Thursday, July 12, 2007

A death in the family

Wednesday morning started with a telephone call from one of the boys who lives in our residence.

Minh (not his real name) was calling me from his family home, by the Red River. His sister was dead, he told me; she’d been in a motorbike accident during the night and had died in hospital a few hours later.

Minh’s story is so sad and special. I’ve written about him before – see the link here. He was born in prison, and in a few weeks more he will start school, age 14, for the first time in his life.

But he’s a beautiful kid. He has a genuinely innocent nature; he cares about those around him, and he lives by his conscience. When you see the squalor and misery that he’s grown up in, on the banks of the river, surrounded by drug addicts and hardened criminals, it’s hard to see how he can still be such a little angel.

I hurried over to Minh’s house along with our lead social worker, Tung. Minh seemed stunned. He lost his father about 5 years ago, and now his 17 year old sister was so suddenly gone – here yesterday, gone today. Completely senseless.

We spent the morning waiting for news from Minh’s mother, who was at the hospital during the autopsy. Even now, there are several different versions of how the accident happened, so I’m not totally sure what the truth is. It looks like Minh’s sister was one of three people on a motorbike, certainly none with helmets, probably nobody had a licence, and it’s likely that they were involved in racing.

But that scenario is commonplace here. This death won’t make the news. It’s not even particularly noteworthy, in a city where you see dead bodies on the road at least once a week. By official estimates, 30 to 40 people die in traffic accidents every day in Vietnam. Add that to the thousands more who are injured and disabled, and you have a nation-wide plague that nobody seems too concerned about.

Every now and then, some company or NGO likes to shoot off a press release proclaiming their efforts to improve safety. There’s one organization that claims to have given out 150,000 helmets, for free, to primary school children throughout Vietnam. But spend an hour out on the streets, and you’ll be luck to see more than one or two people wearing them. More money down the drain. A quick and easy program to run, with plenty of photo opportunities, but no apparent effect. Certainly not for Minh’s family.

Today we went to the funeral – Nadine from Australia, Tung, and our lawyer Van came to support Minh. He stood bravely beside the coffin, his head swathed in a white bandage as a sign of respectful mourning. His little face is all puffed up from lack of sleep and too much crying.

We’ll see Minh back at the residence in a couple of days. For now, he just wants to spend time with his mother. I am sure she doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have such a good son.

Leaving the funeral, a big group of teenagers piled onto motorbikes – 4 teens on this bike, 3 on that one – and sped off out of the hospital. No helmets, no licences. Nobody seems to have wondered if maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from the otherwise senseless death of a 17 year old girl.

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