Here you can read the article "Village of Hope" by Rhea Wessel, published in November 2014 in LION Magazine:
by Bette McDevitt, published in THE PLOUGH READER, summer 2002 Bette McDevitt is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, where she is co-president of the Thomas Merton Center, a place for peace and justice.
Mohamad lost his arms and right leg when he was five. It happened the way it too often does in Afghanistan, Mohamad's homeland, and in other war-littered countries: sunlight glints off metal, children move in, magpie-quizzical. Pick it up, someone suggests. And someone does. In this case, that someone was Mohamad. The landmine that exploded in his hands cost him his limbs, and killed the friend who had made the suggestion. Mohamad is one of the lucky ones. I realized this when I met him in October 2000, a year or so after his accident, at Friedensdorf ("peace village") in Oberhausen, Germany. He was in the jam-packed dining hall, waiting with 150 other children to eat a simple meal of rice, fruit, and vegetables. Seated in a chair pulled up to a table, he was laughing and carrying on with his peers (he had, I discovered, absorbed the German language easily). The room was full of the joyous clatter of hungry kids. I, however, could not lift my fork. How would Mohamad eat? I worried. My agitation must have showed, because one of the childrens caregivers came over and told me not to fret. "The other children will help him, or we'll help him, when we have time." And they did. Mohamad's fate might have turned out otherwise; he had been hospitalized in Afghanistan, but his body could do little to defend his open wounds from a poorly sanitized environment.
He contracted bone infections.
Friedensdorf saved his life.
Since its founding in 1967, Friedensdorf International has been sending teams into war-torn countries and returning to Germany with injured children. There, free of charge, the children get the medical care they need at hospitals and clinics across the country, or sometimes in Austria or the Netherlands. Friedensdorf is where they go to recuperate, and, especially for the amputees, to relearn basic living skills. The children's village lies in northwestern Germany, near Düsseldorf, and about 30 miles from the Netherlands border.
Here is a mind's-eye snapshot, taken my first day at Friedensdorf: I've come to a rundown but lively summer camp, with children chatting in clusters, playing ball outdoors, or listening to music in their dormitories. But something is distorted, too. These children are not perky little campers. They hobble around on crutches, or scoot in wheelchairs. An attendant hurries by, with an armload of artificial limbs.
It's a scene that's been played out daily for years now, ever since Fritz Berghaus, a Lutheran minister, got to talking with Luise Albertz, the former mayor of Oberhausen, and the two of them decided praying wasn't enough. During my visit, I got the story from Wolfgang Mertens, the current development director of Friedensdorf. It was, he told me, guilt that gave birth to the Peace Village: "We Germans have to face our responsibility for what happened to the Jews and others during World War II."
Now a soft-spoken father of two, Wolfgang first came to the village some twenty years ago, to perform the alternative military service required of all German conscientious objectors. "The Vietnam War had stepped into our living rooms," Wolfgang remembers. "It changed the world." It changed Wolfgang.
The first 100 children at Friedensdorf were Vietnamese. Since then, there has been no shortage of small victims to take in. And though the names of some of their home countries-Angola, Romania, Georgia, and Vietnam-have faded from the headlines, the pain and suffering of the children drag on. Friedensdorf is the place they come to heal. The lucky ones, 200 at a time. They range in age from six months to 14 years. In this way, 1000 children receive care each year. And then they go home. They didn't always. The first children, the 100 Vietnamese, were not returned; fearing further bloodshed in the unstable days following the American withdrawal, Friedensdorf administrators determined it was best to keep the children, and arranged for them to be granted citizenship. "Some families thought it was good for the children," Wolfgang told me, "but others were very angry, even today, and they are right. I know what I'm talking about here. These children are adults now, and some of them are among my best friends. They don't know if they are German or Vietnamese. They have no identity. It's another injury."
A long-term goal of Friedensdorf is to be able to care for children in their own countries. To this end, they have created satellite programs across the planet. Today in Vietnam, where countless people suffer from the effects of Agent Orange, Friedensdorf partners with other nonprofit organizations and the Vietnam government to run 11 clinics. Other pediatric and orthopedic clinics now operate in Afghanistan, Romania, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan, with plans for similar partnership clinics in Angola, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.
