Suffer the Little Children, Part Four

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Okkhoy waits in his temporary Baltimore home (courtesy of John Nowak/CNN)

Abed is a rickshaw driver in Dhaka, Bangladesh and the father of three, two sons and one daughter. One fateful day, he got into a heated argument with a man at a tea stall.

“Just you wait and see,” the man threatened. “I will take your son and make him work for me.”

In Bangladesh and a number of other South Asian countries, so-called “beggar mafias” are known for forcing children to beg for them. They collect the profits and leave almost nothing for the kids, but that isn’t the worst part.

These criminals have also been known to maim and mutilate children because people will feel more sympathy for them and may give them even more money. The 2008 Academy Award winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” touched on this practice. And in Bangladesh, “forced begging” can be very lucrative for criminals who live in a country where more than half of the population survives on less than a dollar a day.

Abed was never subjected to this kind of treatment when he was young. Sadly, he would be forced to live it through his youngest son, Okkhoy, because the man from the tea stall and three of his friends followed through on their original threat.

In late 2010, and just before the Muslim festival known as Eid, several kids from Okkhoy’s area asked him to leave home and to join them for a popsicle. Okkhoy was hesitant at first, but eventually agreed and followed his friends through Kamrangirchar, a slum that once served as a landfill. At the time he was only 7 years old and, like many children his age, the promise of something sweet is simply too hard to resist.

As the children made their way through the makeshift neighborhoods and shanties, Okkhoy became suspicious. He decided not to take any chances and set off for home, but it was too late. The man from the tea stall and three other men grabbed Okkhoy and pulled him into an alleyway.

After tying Okkhoy’s hands, the men told him that he would have to start begging for them. Unfortunately, Okkhoy knew all the men, told them so and then threatened to tell his father about the attack. That’s when things took a brutal and shocking turn.

Those of you who are squeamish may want to stop reading now, because this is kind of graphic.

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The scar is a constant reminder of the horror he endured (courtesy of John Nowak/CNN)

One of the men grabbed a brick and bashed Okkhoy in the head, immediately knocking him out and dropping him to the ground. The men then did some things that can only be described as pure evil. One of them cut Okkhoy’s throat, one sliced his chest and belly open and another hacked off his penis and one of his testicles. They left him for dead with plans on returning later to throw his body into a nearby river.

Fortunately, they never got the chance.

When Okkhoy’s mother noticed that he was missing, she went searching for him and found his bloody, mutilated body in the same alley where he was attacked. She struggled to carry him to the main road and started yelling for help. Within minutes, a neighbor alerted Abed and he rushed to the scene.

“It felt like the sky fell on me,” he explained later. “As a father, there is no greater pain in the world than knowing that you could not protect your child.”

Abed picked up his son, put him in his rickshaw and rushed him to a Dhaka hospital. Okkhoy spent three months there and had most of his wounds treated, but doctors had neither the skills nor the resources needed to reconstruct his severed penis.

When Okkhoy was finally well enough to leave the hospital, he and his family were transported to a battalion compound so they could be together and safe. The days were long and sad, but at least Okkhoy’s attackers couldn’t touch him there.

Abed went to the police to report the attack, but kept getting the run-around and wasn’t convinced anything would change.

He was wrong.

By chance, Abed met Alena Khan, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation. Khan had a reputation for being a fearless and dogged litigator, as well as someone willing to upset the status quo if it served her clients’ needs.

Abed didn’t fully realize it at the time, but Khan became the first of many important allies in his fight not only to save his son, but also to fight against the horrors that forced begging inevitably brings.

Khan immediately contacted the media and Okkhoy’s story soon spread. The high court asked authorities to launch an inquiry and within a week, the Rapid Action Battalion arrested five suspects and charged them all with attempted murder. As many as four others are still under investigation.

Of course, this didn’t heal the physical or emotional wounds these criminals  inflicted on Okkhoy.

On the other side of the world in Columbus, Ohio, a businessman named Aram Kovach was watching CNN and heard Okkhoy’s story. He was so touched and desperate to help that he contacted CNN via email and asked how he could get involved. Okkhoy’s treatment and recovery would be expensive and unfortunately, specialized surgery like the kind needed in penis reconstruction simply isn’t available in Bangladesh. Kovach and his wife Branka would need to find a way to bring Okkhoy to America and to finance his costly medical procedures.

They soon found it as even more Good Samaritans started coming to Okkhoy’s aid. The first was John Gearhart, director of pediatric urology at John Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

CNN reached out to Gearhart, who immediately sympathized with Okkhoy’s plight and offered to perform the delicate surgery. He also enlisted the help of two other “angels” willing to help the young victim: Dr. Richard Redett, a pediatric plastic surgeon, and Dr. Dylan Stewart, a pediatric trauma surgeon. Their team was in place, so all that remained was to bring Okkhoy to the US.

In yet another altruistic turn, Qatar Airlines offered to fly Okkhoy for free. Kovach picked up the tab for the family’s additional expenses and even set them up in a townhouse close to the hospital where the surgery would be performed.

Abed could not believe how generous everyone was being and even asked Kovach why he decided to help his son.

“Because I love him,” Kovach told Abed. “I felt his grief, I felt his pain and I just wanted to do something. It’s just what we do as human beings.”

Okkhoy waits in an examination room at Johns Hopkins.

A brick nearly caved in his skull (courtesy of John Nowak/CNN)

Abed was also concerned about his son’s ability to have children someday and sadly, the odds were stacked against him. Redett told him it would depend on how much penile tissue remained and if it was still capable of producing sensations and, consequently, erections.

Abed was not happy, but there was nothing he could do. Aside from praying, that is.

On the day of the surgery, Okkhoy was remarkably calm while Abed paced the waiting room floor, anxious to hear if his son’s ability to procreate would return. Since the surgery was estimated to take between eight and ten hours, though, Abed knew it was going to be a long and frustrating day.

Then something miraculous happened less than an hour into the procedure. Gearhart found Abed in the waiting room and gave him some great news. In men, the penis we see on the outside is only the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). A significant portion of it lies below the surface and attaches to the pubic bone.

Fortunately for Okkhoy, there was enough penis below the damage to make construction of a new penis unnecessary. And since the tissue was sensate, it would be capable of producing both sensations and erections. In other words, Okkhoy may someday have the children he and his family so desperately want for him.

Okkhoy has now been discharged from the hospital and is recovering in the Baltimore area since he’s been restricted from all physical activity. And how is he spending his time?

He’s learning to speak English. And his human rights lawyer friend, Alena Khan, is helping him achieve his new goal in life.

“I want to become a doctor because I want to save people,” Okkhoy told his parents. “And when I do, I won’t take any money from them.”

If a child who suffered as much as Okkhoy can still find something positive in this crazy world, then there may be hope for humankind after all. And since he will also have to testify in the trial of his attackers soon, perhaps justice will be served as well.

Bless you, Okkhoy. And thanks for showing us all what true courage looks like. You truly are a shining example of how resilient humans can be, especially children.

Posted on December 7, 2012, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Life is hard but that does not mean it should be sad. There really are super heroes that still exist in this world. 🙂

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