Site Visits to Sudan and Angola
After trying for several years to obtain a visa to enter Sudan, I finally received a permit in July 2006 from the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, with the help of a Maryknoll Sister who lives in Sudan. From the United States, I flew to Lokichokio, a town in northern Kenya near the border of southern Sudan. I was met by the Missionary Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, some students and a Brother of St. John Bosco. From the airport, we traveled in a caravan to the border of Sudan and had a flat tire along the way. At the border, in a small shed, I presented my travel permit and we proceeded to Narus, where the sisters manage a primary school for 700 students.
During the few days I was in this settlement of about 20,000, I stayed in a tukel, a round hut with a grass roof. We had electricity for two or three hours at night with the help of solar panels and a generator. I visited the local school and the bomb shelters that were used almost daily by children and teachers during the war. Most of the students are orphans whose parents either died in the war or were separated from their parents when they fled from their homes into the desert. Currently, the majority of the students are boarders and the sisters have been receiving food-aid from Caritas or the United Nations’ World Food Program to feed them. As these organizations begin to move out of Sudan because the war is presumably over, the sisters will be left to care for the children with few resources.
Providing students with food will not be easy because nearly all food must be imported and therefore is very expensive. The area is a desert landscape and rainfall is sparse, so production is limited. Many of the people are from nomadic tribes who have traditionally lived on what is provided by their animals, but the sisters do not have these resources.
The children have been severely traumatized during the war, not only by living under constant threat of death by bombs, but also by the terrible experiences of abandonment, hunger and fear. Some of the sisters, themselves traumatized by the abuses of war, have been trained as trauma counselors and work as best they can with these children.
Narus was only a village until the people, under the leadership of the Bishop of Torit diocese, fled here for safety. At that time, this village became a settlement of nearly 40,000. If possible, people are now gradually returning to their homes.
Besides the school, the sisters have a clinic and a project to train women in sewing and baking. This gives the women some skills to help them generate income. Many of them are very young wives because it is a tradition of this area for families to marry-off their girls after only being in school a few years. Some girls, as young as five years old, are promised as wives to older men. Many people in this culture still believe education is a contamination of women and parents fear that they will not get a good price for their daughters. The sisters are trying to change these views; numerous families that lived in refugee camps during the war, where their daughters attended school, no longer follow this tradition.
From Narus, I traveled to Isoke to visit another school that had received grants from the Sisters’ Fund. We traveled for several hours in a Land Rover over very rough and muddy roads into the jungle. Along the way, we stopped in Kapoeta, once a major town that had been totally destroyed during the war. All that is left is remnants of a Catholic Church and shrapnel from the bombs. We arrived in Isoke late at night and were met by several hundred students with lanterns, who welcomed us with singing and dancing after waiting for several hours for us.
The school and hospital here are managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the first native Sudanese congregation. The sisters here also kept their school open during the war. They had to cover the school’s metal roofs with foliage so the sun would not reflect light and make them easy targets for bombers. The schools at Narus and Isoke are the only two schools available in this entire region. All others were totally destroyed and looted. The sisters pointed out caves in the nearby mountains where faculty hid during the bombings. Children sought safety in bomb shelters under the library and elsewhere. Even the animals had either fled or had been killed for food over the years. Although I had visited the Democratic Republic of Congo just two years after their civil war ended, I still found it hard to imagine what it must have been like to live under such constant threat. I saw the remnants of weapons and effects of war all around.
The next day, I experienced a unique welcome to the school of 1,000 students by jumping over a cow being slaughtered in my honor. From here, we visited the dormitories and classrooms. Some of the buildings are constructed of mud bricks with thatch roofs, which creates dangerous living conditions for large groups of children crowded together with only candles for light. Donors are helping to replace a few of these structures with cement-brick and iron-roof buildings. The sisters are also building a kindergarten. Classes are currently conducted under shade trees. Again, a majority of the children are boarders without families. It is faith and hard work that keeps these projects going. Somehow funding arrives when it is most needed, but the sisters are constantly wondering how they will care for all these children. The students here, as in Narus, entertained me with dances and song.
The following day, we began our journey to Juba by road. Soon after leaving the school, we got stuck in deep mud and clay and we were extricated after several hours with the help of some young men with hoes. Eventually, we reached the main road and proceeded to Torit, the administrative center of the diocese. The road was very bumpy and bordered by land mines in several places that have yet to be removed. It brought home to me how dangerous peoples lives still are even though war is technically over. We were traveling in Liberation Forces territory, so I felt safe. Along the way, we saw carcasses of planes that had been shot down and other abandoned military equipment.
We had received word that the road to Juba from Torit was not safe because of Lord’s Resistance Army activity and a small plane had been chartered for us. After we arrived in Juba, we went by taxi to the Sacred Heart Sisters provincialate where I stayed over night. That day and the next morning, I visited the sisters’ schools and saw their bombed-out generalate that they are hoping to rebuild. I also visited the Comboni Sisters who are now returning to Juba and starting a radio station to educate people in the rural areas. Juba was also basically destroyed in the war and is now a place for the United Nations headquarters and thousands of refugees without water or sanitation. How it will recover is beyond my imagination.
