A long journey begins

2012-06-29 00:00

A LIFELONG journey of recovery has begun for a toddler who was mutilated for muthi and burnt in a blanket aged just nine months.

By her side, at Durban’s Nkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital yesterday, were her doting parents — and two women with hearts of gold whose concern for the child brought them together for the first time.

Emotions spilled over in the foyer of the hospital when Pietermaritzburg junior architect Amy Byloo (24) met the little girl from Matatiele.

Byloo, who read about the child’s plight in The Witness, burst into tears after holding a spot in the patients’ queue since early morning.

“I thought I could handle it, but I was not prepared for this. How can one human being do this to another, especially an innocent baby?”

It was Byloo’s tireless efforts to find the best specialists for the 18-month-old and her impoverished parents that secured them a referral to the hospital.

By the end of the day, the sheer perseverance of Byloo and Matatiele Municipality councillor Thembeka Dyantyi (36) had paid off, with the toddler undergoing assessment by two of the province’s top plastic surgeons.

Her grateful father said: “When we got into the car we knew that there is now hope on the other side. I cannot explain my excitement or how I am feeling right now.”

The names of family members have been withheld to protect the toddler, whose identity must be guarded by law.

Now 18 months old, the child will have to undergo years of extensive reconstructive surgery to repair her left ear, nose and lips that were sliced off in a brutal attack for muthi.

The thumb and a finger on her left hand were also hacked off.

The man allegedly responsible, Siyabonga Khuzwayo (24), appeared yesterday in the Matatiele Magistrate’s Court, along with a 37-year-old relative of the victim. Both were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Khuzwayo had fled the area shortly after the attack. Police traced him to KwaDukuza (Stanger) and he was arrested last Tuesday. His alleged accomplice was arrested in Matatiele on Monday.

Both are in custody at Matatiele police station and will appear on July 5 for a bail application.

In May, The Witness reported how a suspect known to the family got his hands on the child by paying a relative R300.

The man butchered the little girl’s face and when her screams alerted neighbours to the scene, he wrapped her in a blanket and set it alight.

The flames were doused, but not in time to spare the toddler’s face and left arm, which were badly burnt.

At the time her mother was in a TB hospital and her dad was in Mthatha, looking for work.

She had been entrusted to a relative.

The child spent four months in Mthatha’s Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital receiving grafts from skin shaved off her thighs.

The story struck a chord with readers and Byloo in particular.

She approached a number of plastic surgeons for help, without any luck, and finally had a breakthrough with Operation Smile, the charity that helps children with cleft palates get reconstructive surgery.

They recommended Albert Luthuli Hospital’s head of plastic surgery, Professor Anil Madaree, who had a rare day off but still found time to do an assessment.

Clutching her baby bottle and attempting a few wobbly steps, the little girl broke hearts around her as members of the public marvelled at her bravery.

Natasha de Aguiar, of Richards Bay, at the hospital with her sister, looked past the disfigured face and declared her “such a beautiful little baby”.

“When we saw her, my sister said she is the same child we had read about recently. It’s sad what happened to her, but for me she is a symbol of hope.”

When the little girl tired, she slumped in her mum’s arms. Though fast asleep, with her lids permanently damaged in the flames, her eyes remained open.

The first operation she will undergo in about three months will be on her eyes and mouth.

Madaree said that without eyelids the child was susceptible to infection and even blindness.

In subsequent operations, balloons known as expanders will be inserted beneath three places on her neck and scalp.

They will be gradually inflated to stretch the skin for further grafting elsewhere on her face and head.

Cosmetic surgery, such as the reconstruction of her nose and ear, will take place only in her teens when her growth starts to slow and the features can be matched more closely for size.

Madaree was frank in his assessment and told the parents their child would undergo “multiple, multiple” operations in her lifetime.

And he warned them not to expect the same face they knew before the attack, no matter how many procedures she had.

But he also had words of encouragement, saying there was hope.

From page 1

“She must be encouraged to go to school. She must not be treated as a special needs child.”

Earlier in the day, Madaree’s colleague, Dr Eva Silio, gave a similar assessment, acknowledging the long journey ahead.

“The first few surgeries are not going to make a difference to her appearance. We need to first restore the function of her eyes … and mouth.”

The family can count on a strong support network back home, thanks to Dyantyi’s determination.

“As I sit here … today I know that we are finally going somewhere. It is going to take a long time for her to heal, but the important thing is we have started,” she said.

The Matatiele councillor has rallied the wider community and convinced her bosses to step in — it was the municipality that transported the family to Durban and accommodated them for a night in a beachfront hotel. It followed a resolution by council to assist the family.

And through Dyantyi’s efforts, the previously unemployed father recently found a job in a government department.

Further goodwill has come from the Eastern Cape Department of Human Settlement and the family will have a new home soon.

The department’s Ntsiki Nzuzo said they discovered the family was facing eviction.

“We have made arrangements with the landlord to keep the family there until their house is complete in a few weeks’ time. The contractor will start work on site on Tuesday.”

From page 1

“She must be encouraged to go to school. She must not be treated as a special needs child.”

Earlier in the day, Madaree’s colleague, Dr Eva Silio, gave a similar assessment, acknowledging the long journey ahead.

“The first few surgeries are not going to make a difference to her appearance. We need to first restore the function of her eyes … and mouth.”

The family can count on a strong support network back home, thanks to Dyantyi’s determination.

“As I sit here … today I know that we are finally going somewhere. It is going to take a long time for her to heal, but the important thing is we have started,” she said.

The Matatiele councillor has rallied the wider community and convinced her bosses to step in — it was the municipality that transported the family to Durban and accommodated them for a night in a beachfront hotel. It followed a resolution by council to assist the family.

And through Dyantyi’s efforts, the previously unemployed father recently found a job in a government department.

Further goodwill has come from the Eastern Cape Department of Human Settlement and the family will have a new home soon.

The department’s Ntsiki Nzuzo said they discovered the family was facing eviction.

“We have made arrangements with the landlord to keep the family there until their house is complete in a few weeks’ time. The contractor will start work on site on Tuesday.”

• brett.horner@witness.co.za

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