Three years ago at age 6, Dunia Sibomana’s life changed irrevocably near the border of a vast Congolese animal preserve, sometimes called the world’s most dangerous park.
He and two playmates were attacked by a troop of chimpanzees. Dunia escaped with his life, but lost much of his face. The two other boys were mauled to death.
At 9, his life is equally marked by tragedy, triumphs and setbacks.
His most recent disappointment arrived late Thursday, when he was hospitalized for an infection that developed in portions of his face where tissue expanders had been placed in late January. The expanders were to be gradually inflated over several weeks to provide doctors with sufficient tissue for additional reconstruction.
The technique is employed in other forms of surgery, particularly after a mastectomy, when doctors expand tissue to create a new breast.
Dr. Alexander Dagum, executive vice chairman of surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital, said the aim for Dunia was to coax the expansion of skin and underlying tissue to provide enough to address those portions of his face where damage was most extensive.
Now, Dunia and his host family are at a crossroads as doctors decide where next to turn.
“The doctor wants him to stay in the hospital for the next five to six days,” Kim Jean Chaix said Friday. He and his wife, Gretchen Crary, and their two children are hosting the boy in their Brooklyn home.
“He’s an incredibly tough little boy,” Chaix said. “We all see it as a setback. But every time he goes to the hospital, he’s like ‘OK, let’s go.’ He’s unfazed.”
Chaix said decisions will be made about the next phase in Dunia’s facial reconstruction after he recovers from the infection.
The boy wound up in the family’s home after a setback early last summer.
Jennifer Crean, the Hauppauge woman who was Dunia’s first host when he arrived in this country in November 2015, was unable to continue caring for him, Chaix said.
Decisions had to be made quickly at the time because returning him to the village of Rutshuru in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not an option. The situation arose after the boy had already undergone his first major surgery, which Dagum said lasted 12 hours. He and the Stony Brook medical team are caring for Dunia at no charge. The child underwent a four-hour operation last month.
Chaix and Crary have two children, Marco, 13, and Annabelle, 9, and decided to invite Dunia into their home. They have set up a GoFundMe page for Dunia, to help with his care and education. So far it has raised $20,920.
“I grew up in France and Nicaragua myself, so I know what it’s like to grow up in different cultures,” said Chaix, who learned of Dunia’s plight three years ago. He was among the initial group of people fighting to usher Dunia out of the Congo and to the United States.
Chaix runs a Brooklyn nonprofit that supports the Virunga National Park, the sweeping 3,800-square-mile home of endangered animals and active volcanoes. Dunia and his playmates — a younger brother and cousin — were attacked near the park’s border in 2014.
“After the accident, Dunia was treated at a local bush hospital in a remote part of the country. He and his father, his grandmother and older brother had settled there,” after armed strife in the Congo; Dunia’s mother had died several years before the chimpanzee attack, Chaix said.
“Dunia had become a beggar in the town,” he said. The boy didn’t attend school and was ostracized because of his appearance.
Dunia had never entered a classroom or spoken English until Crean enrolled him in a Hauppauge school in 2015.
He is in second grade at a Brooklyn elementary school and is now fluent in English. He also speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda.
Disfigured children often don’t go to school in Africa or other parts of the developing world because people tend to shun them, Dr. Leon Klempner, an assistant professor of dentistry at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, told Newsday in 2015.
Klempner founded Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, which brings disfigured children to the United States for medical care. The fund brought Dunia to Long Island in 2015.
Chaix said he learned about Klempner through paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, a professor at Stony Brook whose son-in-law is an executive at Virunga park. Leakey is a son of the famed archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey.
Dagum had worked with Klempner on other cases, including that of a Kenyan girl named Saline, whose face was attacked by a form of flesh-eating bacteria. He performed 10 surgeries on the girl in 2013.
Dunia’s facial disfigurement was a result of two problems: the viciousness of the attack and the local hospital’s inability to help him. As a result, scar tissue further marred the boy’s face, the doctors say.
During a marathon operation last spring, Dagum grafted tissue from one of the boy’s arms to Dunia’s face and performed vascular surgery to increase facial blood flow. He constructed lips, which Chaix said require additional adjustment.
Dagum said the boy’s case is challenging surgically because of the damage.
“He’s just a child and he has experienced such tragedy,” said Dagum who is also chief of Stony Brook’s division of plastic and reconstructive surgery. “We’re happy that we could get him here.”
For Dunia, America is a world far different from the Congo, a country often beset by unrest and war. The park’s danger doesn’t come only from its animals. Armed militia episodically invade, as do armed poachers.
Dunia was playing near the park’s border when the troop of chimpanzees attacked, having just fled poachers.
Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia, said chimps are highly intelligent animals, that are also extraordinarily strong. They plot their attacks and move as a group.
“Chimps are extremely coordinated when they attack, so yes, planning is part of it,” said de Waal. “They rarely direct this behavior to our species unless there is a reason,” de Waal said, noting that when they attack, they fight to kill.
Dunia does not talk about the attack and shies away from books and television programs about chimpanzees and gorillas, Chaix said.
Despite his setbacks, the youngster has his eyes set on the future. He has multiple career plans.
“One of them is to be a worker, like a worker that can build houses. And the other one is to be a ranger. And the other one is be a policeman,” he said.