LOS ANGELES — Thirteen-year-old Anibal knows a lot about grown-up things, but it wasn't until the other day that he finally discovered ice cream.
Anibal's days have been full of discoveries since he arrived in Los Angeles recently from his native El Salvador. There was the Halloween party, the pizza, the ring of the telephone ("Where does the conversation come from?" he wondered).
Maria Cristina Samaniego, who has opened her home to the bright-eyed, pixieish boy, his mother, Otelia, and his 20-month-old brother, Jorgito, last week offered him a treat that she always shares with her grandchildren. "I asked Anibal if he wanted ice cream," she said. "He didn't know what that was. Can you imagine?"
The children are eating better now than they ever have. When Anibal got dressed the other morning, he told Samaniego: "Look, my stomach is growing. It's hard to close my pants."
Anibal's stay in Los Angeles has been a mixture of excitement and anxiety. He underwent surgery at Santa Marta Hospital in East Los Angeles to correct some of the injuries he sustained in the war in his homeland.
Anibal's treatment is part of a program co-sponsored by Medical Aid to El Salvador, a Los Angeles-based group that requested that the boy's last name not be used, and the Archdiocese of San Salvador. Called the Children's Project, it has placed another 11 youngsters in hospitals across the country at a cost of about $10,000 per child. Pan American and United airlines donated the flights for the children, but it was the free care at the hospitals that made the program possible.
Concern has come from many quarters for Otelia and her children, who have been embraced by Los Angeles' large Salvadoran community. The family has been introduced at churches, taken to museums and stores and invited into homes.
It was seven years ago, Otelia recalled, as she and her husband sat eating lunch, with Anibal nearby and a younger child in her arms, that military troops came upon the family and opened fire. Her husband, wounded in the stomach, died in the gunfire. She was wounded in the leg. And Anibal suffered wounds to both his arms and his head.
As Otelia remembers it, "He fell over and there was blood everywhere. We thought he hit his head when he fell." The child's only treatment was first aid administered by health workers in the community. It was not until this week that it was discovered, after doctors performed a CAT scan, that there are bullet fragments lodged in Anibal's brain.
They knew that his arms were badly injured and have been getting progressively worse. Scar tissue on his right elbow is compressing a nerve; as a result, he has no feeling in his ring and little fingers. He has also lost the opposition movement in the right thumb.
Doctors at Santa Marta planned to remove the scar tissue and repair nerve damage to his right arm that is affecting the growth and use of his fingers. Because he is still growing, doctors cannot operate on his scarred left wrist. Instead, his arm was to be placed in a splint that he will have to wear until he is about 18. Nothing can be done about the bullet fragments.
Dr. Alejandro M. Sanchez said that without the surgery Anibal would lose more and more use of his hands.
As for Anibal, all the talk in the doctor's office and the pictures of muscles and tendons didn't really penetrate his mind. "He is really innocent," Samaniego said. "He doesn't understand, but he wants his hands fixed."
The surgery won't solve all his problems, but will give him a fighting chance later this month when he returns to his village of Arcatao, where even basic medical care is unheard of.
Dr. William Arroyo, a professor of psychiatry at County-USC Medical Center and a consultant on the Children's Project, said the lack of medical care is understandable considering the poverty of the country and the fact that many medical professionals have fled.
"Probably the thing that's affected this youngster's development most of all," he added, "is malnutrition. And when they go back they'll resume eating the same diet."
The village where Anibal lives is constantly patrolled by government troops and is used by them as a staging area. The villagers in turn are suspected by the military of being supporters of the rebels. Otelia, 40, and her family have spent countless hours in bomb shelters, taking cover from bombings and attacks by infantrymen. Their crops have been burned, she said, and their houses bombed to ferret out the guerrillas.
"Only two families have cows in my village and they are the only families that have milk," Otelia said. "It is a hard life," she said, and it shows in her face. "But it's better in the country. You can grow things and there are animalitos-- chickens, pigs and ducks to eat. We are tied to the country. We belong there."