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Burying a child: A mother's unending grief

By Sanjay Gupta, M.D., Chief Medical Correspondent
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Fight to save Somali kids
  • Gupta's visit with Somalian refugees brings disturbing memories
  • He recalls the grieving mother of a boyhood friend who died
  • Thousands of Somalian parents have buried their children this summer

Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes you deep inside the misery of the largest refugee camp in the world, "SGMD," Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET

Dadaab, Kenya (CNN) -- When I was in the third grade, a classmate of mine died of leukemia. None of us knew he was sick, only that his mother hadn't let him attend school in a while.

More than 30 years later, I still remember the awful day my mom told me my friend had passed away. I made a card for his mother, and walked to their house to deliver it. She was too overcome to take any visitors, but thanked me and took the card. I can recall her broken up face when she shut the door.

Over time we lost touch, but during the holidays a couple of years ago, I stopped by her home to pay a visit. She recognized me right away, smiled and invited me in for a cup of coffee. And then, while hanging my jacket, she began to tremble and cry.

So many years later, the sorrow was just under the surface. The experience left an indelible impression on me, one that I better understood after becoming a parent myself. It violates a natural order of life to bury your own child, and I am not sure the grief ever goes away.

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That's the position 30,000 Somali parents found themselves in this summer. And, 600,000 more children may be buried before the end of the year. In just about any other place on Earth, those numbers would scream out from international headlines, but not here in East Africa.

Inside the Dadaab Refugee Camp, a mass burial site sits within walking distance of the close cluster of tents. Amin Hassan took me to see the tiny burial site of her 1-month old daughter, Addison.

It was nearly lost among all the other shallow, hastily dug graves. Small sticks mark these raised plots of dirt with nothing else except bits of colored plastic trash stuck in the ground and blowing in the wind.

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta visits refugee camp
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There are no nameplates, no flowers and no reminders of their lives. People here just vanish.

Misery in world's largest refugee camp

"She was perfectly healthy when she arrived," Amin told me.

They had left Somalia in search of food and water, and felt relief when they finally reached the camp. It may have been contaminated water that caused little Addison's intractable diarrhea and vomiting or an overwhelming infection.

Pertussis or whooping cough is something they see quite often here. "And measles," one of the doctors told me.

Many of these infections are wildly contagious, especially among the hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated kids in these camps.

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As I stood and spoke to Hassan, with all those tiny burial sites around us, I couldn't help but think of my friend and his mother. I thought of that unnatural order of parents burying their children.

I thought about Hassan's lifelong grief.

Amin Hassan dug the grave for her daughter by herself.

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