Malnourished children don't cry, they aren't strong enough

01. 02. 2018

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The interview with Denisa Augustínová was originally published in the January´s  Czech edition of Marianne magazine.

Denisa Augustínová can’t stand interviews. She has spent her whole life helping other people, and it is evident that she really doesn’t like talking about herself. Her colleagues from the Slovakian humanitarian organisation MAGNA, which Denisa founded sixteen years ago as a 23 year-old(!), luckily kept the photo production and interview a secret from her for so long and so cleverly that she finally didn’t manage to get away from it. And so Marianne could meet this exceptional woman, who is being compared to Sir Nicholas Winton.


You have two young children and in two days you’ll be flying to the Syrian border. That’s quite an uncomfortable idea for a regular mortal.
I thought that motherhood would not change my perspective. But it did. At certain moments of great exertion it affects me, for example when a patient comes who is the same age as my daughters. The child is in a situation in which they have lost their entire family, they are lonely, and have had traumatic experiences. And at exactly that instant a person is looking into the eyes of their own child. Of course I have different limits compared to other people, I have been in similar circumstances for years. But I also know where those limits are.


You founded MAGNA with your husband, you both go on missions. Do you have an emergency plan for what to do if one of you doesn’t return?
No, we don’t.

Are you honestly not scared?
I fear nothing. That’s because fear is the enemy. It leads us to make bad decisions. But of course I don’t consciously put my life or the life of anyone else at MAGNA at risk.

What about diseases? Aren’t you scared of them either?
Considering the places I go to I’m fine. There have been a couple of tropical diseases but nothing fatal.

You talk about it like it’s the flu. What disease have you overcome?
Dengue fever. Many of my colleagues perceive it like it’s flu. And malaria as well.


It seems to me that helping people is in your blood, your Mum was a social worker.
That’s right. My Mum worked with children from problem families, they were mainly teenagers. When a hole appeared in the system and they didn’t have anywhere to be, she simply took them home to live with us.


So did any of them stay in your room? That probably wasn’t easy with problem teenagers. 
It’s different with children. Children have a miraculous ability to not judge people. And problem children have problems mainly because they have problems at home, they don’t feel loved. Aggression is just projected fear. When those children then feel at home with us, they had a feeling of peace and safety, my brother and I didn’t even think of them as being problematic. Rather we sometimes regretted that they left us. They were usually with us for a couple of days. Sometimes weeks. But we were used to it.


Then at the young age of 23 you founded the humanitarian organisation MAGNA, which helps in crisis situations around the world.
That was probably youthful exuberance (laughs)! But seriously, at that time there was no organisation in Slovakia that carried out independent projects in the field. So Martin and I founded our own.


Do you go on missions abroad together?
We have two daughters so we take turns, we have to sort out the logistics. When we didn’t have children we used to go together much more. We are currently living part of the time in Lebanon and part of the time in Cambodia, where our daughters go to school.


You still travel into the field quite often though. Do you take your children with you?
No parent would voluntarily expose their child to danger, and our children are not exposed to danger either. They don’t go to countries that are “incompatible with children”, just to places that are safe. For example, some countries in Africa are more stable than others, we have worked in many countries on that continent. Our children are with us when we’re in Lebanon too, and they go with us to many other Asian countries as well.


How does your profession affect them?
It probably has a major effect on them. My older daughter is already nine, she definitely looks at many things differently, she is confronted with a harsh reality. She sees life on the street, she sees people who don’t have money. She asks about how to help. In contrast to adults, children don’t think about why to help, but rather how and when. My older daughter sends toys and clothes when she sees that there’s been a catastrophe somewhere, we don’t have to tell her, she does it automatically. When there was a cyclone in the Philippines she even did a collection at her school. Clearly finances are important, but we sometimes forget that sharing information about the conflicts is also a key factor. The main thing is the goodness inside us. That is free. You help a person on the street, but you also help at home. And the person who you help will then help as well. You start a chain reaction.


How can we help? How about if we give €4 a month, that’s roughly one lunch?
Even a couple of Euros can save a life. MAGNA runs a lot of nutritional projects for starving children and pregnant mothers, in the Czech Republic all of the funds go to help directly. We are actually a kind of extended helping hand of contributor.


You go to areas afflicted by catastrophes. Which situation had a major effect on you.
I have a good memory of smells and sounds. For example, when there was a famine in Somalia, hundreds of new patients came to us per day. You find yourself in a huge group of starving children, who have severe malnutrition, who are very weakened, dehydrated, don’t have an appetite, and suffer from various illnesses, for example pneumonia. They also have stomach pain during digestion, they haven’t eaten for several months, and when you start giving them nutrition it hurts them very much. They cry but because they don’t have enough strength to cry they make a specific sound. It is quite strong… And then you see all of the stories around you, 4 year-old children weighing six kilograms. For example we were looking after a little girl who was brought to us by her grandmother on her back, one child died on her way. Six weeks later though they left together. Healthy and of their own volition. There is currently a similar situation in South Sudan. 


Do you have an idea of how many lives your organisation helped to save? You probably don’t keep count but you must have a rough idea.
In all those years it has been tens of thousands of lives. In the past twelve years we have helped people to recover from many natural disasters, from tsunamis to earthquakes. We provide primary health care, we treat hundreds of patients per day. However, in recent years our work has become constantly harder.


Why?
The conflict in Syria has completely changed humanitarian ethics. At one time a cross on an ambulance or a hospital meant that none would attack, but today at our mobile clinics we cannot have any markings to show that we provide health care because we would immediately become a target. Humanitarian law isn’t working as well as it used to and attacks on the health care system are used as a way of waging a war.


In your profession the current geopolitical situation is very important, so I guess you don’t work nine to five.
No, I really don’t work regular business hours. That’s mainly because there are many time zones in the world, and it’s daytime in the Middle East and Africa when it’s evening where I am, I often work at night. It also depends on what new disasters are happening in the world.


You spend a lot of time in the field. Have you ever not seen a danger where there was one at the time?
Not consciously, people rather see it retroactively. For example at the Somalian border in early 2011 there was nothing to indicate that there would be such a huge crisis. It began innocently with minor incidents, but it ended up with explosions approximately 500 metres from a hospital and terrorist attacks in the area.


We mentioned your Mum, who also works helping people, but in Slovakia. Has she ever indicated to you that you should relocate?
Of course! Mums always try that! Mine still hasn’t given up on it.


So she would prefer you to be at home in Slovakia?
I think that she would agree to another country that she considers safer too (laughs). She isn’t trying it currently but I think she will again.


Final question, a practical one. How long does it take you to pack your bag?
Twenty minutes. I take clothes that I’m used to, I like wearing jeans and shirts. I don’t have any good-luck charms, but my hygiene products are important, I always have to have my soap, shampoo, creams and a basic pack of medication. That’s because there isn’t anything similar available to buy at places I go to. Or if there is then believe me you really don’t want to use that local stuff.


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