Next, I flew to Uganda to take a small missionary plane to Yambio, Sudan, a place too remote for ordinary airlines. I visited a project the Sisters’ Fund has with the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, another native Sudanese congregation. The sisters have a kindergarten, women’s project and hostel for young women attending secondary school. Yambio, once a thriving community, is now isolated because roads were destroyed during the war. It is also under constant threat of the Lords Resistance Army from Uganda and outbreaks of tribal conflict. Only United Nations and missionary planes fly there. I was to fly back to Nairobi from here, but was informed that the UN plane was cancelled. Consequently, I had to ride in a Land Rover for twelve hours through the jungle with a Catholic Relief Services group to Yei, in order to catch a small plane leaving for Nairobi two days later. Unfortunately, the plane was full, so I had to wait two more days in Yei at the CRS camp. Eventually, I got to Nairobi and thankfully made my connection to Angola.
Angola is another country just emerging from a 40-year long war. It is still devastated and development is inhibited because of the land mines throughout the countryside waiting to be dismantled. Since it is a Portuguese-speaking country, I had an interpreter, a Scalabrinian Sister from Brazil. I visited many projects in Luanda, the capital, where sisters have projects to rehabilitate young women from prostitution, teach in the few schools in the city, organize projects for youths, have feeding programs and teach women income-generation and literacy. The living conditions in Luanda were unbelievable. The city was built by Portuguese colonists for up to 500,000 people. However, as the war escalated people from the countryside and from neighboring countries, also experiencing civil war, migrated to Luanda because it was fairly secure. As a result, this caused the population to grow to five-million people and the old infrastructure cannot support the population.
The streets are narrow and often filled with sewage, especially when it rains because the drains are not functioning. Abandoned vehicles and trash can be seen piled high everywhere and along the streets. Public water pumps are crowded with people waiting in line with buckets for washing clothes and bathing. Any small stream or pond created by broken pipes is also crowded with people vying for a drop of water. Only about one in ten children can attend school. People live in informal settlements without water or sanitation. I saw them foraging for food from the same garbage piles used for toilets. There is little opportunity for employment, so corruption, extortion, crime and violence are rampant. The traumas of displacement, loss of family, abandonment, physical, mental and sexual abuse, which are all affects of war, make it difficult for people to live together. There are many missionary and native congregations working to address these issues and offering alternatives, but the task is monumental.
Travel to rural areas of Angola is almost impossible and dangerous by road. The roads are either destroyed or marked by landmines. Almost the entire eastern part of Angola is still unlivable. Many of the people in these regions fled to Zambia or the Congo and are being expelled because the countries no longer have the resources to support them. The United Nations offers some help for their return, but it is minimal and many have no homes to return to. Relief and aid agencies are leaving Angola and neighboring countries now that the wars are over, leaving the people with little with which to start their lives over.
I flew to Huambo, a city once called the New Lisbon, to visit projects. What I found was a once beautiful city with wide streets, parks, trees, schools and thriving businesses totally wiped out. Now, after 55 days of constant bombing during the war, it boasts buildings riddled with bullet holes and broken down walls; empty and destroyed schools and parks and streets in disrepair. There are hundreds of orphans, abandoned elderly, homeless and unemployed people. This city was a special target because it was the headquarters of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi.
I stayed with the Sisters of St. Charles Lwanga, a native congregation that provides homes for orphans and abandoned children, feeding programs for abandoned children and elderly and programs for youths. They have few resources, but they share what they have. I also visited schools managed by Josephina Sisters from Mexico and the Society of Teresa of Jesus. The sisters are challenged by the numbers of people in need, lack of resources and the psychological and spiritual wounds of war. The next site I was supposed to visit was in Cubal, a town outside Benguela on the coast, but plans came to a standstill when the plane on which I was to fly was full and another did not leave until the day I was to return to Los Angeles. This was a disappointment, so I returned to Luanda, under the name of some man the sisters had convinced to sell his ticket a few minutes before the plane was to leave. This was one of the many adventures I had traveling in Sudan and Angola.
I returned to Luanda and for three days continued to visit many projects in the vast slum areas of the city. On the last day, the sisters took me to the new Luanda being built alongside the old section of town. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Along the seacoast there were beautiful, walled mansions, churches, schools, malls, movie theaters and wide streets lined with flowers and trees, all being built to entice companies to invest in Angola. I had witnessed two different worlds that would only occasionally intersect, if those from the slums were able to obtain employment. Those living in the new area would never have to see their poorer neighbors. I realize that this incongruence is found in many large cities throughout the world, but it was so dramatically apparent here.
The visits to these two countries were very moving because I graphically saw the devastation of war, not just the physical affect but the psychological and spiritual too. People feel lost and unconnected because many no longer know where their families are. After years of war, many are basically homeless, have had no chance to attend school and are illiterate and unskilled. They are without any resources to obtain employment, even if there were opportunities. Hopelessness and discouragement lead them to violence against themselves and others.
On the other hand, to witness the ministries of the sisters was also moving and monumentally inspiring. They are trying to create new environments of peace and security by providing opportunities for rehabilitation, education, health care and safety, even while they have also experienced the traumas of the same wars. Some sisters had been imprisoned and abused themselves and yet, setting themselves aside, they reach out to those less fortunate.