Tragedy in Werkok

I awoke to gunfire again today. It is Good Friday and I’m sitting in the HIV/AIDS office of the Minister of Health, waiting for the Secretary to finish sending her work so I can use the Internet. This is an amazing place. On the way here, I got some more updated information on the death count from the fighting over the past few days (about 20 miles south of us in a place called Anyidi); from the tiny village of Werkok, there were 21 young men killed – all of them under 24 years old. Besides the ones killed from Werkok, there were a total of over 50 Dinka killed and at least as many Murle deaths. The Murle had actually set a circular ambush and got the Dinka in a crossfire, mowing them down from the front and rear. Apparently these guys are such bad shots that the Dinka, despite being caught in the crossfire firefight, killed more Murle than the Murle killed Dinka. The tragedy is beyond comprehension. More than 100 young men dead.

Contemplating the death and resurrection of Jesus, our hearts grieve with the families and know that peace can only come as a result of the resurrection power of transformed lives. Apart from that, it seems there is no hope. Most of the Dinka here have no confidence that peace can ever be achieved; because of the systemic syphilis and resultant barrenness of their women, the Murle are forced to raid and kidnap children just to insure their very survival. Add to that the reality that the Government of Sudan is arming and supporting them in order to foment further insecurity and the picture continues to get even more bleak.

I am overcome with sadness at the wretchedness of the lives of these dear people. Not only does the climate conspire against them (this weather is the harshest I’ve ever seen), but the insecurity and fear and revenge and abject poverty overwhelm and consume the lives of the people. Is this really the 21st century? Can people really be so brutal and value life so little? Clearly we cannot change all of Sudan, but now having become aware of this specific problem in this specific place, with people whose names we know and whose families we have visited, how can we just stand by and watch? Will you please join Sherry and me in asking God for wisdom in how to approach this horror? Will you please join us in asking God for safety for the children and young men who feel bound to protect and avenge them? Will you please join us in beseeching God for changed hearts that will allow for peace to break through the tribal hatred and for those who claim to know Jesus to begin walking with Him, in deed and in truth? It is a task far too big for us – and facing it is almost unbearable. Thank you for joining with us, at whatever level you can. God Bless you!

Greetings from Werkok!

Greetings from Werkok, Southern Sudan

April 1, 2009
I’m writing from the HIV/AIDS office of the Minister of Health of Southern Sudan. This is the first opportunity I’ve had for an extended period of internet access. Following is a relatively brief summary of our adventures since my last post. I’m waiting for nearly 350 emails to download . . . so I have a bit of time . . . 🙂

We arrived in Juba on Wednesday March 18th. Its really odd landing in a new place, not knowing the language and not sure anyone is going to be at the airport to meet you. we were actually met by Muki Lita, a friend of Mamer’s, who was to arrange transport for us. Muki (whom we’d never met) yhen handed us over to a taxi driver, who took us to the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) conference center. When we arrived, we found Mamer across the street at the radio station, in the middle of a press conference. We met a lady from the State Department, some other dignitaries and the Lost Boys delegation. After the press conference, we went to the “hotel,” dropped off our bags and got shuttled off to another meeting. This was a meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which got capped by a closing speech by Dr. Luk Abion (sp?), Minister of Presidential Affairs. We got ushered to front-row seats, which would have been great if Sherry wasn’t so sleepy that she kept nodding off as the afternoon wore on . . . 😉

After the meeting we went back to the Oasis Camp Hotel, which was a metal Chinese container with an air conditioner hung on one wall. There was running water (cold), a flush toilet sitting on a completely broken-down pressboard floor. There was also a mosquito net over the one bed, which was shorter than my frame. For this slice of paradise, we had the privilege of paying $240 per night! The room price did include all our meals, which we ate just a few feet from the Nile. Astonishingly beautiful!

Thursday (March 19th) we drove to Bor, after waiting hours for the “Jonglei Coordinator” to find a vehicle that would take us. The drive from Juba to Bor was 3 ½ hours of bone-jarring, white-knuckle, nail-biting action. We were traveling in a convoy with the Minister of Finance for the State of Jonglei – along with his machine-gun-toting entourage. Picture the worst unpaved road you’ve ever traveled with giant potholes, rocks on a sometimes hardpan/sometimes sand substrate. Then try to imagine flying over it at 100 – 120 kph. I don’t know exactly how fast that is in mph, but from my front seat perspective, it was REALLY FAST. At one point, we hit some sand and started sliding toward a ditch on the side, but the driver barely slowed down, got the vehicle (a Toyota Land Cruiser) under control and quickly ramped back up to speed.

