A third of the residents of Sudan “have been driven from their homes in the five years since their feuding officials drew their respective Dinka and Nuer tribes into a conflict in which children have routinely been kidnapped and then forced to fight, and gang rape is as standard-issue a weapon as an AK-47,” Melinda Henneberger writes in the Kansas City Star. She was on the ground in that devastated nation, not her first trip there.
Please consider reading her column here and sharing it. She talks a bit more below about what she saw and learned, as well as why we should not let this story fly under the radar in the frenzy of other news.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who was Josephine Moses, and why should we know her name?
Melinda Henneberger: Thank you for saying her name! I met 20-month-old Josephine as she was dying of malnutrition, and in a place where everything grows, that’s not only sad but infuriating. Her mother had taken her into the bush to protect her from the war but then had watched her wither away there, and by the time she brought Josephine to St. Therese Hospital in Nzara, where the Comboni nuns have been caring for all of God’s children for the last 64 years, it was just too late. In the girl’s last hours, her mother was still trying to get her to take her breast, though she herself was so skinny there was no milk, and the baby was too weak to even try. So I thought about how similar to her country Josephine Moses was — young and so devastated that we can’t even hear her crying.
Lopez: How do you process things like the caption below a photo in your report: “In Mabia, South Sudan, the girl’s chubby cheeks are not a sign of health, but of a worm infestation.”
Henneberger: I am still processing everything I saw in Mabia — a hellscape, really, of starvation and sickness and a kind of hollowed-out madness among many of the 70,000 displaced people living in a forest there, with nothing. A lot of those I talked to have no affect at all left after all they’ve been through, and some of the children have deformities I’d never seen before, because they would have been corrected at birth in the U.S. — or in any country with medical care.
Woman after woman told me about losing a child on the way there, after they ran in different directions under fire from rebels, and then from the government troops who came after the rebels. To see that one of the few outward signs of health was instead just the opposite, because those chubby cheeks only mask how thin and ill these children are, was just one more twist of the knife. They’re all civilians — farmers — and no one is coming to help them except the local priest and his bishop, Eduardo Hiiboro, who smiles when he sees them and cries later.
Lopez: What was the most important conversation you had in Sudan?
Henneberger: Heavy as all of this is, I will tell you one funny one. We’re all sitting in Bishop Eduardo’s compound one night in the dark, because the power’s gone out again — maybe half a dozen priests and brothers, and me. It’s very pleasant, sitting in front of the open windows chatting and listening to the rain, and I ask the bishop about funeral rituals in South Sudan, because I’d seen earlier that their graves are little mounds above ground, right outside each family’s home, because they want their departed loved ones nearby. He told me “Well, we do three days of mourning for the women and four days for the. . . .” And I said, “Wait, what? Three for the women and four for the men? Why?” They all laughed so hard and long, and they said they’d never thought anything about it before. And of course, why would they? If they ever have time to worry about that, it will mean their country is going to be fine.
Lopez: What was an image you won’t be able to get out of your mind?
Henneberger: Everyone I met everywhere I went was reaching to shake hands, not just as a courtesy or a greeting but as if I — in just taking their hands and offering mine — I was giving them something important and even longed for. I think they badly want to know that the world hasn’t forgotten them.
Lopez: What’s the biggest challenge faced by the people you met there?
Henneberger: It’s definitely hard to hang on to hope and sanity when there’s no rational reason to have either. Almost everyone in the refugee camps — mostly women and children — has been severely traumatized in some way. Many have been gang-raped, and more than once. They have seen their families tortured and slaughtered so they have PTSD, but no psychiatric care at all. One woman told me she’s heard waves crashing all day and night since her three brothers were murdered. Another woman who’d been raped and received an AIDS diagnosis tore off all her clothes, ran from the camp screaming, and hasn’t been seen again, and a man burned himself alive in his hut and tried to take his whole family with him. I met several teenage girls who believe that the devil is after them, and that didn’t seem crazy to me at all.
Lopez: Why did you visit Sudan again?
Henneberger: Because they need us so much, and I think the world needs to know how much that’s the case. The United States really did help bring their country into being, and I do feel we have a responsibility to them. How heartbreaking to be so full of hope and then so betrayed by their own so-called leaders.
Lopez: What can Americans do?
Henneberger: It really is humanitarian aid and whatever faith they can hold on to that’s keeping them alive at this point, and their resilience itself is stunning. They know and say that we in the U.S. are their best friends, and even if there’s not a lot of competition for that distinction, it means something to them to know that we haven’t turned our backs on them. Of course, I would love to see the Trump administration engage in the region, unlikely as that seems. I think almost anyone who went to South Sudan would fall in love with its people, though that doesn’t seem to have kept their own leaders from selling them out. And one thing we can all do is remember them in our prayers.
Lopez: You posted a video of Ugandan children enthusiastically greeting their bishop. What was that about? What does the Church mean in their lives?
Henneberger: The Catholic Church is the only civic institution with any moral standing at all in the part of the South Sudan where I was, the former Western Equatoria. It is what gives them both hope and practical leadership by example, as when Bishop Eduardo picked up a shovel and led one of his communities in repairing a road recently. I have been so disillusioned with my Church over all of the scandals and cover-ups, and to see a place in this world where followers of Christ are doing everything Jesus ever asked of us was its own kind of miracle.
When we arrived in the Bidi Bidi camp [in Uganda], where the video was taken, Bishop Eduardo was to say Mass. People had been waiting in the little makeshift church since early that morning — about seven hours already — and others who saw him arrive started running to see him and touch him. Even Pope Francis never had a more enthusiastic greeting, I feel sure.
Lopez: What impression did Sister Laura Gemignani make on you?
Henneberger: Let’s just say I would not want to get between Sister Laura and anything she had decided to do. She’s from outside Pisa but had worked in Ethiopia for 18 years before coming to South Sudan on the very day the war broke out in Juba five years ago. She is not just running the hospital, with only one doctor, but is building a new maternity wing, and has a million other plans. Some of her donors had decided that this new wing should be built on a certain spot on the property, and she had told them that wouldn’t work at all, but she hadn’t been able to convince them.
But when we got there, what do you know: The new wing was already under construction, exactly where Laura said it should go. She said if they had put it where the funders wanted it, so far from the surgical unit, any baby born with a cord wrapped around his or her neck would be dead by the time they got help. And that would be her responsibility, she said. She’d talked someone into building first and getting paid later, apparently, “And if the finger of God is on it, it will work,” she said.
Lopez: How does Sudan Relief Fund help?
Henneberger: They buy medicine and fund schools. They stock Sister Laura’s hospital in Nzara and help feed the 8,000 people living in a churchyard in Riimenze and support the work of Irish missionary Noeleen Loughran in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, along with Bishop Eduardo’s peace-building efforts. And they also do so many small but vital practical things, such as providing sewing machines and soccer balls to help Noeleen give the young people in Bidi Bidi something positive to do. Basically, they’ve wrapped their arms around the people of South Sudan, and have made me want to, too.