehydration caused by diarrhoea. This is the first fundraising campaign developed by UNICEF Romania for an international non-emergency cause.

Diarrhoea still remains one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality of the 18 million children under five in Bangladesh. Each year 69,000 under-five children die due to this disease and 1,350,000 under five children suffer at least one severe episode of diarrhoea. The treatment is very simple, cheap and at hand. Oral rehydratation salts (ORS) and oral rehydration therapy (ORT), adopted by UNICEF and WHO, have proved to be very successful in managing diarrhoea among children. However, using zinc as adjunct therapy in conjunction with oral rehydration salts (ORS) provides a very effective treatment for diarrhoea reducing the number of child deaths. Zinc can save a child's life both as a treatment for diarrhoeal illness and by preventing future infections. The full zinc treatment for a child costs 1 Euro.

Alessandra Stoicescu, news anchor for Antena 1 TV, together with cameraman, Silviu Neagu, joined the UNICEF team in Bangladesh for a documentary on the situation of the children suffering from diarrhoea.

On April 30, 2009, Antena 2 hosted the “2 for Life" telethon to help UNICEF raise funds for zinc treatment for the children of Bangladesh. The show was hosted by Cristian Brancu and was supported by prominent Romanian officials, such as, Mr. Cristian Diaconescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs and renowned specialist, Prof. Dr. Adrian Streinu Cercel. Alessandra Stoicescu and Silviu Neagu were invited to talk about their experience in Bangladesh while filming the documentary, along with the members of the UNICEF team.

The one month campaign brought in USD 217,000. These funds will contribute to saving the lives of more than 200,000 children in fourteen districts in Bangladesh.

UNICEF Romania would like to thank the tens of thousands of Romanians who donated to the appeal.






Unite for Children
No 4, 2009

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