On Friday March 20th, we finally met with the Governor. Wait. Not just the Governor, but with the Ministers of Finance, Education, Infrastructure, Land, IT and the Commissioner of Bor County. H.E. (His Excellency) Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk was incredibly gracious to us, praising Mamer’s achievement in completing his education. As Mamer explained the AgSudan project, the Governor listened attentively, then basically said he agreed with the whole concept, and then committed to personally invest in the project – as well as take responsibility to help raise the $$ required for startup. He also committed the use of some tractors he has in his compound. Overall, we were completely taken off guard by the positive response we received!

March 23rd. Mamer and I visited the village, and got confirmation that they did indeed want to grant us the 10km X 10km piece of land to start farming.

March 24th. It was 127 degrees today. Over 100 degrees throughout the evening in our tent . . . until about 3 am when the wind and rain started. The good news is that the wind blew so hard that the tent sort of caved in and wrapped against my naked body, with the cold rain touching me – but through the silk of the ten so I didn’t get wet. It was the best part of the night!

I rode a Suzuki 650 (nice machine!) into town to meet with the Governor again, but he pushed us off to the Commissioner of Bor County. What a wild ride this has been (not talking about the moto; I never went above about 35 mph because of the crappy roads).

On Wednesday, March 25th, I visited the village where we will have our farm project. I was the only white guy and the only one who spoke English. My “translator” spoke an English I rarely understood. When I arrived at the village, all the elders and chiefs were waiting for me, excited about getting our project underway. Right after arriving, a young man showed up, who was recently returned from Phoenix. He was very antagonistic about our project and didn’t want the elders to give us the land. So I was standing in the middle of 25 men – all screaming at one another – most of them carrying AK-47s. finally they dealt with the complainer and we were ready to leave; but the one guy who spoke a bit of
English said there was a problem with the vehicles. I had agreed to pay 200 Sudanese pounds total for 2 days transport for me to and from the village; (I had also come the previous Monday with Mamer to get approval from the elders for the land). Now this guy was demanding that I was liable for an additional 200 pounds each for two more vehicles so all the village leaders and soldier escort could come with us to view the land. I told him I had only requested to see the land, and didn’t request either an escort – or a parade! I told them (the elders) they were welcome to come with us, but I wasn’t going to pay. After they yelled at me for a bit, and I stood smiling and refusing to pay for more vehicles, they realized they didn’t want to pay either . . . so we left in one vehicle. It was a Nissan Frontier pickup; I sat in the front seat with the driver (and his AK-47). 7 soldiers, one with a belt-fed machine gun, and 7 elders from the village piled into the bed of the truck, and we were off.

Leaving the village, we entered the bush. At one point, we scared a gazelle and 2 soldiers and one elder jumped out of the truck and started firing! It took about 12 shots – all from the AK’s – but they finally took down the gazelle. Not bad from about 50 yards with a short-barrel gun. The land was pure forest, lots of very prickly trees and bushes. I asked about the animal population on our land and was told it is home to lions, zebras, leopards, gazelles, many other kinds of deer, baboons, monkeys and various snakes. Can’t wait to set up a tent and hang out. Want to come join us?

Since then, Sherry and I have been hanging out at the hospital at Werkok. I’ve been working mostly with Dave Mueller, painting, dry walling, taping the walls, putting on roofs, etc. There is a giant dedication this coming Sunday, at which we expect several hundred to attend. Sherry is busy working at the hospital, assisting in surgeries, handling patients and organizing the pharmacy. She has already done wonders in helping there!

So this is the latest. We might get a VSAT set up at the Werkok compound, which would allow us email and internet access. If not, I’ll try to keep this updated every few days by coming to town and accessing via the Ministry of Health or another NGO that is friendly to us.

Thanks for your prayers. We miss you!

Nairobi: Monday – Long Monday

This was a loooonnngggg day. Shouldn’t have been, but it sure was. Maybe because it started at 3:30 am? Anyway, Mamer’s cousin, Ajak came to escort us through the day and we would have really been in trouble without him. We first went to the Government of Southern Sudan’s (GOSS) special permits (visas) office, arriving there at about 11 am. The official who had been contacted by the government in Juba was a bit reluctant – I suspect because there are so many visa requests they do daily – and he was being pressured to get ours done quickly. Apparently it usually takes at least 24 hours to process a single visa and we were expecting two in less than 4 hours! Grumbling, he asked us to come back at 3 pm to collect the visas.

