Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (CNN) — The sight of a baby girl suckling on the breast of her dead mother changed the course of Abebech Gobena’s life forever. The year was 1980 and Ethiopia lay in the grip of what would become one of the most devastating famines in its history.
Gobena, a devout Catholic, was on a pilgrimage to a holy site in the north-east region of the country when she came across the dead mother and her baby, lying amid a sea of people who were starving to death. “When I was returning, there were so many of these hungry people sprawled all over, you could not even walk,” Gobena told CNN.
“I had some bread on me, so I tried to feed them. I fed two men. When I reached this woman, she was dead, but the child was still suckling at her breast,” she continued. “One of the chauffeurs charged with picking up the corpses said to me, ‘I am waiting for the child to die so I can pick up both bodies. I just can’t bear to take the child as well while she is still alive,'” Gobena said.
Without a second thought, Gobena bundled the tiny girl into her arms and smuggled her to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. In that instant, she transformed both the baby’s future and her own. Haunted by the images of the dying people, it wasn’t long before Gobena headed back to the countryside in an effort to source water for the destitute locals. She came across another child in the arms of his dying father.
Gobena told CNN: “At the end of the day, as we were going home we came upon five people, three of them dead, two alive. One of the men dying by the side of the road said to me, ‘This is my child. She is dying. I am dying. Please save my child.'”