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The Times
The Daily Mail, 2002
Leeds April 2004
About Dorah
Children of Fire

Copyright The Daily Mail Wednesday, May 15, 2002

THE GIRL WHO WAS LOVED BACK TO LIFE
BY GILL SWAIN

DORAH has perfect little feet. Two arched insteps, two rounded heels, ten perfect toes, ten shiny toenails. Almost no other part of her body remains undamaged by fire. Her face is a ruined mask of melted skin and it is almost impossible to take your first look at the eight-year-old without gasping.

When Bronwen Jones first saw her some six years ago, soon after she was horrifically burned in a South African squatter camp fire, Dorah looked much worse and Bronwen was as shocked as anyone could be. But those little toes tugged at her heart. She watched them wriggling in enthusiastic response to a piece of Schubert she played to her in the hospital ward and realised that behind the ghoulish mask lived the precious spirit of a fully human child.

If Bronwen had turned her back that day, Dorah would still be lying in darkness and silence in the hospital cot where she had been abandoned when just seven months old, eyeless, noseless, unable to walk and being fed a liquid diet through a straw. Or she would be dead. Instead, after 24 operations in Britain to rebuild her face, the little girl enjoys music, goes to school, walks, jumps, feeds herself and sings.

And when Bronwen and her son, Tristan, 11, take her in their arms and tickle her, from deep inside her comes a throaty, delighted, glorious chuckle which lets the whole world know that she loves being alive. Saving Dorah, who now lives as her foster child, has come at considerable cost to Bronwen, 44. Her marriage and career both disintegrated under the strain.

But once Dorah's desperate need had hooked itself into her heart, she could never bring herself to walk away.

'Initially, I was being kind, but then I got to know Dorah and to love her. Some can choose to walk away. I can't. 'If most people met Dorah, they would be scared. Or cry. Or think she's too awful to look at. But she's not. Dorah wasn't born like that. She was born bonny. By character she still is and she's as bright as a button.

'I remember the first time I knew for certain she understood what I said, and the day she walked alone from the porch to the kitchen because she was hungry and could smell the food cooking. Her little figure appearing, unaided, round the kitchen door, made my heart swell with pride.'

When Bronwen first heard about Dorah, she had been living in Johannesburg with her husband Peter and son Tristan for four years

Brought up in Kent, the daughter of the former managing editor of The Observer, Bronwen was a hardened journalist who had worked on several national newspapers in London.

Yet when she read a small newspaper article about the baby with no face, she could not help but be moved the child's plight.

A candle had fallen on Dorah's bed when she had been left alone in her wooden shack home at the age of seven months. Something burning had covered her face and she lost her hands when trying to push it away.

Three hospitals had turned her away before the fourth put her on 'managed care', meaning they were waiting for her to die. Her traumatised young mother had disappeared.

BRONWEN arranged a meeting of mothers at the German school Tristan attended and asked them to donate old toys, cassette players, nursery rhyme tapes, anything which might help stimulate Dorah's senses.

She got nothing at all. 'I was appalled,' says Bronwen. 'They were all well off, living in big houses with swimming pools, yet they couldn't be bothered even to dig out their old cast-offs.'

So she asked Tristan, then five, and Thobe, a Zulu girl of the same age and his best friend, if they were prepared to take some of their toys to Dorah.

'We were all scared, particularly the children who had never come across disabled people before, but we just felt compelled to give her something.

'When we saw her, my main feeling was an overwhelming sadness that anyone should be hurt so badly and I could hear the same sadness in the children's voices.

'The only toy she had was an old fizzy drink bottle with some rice inside which she held with her feet. The children took her in their arms and cuddled her. We brought her outside into the sunshine, which the nurses never did, and the children put her in their laps and slid down the slide with her.

'Tristan guided her toes to the keys of a toy piano while we sang the notes to her. When she sang back we knew she could hear though her ears were burned away.

'She discovered the bell inside Tristan's Humpty Dumpty doll and a squeak and crackle in his hat. And she loved his little bear which played a tune when you pulled a string.

'Her mouth was wide open with the teeth sticking out in different directions because she had no lips to guide them. She had no nose, just a pink, triangular hole in her face, and her eyes were gelatinous blobs covered in transparent dressings to keep them moist because she had no eyelids.

'She knew her name. It wasn't hard to see there was a real little girl inside.

'On the way home I talked to the children about visiting her regularly. I knew if we started, we would have to continue because she would learn to expect us. I assumed the doctors were doing all they could for her and I just wanted to help her be a child.

'We began to introduce her to sounds and smells and movement. I would throw her in the air, which she loved, and make her feel things with her toes, like my dog's foot or the bark of a tree, while saying the word.

'There was no physical reason why she shouldn't walk, so Tristan and Thobe would go on their knees, put her arms over their shoulders and shuffle across the grass to encourage her to take a few steps.

'Soon I realised we were also benefiting from getting to know Dorah. It makes you lose any fear you might have of disability or disfigurement and the children became more aware of their own five senses.'

Bronwen's husband didn't share this deepening attachment. He became increasingly impatient with Bronwen as she spent more and more time with the little girl.

'My husband begrudged anything I did for other people, not because we would have spent that time together but just because it was his time, or the family's time. He also didn't like the fact it affected my ability to earn.'

But Bronwen felt even more responsible for Dorah when the hospital phoned to say doctors were going to take out her eyes.

WITHOUT eyelids, she couldn't blink to keep her eyes moist so they had to be covered with special dressings. Her doctors said it wasn't practical for her to live like that but I suspect the high cost of the dressings came in to it.