We left the GOSS office, heading into the center of Nairobi to Barclays Bank to withdraw cash for the tickets – and then to the airport to purchase our flights to Juba. We ran into a small hitch at the bank; we have a $1,000 daily limit for drawing cash, so I figured we’d have no problem with the $305 (each) fares. In an enclosed atm, at which there were no less than 2 armed guards, I started the transaction to withdraw 40,000 Kenyan schillings (about $500). The atm sounded like it had processed the transaction, started counting the bills . . . and then the screen went blank, froze up and reset itself. No money and no receipt. But the machine had processed the withdrawal! After about an hour waiting and dealing with a very gracious banker, we now have a signed receipt proving the money never changed hands. However, once I withdrew the 40,000 schillings from another atm inside the branch, we had “exceeded our daily limit,” and couldn’t get any more cash. Fortunately, East African Airlines takes credit cards ☺

At about 4:00 pm we actually picked up our visas, and exhausted, headed for the hotel. Not used to either the heat or humidity, it took another 2-1/2 hours before we finally finished all the errands (walking I might add). So we leave for Juba, Sudan on a 10 am flight tomorrow morning to meet with Mamer, who says, “The land won’t be a problem!” In fact, it should be confirmed at our meeting Wednesday morning with the Minister of Agriculture!

Ahh . . . like Sherry says, “We ain’t in Kansas any more!”

The Lost Boys of Sudan

Since many have indicated a desire for a bit more information about the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, I thought I’d do a quick primer . . . I also have to insert a bit of editorial disclaimer here; these are no longer boys – and not very lost. Those I’ve met are incredibly intelligent, articulate, gracious, generous, passionate men, willingly leaving comfort and relative prosperity in the US to return to Sudan. They plan to invest their own resources, indeed their very lives in an effort to see a decimated country flourish once again.

In what has been called the second civil war in Sudan, north fought south from 1983 until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005. During this war, nearly 2 million southern Sudanese were killed and more than 4 million driven from their homes.

Nicknamed “the Lost Boys” by several aid organizations operating in Sudan, most of the boys were orphaned or separated from their families when government troops (from the North) systematically attacked villages throughout southern Sudan killing many of the inhabitants, most of whom were civilians. When villages were attacked, girls were raped, killed, taken as slaves to the north, or became servants or adopted children for other Sudanese families. Consequently, relatively few girls made it to the refugee camps. The younger boys survived in large numbers because they were away tending herds or able to escape into the nearby jungles. Orphaned and with no support, they made epic journeys of hundreds of miles (some over 1,000 miles!) and lasting years across Sudan’s borders to international relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. It was a miracle they survived thirst, starvation, wild animals, insects, disease, and one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century. Experts say they are the most badly war-traumatized children ever examined.

In 2001, about 3,800 of the Lost Boys arrived in the United States. Since then, many have received university education and in some cases, gone on to pursue graduate degrees. It has become Sherry’s and my privilege to be invited into the lives of a handful of these now grown young men who are passionate about returning to Sudan and investing in the lives of their people and country.

You can find many resources, but I’ve read or watched these and know they’re good:

– Dave Eggers, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. A novel based on the story of Valentino Achak Deng, now living in the US

– John Bul Dau and Michael Sweeney, God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir. The life story of John Dau, who was also chronicled in the 2006 documentary God Grew Tired of Us. ISBN 978-1426201141

– Judy A. Bernstein (ed.), They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky. The true story in their own words of the 14-year journey of Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak, now living in the US.

6 days to Africa

That’s right. We leave in 6 days. So today, the itinerary looks like this (but this is Africa and things are always subject to change):

*March 13: Depart LAX and arrive in Nairobi on March 15th
*March 16 or 17: Fly to Juba to meet Mamer Ajak, then travel to Bor and present the Ag plan to the governor of Jonglei State.
*First week in April: Attend the dedication of the Werkok Hospital (site where Sherry will volunteer)
*April 6th or 13th:(depends on transportation availability, since there will be lots of visitors needing transport from Werkok at one time), travel to Nairobi
*May 20th: (depending on schedules) meet up with Jerry & Kathy Moser and Daniel Akech Thiong, another of the Lost Boys from Sudan. We will be visiting Sudanese students who have been sponsored by Daniel, Jerry & Kathy and others.
*June 15th: to Europe for debriefing (okay—maybe for a little fun too!)
*June 30th: HOME from London

More updates to come . . .