There are good photographs that record reality with sharpness and accuracy; but there are great photos that touch the heart and stir the emotions. I have some of these to offer with this reflection, great photos taken by a very good friend to Solidarity with South Sudan, Paul Jeffrey. The photos, more than anything I can write, reveal the misery of the circumstances yet the ability of the human spirit to rise above the desperate situation and make the most of what little they have. All I can do is provide a background commentary.
For most of last year and this year, there have been approximately 20,000 internally displaced people seeking refuge in the UN Base in Malakal. When fighting broke out again in Malakal about three weeks ago that number grew to approximately 30,000. In my mind, I can see 1200 boys crowded into the school hall of the College in which I was working before I came here. Mostly, I recall a ‘sea’ of attentive, hopeful faces – and a few not so attentive! Multiply that number by 25 to get 30,000. Provide shelter and food for them, pit latrines, basic health care. It is a massive task that really justifies the great work done by the UN.
It is also a ministry that some individuals respond to with courage and zeal in the midst of hardship. Fr Mike Bassano is a Maryknoll Missionary priest from the USA. He has spent most of the last six months living among the people of Malakal, an apostle of joy among the displaced people. He does not have a private room in the UN camp. No, he pays for a bed in a tent that sleeps ten. He is part of our Solidarity pastoral team whose normal work is to help train the local people to deliver programmes rather than deliver pastoral services themselves. The usual Solidarity focus is on training the diocesan pastoral coordinators and on delivering seminars on peace, reconciliation, trauma healing and forming small Christian communities. We have provided a priest to teaching philosophy in the seminary but otherwise we have not taken on parishes in South Sudan or such normal avenues for delivery of pastoral services. Mike, however, has effectively taken on the role of Catholic chaplain in the UN camp, assisted very occasionally by local priests.
His major collaboration has come from Comboni Sister, Elena Balata, who has fearlessly plunged into the wreckage of Malakal to resurrect the radio station in which she previously had invested so much effort in its establishment. Another Solidarity team member, Sr Barbara Paleczny, a resolute SSND Sister from Canada, has also spent time among the people in the camp. These are great expressions of solidarity with the displaced people whose impact is revealed in the attached Paul Jeffrey photos.
Fortunately, for the past two weeks, the fighting among the SPLA troops in Malakal has subsided and there is an uneasy calm. The photos were taken before the first heavy rains fell in Malakal only a few nights ago. Mike Bassano told me that the people who are sheltering on the lower lying land were flooded out of their tents. The rains bring the good news of less fighting but the bad news of increased hardship for many. Malakal is a very flat place and the land is essentially a mud plain of black cotton soil on the banks of the Nile. In summer it cracks open and the surface turns to dust; in winter it becomes a sticky bog. Our deserted house and teacher training college in Malakal were broken into again during the recent fighting. This time there was no looting simply because there was nothing left, from previous break-ins, to loot; but a little more damage was done to temporary gates and doors erected by our watchman to deter intruders. Several of our Malakal students have moved to Yambio to complete their studies.
Behind the scenes, I have had serious discussions with the appropriate religious superiors re the safety of our people in Malakal. Unlike the local people, we have a choice whether or not to be there. We assess the situation as safe enough but, of course, we do not really know. But you cannot stand in solidarity if you keep running away. There is a prophetic witness offered by the Mikes, Elenas and Barbaras of this world. Likewise, the Comboni men are back in their three missions in the rebel-held areas. None are seeking martyrdom: none see themselves as heroic. But I say there is commitment here that is both extraordinary and admirable. It is expressing genuine solidarity with the people.
– Br Bill