'I was devastated. I knew she could see little beyond the difference between light and dark but I thought that was preferable to never even knowing if the sun has come out. Dorah's doctors told me to find a solution, otherwise they would remove her eyes in a week.

For three nights I lay awake alternately crying and talking to Tristan about what we could do. Poor thing, he has had to give me a lot of emotional support over the years. He is a very special little boy and loved Dorah as much as I did.

'I didn't know the medical answers but I was sure something must be possible. I thought of Helen Keller and Simon Weston.'

On the fourth day, Bronwen phoned a friend on The Times, not really expecting him to run a story about a destitute, black, foreign, horribly disfigured child. When he did, the response from the British public was phenomenal.

Letters and more than £10,000 in donations flooded in.

At two hours' notice, Bronwen set up a charity bank account and within days had the agreement of leading ophthalmic surgeon Richard Collin, known as 'Mr Eyelids' to his appreciative patients, to operate on Dorah at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Plans were laid for Dorah to travel to Britain for six weeks of treatment, which turned into a stay of 11 months.

Thanks to the amazing generosity of complete strangers who had read about Dorah and offered their homes, she was to return later for a further five months with numerous shorter visits in between.

MR COLLIN made her eyelids and plastic surgeon John Clark painstakingly grew a skin graft from her back to form a pair of workable lips. The end of her right arm has been opened into a paddle so she can hold a cup and she has a collection of stick-on plastic noses, including a party one in lilac glitter.

But a corneal graft has failed. Though the surgeons offered their time for free, hospital beds and medicines had to be paid for.

Once Bronwen had set up a charity to handle the money pouring in for Dorah, people kept telling her of other dreadfully burned children.

In the thousands of unheated shacks in the vast sprawling townships of Johannesburg, people cook over open fires and light their homes with candles which are easily knocked over. Barely a night goes by without a terrible blaze. This led to the creation of the charities Children of Fire Trust and Children of Fire International.

Dorah was becoming a more or less permanent fixture in Bronwen's home in the smart Johannesburg suburb of Auckland Park -- an arrangement that Peter was not at all happy with.

'This big, perfect, healthy man thought he needed me, but Dorah was a helpless little girl who needed me far more and, for me, it wasn't a contest. I never considered giving her up to save my marriage.

'He said my involvement had changed me, ruined me. I suppose he was right, I did become difficult to live with, but if you care in a situation like this you can't help sometimes being angry or strident.

'Now if I get totally exhausted, Tristan gets most of it. But children forgive you if you shout and scream because you have had a lousy day, whereas partners tend to go into big sulks.

'In theory, it would be lovely for me to have someone to share the emotional burden but with the house full of donated clothes and odd children I'm looking after between operations, I really don't have room. My life is full enough with the children. I don't have room for a man either physically or in my heart.'

But it has not been easy. The first practical problem was how Bronwen was going to arrange for Dorah's care over months in Britain without seriously disrupting Tristan's life.

Deciding it was unfair to shuttle him back and forth, Bronwen went in search of Dorah's mother, Margaret Mokoena, on the slim chance that she might be able to take Dorah to England while Bronwen stayed in South Africa.

Amazingly, within a few hours of beginning to ask around in a squatter camp of 42,000 people, she found her living with a grandmother and an alcoholic uncle.

Although she had had no contact with Dorah for more than three years, said she wanted to be her mother again.

THE REUNION, at the mission home where Dorah was then living, was awkward but mother and daughter gradually relaxed with each other and in March 1998, Bronwen flew them to London.

But Bronwen later found that Margaret could not look after Dorah properly and the little girl was placed with Bronwen under a Place of Safety order, for her protection.

'I went to court and the magistrate said: "Why do you bother?" But I just couldn't not.'

For the past two years Dorah has been living with Bronwen and Tristan. It is a happy home, full of love, though life is still far from easy.

Dorah is still almost totally dependent on Bronwen. She clings to her side much of the time and if Bronwen leaves her for a moment to unlock a door or fetch a drink, she stands swaying slightly like a sapling in the wind, listening for her return.

Bronwen says that Dorah speaks speaks only occasionally.

'Say: "I love you'',' instructed Thobe, Tristan's friend. And from somewhere deep within Dorah came this low, soft little voice, so quiet you had to strain to hear but saying with perfect clarity, like the ghost of the child she might have been: 'I . . . love . . . you.'

It was indescribably moving. That evening the Sontonga Quartet called round for an impromptu concert. Bronwen led Dorah gently over to the double bass and laid her little stumpy arm against the strings as the musician played. The child was stilled, then, obviously transported by the sound, began to sway in time with the notes.

'Who knows what Dorah might be capable of? There is no other child alive as severely burned as her, so far as I know, and there are no books to tell us what to do,' says Bronwen.

'With a little help, she can catch a ball and play pony by riding on the back of another child. She likes to slide and to swing, to stroke a dog or feel the strange shape of a fir cone. Seeing her do all these things makes the sacrifices worthwhile.

'So many people have told me over the years not to bother with her but they don't know how she can cuddle you until you can't bear it any more. They have never heard her laugh. She's a lovely little girl who is part of our family, and that is what she will stay.'

SEND donations to: Children of Fire Trust, PO Box 1048, Auckland Park 2006, South Africa. e-mail: firechildren@icon.co.za; website: www.icon.co.za/~firechildren






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This material is Copyright The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2017.
Distribution or re-transmission of this material, excluding the Schools' Guide, is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the Trust.
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