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Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Dave Stewart SJ, writes from Sudan
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¬†Rumbek, in South Sudan, is surely one of the most desperate places on earth. It's hot; the temperature rises to well over 40 degrees by mid afternoon, and a dry dusty wind offers no relief. After a long and debilitating war, its people are impoverished and tired. Children are in rags at best and, while there is not at the moment obvious starvation, there's little educational opportunity for them and it's depressing how children and young mothers rush towards one looking for handouts; they've come to hope for no more than that. These are mostly tall, slim dignified-looking Dinka people but their circumstances mock that dignity. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 may have ended the years of bloodshed but it is an uneasy peace at best. Infrastructure hardly exists after more than two decades of war, so the town is ill-equipped to welcome the return of the many internally displaced people now trying to piece together their lives and families. The town of Rumbek has not a single building of more than one storey and many structures remain shattered by shelling. One estimate places the number of people displaced by the years of fighting at over two million. Townships of tukuls (round mud huts) have sprung up around the edge of Rumbek, some financed by the RC Diocese of Rumbek. There are a few communal wells. Young men still wear military fatigues and brandish automatic rifles, which may or may not be loaded. It seems that there has been no attempt at disarmament and, as further west in Darfur, there is deep distrust of the peace and of the Khartoum government. The continuing conflict there has been described by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. You lose count of the NGO four-wheel drives, equipped with those massive radio antennae fixed to the front bumpers, air-conditioned and the windows closed against the dust. These speed about the district raising choking clouds of red, red dust from the gravel roads. At the airstrip, they congregate like elephants at a watering-hole, collecting and despatching aid workers to and from the many UN flights. Beside the airstrip with its single Customs and Immigration hut (the arrivals and departure lounge is a wooden bench in the shade of a large mango tree), there are vast UN World Food Programme warehouses piled high with sacks of grain. A gated compound of NGO offices and accommodation is protected by armed guards. There is also a fuel depot but it takes a month's drive for petroleum to be delivered here from the east coast. If a fuel lorry fails or is stolen by thieves or bandits it's lost and you have to wait for the next one. Landing in a 40-year-old Fokker F-27 after a bumpy three-hour flight from Nairobi was scary enough but much worse followed. There is no phone at the Jesuit mission so a change to the flight details could not be communicated to them and so I found myself stuck in the shade afforded by the F-27's wing, anxiously scanning the crowds and the trucks for anyone who might be from the Jesuit mission and thus clearly giving myself away as a beginner in this world. I was carrying several boxes of food and equipment for the mission. Several tall young men began to demand money for offloading them from the aircraft for me and for "arrival taxes". Lamely, I claimed to have no cash. The absurdity of this claim ≠ a Mzungu without money, indeed ≠ evoked sarcastic laughter from these guys and I began to feel fear rising. Only later did I learn how silly this claim was, as this rickety state hasn't a viable currency of its own but uses dollars, Kenya shillings and even Euro commonly. I took a chance; I couldn't do anything else at this stage as the crowds were thinning out and the aircraft was being loaded for its return fight. I could see the captain watching the situation and decided to gamble on his intervention should it go wrong. I picked up our boxes and began to move towards the exit. I didn't look over my shoulder but I sensed at least one of them not far behind me; another shouted something I didn't understand. But I made it to the security of the big mango tree where these fellows gathered some moments later in the shade. They watched me closely but made no further approach. I must have passed the test. But it was only then I noticed that two of them were armed with AK-47s! I had only a little longer to wait until my rescuer appeared. This was Martin, a volunteer from our friends at Jesuit Mission Volunteers in Germany, who has given two years of his life to come to Rumbek and to place his skills at the service of these desperately poor people. Martin is a young architect, from Muenster. One of his main projects is the building of a school not far from the small compound of the St Peter Claver Jesuit mission. Martin supervises his builders with tact and displays a diplomatic awareness in dealing with local suppliers that I wished I'd had at the airstrip. The mission itself is a simple building, home to several Jesuits and the base for a variety of ministries to the people of Rumbek. A small chapel sits in the compound. Fr Joe Rodrigues SJ, who hails from Mangalore in India, is developing a multi-learning centre on the mission, and hopes to give the people the opportunity to acquire skills, not least on computers, that would give them a chance of lifting themselves out of poverty. Fr Sal Ferrao SJ has served in many parts of the world, sometimes with the Jesuit Refugee Service, and is a passionate advocate for the poor and for justice. Their community life is basic and simple; there is water on-site, and solar electricity, but no telecoms just yet. A shower (no hot water, of course, but it's comfortably warm from the sun) is a joyous relief from the searing heat and the red dust that gets everywhere. With Martin's generous voluntary work and the efforts of Jesuit scholastics and novices, this is the service of the faith that promotes justice and it's a privilege to see it.
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