Karen Milford
Karen Milford

The horror of how our children die, I see it every day

Last week we heard of a teenager who went missing while running with her dog and family in Cape Town and was found murdered a few hours later. It’s a terrible story, the stuff of every parent’s absolute worst nightmare. We have all briefly lost sight of our children in a supermarket, at the park, at a birthday party. This should be fine. The world shouldn’t be waiting to destroy our children every time we’re distracted. But this story reminds us that the world is in fact a mortally dangerous place, that our communities are unsafe, and that there are, literally, people waiting around the corner who want to hurt and kill our children. We also heard about a Khayelitsha teenager, found murdered and stuffed into a communal toilet cubicle. The toilet was one used by scores of community members, on a path that women and children have no choice but to walk every day if they wish to relieve themselves. This story reminds us that there are those who live in environments so dangerous that performing the activities of daily living put their lives at risk.

We really shouldn’t find these stories surprising, though. There is in fact almost nothing remarkable about them. South African children die violent, unnatural deaths every single day. It’s not just one kid here and there: it’s scores of them. They are murdered by the adults they trust, by their peers on school playgrounds, by classmates on school busses. They die by fire, by knife wounds, by accidentally falling into the crosshairs of gunshots in adult wars. They are dumped in dustbins and toilets, in ditches and shallow graves. They fall off trains and in front of cars and are washed out to sea. They are killed by the violence of neglect and poverty, starving in silence.

Sometimes these deaths cause a stir, like the first story above did. More often than not though, they don’t. The second tale recounted here only started appearing in the news when concerned individuals became angry about the disparity in press coverage the two stories were receiving. In the hospitals where I work, we see endless numbers of children in the aftermath of endless violent catastrophes, making a last, desperate grab at a life that has either been curtailed entirely or altered forever. We drive to and from work every day and we listen to the news and we almost never hear about the children we see. If something is actually said, it seldom does the horror any justice. “The police are conducting an investigation.” “Two men have been taken into custody.” “Detectives are asking for information.”

Maybe the sheer volume of the horror has left our empathy exhausted, and we allow ourselves to be soothed with platitudes and silence. The news outlets allow us to comfort ourselves with the idea that somewhere out there, someone is doing “something”, or spare us any discomfort at all by simply saying nothing. We drive home, we eat supper, we kiss our own kids goodnight and tell ourselves it could never happen to us. It is only very occasionally that a story will have us creeping into our children’s rooms to touch their sleeping faces and wonder if one day, a search party will find their bodies in the underbrush, if one day we will hold their crushed bodies on the side of the road and beg them not to go.

We should all be horrified, every single day. It shouldn’t only be when the victim spoke the same language as us, or walked the same trails as our own families do, or attended the same schools as our own children do. It shouldn’t only be when news agencies decide to dedicate more than 10 seconds of airtime or minimal column inches to a death. Every single day, in every one of our cities, children are being violently and savagely struck from the face of the earth. Even if we personally feel powerless to change that, it is our duty to acknowledge it. We couldn’t all possibly cry for every single child that is lost, because there are too many, and different deaths will resonate with different communities. But we owe it to the dead and their families to acknowledge that no murdered child is any less important than another, and that every violent death is a tragedy.

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