Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Saturday, 4 September 2010 11:46 UK

'Elation and unease' at helping Pakistan flood child

Jill McGivering
Jill McGivering
BBC News, Sukkur

When covering disasters, reporters can face the ethical question of whether they should help, or remain detached. When is it right for a journalist to help a weak and possibly dying baby?

Sometimes the scale of a tragedy is so vast, it is hard to comprehend.

Samina and mother
It was a difficult birth, by the roadside, with no-one to help

Eight million people in Pakistan are homeless and hungry. Sometimes it takes just one to make it all seem real.

That is how I felt in Sukkur 10 days ago. Overwhelmed.

People were flowing into the city at a ferocious pace, a ragged river of humanity, with shocked faces and frightened eyes.

They were fleeing on trucks, donkey carts, bicycles and on foot, clutching whatever was precious - electric fans, bedding, pots and pans, chickens and goats. Behind them, a great sinister mass of floodwater was pouring in.

Tiny scrap

Sukkur itself was overflowing with families, along the roadside, on river banks, on every patch of open ground.

The heat was unbearable but they had no shelter.

When our car pulled up, they ran to it, flattened their faces against the windows, begged for food, for water, for help.

When I got out and started to record interviews, people pressed round.

Then, in all the noise and heat and smell, someone told me about a baby, born by the roadside, and led me off to see.

She was a tiny scrap, silent and still amid the clamour.

She was lying motionless on her back, on a small mat under a tree. Flies were thick round her face. The passing traffic was just feet away.

I see my job as to bear witness in a tragedy and to report - but not to interfere

Her skin was almost translucent, her head smaller than my palm, balanced in a faded china saucer, propped up against a stone. Her eyes were closed and lifeless.

I thought at first that she was dead. Her young mother seemed vacant with shock. She had had a difficult birth, there on the road, with no-one to help.

Now she sat beside her baby, looking dazed. The baby was not feeding, she said. She had not seen a doctor. She did not know where to find one.

I went down the road to a chaotic emergency clinic and interviewed a doctor there who promised to go and help. Then I went back to the hotel to work on a different report.

Metaphor for suffering

The following day, I was busy chasing more stories, but on the way back to the hotel in the early evening, I stopped off at the roadside, with some trepidation.

It seemed very likely that the baby would not have survived. But she had.

She was weak, but whimpering now and trying to move.

Internally displaced people queue for meals at a temporary camp in Sukkar
As the flood crisis continues, millions face an uncertain future

The doctor had visited and whatever he had done seemed to have made all the difference. Her mother had just named her Samina. Suddenly she had a name and a hold on life.

That evening I was elated. In all that misery and heat and exhaustion, I felt boosted by the thought I had helped someone, perhaps even played a part in saving a life. It eased my sense of guilt and helplessness.

The report I filed on baby Samina met with a tremendous response. Suddenly she seemed to be a metaphor for the general suffering.

I was contacted by friends and colleagues and complete strangers.

An international agency got in touch, offering to help the family. Baby Samina was becoming, unwittingly, a poster girl for the floods.

In some ways, that is wonderful. But it also made me feel very uncomfortable.

I see my job as to bear witness in a tragedy and to report - but not to interfere. I had urged that doctor to treat baby Samina.

He may have saved her, but was it at the expense of another patient? Is it unethical to attract resources to one family, when millions of others may be equally deserving?

Hope and disappointment

This week I went back to Sukkur to do a second report on Samina.

Her family has a tent inside a camp now - tent number 59 - with a supply of food and clean water.

Samina seems stronger. She is lying on a pile of embroidered cushions, instead of the ground, wriggling and yawning.

Her mother's health, too, seems much better. The family's future is still uncertain, but the immediate crisis is past.

Maybe I should stop there, with a happy ending that makes us all feel hopeful, but as I walked away from Samina's family, someone tugged at my sleeve.

She led me to a tent nearby where another young woman had just given birth, a day or two earlier.

Her relatives lifted a cover to show a tiny, wrinkled newborn.

The women turned to me, eager and expectant, as if they were thinking now this foreigner will help our child too.

They looked disappointed when all I could do was to say thank you, congratulate them and then turn to leave.

Map of Pakistan showing the areas affected by the flooding

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Pakistan flood: Saving baby Samina
24 Aug 10 |  South Asia
Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles


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