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Justin Byworth Headshot

Life and Death for Afghanistan's Children

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As the world focuses on Afghanistan today; President Obama's historic visit and discussions about the future of the country, the scene that we witnessed unfolding inside the little neonatal unit at the provincial hospital this morning runs in freeze frame through my head. Two empty incubators across the room. On the right a bright pink miniature bundle in a crib screaming lamb-like tiny cries.

Meanwhile, the attention of Dr Sabbor and the nurse is focused on the dark haunting eyes and pale grey body of the premature baby rushed here just minutes ago straight from delivery. The nurse presses the small ventilator again and again passing air down the tube into his poorly formed lungs.

His heart is still beating but it's clear all is not well, and as the minutes pass I hear her tell the doctor "no more vital signs". Slowly, gently she stops and after a moment of stillness she pulls the blanket over him. It feels wrong that a life can pass so quickly and quietly. It feels wrong to be here, when his mother lies nearby unaware, recovering from labour.

I feel helpless to say or do anything, but pray for them both, recalling the rage and raw grief of a Cambodian mother holding her dying son in her arms 20 years ago. Noory, the midwife who delivered the little boy arrives and is visibly shaken - she's only 21 herself and still completing her training. After 29 deliveries this is the first baby she's lost and she departs to see and tell his mother.

Dr Saboor turns his attention back to the living, to the still so vulnerable baby across the room. A young woman arrives. It's Rubia the young mother of little Hasim and we hear their story and see a new mother's joy and exhaustion across her face.

The statistics and language of child and maternal mortality in Afghanistan came to life in a whole new way in that unforgettable 30 minutes. Nearly one in five children here die before their fifth birthday. Every 30 minutes a mother dies in childbirth. There are 30 million people in Afghanistan and it's impossible to imagine what we witnessed this morning writ large across the country.

But there is hope. Hope in Hasim's lung-bursting cries of life. Hope in the care that's enabled Hasim and so many others to thrive from the most fragile of starts in life. Hope in the young midwives that we met this morning that World Vision is helping to train - 200 of them already in hospitals across western Afghanistan and 30 community level midwives who will soon extend this to many unreached health centres.

Young women like Shafiqa, just 18 and Noorya, 21, who talked with pride and excitement about their work. They reminded me of the community midwives of 1950s London's east end brought to life so vividly in BBC TV's recent 'Call the Midwife'. Midwives are just one way in which World Vision and others are making a life-saving difference for the women and children of Afghanistan - in the last 10 years maternal death in childbirth has almost halved and infant death rates are falling steadily

Before I sleep tonight my prayers will linger on the baby boy and his mother, father, brother and sisters who are mourning his death - and on the children of Afghanistan.

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