Fighting for Life

UPDATED 08/08/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/08/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

THERE ARE NO GREEN PASTURES OR cooling waters here. There is no comfort. On the outskirts of Goma, Zaire, where a million Rwandans—one-eighth of their country's population—have fled in search of refuge from a genocidal civil war, the only place to die is on the prickly, black volcanic rock by the side of the road. They die quietly and in many ways: cholera and dysentery, thirst and starvation sweep them away. As they lie head to toe and side by side on the ground, with needles of hardened lava sticking through their reed mats and cotton wraps, they die of exposure. They have no shelter from the sun and no blankets for the cold, mountain nights.

With few words and little evident emotion, Jody Kasprow begins her grim morning rounds at the primitive Munigi field hospital some five miles from Goma. For the next three hours, the 26-year-old nurse from Vancouver, B.C., will separate the living from the dead.

The lack of clean water and sanitation has led to a cholera epidemic that claimed more than 15,000 lives in the area during its first week. Although President Clinton has authorized a $250 million-plus U.S. relief effort and the use of 4,000 U.S. troops to set up sanitation facilities and distribute food, volunteers like Jody Kasprow have already been here for weeks, equipped with little but their own courage. She is one of about 25 relief workers deployed in the Goma area by CONCERN Worldwide, an international relief organization headquartered in Dublin. Their ultimate goal is to restore the refugees to health so they can return home once their safety in Rwanda is assured.

Now Kasprow bends over one woman and slaps her on the leg. Seeing no movement, she throws the woman's wrap over her head. Workers routinely shake and slap the refugees to elicit a groan or movement, and it is not uncommon for someone still alive to be placed on the pile of the dead by mistake.

Today more than 250 bodies will be gathered up and transported to mass graves. "It's upsetting," says Kasprow, as she wipes her brow with her upper arm, careful not to touch her face with gloved hands that have been immersed in the muck of cholera victims. "The weak, the old and the very young are probably going to die. That's difficult to accept, but it's a fact."

Cholera victims can die of dehydration within hours of the disease's onset unless they are infused with saline solution from drip bags. Because many of the local volunteers don't know how to insert a needle, Kasprow spends much of the day supervising them. She pinches a man's stomach to see if he is dehydrated. "Come here! Look at the bags, they are empty," she calls. "You must keep changing them." As she moves through the camp, she works with astonishing singlemindedness, refusing the refugees' pleas for cigarettes, a blanket, a bit of food—things she cannot spare. "You get a bit numb," she admits.

There are no latrines here for the refugees, or for Kasprow, who waits until evening when she returns to a house that the organization Doctors Without Borders has rented. About a dozen relief workers from different countries are crowded into the small residence, and it is here that she eats one meal a day. Potatoes, tomatoes and onions are still available at the local market, though prices have tripled. Foreigners—even Kasprow, who receives about $20 a week for expenses—can afford to eat. "Carrying dead bodies doesn't lead to a healthy appetite," she says.

A long, strange trip has brought Kasprow here. She was a vascular nurse at Vancouver General Hospital when she and her mother saw the 1985 movie Out of Africa. "Mom, that's where I'm going," she announced. In 1992 she went on a safari vacation in South Africa and Zimbabwe and fell in love with both the continent and her tour guide. She saved her money, gave up her job and moved to Johannesburg the following year. The relationship with the guide ended, but her commitment to Africa did not, and she quickly found work with CONCERN. Though her father, Henry, 53, a pulp mill supervisor, and mother, Pat, 51, also a nurse, have divorced, she remains close to them and her sister Sheri, 25, through frequent letters.

For 18 months, Kasprow has worked on famine relief in Mozambique and Angola. Often she has had to improvise medical care under pressure. At one of her postings, a plantation worker accidentally cut his leg open with a machete; Kasprow opened a manual on suturing and sewed his leg together.

In a letter to her friend Patty Hansinger, Kasprow described her motivations: "It's really satisfying to take impossible situations and make them work and to see results so quickly."

"What she's doing is worrying for all of us back home, but she's happy," says her mother. Says Hansinger: "Jodi never really subscribed to the materialism of the society that we live in. She was looking for more of a challenge. She found it in Africa."

DAVID ELLIS
STEPHANIE SLEWKA in Goma and MIRO CERNETIG in Vancouver

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