So today's children go home, and the chartered flights that take them there return with more children who need rescuing.
Twice a year for the last twenty years, Friedensdorf has made trips to Afghanistan. But last fall, as bombs rained down in the wake of September 11, the village's board and staff felt the situation called for an immediate trip. Contacts in the Pentagon and the German Foreign Ministry, developed over 20 years of organizing charter flights into hot spots, approved Friedensdorf's plan in short order-leaving them two short weeks to pull everything together. For Wolfgang, who has been on many of the 43 prior flights to Afghanistan, organizing this one was old hat. More or less. "You just charter some airplanes, get some money, take the stuff over there, and bring the children back," he told me. Of course, Friedensdorf's reputation in Afghanistan, built over the last ten years, paved a good stretch of the way too. Even the Taliban, during their days in power, allowed the organization to take children to Germany. "They watched us, they tolerated us, but they didn't interfere," says Wolfgang. This time, though, the Taliban was on the run, and Afghanistan was a war zone.
What began as an urgent response to an obvious need quickly evolved into a race to pin down the last illusive permissions and secure official cooperation. Raising the $300,000 needed to pay for the three flights that ultimately brought home 37 children, picked up 30 new patients, and delivered 90 tons of medicines, food, and winter clothing (a Friedensdorf record) proved the least of Wolfgang's worries. People were eager to help-from the business owner who called to announce, "Don't have a heart attack, but I'm giving you 100,000 Marks," to the major newspaper that dubbed the project "A Smile for Kabul," collected warm winter clothing, and raised $30,000; to the Bavarian Broadcasting Service, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which chipped in $100,000), and numerous German citizens.
Amazingly, despite the tight timeframe (dictated by the need to beat the encroaching winter weather and to fit in with the U.S. military's bombing schedule), the first of three flights into and out of Afghanistan got off the ground on December 9, 2001. An Airbus 300, chartered from the Turkish airline Alfa Air, left Düsseldorf International Airport, where German troops had helped load 25 tons of supplies and 37 rehabilitated children heading home to their waiting parents in the Hindukush. A large plane taking children into a country at war poses risks. But Wolfgang was confident: "When you have permission, you can be sure that nothing will happen. Of course, we couldn't go near Tora Bora and Kandahar. When the aircraft landed, they were close to controlled explosions, conducted by the United States military, to get rid of the landmines." He estimates the number of land mines in Afghanistan in the millions. My little friend Mohamad was on the December 9 flight to Afghanistan. In his brief seven years, he has endured what no child should. He has known poverty, war, and death. But he has also met the best the human spirit can offer. In two years at Friedensdorf, he has learned to live with one leg and no arms. He clomps along on his prosthesis, and (to my silent relief) feeds himself with the stumps of his arms. (Children from Afghanistan cannot be fitted with artificial arms, because the sophisticated technology built into these limbs could never be repaired back home.) Mohamad's resilience-a gift of childhood-has helped him heal and adjust to his disability. "Yes, it's a problem for me," he confided to Wolfgang shortly before his departure, "but I'm going home to my mom and dad, and they don't care about this."
The plane touched down without incident. Unless family reunions count as incidents.
At the Bagram airbase, 30 miles north of Kabul, American and British soldiers helped unload the children and goods, and, a few days later, brought the 30 new patients onboard. (Friedensdorf had hoped to bring 50 children back to Germany, but broadcasting problems with Radio Kabul meant limited publicity for the project.) "The soldiers who carried the children had tears in their eyes," Wolfgang later told me over the phone. "They did a great job for the most innocent victims of terrorism and war." This time, Wolfgang said, the wounds were fresh and extreme. "I've been doing this work for 25 years now, and I never get used to it, but I couldn't stand it when I saw these horribly injured children. Eight- or nine-year-old children who've lost legs and arms, and their bodies pierced with shrapnel from rockets." The 30 children arrived in Düsseldorf on December 16 and were immediately taken to hospitals in Germany and Austria.
