KATHMANDU, NEPAL – 07/06
"It’s a good price…really!" she kept saying repetitiously. Bala, the skinny ten year-old girl with long wavy brown hair and large matching eyes shadowed my every step through the temple grounds at Durbar Square. Thrust within inches of my face was a fanned-out selection of colorful purses, each displaying a bold Nepalese weave designed to appeal to tourists.
"How about two for 100 rupees?," she confidently inquired with a wide grin on her dusty face. Despite knowing better, I reached into my pocket and produced the agreed-upon amount.
(Image: Paul and Sabena)
She was trailed by a very frail elderly lady and two young children, a girl and a boy who were walking hand-in-hand, fingers tightly interwoven. My eyes kept meeting those of this second little girl striding next to her toddler brother. Her hair was tightly pulled back, but interlaced with fluff and debris. I would later find out that her name is Sabena and that she is only five years old, just one of thousands of desperate street children walking the byways and alleys of Kathmandu.
Durbar Square is one of Kathmandu’s focal points. It is encased by the palaces of the Malla and Shah kings who once ruled over the area. The first palace was constructed in 1083 A.D. and is joined by subsequent royal buildings and ornate places of worship, both Hindu and Buddhist. It is also surrounded by quadrangles of homes punched by intricately carved wooden windows that overlook courtyards filled with smaller temples and shrines. It is in this backdrop of majesty and idolatry that children like Sabena try to eek out an existence, pushing trinkets on tourists and begging for milk powder for younger siblings.
Scott Vair, a ministry representative that was traveling with me on my journey through Nepal, Bangladesh and India, quickly obliged with the requested baby formula. For less than $5, he provided almost a week’s worth of income in the form of one of the most basic subsistence items that a child could ask for. It didn’t matter that the powder would be mixed with contaminated water not worthy of drinking; it was another step on the hard daily pathway of survival.
Lunch seemed like a very guilty pleasure after our time with the children. We found a small restaurant in the Thamel district, an area where Tibetan refugees sold idols, mandalas and handicrafts. We chose the Third-Eye Restaurant which was situated right across from a pizza and coffee house frequented by western trekkers stopping off in Kathmandu. Our window table gave us a birds-eye view of person after person passing a small street boy as they went in for food and drink. Each turned a blind eye to his pleas for food. The boy was dirty and dressed in tattered rags, a poster boy for street children the world over. Eventually, he gave up trying to appeal to the constant flow of westerners. Defeated, he plopped down on the curb, pulled out a jar and proceeded to huff glue under his shirt. Glue helps to ease the hunger pangs that constantly plague these forgotten children.
Scott started to wipe his eyes and plant his face in a tissue, not because of the Nepalese curries we were eating, but because of the heart-wrenching episode occurring just outside the window as dish after dish of bountiful, fragrant foods were being placed before us. We gathered up our heaping leftovers of hot, buttery Nan and walked them out to the boy. He greeted us with arms extended and then voraciously ate the food that we would have so freely discarded. A very vivid reality had played out before our eyes and reinforced the experience of the time we had just spent Bala, Sabena and her little brother.
The next day we found ourselves strangely drawn back to Durbar Square. It was early. No Crowds. We quickly scanned the temple grounds and, within no time, were greeted by the same trio of gleeful children. They invited us to walk the sights with them, presumably in anticipation of a "guide fee" at the end of the tour. The children showed us the circuit of idols that they pay daily homage to. Sabena and Bala spun the prayer wheels that circled the Stupa of a hidden Buddhist site tucked away amongst the courtyards. With each twirl and bow came the reminder of the spiritual depravity that so often accompanies the physical. The Stupa’s eyes lurked over the little girls below, girls whom it held captive.
The frail old lady was present. She explained that she was Sabena’s great grandmother and that the children’s parents had abandoned them long ago. She showed us the small dark hovel that served as their shelter. No bigger than a closet and reeking of urine, it was no place for three desperate souls occupying positions on each end of the earthly life spectrum.
I then asked the question I knew would eventually leave my lips. "Would Sabena and her brother like a home with other children their age?…a place where they can have care and attention and an education?" A small group gathered around us. The old lady tapped her index finger on each child’s head and emphatically replied, "yes!" while shaking her head in an affirming motion. Bala stepped in to clarify and then said, "The two children?…yes, yes!" Others in the group joined the chorus, leaving Scott and I with the lasting impression of children rejoicing that such an offer had been extended to two of their own. Two starfish to be rescued from the beach. We promised to return two days later after a brief interlude in Bangladesh.
The two days felt like an eternity. I was eager to see these children received into the church-based orphan home. Impatient, I called our local partner, Krishna, a dear pastor possessing a 4′ 5" stature but with a heart that could envelope the whole city. He promised to do the necessary research and to chat with the great grandmother and children.
Krishna had previously told us that most of the female street children would be snatched up by the age of eight and sold into sexual slavery across the border in India. "Most?," I asked. "Do you mean some…or most?" I was confident that it was just a misuse or misunderstanding of the language. To my despair the reply came. "Paul, most of the girls will be smuggled into India by organized crime lords. They will be put to work in the sex industry at eight years old."
My heart ached even more for Bala, who could be taken at any moment, and Sabena, a beautiful child who would certainly not be overlooked by these despicable men in a couple of years – ripped away from running down alleyways, torn away from greeting tourists with a friendly smile, and thrust into a life of abuse and exploitation; taken by loathsome men who would rip the girls’ little bodies over and over again to meet their temporary, selfish desires of the flesh.
We were filled with a sense of urgency and, upon our return to Kathmandu, we immediately arranged to meet Krishna at Durbar Square. It was our last evening in-country. It was also the middle of monsoon season and the road into Durbar was flooded. People were huddled on the steps of stores to avoid the torrents gushing down the streets. Our taxi driver cautiously navigated the waters and delivered us onto dry ground, just a few yards from Krishna.
It was a sad meeting.
A 16 year-old boy introduced himself as Sabena’s "uncle." He said that we couldn’t take the children. On the outside, he appeared to be genuine, and showed a fondness to Sabena’s little brother, but the great-grandmother sat in utter disappointment and silence with a downcast stare.
Such is the way of life for many of these children. In a large number of cases, a "keeper" stands to gain financially from them and seeks to protect his investment. Whether it be woven purses or trafficking fees, there is a small value that these children represent to those who view them as their property.
Time had run out. Our plane left the next morning.
…But the story doesn’t have to end there. Krishna will be monitoring the situation and asking more probing questions. He is one of a few dedicated pastors around the globe who will try in earnest to release girls like Sabena from the streets and from the clutches of evil men who would prey upon them. These pastors need your prayers. These pastors need your help.
There are many Sabenas. You can extend a helping hand through pastors and churches that stand ready to rescue them.