Mohamad made it home to Afghanistan. The Red Crescent assured Friedensdorf that all the families of returning children were intact. They may have lost a relative during the war, but their families were there to meet them.
Eight-year-old Maliha ("brave and sweet," Wolfgang describes her) returned to her family on the same trip as Mohamad. During her three months in Germany, Maliha underwent six operations; she had spent four years suffering from an infection in her left leg. In her short stay at Friedensdorf, she learned enough German to be able to give radio and TV interviews. She rejoined her family with her health fully restored.
As rewarding as such physical recovery is, Wolfgang believes the children head home having regained something equally vital: "At Friedensdorf, these children have seen another world, a world with children of different beliefs, cultures, and skin color. We believe that when they return home, the kids become ambassadors of peace."
In a world in which landmines alone kill 8,000 children each year (a conservative estimate), the work of Friedensdorf might easily be categorized as a drop in the bucket. Wolfgang and his staff understand that. "This work doesn't speak for itself," he reminds me. "When you contact the media, they say, 'Oh no, not more children! We've done that before.' Or they say it's too depressing. But Friedensdorf is a place of hope." Just ask any of the 1000 "drops" in each year's bucket.
So the staff at Friedensdorf keeps going. There is Dr. Hans-Egon Maier, a retired surgeon who for the last decade has volunteered his services three days a week. He has done over 40,000 operations during his career, he says, but nothing disquiets him as much performing an amputation on a child. And there is Hong Kappenberg, whose desk is a jumble of baby bottles, medicines, and thermometers. Twenty-eight years ago, she came from Vietnam to work as a translator. She stayed. Now she has a degree in childcare and bears the responsibility for the youngest children's daily care. Piles of clean clothing are stacked around her office. I'm talking with her when a small Angolan girl in a bathing suit is whisked in for a change of clothes. She is on her way to a doctor's appointment. Her attending aide whips off the bathing suit and removes her artificial leg, chatting cheerfully with her all the while. She redresses the child and sends her on her way.
Kappenberg loves these children. "When they're well enough to go home, it is like a gift to me," she tells me.
It's an attitude shared by all who live and work at Friedensdorf. There are 38 staff members, who feed, clothe, bathe, care for, and nurture the children. Their salaries are paid by membership dues and donations. And 22 conscientious objectors-young men who serve at Friedensdorf rather than in the military and are paid by the German government-feed and care for the youngest children with great tenderness. Some work in the kitchen, cooking huge pots of rice, a daily meal at the village. Thirty other people who receive welfare payments from the government also work at the village. Money is tight. Wolfgang would love to remodel and enlarge Friedensdorf's facilities, but cannot afford it. So for now, eight young women, volunteers from Japan, sleep stacked like sardines, in a converted office building.
Still, the rewards outweigh the inconveniences and setbacks. Like the recovery of 13-year-old Arefa, who was burned over virtually her entire body by an exploding gas tank. She owes her life to the care and love she received at Friedensdorf. "She had six operations, with skin transplants, and went home with compression clothing, which is specially made to reduce scarring. She would have been dead in Afghanistan. She is so brave," said Wolfgang, with a father's pride in his voice. Arefa was also on the December 9 flight back to Afghanistan. Arefa, an ambassador.
Friedensdorf's brochure quotes Albert Camus: "We are of the opinion that in dressing the wounded, we have not yet done anything against war. Nor has it furthered the cause of permanent world peace. But we do know that world peace will not come by itself." The children who come to Friedensdorf know this intuitively. It is something adults must learn. On the grounds of Friedensdorf is a small retreat center, a gathering place for those who work to stop the repetitions of our worst history. Add it all up, and it's a drop in the bucket. A mustard seed is smaller.
For news updates from Friedensdorf , visit www.friedensdorf.de Donations payable to "Friedensdorf" may be sent to: Friedensdorf International, Postfach 14 01 62, 46131 Oberhausen, Germany, or to Bette McDevitt, c/o The Thomas Merton Center, 5125 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224.
Please have a look at another article by Bette McDevitt, published in the POST GAZETTE, Pittsburgh on Monday, 4th of December, 2000.
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